iving in the suburbs, my sons played ball on manicured fields, generally on organizedteams under adult supervision and coaching. My ballplaying days were spent on concrete, and we chose up games without a coach in sight. We had no uniforms or corporate sponsors. To play our week-end softball games, we each chipped in a quarter to buy two Clinchers which would serve for the rest of the day through several seven-inning games.
My Yankee stadium was P.S. 66 on Longfellow Avenue at the corner of Jennings Street, located in what was then called the East Bronx. The school to which it as attached was a K-6 school, and for several years served as an annex for James Monroe High School as well. The actual schoolyard bore little relation to the playing fields of Eton. It was an irregularly shaped playground, running east to west from home plate to left field, covering a distance of about 150 feet. Center field was a long, narrow alley, hemmed in by the sandwiching walls of the building. What passed for right field was 75 feet long,culminating in a second-floor roof. In fact, there was a two story roof in left center field as well. Because of these roofs, every game had to have an agile climber who could clamber up to the roof to retrieve balls which landed there. For that, we had Jimmy McKeever, a lanky scamperer whose agility kept our games going.
I began my career in the schoolyard shortly after the war when I was ten by watching the big guys, the GI’s who’d returned from the war, playing their big money games. To my prepubescent self, they had the same glamour as their counterparts playing at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. As I grew older and stronger, along with my friends, we were gradually allowed to play in these week-end softball games. They were choose-up affairs with two self-designated captains picking their teams. Anyone who has had the experience knows the pride of being an early pick and the humiliation of being the last guy chosen. On the other hand, it was a great lesson in life to learn that while others might be better athletes than you, you might excel in other ways. In short, it was a true meritocracy.
The games began early every Saturday morning, starting as soon as eighteen players were present. Money was collected for two softballs, sides were chosen up and the game began. It was generally slow-pitch with one swing per at-bat. Given the short left field fence, any ball hit over the fence was out. Because of the unique contours of the schoolyard, a ball hit toward second base often caromed off the wall and was in play. Whoever played second had to be adept at playing the bounce off the wall in order to make the play. Similarly, a ball could be caught for an out if caught on the carom off an outfield wall before it hit the ground. Later on, we graduated to fast pitch, two strikes softball, with a player from the team at bat standing behind the pitcher calling balls and strikes.
I had my own glove, a Bobby Doerr model, but, especially just after the war, many of the other guys did not, so gloves were borrowed when one team left the field to bat. To compound the problem, lefties would wear a right-handed mitt on their right hands, contorting the glove against its natural grain. A glove was to be oiled, cherished and lovingly cared for until it was broken in. Compared to present day gloves, our prehistoric mitts looked pathetically small.
Competition was keen because once the first game began, other players began drifting down to pick off the losers. If you lost, you had to sit for another seven inning game until it was your time to pick off the losers. We had our stars and our ordinaries and mediocrities as well. One of the stars, Dom Zanni, actually became a major league pitcher, but for most of us our glory days were spent on the P.S.66 concrete and other similar fields in the Bronx. Those other games were money games, games on which we bet a couple of dollars per man, played against other teams in other schoolyards in a kind of informal, unorganized league of schoolyard teams. Those were fast pitch games with regulation rules, except for the absence of base stealing. They were as fiercely contested as any Yankee-Red Sox game.
As summer turned to fall, our concrete diamond turned into a football field. Lacking yard markers, we’d count off ten concrete squares to indicate first down yardage. Played with six on a side, the game was touch football, but it was played with often bone jarring contact. We played a kind of freestyle, single wing football, with four linemen, two backs and everyone an eligible receiver. Unlike most two-hand touch games, we included punting and field goal attempts as well. If we could not get the requisite twelve needed for a game, we played a game we invented, appropriately called “Kicking.” The players involved would line up at either end of the schoolyard and the first player would either punt the football or placekick it using a tee or holder. The opposing team would have to either down or advance the ball until tagged. From the point at which the ball was downed, that team could either punt it or placekick or dropkick it for a field goal, using the center bars in the schoolyard fences as improvised goalposts. Kicking from east to west, a well driven placekick could shatter the Anderson windows on Longfellow Avenue, directly across the street. And these were Anderson windows, since Mrs. Anderson, the super, and her son lived in the first floor apartment. A kick from the east end landed on Boone Avenue, and if really propelled, landed across the street onto an empty sloped lot leading all the way down to Edgewater Road, now the site of the Sheridan Expressway. In those games, I was the poor man’s Lou Groza.
The Giants moved to San Francisco, following the Dodgers who left Brooklyn, both lured by the promise of greener financial pastures. My friends and I left the P.S.66 playing field a couple of years later, into the service, careers, marriage and fatherhood. My own sons played ball on glistening green fields decked out in imitation major league uniforms, but they missed the joys of a Saturday morning back in the Bronx hoping to be an early pick as two captains were choosing up sides.