For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
here is sweetness to the sound of a broomstick hitting a Spalding, a sound we all knew. The stickball sound. In my heart, there was no greater ego-filling, muscle vibration and sound than a stickball bat ripping into a Spaulding and sending it like a space traveler into the Brooklyn air. Before the tremors of the hit left your body you could see the tiny pink ball heading far out onto Fort Hamilton Parkway. At least two sewers. Two sewers meant you had a hit a ball almost the length of a city block. However there were a couple of human specks stationed on Fort Hamilton Parkway that could go and "get ‘em" like Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Specks like Carrots Williams. They said of Willie Mays' glove it was where triples went to die. With Carrots, it was where two sewer blasts of a sure home run disappeared into his hands and out of your heart. You never wanted to look out there and see Carrots playing center field.
My childhood was in the midst of the Great Depression. A young comedian would say later on he thought the Great Depression was all of America staying in bed all day and watching TV. Another quip said today's kids wear helmets to play chess. When you look at some of the protective gear on kids that roller blade, I think they might easily survive a fall from a six-story building. We had no protective gear because it cost money. And skinned knees, twisted ankles and fat lips were all part of the dues you paid to play on the streets of Brooklyn.
The depression imposed rules of its own. Nothing could cost anything, especially if it had to do with playing games. The number of street games were limitless. I doubt if they have ever been cataloged. I can remember street games with a ball included box-ball, punchball, handball, war (you got to hit your opponent with the ball a lot), stoop ball and curb ball to name a few.
But stickball was king. It marked you where you stood in the neighborhood, kind of like a grizzly bear marking a tree to show other bears how big he is. Stickball marked you by how quickly you were picked when you got around to "choosin' up sides." There was an arcane ritual that preceded each game. The stickball bat was the magic wand. You would throw it to an opponent, who caught it and held it with his fist in front of him. You placed your grip on top of his, and so on up the bat in turn until there hardly any broomstick was showing. That done, the player with the last turn would grip what little wood showed and would proceeded to circle it around his heard three times. If successful, the twirler got to pick first. Drop it and you went last.
One of the profound mysteries of the universe was the realization that a particular day in spring would be the first day of the stickball season. You woke up on a day late March or early April, put your feet on the floor and your body told you, "Stickball starts today." It was not just one kid, but every kid in Brooklyn who played. We all knew that day. When you got to school "Stickball " was the joyful shout. We all knew.
There were many magical moments in stickball. For example, have you ever seen it rain on one side of the street in the summer and not on the other? Playing stickball in the summer brought those kinds of sights. Rainbows so close you could almost touch them. When the rain came down, a pleasant woodsy smell came off the street. And if it had been hot enough, wisps of steam would drift skyward from the asphalt.
Unwritten but known by all was the exact spot for "home plate." From that eternal spot first base, second base and third took their proper positions. Those measurements were the same the length and breadth of Brooklyn.
As I got older (maybe eleven) I got to be a "first to be picked." A badge of honor. I could play center field and hit a Spalding as far as anyone could. With all the sports I played over my years, from golf, to football, basketball and even boxing, I don't think my star glowed as brightly as it did in a stickball game. If your stickball skills were recognized it brought you to a special place. We always played on East Third Street, between Caton Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway. Walking onto that block I became faster and stronger. I was "first to be picked."
The stickball bat was a broomstick. A very precious item in those days. You would wait until one of your mother's brooms had been used so much the straw had all but disappeared. Brooklyn mothers knew value of such an implement. My mother would throw in extra chores when I started to covet one of her brooms. Once you had your hands on your broomstick, the ritual of preparing it for play was the same all over Brooklyn. You plucked every bit of evidence of straw from the stick. If sandpaper was available, you rubbed it down. Without sandpaper, the edge of a cement stoop would do. The most important step was applying electric tape to the handle to improve the grip. You hefted it. Took a couple of practice swings. Carved your initials in it and the bat became a magic wand.
Now the ball, the Spalding or the "Spaldeen" as we knew it, was a very special ball. Pink, with a seam that showed it was made in two parts, it bounced higher than your ordinary rubber ball. There would be an audible ping when you hit it. When it bounced, it seemed to gain speed.
There were many batting arrangements in stickball. You could hit it "outta your hand," like a fungo bat or have a pitcher throw it on a bounce to the batter in "pitchin in". Here the marvels of the Spalding were magnified. With a flip of your fingers you could make it bounce left or right or straight up in the air. You could throw it so it hardly bounced at all. At bat, you watched the pitcher's hand, very much like you do in baseball. You could tell which way it was going to bounce by the way the ball was released. Sometimes the ball was hit so hard it split at the seams and the two halves would sail into the summer air. This was usually a game-ending event. Nobody had two Spaldings.
Certain local rules applied. For example, we had a "Lapp Line". Teddy Faaland, before the creation of the Lapp Line would run halfway to first before swinging at the ball. The first baseman never had a chance. Teddy was about ten feet from him when he took a full swing at the ball. Hit or not, the first baseman was always found flat on his stomach covering his face. The "rules committee" had seen enough. Other players were imitating Teddy's unusual swing. It would not be long before the first baseman would be caught in the back wash and struck in the head or face. The Lapp Line was painted white, six inches wide and five foot long and about two strides from home plate. That was as far as a batter could go. Step over it and you were out. We called it the Lapp Line in honor of Teddy's Norwegian lineage.
There were also some local ground rules to be adhered to. East Third Street was flanked on the third base side by Immaculate Heart of Mary grammar school. Around the school was a wrought iron fence about eight feet tall with points on the top. Hit a ball into this part of the school's property and you were out. You also had to scale that fence. There was always one breathtaking moment when the climber would straddle that fence with the points ready to turn him into a soprano. Once he was over, there was always a collective sigh. Down the right field line was an empty lot and the back of the five-story walk-ups that lined Fort Hamilton Parkway. Hit the wall inside the drainage pipe and it was fair. Outside or on the roof was an automatic out. You also had to climb the five flights of stairs to the roof to retrieve the ball.
All games were seven innings. There was a painted scoreboard right by home plate. Scoring was simple enough with one wrinkle. If you had five consecutive scoreless innings, you lost the game. To record each scoreless inning a letter not a zero was put in the box. You started with an "L" and ended with an "N". It spelled "Lemon." That would give your young ego a soul scar.
There were two unforgettable stickball players. One was Pop Fearon. Pop was a guy in his late fifties who worked for Con Ed. He would show up during the summer and like any other kid, he would stand there and wait to be picked. We all welcomed Pop, but not so much for his stickball ability. His daughter Joanie was starting to develop breasts, and she came and watched her father play. She would sit on the curb with her budding womanhood and created a tsunami of impure thoughts that washed over the prepubescent eleven and twelve-year-olds gathered to play stickball. I closed my eyes many a summer night thinking of Joanie Fearon.
The other stickball player was Dutch Murphy. What made Dutch unforgettable? Dutch was legally blind. Gerry Murphy, Dutch's brother, would bring him to the games. Dutch kept asking to play. After a conference of the rules committee, we worked out a way a completely blind person could play stickball. We stationed Dutch on first base. The third baseman would field a grounder and throw it at Dutch. Dutch would cover his eyes and his crotch. If the ball hit Dutch before the base runner arrived at first base he was out. When it came Dutch's time to bat, the team's best batter would hit for him. Dutch lined up to the right of the batter would dash for first base at the sound of a hit. The opposing first baseman was obliged to yell "Dutch" so he could "see" the base. Gerry Murphy was killed landing on Omaha Beach, D Day, June 6, 1944. Dutch graduated from the Brooklyn School for the Blind, earned a journalism degree at City College and was a reporter for the Kansas City Star. But his greatest achievement was being Brooklyn's only blind stickball player.
Some forty years after we left Brooklyn, my brother Frank went back to the neighborhood. On East Third Street there was a stickball game in progress. It wasn't Irish and Italian kids. It was Black kids and Puerto Rican kids. My brother asked them what the painted white line was for. "Hey man, that's the Lapp Line," they answered. Stickball is eternal.