I realized the other day that my children -- rightly or wrongly -- had never seen a game of donkey ball. The same for my graandchildren. When I was a kid, donkey ball was a popular fund raiser for our local fire department, but that was long ago and far away.
I'm sure that some of you are wondering what the heck is donkey ball? Donkey ball is a softball game with donkeys. It can be played on any flat field. Each player had a donkey. If player got a hit, he had to hop on his donkey and try to ride it to base; if a player caught a ball, he had to get on his donkey before he could throw it. The fact that the players were all local people who you knew and the fact that the donkeys were unpredictable and often uncooperative made the game fun. Donkey ball began to be popular around 1930 and was very popular for the next few decades.
Donkey ball is still around, although many places have banned it. A quick check of the internet shows that at least three major companies still provide donkeys for fundraisers in much of the United States -- usually in small towns, often in the mid-West and the South. (A word to the wise: when googling "donkey ball," do not make the search word plural.) These company also sponsor donkey basketball (usually played in a school gym, with a band of teenagers shovel ready.) and donkey races.
There are a number of ethical concerns about the game. Donkeys can usually carry more weight on their backs than horses, but there's a limit. Local players can often be heavy and are not experienced riders. In theory, players are not supposed to hit their mounts. And (also in theory) the safety and the proper treatment of the animals is paramount. (Some doubt may be cast there.) There have also been accusations that food and water may be withheld from the animals before a game to help prevent what comes naturally; I can vouch that food and water did not seem to be withheld in the games I saw. All of this concerns me now, but when I was ten-years-old neither I nor anyone else involved that I knew -- either as a spectator or a participant -- had that on our radar.
Sometimes our memories of the good old days are tinged with a dollop of guilt.
From 1935, here's a Pete Smith documentary on the "sport":