Editor’s note: This story originally aired on August 6, 2011.
By Anne Marshall
It was the last Monday evening in July. In the Schnitzelburg neighborhood, that’s World Dainty Championships day. The sweet smell of cotton candy sticks to humid air. As does the persistent, percussive sound of wood smacking cement.
Dainty is a clumsy game that requires two pieces of wood, an open street and some serious hand-eye coordination. The game’s a little like baseball, except that players use a broom handle to hit a piece of wood called a “dainty.” It’s about the same length and circumference of sidewalk chalk, sharpened like a pencil at both ends. It’s placed on a spray-painted start line. Then comes the fun part: hit the dainty with the broom handle so that it flips into the air, then try to whack it down the street. The farthest hit – wins.
“Actually two years ago I hit it 80 feet, and I got third place,” Steve Cameron said as he waited for his turn at bat. “It was luck it was luck, you know.”
With a cold beer in hand, he stood among a tightly-packed crowd behind police barricades. A spectator encouraged the hitter on deck. But all eyes were on the start line where the next competitor crouched down on one knee, aimed for the dainty, but ended up tapping around it.
Just as the announcer teased that this wasn’t a game of chopsticks, the dainty popped up, the player swung and missed.
Dainty’s not graceful. Players flail and lurch to try and launch a six-inch piece of wood into mid-air and then bat it as far as they can. And it can be somewhat dangerous. Orange mesh nets line the sidewalks for a reason. Just ask longtime player, Roxie Bickel, about the nuns in the front row a few years back.
“I hit it straight into the nuns, all the little nuns sitting here, all the Little Sisters of the Poor,” Rickel said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ Luckily it got tangled in the mesh.”
So, here are the rules. A swing and a miss is strike. Three times and you’re out. Players must hit one-handed and must be 45 or older. That’s tradition. So much of this is. For four decades, Dainty’s been played on the same tree-lined street, in front of the old corner market —Hauck’s Handy Store, often pronounced “hawk’s.”
“Hauck’s is the gateway for growing up,” Glen Bush said. “You come here to get your ice cream when you were three or four, and then maybe a beer or two after you grew up. Ha ha. “
Bush, along with his brother Bob, stood beneath the old Hauck’s neon sign and talked about store owner George Hauck. You hear that name a lot on Dainty Day. after all he did start the contest in 1971. But that’s not what Glen was thinking about. From behind, sporty, black sunglasses, he held back tears.
“He carried this neighborhood when people didn’t really have enough to get by,” Glen said. “George helped us.”
And there’s no better way to meet George than the way nearly everyone in Schnitzelburg does. By walking into the store that his family’s owned for 100 years.
On a Saturday afternoon, the 91-year-old Hauck sat on cases of domestic beer, one hand on his cane’s bronzed eagle handle. He stared out the front door’s large window. It’s a perfect view of the corner that was his playground back in the 1930s.
“Years ago, when you didn’t have money, you had to think up your own games,” he said. “Dainty was one of them. Red Rover, Sundown, Peggy.”
Dainty was actually borrowed. German immigrants introduced the game to Louisville in the mid-1800’s. It’s believed the dainty was named for a similarly shaped ice cream treat. At Hauck’s, cigarettes, candy and snacks line shelves. A sign listing all past Dainty winners hangs right behind the register tended by George’s daughters.
Karen Hauck said the Dainty contest, revives the simple joy of childhood for her dad. But she knows it’s her father, and his old-fashioned kindness, that draws such a huge neighborhood crowd every year.
“I’m old enough to remember people in the neighborhood that wouldn’t have anything, any food at all,” Karen said. “And dad would say, you know, give them bologna and bread. Something to hold them over, you know, especially if they had kids, but even adults.”
It’s no wonder that dainty is played underneath an honorary street sign reading George Hauck Way. At last year’s World Dainty Championships, George parked himself in a scooter with a basket full of good luck coins.
But a few competitors, like Bob Bush, devised their own good-luck strategy. “See I got a secret,” Bob said. “I’m going to go shake George’s hand for my good luck handshake before I hit it.”
Bob made his way to George’s scooter, gave him a firm handshake and stepped to the line. But his stick never even struck the dainty. Three tries. And he’s out.
BOB: “We’re going to have to work on that handshake.”
Behind the start line, a tall, stocky competitor who likes to go by “Big Bill” claimed he knew the trick. Don’t hold the stick at an angle. He pointed to the woman at bat.
“The key is to get as low as you can, take the stick parallel to the — like see her?” he said. “She’ll get it up in the air. If you get the stick parallel to the ground when you hit it, it will pop it up in the air.”
That year “Big Bill” hit 57 feet, not good enough for the win. That measured 93 feet. But, the game wasn’t over yet. George, dressed in shorts and a green Hauck’s Market baseball cap, hadn’t just come to watch. He climbed out of his scooter and headed to the start line. Every year, he gets the final hit. The crowd was glued.
He hit the dainty, but it rolled balls backwards. He tried again and missed. Then, leaning on his cane, he bent over, yanked the dainty off the ground and tossed it down the street.
The crowd wasn’t expecting that. A band started up. And George smiled as he hobbles back to his scooter, where a swarm of fans awaited.