A St. Louis Favorite, Corkball Still Draws Players

Once played on streets and in alleys, corkball still draws players with a passion for the game

Fred Parker of the Gateway Corkball Club takes a rip at a pitch. With a diameter of only two inches, attempts at hitting a corkball often result in frustration. photo by Jenna Schoenefeld (click for larger version)
08/31/2007 - Perhaps the least known secret in the St. Louis area — except to those who participate — is the game of corkball.

Corkball, played in this country since the turn of the 20th century, has fallen out of favor over the years — losing out, in part, to the popularity of softball. But corkball has not disappeared all together, as evidenced by the 100 members or so of the Gateway Corkball Club.

The Gateway Corkball Club, with many of its members deriving from the Goedeker family, was established in 1929. The club has set the standard for corkball competition in St. louis, and throughout the country.

Corkball is St. Louis' classic baseball game. Originally played on the streets and alleys of St. Louis in the early 1900s, today corkball boasts leagues throughout the country. It has many of the features of baseball, yet can be played in a very small area. And because there is no base-running, it's a great game for players of all ages. The St. Louis area has several leagues, including the Gateway Corkball League.

Gateway is particular about its membership. Before joining the club, players must have participated in the league for three years.

The league consists of six, five-player teams — a pitcher, a catcher and three outfielders. Games are played at the Gateway Corkball Club, located at the corner of Walsh and Ulena in South St. Louis. Besides being the oldest corkball club in the world, the club boasts its own private clubhouse adjacent to its three corkball fields.

Games are extremely competitive, with batters relying on keen eyesight and quick reflexes to hit a tiny ball thrown across home plate from 55 feet. Bats are 34 to 38 inches and only 1 1/2 inches wide. The corkballs are two inches in diameter and weigh 1.6 ounces.

Pitcher Mike Goedecker is just one of many Goedecker family members who profess a love for corkball. photo by Jenna Schoenefeld (click for larger version)
Pitchers are allowed to throw spitballs, along with the traditional repertoire of fastballs, curveballs, changeups, knuckleballs and sliders. Hitting in corkball is no easy matter.

Hitters are allowed one swinging strike. Two called strikes constitute an out. Five called balls is a walk. Like baseball, there are three outs per inning. Unlike baseball, bases are not needed as there are no base runners. Positions of players along the bases is kept on paper.

The Gateway Corkball Club field is similar to Boston's famed Fenway Park, both touting a "blue monster" outfield wall. Hitting over the blue monster scores a home run, while hitting sections of the wall's varying heights scores a triple or double.

"It can get frustrating," said Brooks Goedeker, a 27-year-old catcher. "It's not easy to play. There are a lot of hard throwers."

Brooks Goedeker, who resides in the city, grew up around corkball. He was a "shagger" as a kid and began playing in the league at age 21, the minimum age allowed. Brooks said more than 80 percent of league members are part of his family.

Goedeker's grandfather, Ben Goedeker, who died in 1977 from cancer, was known as a great player. He also was a prankster. Brooks said his grandfather once caught a small bass which ended up winning him a fishing tournament. His grandfather had stuffed the fish with weights.

Shortly after his death, the league was named after Ben. His four sons, Steve, Ron, Mike and Dan, all grew up in Affton and continue to play in the league today. Steve, a Vianney graduate, said his fondest memories was getting to play the game with his dad. The other three brothers attended Bishop DuBourg.

"It's not too often you get to play a sport with your dad," said Steve, 56, who now runs the family electronics and appliance store. "My best memories were playing with my dad. He was an exceptional hitter. I think he won nine batting titles."

Brooks said he recruits players for the club. Players from 21 and well into their 70s participate. Steve said today's youth are busy playing other sports like soccer and basketball and don't have time to play wiffle ball, Indian ball or corkball.

"It's a good time to get together to play ball," Brooks said. "It's fun. We need to preserve corkball. I want to make sure that this remains our top priority."

Steve said the younger generation is responsible for keeping the tradition going.

"It's not the same," Steve said. "People do other things than when I was younger. They're not going to play games like wiffle ball. They're playing other sports like soccer, basketball and baseball. It's up to the young guys to keep corkball going. To keep the corkball tradition going, we're going to keep the top-caliber play up."

Jim Metzler, a club member and former player, said the club wants to continue the tradition.

"We try our best to get young people involved," Metzler said.

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