Mendel Letters 30: Pen Baseball

Spin Baseball and a collection of pens

Dear Mendel,

If they had classified ADHD as a “disorder” when I was a kid, I would have spent elementary school “drugged.” As an adult, I’ve still got “schpilkes,” nervous energy that keeps me from sitting still and I can’t stand the sense of being “penned in.” Until I was in my twenties, I thought the “problem” was that other people were slow. What’s funny about the way I am wired, is that I am also capable of intense focus for prolonged periods of time. When I am engrossed in a project, I can spend hours at the computer researching and writing without getting up or even shifting my position. I checked this out in one of the online self-diagnosis websites and it turns out that some people with ADHD experience “hyperfocus,” periods of deep and intense concentration. Oh, well, back to my story about pen baseball.

I loved baseball and baseball helped me survive being locked into those little seats, sitting with hands folded and at attention, at PS 104 in the Bronx. That’s when I invented pen baseball. I think it was the third grade, but it might have been earlier or later. In pen baseball, each pen had the characteristics of one of my favorite Yankee players, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, etc. I would hold the pen in my right hand and the index finger of my left hand was the ball. Pens would bat, pitch, and play the field. I imagined games, seasons, and careers and kept careful written records for batting average, home runs, runs batting in, wins and loses, and earned run average. Pen baseball kept me sane and out of trouble while school droned on. When I played it in school I only had my desk, but when I played at home my entire bedroom became Yankee Stadium. By sixth grade I had also invented pen basketball and pen football for the changing seasons, but pen baseball remained my favorite.

Somewhere along the way my friends and I became engrossed in dice baseball and spin baseball. You couldn’t actually play dice or spin baseball in school because the teachers would catch you, but I could play them in my mind. In dice baseball, you threw the die and each number represented a different outcome, single, double, triple, home run (two-sixes) or an out. In spin baseball each player was represented by a circular card that contained the player’s career averages for singles, doubles, triples, home runs, strike outs, and regular outs. They had current players and all-time all-stars. You put the card on the spin board and spun the spinner to get the result. In spin baseball my friends and I had teams and leagues and played out entire seasons. Eventually spin and pen baseball merged in my imagination so I could play them all day in school.

The weirdest spin card was for Hazen Shirley “Kiki” Cuyler. Cuyler was a Hall of Fame outfielder in the National League in the 1920s and 1930s with a career batting average of .321, almost all singles. He had an enormous space for singles on his card and everything else was compressed.

Today, because of computers, they update batting and pitching records after each out or hit, sometimes after each pitch or sneeze. In those days the newspapers only published the lead leaders during the week with full batting and pitching records on Sundays. But we wanted daily updates for our favorite players, so we surreptitiously learned math. The box score from the previous day would be in the morning newspaper so in class, instead of paying attention, we recalculated batting averages (hits divided by official plate appearances — walks, sacrifices, and hit by the pitch didn’t count). Calculating earned run average was tricky because it was a multi-step problem. It measured runs per game, but most pitchers only pitched a fraction of a game, and a full game was nine innings, not ten. First you added up all the earned runs (runs not cause by a fielders error) and all the innings pitched (if a pitcher got out only one batter it was a third of an inning; if a pitcher gave runs but didn’t get anyone out it added to the runs total but not the innings). To make it simple, if a pitcher pitched 90 innings, they got credit for ten complete games. Let’s say in their 90 innings, they gave up 30 earned runs. You divided the total number of earned runs (30) by the number of complete games (10) and got 3 earned runs a game or an era of 3.0. Another way to calculate earned run average, something I learned later, is (9 x earned runs) divided by innings pitched.

Anyway, that’s how I survived being “too poor to pay attention” until I got to college when it was easier to cut classes and just play ball on the City College South Campus lawn.

PS: I friend of mine was an elementary school teacher. One day he noticed one of his students, a student with “schpilkes,” holding a pen in one hand and hammering away at a finger of his other hand. My friend knew immediately — another kid had invented pen baseball.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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