For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

Handball Days


by Ken Davidoff

C

lose your eyes. Relax. Think of the place in your life that gave you your warmestchildhood memories, the place that brings a smile to your face as you remember the time when you were young. Lincoln Terrace Park in Brooklyn was that place for me.

My father, Max, was a handball player. He worked as a foreman in a hot, noisy, smelly and polluted factory. He hated his job, and the thing that kept him sane, aside from his family, was playing one-wall handball. After World War II ended, on Saturday and Sunday mornings he would wheel me in my carriage to a park on Lafayette Street, and together with friends would lift me and my carriage over a ten foot fence and then play ball for the morning.

I guess he outgrew Lafayette Avenue because my earliest handball memories are of Lincoln Terrace. The park is located in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. It encompasses one giant square block (equivalent to five or six normal city blocks) of greenery and athletic facilitates for basketball, softball, baseball, and tennis. My heart glows when I look back to the late 1940's and early 1950's.

I remember my dad and I taking the Summer Avenue bus from Vernon Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant to the St. John's bus stop. From there we would walk to Eastern Parkway, and look down at the park from the hill above. The courts were located at the bottom of the hill. There were two ways to get to the bottom. My dad would take the direct route, and I would take the winding path through the trees, as we raced to see who would get to the entrance first. We would run the same race every Saturday and every Sunday, and as I grew older and faster the results of the race were always the same. I always lost by a step. I could not figure out how I continued to lose all those races for all those years. I came out second more than Howie Eisenberg.

The entrance to the athletic facilities were the reward for the race. We entered these facilities through the softball field. It was a huge expanse of concrete, with two diamonds placed on opposite ends. What games! The war had ended and baseball was king. All the ex-soldiers from all over Brooklyn, the best softball players around, would come to the park for pick up games. The men would get there early in the morning chip in for a ball, and play seven innings of hard- fought softball for five dollars a man. There would be lineups for teams that wanted to play winners. Occasionally heathens from the Bronx would come down and play the locals for a lot more than five dollars per man. They were great games.

But this is a handball story.

Adjacent to the softball fields were the handball courts. These courts were located on two levels. The lower level had six courts. The upper level had eight. I started playing in 1950 at age eight. Handball was king in Lincoln Terrace then. My dad and I would start our race at eight in the morning. Most of the courts played "winner stayed on". There were so many players at that time that if you arrived the park after eight-thirty you might have to wait an hour or two to play - and there were fourteen courts.

A form of class distinction ruled the courts. The upper courts were, by and large, inhabited by purists, those who played for the love of the game. They would play and yell and scream at each other for the opportunity to play and not sit out. The lower courts, were usually inhabited by those of us who yelled and screamed at each other for the love of the game - and the few dollars that were wagered by those playing and the hundreds of spectators who would watch. The upper level guys looked down on the lower level guys as gamblers. We would look up to the upper level guys as sissies (I use "we" because I became a lower level guy).

The lower level guys were the Who's Who of handball in the early fifties: Moe Orenstein, Vic Hershdowitz, Lefty Kirzner, Fred Rooke , Ted Russell, Sam Bienstock, Crazy Red Kravitz, Al Goldstein, and a throng of lesser lights.

Most of the action for the lower guys would take place on two courts. In the morning one court would be the primary court. The court was selected to take advantage of the morning sun. In the afternoon the other side of the wall would be used to take advantage of the afternoon sun. The adjacent court sharing the same wall was useless. The main court drew hundreds of spectators and these people surrounded the court and overflowed to the adjacent court. Every Saturday and every Sunday from age eight to about eighteen was spent with my dad watching and playing. I loved it.

I remember one time when I must was about eleven years old, I was on Christmas break. It was fifteen degrees or so, and I had the urge to play. My mom gave me money for the bus fare and an egg salad sandwich and off I went to the park. It was a half hour ride form my home, and I joyously got off at the St. John's stop. I ran in the cold directly to the courts (there was nobody to race that day), and to my dismay there was nobody there. Have you ever wanted to play so badly and there was nobody to play? I was so disappointed. Where could everybody be? It was not snowing or raining. Didn't everybody love to play as much as I did? How could they not? Dejectedly, I went home.

Let me tell you about how the action on the lower level courts went. We would arrive about eight AM on the weekend. All the men would be congregated on the morning main court negotiating games to play. Moey might say, "I'll play with Sam, you play with Vic, and I'll bet you twenty-file dollars." Sam might say, "OK, but you spot me three and up." To which Moey might reply, "We'll give you three, but we get to serve." These negotiations would go on in a few different caucuses until one set of negotiators came to an agreed upon game. A referee would appointed, bets made among the spectators themselves and then the game began. A wager was twenty-file dollars with hundreds more bet by the spectators on the "outside". The games were hard fought and exciting. Every game was like the finals of a tournament, and while the game was being played, other men were negotiating to play the next game of the day. This went on all day. When the morning crew left the process would begin with the afternoon crew. The action was the same with a different cast of characters.

As for me, sometimes I would watch and sometimes I would play. But mostly I would play. At first I would play pink ball. We kids used a pink "Spaldeen". It was a ball the size of a tennis ball, but without the fuzz, and much more lively. We didn't play for money when I was eight. We were relegated to one court and we had to win to stay on. I hated to lose because once you lost you sat, and sat, and sat.

The first money game I played in was when I was eleven or so. I was still playing with the pink ball. There were some older guys who played only pink ball and my dad arranged a game on a side court. I played Abie the Goniff's left hand. I think my dad bet about two dollars on the game. It was exciting and I remember being extremely nervous. Abie beat me. He was obviously bigger and stronger than I was and he "blocked" quite well. He beat me the next time we played as well, but he never beat me after that. I told you I hated to lose

For the summer of my thirteenth year, my dad saved some money. My mom, brother and I stayed at a bungalow colony in the upstate New York countryside as a respite from the oppressive New York heat and humidity. Every Friday my dad would come up for the weekend and leave for the city on Sunday. There was no handball. We got home in September and the first place I went to was Lincoln Terrace. The courts looked so odd.

Each September Irving Earlich, founder of the Brownsville Handball Club, would sponsor a Lincoln Terrace tournament. There was a blackball division, a woman's division , a pink ball division, and two junior divisions, one under sixteen, and one thirteen and under. This was quite an event in the park. I entered the under thirteen as favorite to win. I sailed to the finals and was set to play my friend Richie Levine in the finals. He could not make the finals on the weekend, so I agreed to take the bus and meet him at five pm after school. We were to play one twenty-five point game. Now I don't want to use the fact that I had not played all summer as an excuse, but Richie beat me by a point or two. My dad got there just as the game ended.. I cried at eight years old when my cousin died, again at twenty-eight when another of my cousins died, and I cried when Richie beat me. I never again lost to anyone younger than I was me until I was over the hill. And that was to another Levine named Mark.

We had our share of characters at Lincoln Terrace. The most pitiful was Goldie. Goldie owned a grocery store near the park. He worked long hours, but always managed to get his handball in. He was a gambler. He would bet on whether the sun would come up in the morning or set in the evening. Action was his thing. And the lower level guys obliged. Handicapping was the thing, and Goldie always overrated himself. He would arrange a game and make bets with his opponents and many of the spectators on the result of the game. He must have had hundreds of dollars bet on the games he played in. And he must have lost eighty percent of the games he played. After a game there was a lineup of people collecting. When he ran out of money credit was given and the lineup would start the second he showed up the next day.

I was thirteen years old the first time I played against Goldie. The game took place at the Brownsville Boys Club. During the summer we played there on Wednesday evenings because they had outdoor lighting and Lincoln Terrace did not. My father arranged the game. Goldie and Irving Ehrlich played my dad and I and spotted us three and up. We won a close game, but played a rematch without a spot and lost. The lower level guys always deferred to Goldie when it came time to get on a court.

I remember the next Saturday we got to Lincoln Terrace. Goldie came over to my dad. He wanted to play a rematch with Irving. We obliged, and beat them twice that day. That weekend I became a full-fledged lower level guy.

From that day on, every weekend, it would be my dad and I against Goldie and someone. First it was Irving, then Billy Bracy, then Steve Sneakers, or Jordan. I was getting bigger and stronger and Goldie would always pick a partner just a tad weaker than he should have, spotting us just a point or two too much, or wanting a spot that was just a little too small. He could not get his mind to account for the fact that each week I was a little better, and so he lost.

For a while Goldie did not come around. He was losing so much money that the inventory in his grocery store was depleted, and he did not have any money to bet or to pay off the bets from the weekend before.

Some years later, after a bad back forced me to give up handball for paddleball, I ran into Goldie's son. He told me that Goldie had died of a heart attack. I felt awful about it. He was only about fifty-five when he passed away. I felt that I had helped contribute to his early death.

As the fifties came to an end, the glory days of the park began to fade. All the men who came back from the war were approaching their forties, the neighborhood where the park was located was changing, and a lot of people were moving to the suburbs. There was still a small core of lower level guys so that there were competitive games in the morning, but there were not enough guys to fill up the afternoon. So I started to play with the Spaldeeen against the pink ball crowd in the afternoon. There was Duke and Ruby (they came as a set), Sheldon Shadrack, Danny DeLoach, Seymour, Abie the Goniff, Stein, Whitey, and Dave. There was not as much bet on these games and the crowds that watched were not as big, but the games were very competitive. Sometimes we would be invaded by the guys from Katonah Park in, you should pardon the expression, the Bronx. Manny and Andy were really top players. Once they came and played Moe Orenstein and Crazy Red Kravitz. I can't remember who won, but I remember it was close. Later on Abie the Goniff and I played them and they were very competitive. I want to go on record as saying that Abie the Goniff was one of the greatest competitors ever.

The neighborhood really became quite violent in the early sixties, and the remnants of the lower level guys scattered to different parks. Some of us went to Avenue P, some to the Municipal Courts in Coney Island, and some to local neighborhood parks.

Once in a while I drive to Eastern Parkway and Buffalo Avenue and look through the softball field to the handball courts. They are empty now. There are neither upper level guys or lower level guys playing. It's enough to make a grown man cry.




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