Going for all the marbles Champions: A select circle from Maryland leaves no stone unturned to capture a world title in the game of clearies and cat's eyes.

September 21, 1996|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

MIDDLETOWN -- They have teams and uniforms, rules and referees. During the season, they practice two hours a day, weather permitting. Their parents drive hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars toting them to tournaments.

Last week, they took a world championship title, besting teams from France and England, and have a tall silver loving cup to show for it.

Their sport?

Marbles.

The game of "mibs," "commies" and agate shooters is anything but a dying schoolyard pastime in Middletown near Frederick where a group of men and boys -- known simply as the Maryland team -- won the first-ever International Marbles Festival Crown last weekend in Standing Stone State Park in Livingston, Tenn.

"It was grueling, really grueling and the pressure was incredible, but the training paid off and our kids never lost their focus or concentration," said Jeff Kimmell, 28, a computer technician who coaches the Maryland team.

From the woods of Tennessee, where shooters are cut from flintstone, to the boardwalks of Wildwood, N.J., where winners of the national championship take home $2,000 scholarships, marbles is making a comeback in small but increasingly enthusiastic circles.

The Standing Stone competition, which attracted six teams, including entries from England and France (hence the international status), grew out of the Rolley Hole championships played for the past 13 years in Tennessee, according to Kevin Rhoton of the organizers.

That contest, in turn, grew from the tradition of rural Tennessee and Kentucky where men (mostly) play on marble yards in the woods.

"It used to be the only place that marbles was still popular was in Kentucky and Tennessee, in Clay and Monroe Counties," said Rhoton. "Now, it's really kind of catching on with kids and it's growing by leaps and bounds."

Marbles -- the actual glass clearies and cat's eyes in all the colors of the rainbow -- never really lost their popularity with children. The Marble King factory in Paden City, W.Va., still cranks out a million marbles a day, seven days a week.

But the traditional marble games -- Rolley Hole, French Triangle, Ringer -- have been gradually, but indisputably, disappearing, as Bob Fulcher, another organizer of the Standing Stone festival, notes.

"There is a universal, fundamental appeal to these little glass balls and children love them and can do an infinite number of things with them," said Fulcher. "But there has been a break and the traditional games have not been passed along. We're hoping to change with the festivals and tournaments."

Marbles has remained popular in pockets of Western Maryland. Increasingly, it is spreading across the state and the East Coast, where it is played by adults and children, boys and girls, thanks to aficionados such as Kimmell and Helen Mohr, the "Marble Queen of Perry Hall," who have taken it upon themselves to teach the next generation.

"Marbles, marbles, marbles -- that's me," says Helen Mohr, 68. "I love marbles."

Mohr teaches marbles classes at the Perry Hall Recreation Center in Baltimore County -- "not blood-and-guts competition; just fun and old-time fun" -- to 31 young mibsters.

(Marbles terminology is a generational thing. To Mohr, marbles used as targets are "mibs;" hence players are mibsters. To Kimmell, the target marbles are "commies," short for common marbles.)

"I'm a winner as long as I can get up and down," says Mohr, whose team took two bronze medals at the Standing Stone competition. "I'm just glad that kids today are rediscovering a game I played as a girl."

These, however, are not your grandpa's -- or grandma's -- marbles.

The 10-foot rings are painted onto 14-square-foot concrete pads -- the Braddock Heights Optimist Club spent several thousand dollars to build seven rings in the Middletown municipal park. Agate shooters go for $12.

Playing for keeps -- once forbidden by elders who worried that marbles would lead to gambling or worse -- is out. But playing for prize money is in.

Except for the $2,000 scholarships awarded at the Wildwood, N.J., national tournament for children ages 8 to 14, the prize money mostly is small -- $200 for first place, $100 for second and so forth -- but to a youngster, it can be exciting.

"Winning money, definitely, is the best part," said Scott Walker, 14, a member of the Maryland team, who has won a cash prize of $150.

And then there is the status that comes with any sports championship.

Walker and Maryland teammate Jeff Staus play football for the Middletown Knights freshman team. To most, marbles might not seem as manly as, say, football.

But for Walker and Staus, faced with a choice between a football game and the Tennessee marble competition last weekend, it was no contest. They chose marbles.

Their football buddies criticized them "till we won the world XTC championship," Walker said. "That stopped the teasing."

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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