Saturday, December 20, 2008

Having a Ball in Brooklyn by Paul McNally

Paul McNally was and still is one of my best friends from the block. Although Paul moved from Kensington and Brooklyn many years ago, his mind is still chock full of memories from East 4th street.
I recently filled Paul in on my blog about Kensington and he came back with a story of his own overnight.

Here is Paul's story simply called:
Having a Ball in Brooklyn.

After reading some of the many stories on the pages of this blog, I feel compelled and inspired to add a few thoughts of my own.
A day doesn’t go by that I don’t draw upon the fond memories of good ol’ E 4. So when I tried to think of what to write, I wanted to come up with something that anyone who lived in the melting pot that was Kensington, could remember and relate to. Unfortunately, most children today can’t understand how much fun a kid could have without a video game controller, but to the kids growing up in the neighborhood all you needed was a ball. Specifically, I am speaking about a Spalding Hi Bounce ball, or as they were commonly called, “Spaldeens”.

If you had a Spaldeen, you were set to play any one of about a dozen different games. From stoopball, to box ball and of course the old standard, stick ball, hours of play could be had with a single ball. A Spaldeen was every thing and more. Now for those of you reading this who are either too young to know these games, or maybe you were born somewhere other then Brooklyn, I will give you a few details about the games.

Stoopball was a game that had several different versions all based on the same concept of throwing a ball against a set of steps (called a stoop). The first game was loosely based on baseball were the guy throwing the ball attempted to gain runs or points by having his opponents in the out field miss the ball. The ball had to fly a minimum distance before it could be considered in play. If it fell short or went foul, it was a strike, and of course with three strikes, you were out. If the ball was caught on the fly that too was considered an out, but if the ball bounced, that was a hit. You took one base for every bounce before your opponent caught the ball and stopped your progress, so it wasn’t uncommon to have a 4 bounce “Homer”. You could also have an automatic homer by hitting the ball on the point of the stoop and have the ball fly high and far and “Outta Here”!

Another stoopball game was just throwing the ball and gaining points for catching it. Catching the ball on one bounce was worth 5 points, on the fly was 10 and catching it off the point of the step was worth 100. You had better keep you eye on the ball, cause those shots off the point could come right back at you fast and hard. You passed the ball when you either missed a catch or the ball bounced more than once. The games would usually score to either 500 or 1,000 points with the winner getting bragging rights till the next game.

When stoopball was done, you could use the same Spaldeen to play box ball. Box ball had several different incarnations that could keep you occupied for hours. This was a game that could be played on any sidewalk around. The boxes were the “flags” of cement found on every block of the neighborhood, so you didn’t have to go any further than your own front door to have a game. There was basic box ball, a game based on tennis.

The game would start when you designated two boxes as the court, and you served the ball to your opponent by throwing it into his box. Then the game was played by hitting a return shot with your hand. This led to many fancy maneuvers in an attempt to outplay your opponent. Slices, slams, backhand shots, knucklers and lobs, and almost anything else you could think of. One of my favorites was the “feint”. You know, were you wind up like you are going to slam the ball and the other guy backs up thinking you’re gonna put it down his throat, and you just tap it into a corner and then laugh at him for getting sucked in. This game usually played to 11 points. Another game was 5 boxes. 5 boxes was played on a longer “court”. You had to attempt to bounce your ball in each of the 5 boxes separating you and your opponent.

The game was easy at first when all you had to do was throw the ball to the box directly in front of your buddy. It became increasingly harder as you tried to make it bounce in two boxes and so on up to five. This game required a bit of skill since you had to apply backspin for some shots and top spin for others. And when you got to your shot at 5 boxes it would mean squatting down low to the ground so could make the ball stay low and almost skip across the playing field.

One of my personal favorite box ball games was the coin flip. Using 2 boxes, you place a coin on the crack between the boxes and toss the ball at the coin. You gained 1 point each time you hit the coin. If your hit resulted in the coin flipping over you got 2 points. This game was pretty easy, but became harder if the coin moved around the box after being hit and flipped so many times. If it moved towards you it was almost a “gimme” that you would win the game, but never underestimate the abilities of a skilled box baller bent on winning.

The King of all Spaldeen ball games was of course, stickball. Stickball was played either on the street or in the schoolyard of PS 179. On the street, the field was usually the distance between two manhole covers or sewers. Making the statement, “sewa ta sewa”, understood by everyone. We would pitch the ball at break neck speeds hoping to catch our opponent looking or whiffing at a blur of pink flying past their eyes. But if they connected good and hard, say good-bye, cause that ball was outta here. Those Spaldeens would fly like the wind. If they flew the distance of 2 sewers it was an automatic homer. Sometimes we would name bases like, the blue Chevy’s door was first, the sewer was second, and the lamppost was third with home being another sewer.

In the schoolyard we would use the brick wall of the school as both the strike box and the catcher, cause the ball would bounce off the wall back to the pitcher. Call strike arguments usually broke out but were quickly settled by the chalk mark of the strike box evidenced on the ball. These games usually involved fewer players so we used a system of automatic hits. One bounce; base hit. Two bounces; double, three bounces; triple, but you had to hit it out of the yard or get the ball stuck high on the schoolyard fence for a homer.

Sometimes if we had enough guys we would choose up sides and play a game, running the bases in the schoolyard. The automatic homer in these games usually ended the game when the ball was hit on to the roof over the auditorium at PS179. The roof was the resting place of many a Spaldeen ball. Occasionally some brave or stupid kid (it was hard to figure out which) would climb up to the roof to retrieve a lost ball. Shimmying up between the walls and gaining access to a place that often times had a dozen or more balls waiting to be liberated. Some guys would throw the balls down for everyone too smart to make the dangerous assent, while others would come down with 15-20 balls stuffed into their shirts looking like beer bellied old men, not wanting to share with anyone.

But what good is a ball if you don’t have someone to throw it to, right? Other games we played were punch ball and slap ball. Both games being played like baseball but using your hand instead of a bat.

So what’s the point of all this rambling you might ask? Its kind of a comparison between what me and my brother Steve, and Ronnie, and Petey and Robert and Nunzio and all the guys did every day with just a small rubber ball and a little imagination, and what the kids today are missing. Are the kids today going to remember their high score in Grand Theft Auto IV like we remember these games? And all that for about .39 cents.

Paul McNally
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Anonymous said...

Great input by Paul, I think its amazing how we all knew the same games from block to block back then. Y ou can only imagine how many years it took to spread to so many neiborhoods, and stay consistant, without all the cell phones, and kids didn't really leave the block, no need to. Maybe our parents were visited by the spaldeen aliens, but I find it amazing. The sad part is that for as long as people took to pass those games on from generation to generation, it all just ended almost instantly. I can tell you that on E 8th. st. it was a right of passage to play stickball, you couldn't play till the old timers moved on, and you had to be at least 16 to get in. Well thanks for the memories, youv'e got me craving the smell of a new spalding, ( am I the only one who loved that smell, I doubt it) Happy holidays to all, keep it comming, Will

Anonymous said...

How true. Hey, even girls played each and every one of those games too. We also played punch-ball (baseball/softball) with a spaldeen. Handball too, off of any wall that would work. It was a very competitive neighborhood all around!!! Boys were usually very impressed by how good we were-- we were always up for a good game, sun-up to sun-down. That's how it was:)

Anonymous said...

I couldn't afford a spaldeen so we took a tennis ball and ripped off the felt for the pink ball. I personally liked the blue ball better for punchball/boxball, I thought it would fly farther. I can't remember the amount of balls we lost playing stoop ball when: 1. The ball hit the "point" then
2. The ball flew high into the street then
3. The ball would hit a speeding car or bus windshield and would fly an addtional 2 or 3 block into a sewer...

Playing chinese handball was fun but really competitive for that "ace" spot.

Pete said...

PAULEEEEE! How ya doin' guy? I haven't spoken to you in about 6 years! Great story - I remember paying all those games with you and Stevie - especially box ball and stoop ball. Do you remember Kenney's son? How he looked at us like we were nuts when we asked for "Spaldeens"? He just repeated the word like he had never heard of such a thing...from then on, that's what we called him - "Spaldeeeeen". Anyway, my best to the family - have a great Christmas.


Anonymous said...

Modell,s still sells spaldeeeens if your looking for a great gift for your kids for Xmas!! Thay AINT 35 cents anymore I think I paid 2 dollars and 50 cents each. It was around last xmas time I was in Modells in New Jersey and we were xmas shopping...the girl at the counter saw me put up a big stick and I asked for like 6 spaldeeeens... She looked at me like I was from another planet..
I told her what they were and pointed to them and she asked what they were for.. I told her all about our stick ballgames. She say "I remember that game my grandfather used to play that as a kid" she was maybe 19 years old..God I felt so old that day leaving the store and laughing at how I had a great life growing up. (Im in PA now and the balls dont bounce off the street like they did in the city but none the less we all still have fun playing.) Mark S Hawley P.A.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Mark, those were the days on Friel place! I'm waiting to have an old timers game down there one day. If I get a live ball I still think I can hit the Caton Towers. Take care, Will

Anonymous said...

About 5 years ago or so when my sons were 14,13 and 9, I explained to them what magic the Spaldeen had for me and my friends as kids. I was tired of seeing them just hang around in the house playing video games or searching through dozens of cable TV channels (we only had like 7 channels right? and a few UHF stations!) I had spent so much time playing all the games everyone has mentioned here. I found the balls at Modells also. But I soon realized I couldn't really show them how to play most of the games we loved. I spent tons of time playing stoopball but I guess they stopped making decent stoops a long time ago, especially here in the NJ burbs. Forget stickball too, no schoolyards, (all the schools have 'fields' where soccer is the game - ugh pls!) no sewer covers in the middle of the street and no parked cars to use as bases (although we used to mostly play automatic hits on old E 5th). No big cement walls to play handball either. And even if you can find a sidewalk out here, the boxes are way too small. So I taught them punchball and hit the coin and good old catch. So my sons just humored good old dad for a while as I tried to pass along a little bit of my own childhood to them. I felt so good remembering all the fun times I had enjoyed, but I couldn't help but feel disappointed that they didn't really care. Maybe someday they will know how I felt as they try to show their sons the "joys of video games" and their kids eyes just roll because they would rather be doing something else.

PS - I remember Kenny's son. He lived on E 4th with his sister after their parents died, and he would slowly walk up and down the block chain smoking cigarettes all the way to the filter which made his fingers yellow! Thanks Ron and Happy New Year all!