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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — On a sunny Sunday afternoon in August, a motley group of adults runs around a baseball field kicking a red rubber ball.
In the outfield, nine players on the NuBallerz team position themselves for defense. The skinny captain of their opponents' team, Arkansauced, which is sponsored by a local brew pub, makes for the home plate. He scores the first run in the first inning, and his teammates — who include a middle-aged man with a long ponytail, a woman with a ripped T-shirt and a guitar tattoo on her shoulder and a 40-something environmentalist nicknamed Lorax — give him congratulatory high-fives as he heads back to the dugout. The team scored three runs in that first inning of their first game of the season, which began August 18.
The game was created in the Czech Republic in 1922, and became a popular recess sport on playgrounds across the United States in the 1970s. These days, thanks to the Little Rock Kickball Association (LRKA), adults in this city who once played as kids can again enjoy the sport.
As part of LRKA's fall season, more than 1,500 people from 18 to 65 will play kickball on Sunday afternoons at nine separate fields. In fact, kickball is Arkansas' biggest participant sport, with more than 10,000 people from all walks of life having played in the league’s fall and spring seasons since its inception in 2004.
"The kickball phenomenon in Little Rock seems a direct contrast with two unfortunate realities about the city in recent years," Jay Barth, a political scientist professor at Hendrix College, says. "First, as befits a city on the cusp of the frontier, Little Rock is a very individualistic city where social groups (outside of churches) tend not to thrive. Second, over the past number of decades, Little Rock has become a deeply divided city demographically, particularly in terms of race and class."
"Indeed, in many respects, Little Rock is really two separate cities," Barth says.
‘[An all-lesbian team] gave me a pink team shirt. And to this day, when I wear it, I wonder what a 350-pound Southerner wearing a pink T-shirt saying, ‘No Boys Allowed’ might mean to those who encounter me.’
founder, Little Rock Kickball Association
When Larry Betz founded the LRKA in 2004 he had no idea he would bring together groups that otherwise might never connect.
"I honestly came from a very narrow world view when I started the league," he says. "I was a bar manager looking to start a 'bar league.'"
But he soon discovered that a lot of people outside the bar wanted to play. An all-lesbian team named No Boys Allowed joined the league. "They gave me a pink team shirt," Betz says. "And to this day, when I wear it, I wonder what a 350-pound Southerner wearing a pink T-shirt saying, 'No Boys Allowed' might mean to those who encounter me."
Soon, a Muslim team joined. Betz said that during Ramadan, he scheduled games for fasting players as early in the day as he could, as players wouldn’t be allowed to drink water till sundown. Next came a team of atheists, the Non-Prophets.
One of the earliest teams, the Zombies, dressed in spray-painted shirts, circled their eyes with black liner and dripped fake blood on their arms. Last season, the Jell-O Shot Jockeys, dressed in bright orange jerseys and colorful masks, captivated the LRKA with their energy and carefree group pictures at the end of games.
"The LRKA family is as diverse as they come," LeeWood Thomas, a member of the Non-Prophets, says. "We represent the lower, middle and upper class in Central Arkansas. We have white- and blue-collar workers all throughout the league."
Angela Hunter, an English professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, has played kickball for the Marquis de Sod since 2005. She says that the inclusiveness of the sport comes down to everyone looking alike in their shorts and T-shirts on the field.
"The team full of lawyers and the team full of waiters don't look that different from each other or from the team full of people who attend the same church or support the same political cause," she says. "You can't see the typical status indicators in the same way. Instead, everyone gets sized up based on age and potential athletic ability."
Hunter had only recently moved to Little Rock from Atlanta in 2004when she joined the LRKA. "I was enjoying time laughing and drinking and having a common passion with people who were different from me in many ways, sometimes people whose political beliefs I really hated."
Hunter isn't alone. Betz says that he's aware of at least 14 couples who have married after first meeting on a kickball field.
‘I was enjoying time laughing and drinking and having a common passion with people who were different from me in many ways, sometimes people whose political beliefs I really hated.’
Little Rock kickball player
The LRKA also makes it a point to give something back to the community.
"A lot of people want to get involved and don’t have an outlet," Betz says. "We don't have social groups like our parents did with the Elks and the Moose Club. Some of us don't even go to church."
So in the fall, the teams collect school supplies and backpacks for needy students in area schools. During the spring, players buy supplies for the Little Rock Animal Village. Betz says that each spring, teams contribute enough to feed animals for three or four months out of the year. Other events to help the community include building a porch rail for a Habitat for Humanity house, a fundraiser for a shelter for homeless LGBTQ young adults in central Arkansas and creek cleanups.
On Aug.18, the Arkansauced players celebrated their 7-5 victory over the NuBallerz at their sponsoring pub, Vino's. Sitting around a picnic table on the deck, the team rehashed the game, especially the crucial last inning.
One of the players, Lydia Washburn, said, "It brings the most unlikely and varied collections of people together," she says. "Add libations, direct sunlight, and a focused activity; bonds will create themselves among those who participate."