Exploring Nostalgia: Malibu's Little League, Pizza Balls, and Childhood Memories

Brian Merrick | April 23, 2024

    Have you ever experienced a sudden rush of memories triggered by a familiar smell? Chances are that not many of us know about how our brain's olfactory bulb and hippocampus work within the limbic system but if any of us have encountered a smell which brought on a memory of our past you will have exercised those parts of your brain.  I had that very experience the other day, as I crossed the bridge at The Malibu Lagoon, the scent of scrub brush and wetlands below instantly transported me back in time. What others might dismiss as the smell of mud and weeds reminded me of pizza. Yes, pizza.

Before the Malibu Lagoon became what it is today, there were bustling Little League baseball fields. The fields were built up against the creek and the reeds and scrub brush grew right up against the fences and parking lot, creating our very own "field of dreams." Malibu Little League fields through someone's connection got the red clay infield dirt from Dodger stadium every time they switched it out.  It was pretty cool to play on the same dirt as Cey, Russell, Lopes, and Garvey.  With billboards advertising local businesses along the outfield fences it had the feel of a minor league baseball field in the heartland.  Every kid knew of the Posey Carpentier realty sign in left center field with the 10-inch circular hole in it that would earn you a $50 dollar bill if you hit it in the hole.  I never knew anyone who collected on that.

The teams were named after local sponsors like the Deans for Deans Sportswear store, the Lions for the Lions Club, the Generals for General Realty, the Bugs for Santa Monica Volkswagen, The Colony A's for Colony Market, and the Optimist for the Optimist Club. . I belonged to the Optimists, sporting our signature white button-down uniforms with maroon pinstripes. Baseball was a pure joy; boys and girls played together, united by a love for the game. 

Amongst the spectators was Old Malibu Joe, Malibu Little League’s number one fan, Malibu's first and most beloved homeless person, who would park his bike, smoke his pipe, and delight in the sights and sounds of the game.

What does any of this have to do with pizza?  Well pizza was synonymous with Malibu Little League Baseball for two reasons.  The first and most important was the Pizza ball.  If a ball was fouled off and out of play the call would go out over the loudspeaker, "PIZZA BALL" and every kid and some parents too would scramble to retrieve it.  It was a mad dash for that highly desired prize with kids not even seeing the ball following others into the overgrowth and out of sight.  Sometimes it would go so deep into the reeds and scrub brush that it would never be found.  Everyone dashed to retrieve the ball hidden in the reeds, hoping to exchange it for a free slice of cheesy goodness at the snack shop. It really was a free for all.  It was during those treasure hunts for the ball that the distinct smell of the encroaching chaparral permeated your nostrils.   

When the games were over for the day everyone headed under PCH on a path carved out of the reeds to Straw Hat Pizza and Swenson's Ice cream.  Straw Hat had pizzas for the kids and pitchers of beer for the parents, but it also had video games.  Straw hat had the only arcade in Malibu with games like Defender, Asteroids, and my favorite Centipede.   After pizza and video games it was time for ice cream.  It was a chaotic scene with all the kids still in uniform running around with ice cream smiles on their face, pizza stains on their chests, and Dodger Stadium dirt stains on their pants. 

As I reflect on these memories while standing on the bridge, I can't help but contrast it with the modern Malibu landscape--barren mud, manmade islands, high end clothing stores selling $200 t-shirts and I could not help but think of best things about growing up in Malibu.

How many "Pizza Balls" remain buried out there in the mud? Where can I find that sticky, chewy chocolate ice cream on a wafer cone?

With one more glance around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Old Joe peddling up the road, I continue my journey across the bridge, grateful for the unforgettable experiences of growing up in Malibu.

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