'Those were special times': Now in their 50s, 'Wiffle ball kids' reunite in St. Charles

It seems odd to call them the “Wiffle ball kids.” Yet, that's how I tend to refer to them.

They're all successful grown adults in their 50s, but they will always be the kids from the Fourth Street neighborhood of St. Charles who battled a team from the newspaper in an annual Wiffle ball clash during four glorious summers more than 40 years ago.

Those kids were Peter Grathoff, today a 54-year-old sports writer in Kansas City; Clint Hull, a 55-year-old chief judge in Kane County; Keith Orland, a 57-year-old retired custom cabinet shop operator; and Gary Sontagg, a 55-year-old software developer in Genoa.

There were other kids involved in creating the Wiffle ball stadium in the backyard of the Grathoff family. Charlie Stengler played in a couple of games, and Tom Davis was the public address announcer in a press box built in one of the trees.

Hull recently had a reunion of the Fourth Street neighborhood kids, and he invited my wife and me because of my role in what they still call the biggest thrill of their childhood.

Let's go back to 1979, when it all started. During my second year of working as the sports editor for Chronicle newspapers, one of my freelance writers, Lynne Hardison, found out about the creation of a backyard Wiffle ball stadium from Clint's mother, Jean Hull.

She brought the story to my desk and, because I had played the game for hours on end as a youngster, I told her to set up a game between the kids and a team of newspaper staff.

“We were so excited when we heard,” Clint Hull said. “It became a 'thing' with all of the kids our age when they heard we were playing the newspaper team.”

During the get-together last week, a few asked if those of us on the newspaper team were “letting” the kids win. That's not how I'm wired. We were trying to win, but we knew we were underdogs.

And, from 1979 to 1982, the neighborhood kids beat us four times, with three of the games being decided by one run and the other by four runs in what came to be known as “The Wiffle Ball Classic.”

“We couldn't believe it when we heard that Mrs. Hull contacted you guys,” Orland said. “After the games, it was like waiting for Christmas for the paper to come out with the story and the photos.”

The Chronicle came out on Wednesdays at that time, and the games were played the prior Fridays. “It felt like it was 100 years before the paper came out, and it was really less than a week,” Orland said.

The boys were between 11 and 13 years old when the tradition started, and they were amazed the games got front-page coverage on the sports section.

A few of the guys were in summer sports camps at St. Charles High School and said they heard grumbling from some coaches about the Wiffle ball games getting more coverage than their summer teams.

My answer to guys at the reunion was pretty simple, and at least a tad tongue-in-cheek: “The Wiffle ball game was better than the high school summer leagues.”

I was a softball player at that time, but none of the other players on my Wiffle ball team were engaged in any form of baseball or softball. So, I knew we were up against it.

As one member of my team, Tom Chambers, said in postgame remarks after a loss, “You knew you were on their field as soon as you walked out there,” referring to the large gathering of fans cheering for the kids, and the various field rules that the kids had down-pat regarding “interference” on certain tree limbs and automatic doubles and homers in certain spots.

Sadly, Grathoff could not make it to the reunion on time. His flight from Kansas City was delayed and ruined his plans to attend. Imagine that, the airlines ruining someone's plans.

Some of the parents, including Jean Hull, have since passed, but Jeff Orland and his wife, Lori, attended the reunion.

I remember them being fanatical supporters of the Wiffle ball games and, to this day, have a very good sense of what it all meant.

“Those were special times,” Jeff Orland said. “You can see, the kids never forgot it.”

Neither did I.

Geneva Park District has rebuilt the Garden Park at Hamilton Street and River Lane, featuring a new archway and clearer view of the Fox River. The city and Geneva Garden Club are partners in the project. Courtesy of Dave Heun

A garden and a river

Driving east on Hamilton Street toward River Lane in Geneva now provides a clear view of the Fox River through a new archway and garden.

The reconstruction of Garden Park at that site, near the Fox River Dam and Geneva's River Park, has opened up the view of the river - and added new flower beds and tables in a beautiful setting.

“The idea was to create this as an open vista to view the water,” said Carl Gorra, superintendent of parks for the Geneva Park District. “Previously, the garden setting was kind of built up and you couldn't see the river.”

Geneva Park District has rebuilt the Garden Park at Hamilton Street and River Lane, featuring a new archway and clearer view of the Fox River. The city and Geneva Garden Club are partners in the project. Courtesy of Dave Heun

While the setting has changed, it's still a park district and city project, with the Geneva Garden Club helping with the maintenance of the park.

Ed Hoffman Construction did the concrete work, while Upland Design created the park concept. The center of the concourse has bricks from the original park structure.

Park district horticulturalist Kate Perez will oversee the grounds maintenance along with the garden club members.

“This is really nice,” Gorra said. “In the coming weeks, it will be even nicer as more of the plantings take root.”

Hardy Strong challenge

Like many others, my memories of Justin Hardy of St. Charles are simply recollections on what a fine basketball player he was.

Classmates who knew him well were along for much of his journey from the St. Charles East basketball courts to those at Washington University in St. Louis. They also were there at his far-too-soon passing from stomach cancer last year at age 22.

Those friends have created the Hardy Strong Foundation to raise money to aid stomach cancer research and treatments.

In that pursuit, the organization is planning its “Amazing Race: Stomach the Challenge” event Saturday, Aug. 5, at Mount St. Mary Park in St. Charles.

Information about the event, which coincides with Justin's love for TV's “The Amazing Race,” is available at

It's a “race” to complete various mini-challenges along the course and gather clues for the final stage, appropriately called the Buzzer Beater.

In addition to those wanting to show their competitiveness in this fun event, others can register for the event as a non-race participant.

They would have access to the live entertainment, guest speakers, and food provided by vendors Old Towne Pub & Eatery, and Riverside Pizza & Pub. They can also purchase drinks, bid on silent auction items and browse raffle baskets.

Lock that bike

We know our libraries are a treasure chest of information with books and DVDs, as well as a place for activities and presentations.

But there are other things offered that you simply have to ask about - if you know about them.

Such was the case when learning about the Library of Things at the Batavia Public Library. The library posted a note in social media, saying that if a person was riding a bike to the library for a short visit but didn't have a bike lock, the library could provide it.

You just connect with the Library of Things, and someone will come outside with a bike lock.

Yes, our libraries are amazing places.

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