John U. Bacon

Wiffle Ball

"Hot fun in the summertime. That's when I had most of my fun."

For me, that was the summer of '76, when I was 12.

It was the bicentennial year, and an Olympic year. My family went to the Montreal Olympics, but that wasn't the highlight. Everyone in my state was cheering for Detroit pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, who seemed to talk to the ball before throwing it, and displayed more childlike enthusiasm on a baseball field than my 12-year old teammates did. He was the happiest ballplayer I've ever seen.

It was also the summer of Wiffle Ball. That's the backyard version of baseball played with only a flimsy white plastic ball and a wispy yellow wand of a bat.

We only played "up north," as we Michiganders say, at our family cottage on Torch Lake, whose sandbar Kid Rock celebrates in his hit song, "All Summer Long."

The lake is now lined by million-dollar castles whose owners never seem to be there, but back then, the east side of the lake was populated with simple summer cabins like ours, and the west side wasn't populated at all. At night, I couldn't see a single cottage light across the lake – but when I looked up, I saw nothing but stars.

The Johnsons had an aluminum boat their grandfather had welded together, powered by a ten-horse motor. The Zinns had an even smaller boat with a six-horse. Because neither was strong enough to pull water-skiers, we spent our time playing Wiffle Ball.

We played on three fields we set up on the Johnson's lot, including the "Astro-Grove," a patch of grass covered by a roof of leaves. Each field had its own ground rules. If you hit it to the left of the laundry line pole, that's a foul ball. If you hit it into the big spruce tree in centerfield or the crab apple tree in left, that's a ground-rule double -- unless a fielder managed to catch it on the way down. Then you're out. And if you managed to knock it over the "rock monster" wall in right field, you just hit a home run.

Since we rarely had more than a half-dozen players, we had to modify the rules. We used "ghost runners," substituted "pitcher's hands" for first base, and if you could hit the runner with the ball, he was out. No coaches, no umpires, no adults. We set our own teams, made our own calls, and if we couldn't agree, we'd call a do-over, and played on.

 And when anyone yelled, "LAKE!" we'd literally drop the ball and race down the scruffy lawn to the Kitzmiller's dock – the longest on our row – and launch ourselves full-speed into the lake. I'll never forget how good the cold, clear water felt.

We played every summer until we discovered boats, beer, and girls, but the summer of '76 stands out for me.

Why? Because that was the glorious season I hit a record 61 home runs. Impressive? Sure, but perhaps it's worth noting we could play a dozen games a day, including one-on-one contests. On a good day you could hit ten homers before dusk.

But I don't care. I'm claiming every one of those home runs, and I'm claiming the damn record, too. Even with the next generation of Johnsons and their friends taking over – a group of guys who actually sing the national anthem, ask Grandpa Johnson to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and keep their stats on the back of a paper plate, right down to their batting averages -- no one has touched my home run record.

And if anyone does, I'll publicly accuse him of taking steroids. So, my record is looking pretty safe.

 It makes me feel good to see these young bucks show such reverence for all the customs we created so many years ago, and make their own memories that will last decades.

But I can't help but be envious, too. Even when they let us old-timers pinch-hit, it's not quite the same, and I think I know why.

At the end of the classic movie, "Stand By Me," the narrator says, "I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve."

And I've never had any summers like that, either.

John U. Bacon is the author of multiple New York Times best sellers, including Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope with the late John Saunders. A collection of his journalism, The Best of Bacon, was released in May. Bacon gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.