By Anne Marshall
If you take baseball’s distant, distant cousin and combine it with darts, you’d get dartball, a game that’s never caught on in stadiums or pubs. Instead, it’s stayed mostly under the radar in church basements where winning really isn’t the goal.
On a recent Monday night, David Stierle marked the “field” for the Crescent Hill Dartball League. He pressed about three feet of blue masking tape down in a straight line. This marked where the dartball board sits. He then shuffled back with a tape measure. Once he reached twenty feet, he stopped.
“Well, we’re gonna put another line across here,” he said. “This is gonna be the foul line that you can’t step on. You can’t touch while you’re throwing. You have to stay behind the line.”
The 62-year-old wore a royal blue polo shirt with his team — Christ Church United Methodist — embroidered on the front. He pointed out that dartball’s a hybrid game.
“The only relationship between our game of dartball and what most people know as darts is that you’re throwing a feathered missle with a point on the end at it,” he said.
The board about the size of a small card table looks a lot like a baseball field. Teams take turns throwing nine times, representing the innings of a baseball game.
With a short warm-up complete, the night’s match between Christ Church and Watkins United Methodist began. The first player grabbed a fistful of darts and took aim at yellow diamonds, within the baseball diamond, that look like bases on a field. Hitting these will score players a single, double or triple. A small diamond smack in the center boasting a capital H? That’s a home run.
An umpire stands by the board. When the darts hit empty, brown spaces…
Land on thin green strips around the bases or green squares lodged at the board’s corners, and you’re out. The innings can go quick so teams play three games. Some players wind up like a softball pitcher before tossing. Bob Stone raised his dart to eye level before swinging back and letting go.
“It’s turning it loose at the proper time, I guess,” he said. “But I’m not that good at it. I’ve been doing it now for probably more than a year and I still haven’t learned how I want to hold them.”
At 79-years-old, with two knee replacement surgeries behind him, Stone still loyally shows up at every game. As do the other eight men on Christ Church’s roster, like 81 year old Charlie Smith who sat in a row of plastic chairs, a makeshift bullpen, waiting his turn. He eyed the other team which includes some of the league’s most accurate throwers — women.
“And that’s true throughout the league. The women are the real ringers,” he said. “If you’ll pardon the religious term, they crucify us.”
It’s safe to say dartball draws an older crowd and since its introduction in the United States in the 1920s, it’s been played mostly in church leagues around the Midwest. Smith, wearing a page-boy cap and sweater vest, joked, “what else they gonna do?”
“Well, we don’t go to bars,” he said. ”We’re Methodist.”
Behind Smith sat a row of players’ wives. Many wrestled with sodoku puzzles as their husbands slung darts hoping to post a run on the chalk scoreboard.
“Well, we’re trying to cheer them on but we’re losing.”
One of the women, Virginia Schlarb, has watched nearly every game since her husband, Jim, organized Christ Church’s team seven years ago. Even last year, struck with the dire news that Jim had a brain tumor, Virginia and her husband spent many Mondays playing dartball.
“The night before he had surgery he wanted to come,” she said. “And I said well we have to be at the hospital at 5:00 in the morning so maybe you can play one game. So he did.”
Virginia’s husband passed away shortly after that surgery. His picture hangs on the dartball board’s frame. She still cheers on her husband’s team for a word you hear often at dartball — fellowship. As teammates retreat further into retirement, illness arrives, loved ones pass. It’s nice to have companions usually seen on Sunday morning around on Monday night. David Stierle, the team captain, knows that well. The day after his wife died two years ago he showed up for dartball.
“One, I felt that I owed it to them being on a team,” he said. ”Two, I needed them at the time. It was good just being with friends on that night, passing time playing dartball.
Neither illness nor age matter here. Take for instance a man named Cletus Thompson, a 7-year dartball veteran.
When asked how old he is, he simply replied, “You really don’t want to know that. Do you?”
He uncurled his fingers to show eight, then one. Slightly hunched and a little unsteady on his feet, make no mistake, 81-year-old Thompson is a slugger in suspenders.
“Second year I won the most homeruns and most runs batted in. Got trophies for it,” he said.
On this night, he hit the homerun diamond. Since two other players had also hit singles, his homerun totaled 3 points. It was the night’s biggest play and it helped energize Christ Church after a slow start.
“We got a rally going on,” said Bob Stone.
“Everybody’s throwing for the home run,” added Charlie Smith.
The team won their last game of the evening. Cut from solid, moral stock, Bob Stone and Charlie Smith reveal the team’s secret fuel that’s far less sinister than some of those used by major leaguers.
“We got some favorite cookies.”