The game they play in Savannah
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.