Column #314  –  November 27, 2004



Pocket Knife Games Were Popular Pastimes

by Glenn Tunney



        “There goes a doozy maroony into center field!”  

        In the 1930s and ’40s, those words from colorful Pirates radio broadcaster Rosey Rosewell often meant that a Pirate hitter had lifted a soaring fly ball toward the batting cage that was stored on the outfield grass at Forbes Field, near the seldom-reached 456-foot mark painted on the center field wall. 

        But on this particular afternoon, the “doozy maroony” (a double) did not fly off the bat of the mighty Ralph Kiner.  Instead, it was launched by the hand of a Hiller boy who was sitting on his back porch steps.  With a flick of the wrist, the boy had sent his pocket knife, its two blades opened, flipping upward into the air, tumbling end over end until it landed with the large blade stuck solidly in a splintering porch floorboard.  The youngster excitedly turned to his companions and cried triumphantly, “There goes a doozy maroony into center field!  That’s runners at second and third and only one out!”

        On summer afternoons in the 1940s, hundreds of adolescent would-be Rosey Rosewells “broadcasted” from back yards throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.  Their play-by-play described action that took place not on the natural grass of Forbes Field, but on weathered back porches, where a popular game called “Pocket Knife Baseball” might attract an onlooker or two. 

        “Pocket knife baseball was one of my favorites,” recalled Hiller native Harry Hackney, now of Spring Hill, Florida.  “You needed a pocket knife with a large blade and a short blade that hinged from the same end.  To play, the short blade would be fully opened and the long blade would be opened ninety degrees.  The home team would be selected by one flip of the knife and would bat last.
        “The playing surface was often a porch.  That was ideal, as it provided a seat for the players, who could dangle their legs in space while putting the action at hand level.  Of course, an old wooden plank under a shade tree could serve nearly as well.”

        To begin an at-bat, the “batter” first had to position the knife in the wood. 

        “To position the knife,” Harry explained, “the player would pinch the end of the knife handle opposite the blade hinges and, with a downward toss, lightly thrust the long blade into the wood surface.  After planting it, the index finger was then inserted under the handle of the knife near the end, and with an upward flick, the knife would be launched into the air with a spinning motion and fall to the wood.”

        The batter’s success was determined by which blade (or blades) stuck in the wood when the knife landed. 

        “If the long blade stuck in the wood with any part of the handle touching,” Harry continued, “it was a single.  If the long blade stuck in the wood with no other contact, it was a double.  If the long blade stuck or made contact with the wood and the small blade touched or stuck into the wood, it was a triple.  If only the small blade stuck into the wood with no other contact, it was a homer.  If the knife landed on its back, it was a walk. Everything else was an out.”
        J. P. “Rocky” McAndrews of Needles, California spent hours playing this game when growing up in West Brownsville.  “You could always tell where we played baseball on the porch step,” he joked, “from the marks the knife blades left in the wood.  We played for hours on the steps of the corner store on Middle Street.”

        “And of course,” added Harry Hackney, “all of this action was done to the accompaniment of a play-by-play description for the imaginary radio listeners.  Rosey Rosewell had a distinctive line of banter for every game situation.  To signal a home run, he would cry, ‘Get outta the kitchen, Aunt Minnie, and open the window, here it comes,’ followed by the sound of smashing glass.  Even though Rosey was often reading a ticker tape in a studio hundreds of miles from an away game, he was able to bring the action to life.  Rosey made us love a perennial last-place team

        “‘There they are, F O B – full of Bucs,’ Rosey would say when the bases were loaded.  ‘There goes a sock out into right field’ (a single) we would cry, sitting on our porch steps and imitating Rosey, when the pocket knife landed with its large blade stuck and the handle touching.”

        It was a unique way to enjoy the game of baseball without having to assemble enough players for a game or find an unoccupied field on which to play. 

        Another popular pocket knife pastime was called Mumbley Peg.  Jim Hartmann of Bartlett, Tennessee shared his memory of that game.

        “We played at the playground in West Brownsville,” Jim told me.  “Each person had his own pocket knife, opened to the big blade.  The objective of the game was to finish all the various knife throws into the dirt so that the knife was sticking up.  If it was leaning, the handle could not be less than two finger widths above the ground.  If it did not stick, you had to let the next person take his turn.”

        “There was a series of knife throws you had to make,” explained mumbley peg veteran Delmar D. Franks, Jr.  “You would start with the knife lying flat in your open hand and flip it into the ground.  Next you went off the back of your hand, then your wrist, knuckle, elbow, shoulder, nose, head, and so on.”

        Some versions of the game involved performing more than 24 different knife throws to complete the series.  The loser was the last player who had yet to complete all of the throws.  The penalty for losing the game is where it got its name.  A wooden peg or matchstick was driven into the ground by the winners, using the knife handle as a hammer.  In one version of the game, the player who had finished first was allowed three strikes at the peg with his eyes open and three more with his eyes closed.  In another version, each of the winners got to hit the peg once.  No matter which rules were used, the peg was usually driven out of sight into the ground.

        The loser had to root into the ground, using only his teeth, and pull the peg out of the ground with his teeth.  He would burrow his face into the dirt for all he was worth trying to grasp that peg, because if he didn’t succeed, a worse fate awaited him.

        “If he did not pull the match stick out of the ground,” Jim Hartmann explained, “he had to run through a line of belt swinging winners.  Ouch, that hurt!”

        Although these pocket knife games were usually played by boys, occasionally a girl was admitted to the game.

        “At the Prospect School playground, I was allowed to play mumbley peg with the boys,” Nancy Campbell Bender of Grindstone told me, “so I must have been pretty good.  I think I was probably coached by my brother.” 

        A circle of boys seated on the ground often meant a pocket knife game was in progress. Sometimes though, the objects of everyone’s attention were not pocket knives, but marbles.

        “We played marbles a lot,” Brownsville native Malcolm Crawford remarked from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.  “We were proud of our often-full pouches, hoping some sharpshooter wouldn't win them from us.  You could buy marbles, large and small, at the Five and Ten, but my favorites were quarter-sized steel ball bearings that my Dad brought home from work at the coal dock at the Monongahela Railway yard in Newtown.”
        Some kids were so good at marbles that they soon cleaned out the opposition.  As Harry Hackney recalled, “We all had bags containing a variety of marbles such as cat’s eyes, but steelies (ball bearings) were frowned upon because they smashed glass marbles.  Regis Remington was the best marbles player in Hiller.  He had crocks full of marbles that he had won from the other kids. 

        “Regis was like a well-equipped pool shark.  He used a fleece-lined knuckle pad and approached each shot as a golfer examines a long putt or a pool shark plans the position of the cue ball for the follow-up shot.”

        Regis even figured out how to make a profit from his skill at marbles. 

        “He would sell the marbles he won from you back to you,” Harry explained, “so at least you didn’t have to buy new ones.  Eventually, those crocks of marbles became worthless.  Perhaps there is a lesson in life there.”

        Knife games and marbles kept most of the guys busy, but what about the girls?  While the boys spent the afternoon playing Buckety Buck, pocket knife baseball, mumbley peg, or marbles, the girls were having their own fun.  Next week, we will look back at games favored by the girls, as well as those that were played by boys and girls together.


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