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‘Eck balle’: disappearing sport of the Pennsylvania Dutch

Pennsylvania Dutch plain people sport Amish eck balle cornerball
photo:  Rob Ward

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.

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    15 Comments

    1. Adrian

      I actually participated in a game of this is a kid while visiting my Amish friends. They had a neighborhood game of it and I was horrible at it and the ball hurt like heck when it hit me.

    2. Sounds fun, Adrian. Seems like a take-no-prisoners approach here. But at least you avoided the hospital unlike some of these other guys.

    3. Roni

      Hey Erik-

      Stevick’s book was a reading requirement for Don’s Amish Society class. Actually, I had already read it. I have also read Pauline Stevick’s book, “Beyond the Plain and Simple”. How did you like the Young Center?
      -Roni

    4. Kate

      Thank you so much for explaining corner ball. I know many players in Sugar Valley, but I never understood the rules. This is a big help!

    5. Hey Roni,

      Young Center is a fantastic place. Great people and great resources. Even better than I anticipated; I was able to get a lot done while there.

      Kate, glad that helps, thanks to Prof Stevick. If you enjoyed that, I bet you’d like his book.

    6. Dave Carrig

      Ah – that game exists in thousands of elementary and middle schools across the U.S. We just call it “dodge ball.”

    7. Dave, that’s an old favorite of mine. We always used volleyballs or non-dangerous softer balls though. These Amish kids up the ante a bit!

    8. Gene L McMillen

      I watched this at a mud sale in Rawlinsville, Lacaster County today. It was pretty cool. I know my nine year old would have begged me to pay if he had been there.

    9. Sounds fun Gene, your nine year old would have to be pretty brave to get into one of these games!

    10. Sandy

      I remember my homeschool group playing this when I was a kid with some kind of homemade ball. 13 of my friends in that group were from families that had left the Amish community and they brought the ball and taught us the game. I had a pretty big bruise under my eye from a direct hit, lol.

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    12. Sydney

      What a neat sport. If they modified the ball so that it wasn’t so rock-like, it would make a great inexpensive school sport for all ages. Should be the Pennsylvania State Sport. I would love to watch a game. Matter of fact, I would love to have played it when I was a kid.

    13. Greg Miller

      What about Baseball?

      Eck balle looks a lot like dodgeball. What about baseball? I heard thaty there is some coed softball being played and I know there is a growing pressure of Amish playing baseball outside their community in public leagues. That would be organized baseball like Little League and Babe Ruth league.

      But can anyone tell me if there are any games of old rules baseball” being played anywhere by Amish groups?

      And, is hardball played informally within any groups?

    14. Earl Martin

      Getting "hot" in cornerball

      As a Mennonite kid growing up in Lancaster County, we played corner ball at Maple Grove school with all our Amish classmates. One detail then was that the corners had to throw the ball to each other four times (H – O – T – HOT) before they could throw it at one of the opponents in the center. Mercifully, we used a rubber ball about the size of a baseball. But we loved to watch the “big guys” play it at the farm auctions.

    15. ‘Eck balle’: disappearing sport of the Pennsylvania Dutch

      It’s nearly impossible to find educated people
      for tgis topic, however,you seem like you know what you’re talking about!

      Thanks