Half-rubber's loyal enthusiasts keep traditional game of Carolina coast alive

These days, the Italian game of bocce or the Ohioan game of cornhole are more likely to be seen on the beach than one of the most traditional games of the Carolina coast.

That game is half-rubber.

And while it's not thriving or hip, it appears unlikely to die, thanks to die-hard half-rubber enthusiasts and several local recreation departments that host tournaments.

As indigenous to the coast as Gullah, the shag and palmetto bugs, half-rubber has roots (depending on who's telling the history) in Charleston and/or Savannah. (Let the letters to the editor begin.)

In fact, half-rubber players in South Carolina and Georgia almost relish the debate on the game's origin as much as the game itself. There are even Charleston rules and Savannah rules. (See a version of the Charleston rules, as well as information on local tournaments, see Page 2D.)

Like bocce, some prefer to play on grass, some on sand and some ... just about anywhere, even empty tennis courts.

And that's not the only variation on the game. Some write about it as half rubber, half-rubber and halfrubber.

Regardless, it's a game that will stop those unfamiliar with it in their tracks.

That's largely because the half-sphere shape of "the ball" cuts, curves and spins through air in a way that few could imagine even nicking it with a bat, much less with one that looks like a mop handle.

Those two pieces of equipment are testament to the humble beginnings — actual rubber balls cut in half and mop handles — of a game that likely started in the streets of Charleston and Savannah before World War I.

In the 1980 book "Halfrubber: The Savannah Game" by Dan E. Jones, a Savannah resident is reputed to have taken a razor to a rubber ball so that two games could be played with one ball. But Charleston players say the game was born here in "Little Mexico," also known as the East Side.

It quickly became popular in other parts of town before spreading to the beaches.

The height of half-rubber's popularity came during the late 1970s and into the '80s when Savannah hosted an annual World Tournament that would draw several dozen teams and hundreds of players and spectators.

While the world competition has fizzled out, half-rubber players have continued playing, and a new crop of tournaments has been created to draw players and foster exposure to the game. Every year, tournaments are held at Folly Beach and the Isle of Palms and in Hanahan, Mount Pleasant, Savannah and Hinesville, Ga. (See www.halfrubber.com for a schedule.)

Year-round half-rubber has its local home base at the Elks Club, 1113 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. in West Ashley, at 10 a.m. Saturdays (unless there's a tournament) and most Sunday mornings during warmer months near the Holiday Inn on Folly Beach.

Victor "Flat Top" Hayes, 44, of Goose Creek has been playing half-rubber since he was 8 and is among a core group of enthusiasts in the Charleston area.

Hayes typically plays three to four times a week. He and his sons, Joshua, 22, and Jonathan, 21, and buddy Tommy Blackwood often compete as a team at tournaments.

"I am eat up with it," admits Hayes. He says he loves the combination of competitiveness and camaraderie with the game and adds, "You don't have to be young and full of testosterone to win."

There is a finesse to half-rubber that comes only with a certain level of maturity and fine-tuned hand-eye coordination.

"With baseball, you swing where the ball is at. With half-rubber, you swing where the ball is going to be. You have to see which way the ball is breaking before you swing," says Hayes.

While he is upbeat about the future of half-rubber, he admits that most people who regularly play it grew up doing so or had parents who did.

Within the past five years, Hayes has seen more interest in the game, due partly to recreation departments such as Isle of Palms and Mount Pleasant hosting tournaments.

The Isle of Palms tournament, to be held Saturday, is in its ninth year and maxes out at 24 teams each year.

According to Karrie Ferrell of the Isle of Palms Recreation Department, last year all but two teams were from the Charleston or Savannah areas. The tournament started at 9 a.m. and didn't wrap up until 11 p.m.

Ferrell offered her two cents on the sport.

"In my opinion, people either played it growing up or have never heard about it. There's really no in between."

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Play (half a) ball!

While you may be less likely to encounter half-rubber being played on local beaches than in the past, the game remains a tradition for Lowcountry natives. For both the enthusiasts and the uninitiated, tournaments offer a chance to play and watch.

The ninth annual Isle of Palms Half Rubber Tournament will start at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Isle of Palms Recreation Department on 28th Avenue. The contest is for ages 16 and up. $15 per person. Space is limited to 24 teams. Contact Karrie Ferrell at 886-8294 or kferrel@iop.net today.

If you missed your chance to sign up, another major tournament will be the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department's third annual Half Rubber World Series at 9 a.m. Sept. 22 at the Park West Recreation Complex. Registration is $20 per person and required by Sept. 17. Contact Tripp Boyd at 884-2528 or tboyd@townofmountpleasant.com.

See halfrubber.com for more information on tournaments and half-rubber products.

Year-round play is held starting at 10 a.m. Saturdays at The Elks Club, 1113 Sam Rittenberg Blvd., Charleston. Beginners are welcome. Contact Victor Hayes at victorlhayes@yahoo.com for more information.

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Rules of the game

Half-rubber is a loose derivative of baseball. All that is needed to play is half of a hard rubber ball and a half-rubber bat. If an official bat is not available, a 48-inch section of a broom or mop handle will suffice. Here are "Charleston Rules" of half-rubber, contributed by Victor Hayes and appearing on halfrubber.com:

1. Teams consist of three or four players.

2. Games consist of three innings, with three outs per team each inning.

3. There are no called strikes or balls. If the ball is close, you swing. If you miss, it's a strike.

4. Home plate to the pitcher is 60 feet, or roughly 20 big steps.

5. Home plate to the home run line is 120 feet, or roughly 40 big steps.

6. There are only two types of hits: singles, which must pass the pitcher's line on the ground or the air; and home runs, which must pass the home run line in the air.

7. Outs are achieved in one of three ways:

A. The pitcher throws the ball, batter swings and misses, then the catcher "catches" the ball before it can touch the ground. One pitch, one swing, one catch, one out.

B. A batter hits the ball and it is caught in the air by a member of the opposing team (anywhere on the field). Fielders must stay even with pitcher until ball is released.

C. A double out can be achieved if the batter tips a pitched ball and the catcher is able the catch the ball before it hits the ground behind the batter. If the ball is caught in front of the batter, only one out is achieved.

8. The "free swing" explained: If the pitcher throws the ball and it hits the ground before it reaches the batter, the ball is considered a "dead ball." At this point, the batter can swing at the ball. If the batter does not make contact with the ball, the ball remains "dead." If the batter makes contact with the ball, the ball is brought back to "life" or considered back in play, which means all standard rules now again apply (such as home run or double out).

9. If at the end of three innings the two teams are tied, the fourth inning begins the start of "hit is a run." At this point, all hits are considered runs, and at the end of the inning, the team with the most runs is the winner.

10. The 10-Run Rule: At the end of any inning, if one team has a 10-run lead, the game is over.