Richard Stevick, author of Growing up Amish: The Teenage Years, describes eck balle, or cornerball, as ‘the plain peoples’ equivalent of NCAA March Madness.’
From Growing up Amish:
‘Until the 1950s, cornerball flourished among most of the Pennsylvania Dutch communities, both plain and fancy. Although the “fancy” or “church Dutch” eventually abandoned the game, it still thrives among the plainest Amish groups and the horse-and-buggy Mennonites in Lancaster County. Unlike organized league sports, cornerball is the quintessential plain game, requiring nothing but a small ball, an empty cow pen or lot, and a dozen willing players.’
‘The game calls for two teams of six players, who try to eliminate each opponent by hitting him with a leather-covered ball. In the past, these were often homemade by wrapping a quarter-sized steel nut in twine and covering it with black tire tape. Balls today resemble a slightly oversized hacky-sack firmly packed with leather scraps and sand. Participants prefer playing in barnyards where the winter manure accumulation has softened in the sun. They scatter a thick layer of straw on the area, known as the mosch. It provides them a soft surface to duck, dive, and roll as they seek to avoid being hit.’
Stevick explains that the starting four players of the offensive team stand at the corners of a volleyball court-sized area. Passing the ball back and forth to one another, they attempt to strike one of the two opponents in the center. A hit eliminates the targeted player. A miss eliminates the thrower. Once eliminated, players are replaced by reserves until one side runs out, at which point teams switch from defense to offense and vice versa.
‘Experienced corner men are adept at faking throws,’ Stevick writes, ‘and looking at one opponent while throwing at the other. Meanwhile, their most skilled opponents dash about and leap into the air with amazing agility and contortions. The best players combine speed, throwing accuracy, faking, and strategic ability. Some are widely known and applauded for their aerial acrobatics. They sometimes leap horizontally into the air like a high jumper, presenting only the soles of their boots as a target.
‘Occasionally, depending on the speed of the throw, the hardness of the ball, or the point of impact, players injure their opponents. One young player recounted how the cartilage in his outer ear crumpled from a direct hit. In another game, an older player was rushed to the hospital with a shattered cheekbone from an errant throw.’
Old Order Mennonite teams typically compete against Amish ones, or married men take on the single. The sport attracts a good share of fans–with attendance in the hundreds, and with older spectators even getting in on the fun. Stevick quotes an observer who says that ‘cornerball is the only place I have ever seen Amish grandfathers so excited they literally had to grab ahold of their hats when they cheered.’ However, Stevick notes that the game is on the decline, having become ‘all but a quaint memory and relic of earlier times.’
I recently asked an Amish friend about eckball. Daniel confirmed that it was less common these days due to the phenomenon of farm youth taking advantage of off-season construction work.
Eckball is still played in some areas, notably at auctions held in Gordonville in Lancaster County. Daniel also confirmed the enthusiasm of the older generation, mentioning a grandfather who treated players to lunch after a particularly vigorous match. The above photo, by Rob Ward, is from a Gordonville event.
In describing the game, Daniel marveled at the agility of some of the players, claiming that in order to avoid a throw, they could leap into the air, get horizontal, land and spring up in the blink of an eye.
Read more about Amish, sports, and the adolescent journey in Growing up Amish: The Teenage Years.