It was the baby boom generation after WW II and there were always enough kids around for a pick up game of baseball, football, or punch ball. But my favorite game was stoop ball. Stoop ball was one of the great street games of all time. Best played with the Pennsy Pinky, the liveliest and most costly rubber ball of the 50s and 60s, better even than the Spaldeen.
Best played one on one, before anyone else was out to play that day. All you needed was a “batter”, who was actually a thrower, and a “fielder”. You threw the ball against the stoop as hard you could and the fielder had to catch it. A grounder or pop fly caught cleanly was an out (we usually played two outs an inning instead of three). A hard hit grounder that got past the fielder was a single. A grounder or pop fly that was dropped by the fielder was also a single.
The real beauty of the game was getting an extra base hit. To do this you had to hit the point of the stoop. The Pennsy Pinky would go flying over the fielder’s head and land beyond a designated spot – maybe four cement slabs for a double, six for a triple, and eight for a homerun. What a skill, to be able to hit that point more than anyone else! What a feeling watching that ball sail way over the fielder’s head. I was too small to be any good at basketball and not really strong enough to hit a softball very far, but I was one of the best stoop ball players in my court.
My father was a good handball player, nimble and strong. In the 1950s, we would get up early every Sunday morning and he would take me to the park for hours to watch him play handball. Then we’d go back to the apartment and he would make salmon pancakes (salami and eggs were reserved for Saturday mornings). Nothing in the world tasted better than chopped canned salmon, mixed with an egg and matzoh meal, and deep fried in oil. I could easily eat six of them with orange juice and buttered pumpernickel bread.
Sometime during the 1960s, my father switched over to playing paddle ball, which became much more popular than handball in my neighborhood. Paddle ball, not to be confused with racquetball, is played exactly like handball except you use a wooden paddle instead of your hand. Even the little black handball is used, but the handball would break frequently because of the force of the paddle. Today, there are still paddle ball die-hards, but the sport’s popularity is limited to only a few neighborhoods around NYC.
I loved to play paddle ball and, during my twenties and early thirties, I was a really good player. I was fast and played great defense, but when I was “on”, I could also hit killer shots at will. A killer shot is when you hit the base of the cement wall and the ball doesn’t bounce back. It just dies and rolls along the ground. It was as satisfying as hitting the point of the stoop in stoop ball.
On the eight handball courts at the park, we also played stickball. We’d draw a rectangle on the wall, knee high to chest high, and you had pitch the ball into that box for a strike. At first, we used broom handles as bats, but later on, the candy stores would sell “official” stickball bats with black tape for grip. I was a good pitcher because I perfected a slow side arm curve ball that was difficult to hit fair. Rubber balls were easy to curve because they were soft and you could put lots of spin on them. But it was an expensive game because you inevitably lost lots of balls when they were fouled into the street and rolled into the sewers.
In the fall and winter months, we played tackle football, without equipment. We played wherever there was a large swath of grass in the housing project, but the maintenance men and police kept chasing us off the grass. Someone would yell “coppers”, and we’d scatter into nearby hiding places and then continue the game after the cops passed by. As we got older and heavier, we continued to play without equipment, but then someone always broke an arm or collarbone. We finally stopped at some point and switched to touch football. I enjoyed tackle much more because I was better at it. I wasn’t fast or tall enough to be good at touch, but I was a short, strong full back in tackle and could advance the ball with two or three guys hanging on my back.
One memorable football game we played was against an organized team called the “Undertakers” from another neighborhood near a cemetery. They were in an official league, had equipment and organized plays, and a group of linemen that averaged well over two hundred pounds. But we could not back down when they challenged us to a game. In order to play them, we had to borrow extra helmets from them. “Undertakers “was an appropriate name for their team. “Sadists” would have been better. They got their pleasure from jumping on and crushing their opponents after the plays were over.
We had no chance against these guys. When our quarterback went down with a broken collarbone and everyone else refused to play that position, I volunteered. We were losing 48-0 at the time and it would have been too humiliating to forfeit the game, so I took the ball. I had very little success. Then on one play, I told the fastest guy on the team to just do a fly pattern. I snapped the ball and with all these huge linemen barreling down on me I threw the ball as far as I could. Somehow, the ball was caught and run in for a touchdown. We ended up losing 48-7, but I was never so proud.