The game they play in Savannah

The Covington News - - School Beat -

The pave­ment along 42nd Street in Savannah seemed wide as a mile and mostly clear the first day I ven­tured out of the shot-gun style apart­ment on the cor­ner of Barnard Street. It was a bright, cool au­tumn in 1940.

Stand­ing on the side­walk at the front of the gi­ant apart­ment build­ing, two sto­ries high, ev­ery­thing seemed quiet, ex­cept for the chant of a black wo­man in a long, yel­low dress, who walked slowly along the edge of the street with a bas­ket of veg­eta­bles bal­anced on her head.

“But­ter beans, oh­hhh, green peas, but­ter beans, oh­h­h­hhh, green peas,” she chat­tered in a shrill, high-pitched voice that com­manded at­ten­tion, It was some­thing I’d never seen be­fore. But there was more to come.

I was amazed and some­what en­ter­tained as I slowly adapted to the new sights and sounds of a real city. We had just moved from Of­fer­man, a small stopin-the-road be­tween Je­sup and Way­cross, in south Ge­or­gia.

Filled with a buoy­ant sense of ex­pec­ta­tion, I was look­ing for some­thing to do with time on my hands. I thought about rolling old tires with a piece of metal; some­thing I had done on the dirt roads of Of­fer­man. I won­dered what I might find in this new and won­der­ful place.

A few min­utes passed; then came the new ad­ven­ture. I was met by an­other boy who seemed to have a plan. He had a long, round stick in his hand; it re­sem­bled a broom han­dle, and both pock­ets of his pants were bulging.

“Youwanna play?” he yelled, with a tri­umphant grin, Be­fore I could an­swer, I saw an­other boy clos­ing in, ap­pear­ing ex­cited over the idea of a game with a new­comer to the neigh­bor­hood.

“I’m ready,” I said, and quickly asked. “What are we play­ing?” The next words I heard in­tro­duced me to the most un­usual and chal­leng­ing game I’ve ever seen. “Half rub­ber,” was the pun­gent re­ply, as the boy with the stick be­gan to pull a small, red, cup-shaped, rub­ber ob­ject from his picket, It was ac­tu­ally one-half of a rub­ber ball sliced down the mid­dle. His left pocket bulged with the other half. Soon we were on a va­cant lot, where I dis­cov­ered the game they play in Savannah.

Time passed. Al­most four years in the U.S. Army. Trav­els through­out the world. Col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia, I met peo­ple from al­most ev­ery­where, but no­body had ever heard of the game of hal­frub­ber, ex­cept a few who had lived in Savannah. The men­tion of such an unfamiliar sport of­ten in­cited laugh­ter, some­times ridicule. So I just quit say­ing much about it.

Imag­ine my sur­prise, when I was read­ing the Sun­day, Au­gust 6, 1989, is­sue of The At­lanta Jour­nal, and found a story en­ti­tled: “Game of Half rub­ber is Still in Full Swing In Coastal Ge­or­gia, S.C.” The ar­ti­cle, writ­ten by Bob Dart, was a su­perb in­tro­duc­tion of the strange-sound­ing game to the swarm­ing pop­u­la­tion of metroAt­lanta.

Dart told of the up­com­ing 12th An­nual World In­vi­ta­tional Hal­frub­ber Tour­na­ment in Savannah in Septem­ber of that year. I knew Dart was on tar­get when he re­ported that the game of hal­frub­ber is only played within a 75-mile ra­dius of Savannah and that the beach ar­eas seem to be ideal spors for hal­frub­ber fields.

Nat­u­rally, I wanted to know more, I had in­tended to find a copy of a story in Sports Il­lus­trated which cov­ered the 1988 half rub­ber tour­na­ment but found a book on the sub­ject; “Hal­frub­ber: The Savannah Game,” by Dan E. Jones. Find­ing the book wasn’t easy, Af­ter a fu­tile search in At­lanta, I de­cided it was time for a trip to Savannah, with hal­frub­ber in mind.

At the Savannah Pub­lic Li­brary ad­ja­cent to Oglethorpe Mall, I met Marie Lanier, who quickly lo­cated the prized book. I in­formed her of my in­ten­tion to write about hal­frub­ber, men­tion­ing other Savannah firsts. She was not only pleased with my aim to high­light Ge­or­gia’s his­tory, but res­o­lutely help­ful in my latest project. She made the book avail­able to me.

You can count on this: Ev­ery­thing you will ever need to know about the game can be found in this stir­ring book, pub­lished by The Hal­frub­ber Press, Swainsboro/Litho­nia, Ge­or­gia 1980.

I was de­lighted to dis­cover that there were 10 ar­eas in Savannah where the game was first played, and the park at 38th Street El­e­men­tary School was one. That’s the school I at­tended, and the park where I played at re­cess, and many af­ter­noons and Satur­days. Half rub­ber was one of the games we played, But no­body ever told me I was a par­tic­i­pant in one of the world’s rarest games.

Jones quotes an ar­ti­cle in the Savannah Evening Press, Novem­ber 7, 1957, writ­ten by Jane Kahn, en­ti­tled, “Savannah-Born Half-Rub­ber Game’s Ori­gin Elu­sive.” She men­tions in­ter­views with sev­eral long­time res­i­dents of the city in an ef­fort to nail down the true ori­gin of the unique game. Her ar­ti­cle was read later by Charles E. Bar­bee, who came for­ward with the an­nounce­ment that he had bought the very first ball ever used to play the game. The year was 1913; the game was played on West Broad Street near Henry Street. That was the be­gin­ning, he af­firmed, and told how he had cut the first ball in half with a bor­rowed ra­zor.

The idea for the game came from the pas­time of many Savannah boys which in­volved hit­ting soft drink bot­tle caps with a board or stick. Rules were bor­rowed from base­ball (so don’t ex­pect this ar­ti­cle to in­clude all the rules? see Jones’ book) and adapted.

As time passed, the half sponge rub­ber ball be­came the of­fi­cial ball of the sport. The most strik­ing as­pect of hal­frub­ber is its ex­treme dif­fi­culty. Half rub­ber takes the best of base­ball and com­bines it with the unique­ness of us­ing only half of a sponge rub­ber ball, ac­cord­ing to Jones.

Can you imag­ine tick­ling a but­ter­fly with your fin­gers, or catch­ing a fly­ing in­sect? That’s how hard it is to catch a hal­frub­ber ball that is thrown; hit­ting one is harder.

Hal­frub­ber tour­na­ments were held in Savannah be­tween 1924 and 1949, but they be­come more pop­u­lar in the late 1970s. Charleston res­i­dents claim the game orig­i­nated there; but Jones states that it sim­ply mi­grated to that coastal city.

Tour­na­ments are su­per­vised by Savannah’s Leisure Ser­vices Bureau. I’m sure an­other one is planned for the fall. Whether the fever for the game will spread to other cities is ques­tion­able. One thing I know, half rub­ber is the game they play in Savannah.

Clifford Brew­ton


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