MEMOIR: The games we played
I am amused when I hear suburban mothers talk about having to make "play dates" for their children. There evidently aren't enough kids on their streets or neighborhoods with whom their own children can play. So arrangements must be made to obtain playmates.
I then remember what my childhood was like on the teeming streets in the Bronx during the mid-1930s and early 1940s. The center of my boyhood play was the single block on Clarke Place, located on a hill that extended eastward from Walton Ave. to the Grand Concourse. As I recall, there were at least eight five-story apartment houses on that street. I would estimate that each building contained an average of 75 apartments.
This meant that there were about 600 families on that single street. The result was an abundant supply of play mates of both genders and a wide range of ages. There was no need for mothers to arrange "play dates." One quick look out of my kitchen window would immediately inform me whether there were friends outside available to play with.
Despite the absence of conventional athletic facilities in our neighborhood, sports dominated my childhood. My friends and I had an unusual assortment of games that were suitable for a narrow, hilly street with parked cars on either side and a steady stream of traffic. Aside from auto traffic, we had to contend with peddlers on horse-drawn wagons selling milk, fruit, vegetables, and other merchandise. We were thus forced to accommodate ourselves to piles of horse manure as we played.
We were very imaginative in devising games derived from baseball. The street was usually crammed with people walking or standing on the sidewalks, and hundreds--perhaps thousands--of vulnerable glass windows and doors providing a backdrop for our game. Obviously, we could not play regular baseball with a hard ball. It was acceptable, however, for two boys to simply play catch with a standard baseball if our adult neighbors were not inconvenienced.
Our most popular game was called "stickball," using a broom stick and a rubber ball in place of a bat and a regulation baseball. The ball was either a pink-colored "Spaldeen," a brand-name ball manufactured by the Spalding sports goods company, or a used tennis ball with the felt cover removed.
A sewer-covering in the middle of the street served as home plate. First base and third base were marked off in chalk in empty areas between parked cars. In an emergency, a car itself would serve as the base. Second base might be another sewer-cover, if it was located far enough up the street from home plate. If not, it would also be outlined in chalk.
Our idea of a power-hitter was a boy who could hit the ball the length of at least two sewers. In terms of distance, that was our equivalent of a hit into the bleachers of a regular baseball field. But with no physical barriers to hold him back, a speedy outfielder was expected to catch the ball on the fly.
The police considered stickball to be a nuisance, if not a hazard for innocent pedestrians. We were therefore frequently harassed by the cops who tried to stop our game. We handled that threat by posting look-outs--boys considered too young and unskilled for our level of play--at the end of the street to alert us. If cops were spotted, the game was temporarily halted.
Because we were on a hill, we usually played stickball without pitching. We often competed with teams from neighboring streets. When we played them on our block, we enjoyed a competitive advantage against opponents unaccustomed to playing on a hill. Of course, we were handicapped when we had to play away games on level streets, especially if the opponents insisted on playing with pitching.
Our stickball teams normally ranged in size from four to as many as eight players, depending on the number of kids looking for a game. When we didn't have enough men for stickball, we played alternative games with such quaint names as box ball, triangle, punch ball, baseball-off-the-wall, and curb ball. These were primitive approximations of conventional baseball, depending on the architectural features of our street and its buildings.
These games were based on the amount of space on the street and the number of available players. Triangle, for example, was played across the narrow street with two contestants and two imaginary bases. One boy slapped a rubber ball with his bare hand, trying to avoid the reach of his opponent. The opponent's failure to catch the ball was the equivalent of a hit in conventional baseball.
We also played games that were our primitive versions of basketball and football. The nearest regulation basketball court was about 10 blocks away at the local school yard. The kids living closest to the school yard monopolized the school's basketball court. Rarely if ever did those of us from Clarke Place get a chance to use the court during non-school hours.
We devised our own basketball game, using the lowest rung of an apartment house's fire escape. That was the "basket" and the sidewalk was the "court." Our "basketball" was the same type of small rubber ball that we used to play stickball.
We had two games derived from football. We naturally played without tackling, so shoulder pads and helmets were unnecessary. We did, however, play with a regular football. In place of a tackle, the runner would be "brought down" with a two-hand touch. But blocking was allowed, and as a skinny kid I would frequently have to contend with guys considerably heavier than me when I played on the line. I preferred playing as a wide receiver. I was a fast runner, and I would rush down (or up) the street, trying to outrun the defensive back to receive a pass.
We played with as many as six men on a team. A run around end often required the ball carrier
to sprint on to the sidewalk, contending with baby carriages and assorted on-lookers. I still recall one incident in which the runner smashed his knee on an apartment house wall while on an end-around play. It was a brutal collision, and the player was rushed to a hospital. As an adult, he was still sufficiently disabled because of the accident to be rated for limited service when the Army drafted him during World War II.
When we didn't have enough players for touch football, we played a game called "association" with a rubber ball. (I never knew the origin of the name.) The objective was the same as in regular football--i.e., to get the ball across a designated goal line.
The goal line was usually a sewer-cover. As few as two men on a side could play this game. It was simply one man throwing the rubber ball to his team mate, who would try to dodge the defending opponent and run across the goal line without being tagged.
As I look back on these boyhood experiences, I wonder whether the young boys who now require "play dates" have as much fun as my childhood friends and I did in those ancient days, playing primitive street games that substituted for conventional sports.