For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites


by Thomas Williams


huuwoook! The Spaldeen jumped off the broom handle bat. It was an egg-shaped pink blur when it took its first bounce. As it skipped along the concrete it seemed to pick up speed. It was a grounder. I bobbled it and couldn't hold on.

"Come on, catch the damn thing," Jimmy said.

"Men on first and second. No one out," Richie shouted as he walked from the batter's box and lofted the stickball bat to Paulie, who was next up.

I didn't feel bad about the error. It was a hard grounder and I was about fifty-five feet back from the batter that summer afternoon in the P.S. 56 schoolyard. Jimmy was pitching and I was the sole fielder.

I took a lot of comfort in the fact that I had seen Phil Rizutto bobble a Spaldeen grounder in the Yankee bullpen. Of all the Yankees in the early to mid-fifties, he had to be the nicest guy on the team. He always had time for kids, and he wasn't much bigger than most of us. It was a Saturday afternoon in the mid-fifties and the Scooter was spending more and more time in the Yankee bullpen in those days. We were sitting along the right field screen between the bullpen and the bleachers. Detroit was in town and the Yanks were out front early in the game. The Scooter was just on the other side of the screen and talking with the kids in the bleachers. Someone lobbed a Spaldeen over the screen and it bounced near the Scooter who grabbed it up. He bounced it a few times and then began throwing it against the far wall in the bullpen. No one was warming up so he had the whole wall to himself, and began throwing harder, and picking up the skipping grounders in his hands. Finally he bobbled one. Some of the Yankees kidded him about it. He laughed, threw the Spaldeen back over the screen to us, and said to one of the Yankee relief pitchers sprawled in a chair in the shade, "You ought to try it, it's tricky."

Truth was when I later played club and varsity baseball, I still tended to bobble hot grounders. My friend Billy was like a vacuum cleaner at shortstop, and I always envied his skill.

Anyhow, we used to play a lot of stickball in the P.S. 56 schoolyard. It was mostly two men on a team, pitcher and fielder. Sometimes we'd go to three men, with two fielders. Stickball was like spaghetti sauce, or gravy, as my friend Richie would call it. There were almost as many versions of the game as there are neighborhoods in the Bronx. But the basics were always the same - a Spalding and a sawed-off broom or mop handle. There was fast pitch, slow pitch, and slow pitch on a bounce. There was also fungo. There was running bases, usually sewer tops, in the street; there was no running bases with just plain hitting. In that version different markers designated single, double, triple, etc. It really had a lot to do with your neighborhood and where you were playing: in the street, in the schoolyard, or on a paved softball field in the park. We played mostly fast pitch against a wall in the schoolyard.

The pitcher was important, but the batter was more important. You didn't win with pitching, but with hitting. A strike box was painted on a wall. Some were basic, some were elaborate, with the whole strike zone divided into upper, lower corners, and right over the plated deignated with a bull's eye. The best strike box was on the Decatur Avenue side of the P.S. 56 schoolyard. It was on a very narrow cement column between two screened windows. The column was exactly as wide as the strike zone, so there was never an argument if the ball hit the screen mesh. You knew it wasn't a strike. At the bottom of that strike box was a point, or a small concrete ledge, so the only disputed pitches were high ones, but you rarely got caught looking at a high one. Like kids everywhere, we were all suckers for high ones . Later on, playing baseball, you could always tell guys who grew up playing stickball. They almost always went after high pitches, and until they learned from coaches, their swing was always for the upper deck, rather than just trying to meet the ball.

In stickball, grounders that got through were singles; pop flies that did not get caught were singles. Anything hitting below the second floor windows on the apartment across the street were singles. Second floor to bottom of fourth floor windows was a double. Fourth floor to the top of the fifth floor was a triple, and on or over the roof a home run. My friend Richie, of spaghetti sauce fame, hit lots of homers, as did a guy named Tony who later became a song writer with hit records and all. Richie kept his own stats in a note book. In 1956, when Mantle won the triple crown, Richie beat him by at least a dozen homers, never mind runs batted in.

One day, when I was pitching to Richie, I had him for about twenty minutes or so. I had a bunch of rubber bands in my chinos. (We didn't wear Levis because we weren't farmers.) I put a rubber band on the Spaldeen, and put my index finger along the rubber band and threw the Spaldeen like a slider . It really broke wide, right to left. Neither Ritchie, nor anyone else for that matter, could hit it. Trouble was that the rubber bands would sometimes come off when the ball hit the mesh screen. Someone eventually noticed the pile of rubber bands on the ground near the screen and my career as Whitey Ford soon ended. I was back to bobbling grounders. I did well with pop flies, though.

On the Hull Avenue side of the P.S. 56 schoolyard the stickball field was at the back of a softball field where the wall was, so there was lots of room. They still played fast pitch against the wall, but always two fielders, and different markers. A home run there was one hit over the fence at the far end of the schoolyard. That's where Tony the song writer was home run king. My man Richie always played on the Decatur side with the five-story apartment immediately across from the school yard as our marker, which brings me to the men in blue from the 52.

Now, Spaldeens coming off a stickball bat and traveling about a hundred feet through the air didn't break windows very often. They were too light to maintain a glass-breaking velocity after a hundred feet or so. Sewer balls would, though. Sewer balls were ones usually retrieved from the storm sewers that dotted curbs, mostly on street corners in the Bronx. You used a coat hanger fastened to, what else, a broom handle. The hanger was bent and shaped at the end to scoop up balls from the water. All you had to do was find a weight-lifter with strong fingers to pull up the sewer cover, and then you dipped away. Sewer balls became very hard and heavy after sitting in water for days or weeks. They were good for handball, but we used them for stickball too, when funds were tight. So occasionally windows were broken, but it was rare. Mostly windows were rattled. People were usually gone during the day, working downtown, but there were still moms at home, and the old folks who were always looking out their windows. Once in a while they'd call the 52nd Precinct.

In those days, the 52 was more or less a quiet house in the north Bronx. A number of the cops there seemed always close to retirement, and not into chasing kids in chinos and Converse high-tops, many of whom ran track at New York's Catholic high schools. Besides, they were nice guys who grew up playing stickball themselves. But every now and then....

"Hey slick, get over here," he shouted.

I never saw him coming. I was at bat and really concentrating. He was walking up the steps on Decatur and into the school yard. I took off like a shot, with the stickball bat still in my hand. Dumb move. He started to trot after me, but I was gone. I raced to the Hull Avenue entrance as a radio car was rounding 207th onto Hull. They had me in their sights. No wonder, I still had the stickball bat in my hand. I cut between some private homes on Hull and ducked into the basement of Tony the home run king and song writer. The basement door was locked, but I hid there for a while, and when I left, I left the bat behind. Sometimes it took me a while to catch on.

We stayed away from the school yard for a few days, but then we were back at it. But we were getting older. Funny thing, I can't remember now when I stopped playing stickball, but I did. High school sports took over, and if you had a job, too, that left little time for stickball. Besides, baseball was the real game. Everything, stickball, running track, lifting weights, was done for baseball; it was done to be a good ball player. Ball player didn't mean stickball, it meant baseball, like they played on River Avenue and 161st Street, where Phil Rizutto played. Every kid eleven to fifteen dreamed of trying to make it, but there was no stadium for stickball. Still, there was no better way to spend a summer afternoon in the north Bronx in the 1950s. And if you were to ask me, fast pitch against the wall was the only way to play it.

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