Brooklyn Boro

The greatest (stickball) game ever

November 18, 2022 William A. Gralnick
Share this:

During a lunchtime kibbitz session, the topic of stickball came up. This memory came to mind.

I was hooked from the first time I saw it. An 8th grader about the size of an NFL guard swung and hit this pink sphere (AKA ball known as a “spauldeen”) in a high arc. It flew over the schoolyard fence, over the street, and landed on the roof of the 5-story apartment house facing “right field.” Transfixed by that feat, it began my obsession with stickball – an obsession so long-lasting that many years later, I took my boys from Florida back to the schoolyard for one last game – and…keep reading.

Stickball was an anybody sport. A broom handle, a piece of chalk, and a “spaldeen” were needed, making the costs next to nothing. That was particularly true when the broom handle somehow “just disappeared” from a garage, and the chalk disappeared from a classroom, The ball cost was the major expense– a quarter. If you really wanted to go whole hog, electrical tape was wound around the “bat” handle. As grandma said, “The whole ball of wax.”

DAILY TOP BROOKLYN NEWS
News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Not familiar with the game? One drew a batter’s box on the school building wall and a plate beneath it on the ground. If two played, there was a pitcher and a batter. With three 3, add an outfielder. And much like baseball, the game was a mental duel between batter and pitcher.

Most games were won with a Wee Willie Keeler “hit ’em where they ain’t” strategy, and others with a mammoth homer. You immediately knew it was “gone” by the “thwack” produced by the bat hitting the ball. When hit solidly, the spaldeen compressed and trampolined off the bat.

Stickball could be organized with teams, but in my Flatbush neighborhood, it was mano a mano. It was all about bragging rights. And that’s what it came down to one fateful, late fall evening in the schoolyard of PS 217.

I can see my opponent, but I can’t remember his name. He lived near Prospect Park. We had met over the summer at a dude ranch in Peekskill and became friends. How? I went shopping with him one day, and we played football with the things we bought. I’d be twenty or thirty feet away. He’d throw a melon to me. Into the wagon, it would go. Frozen dinners were flying around the frozen foods aisle like frisbees. Stuff like that. To paraphrase David Letterman, they were “stupid boy tricks.” We also played some stickball. We developed a rivalry — another stupid boy trick.

One evening we walked down Westminster Road to the side entrance of 217, the last 8th-grade graduating school in the borough before the awful Junior High School system was adopted. The fence was locked. There’s no keeping a boy from a schoolyard. The fence may have been locked, but it also was cut. The shape of that cut was a giant beehive. Continually patching it became foolish, so the custodian left it unfixed as a gift, so to speak, to us kids.

We used the yard facing us because, with the buildings behind us, balls hit over the fence were retrievable. Hit one over the fence on the other side of the building, and it ended up in the middle of four-lane Coney Island Avenue, shortly to be hit by a passing car and knocked halfway to Coney Island. Even at only a quarter a pop, that became expensive.

Facing the fence was the red brick wall of the school. Heavy-duty iron grates covered the first-floor windows just above the batter’s box. Thus, there was no chance of getting a “gimme” strike call on a high ball. It hit the grate and ricocheted away. The grate was an umpire with whom you couldn’t argue.

Thus, the game began, not at high noon like at the O.K. Corral but at about 5 p.m. Few, if any kids, would be in the yard. He was a flame thrower. I was a junk pitcher — sneaky fast when needed, augmented by a fine curve ball. A “spaldeen” could turn someone with strong fingers into the Clem Labine of the neighborhood. You could put so much spin on it that it curved about 16 feet – well, not quite, but you get the idea.

My foe took the persona of Yankee’s power hitter Mickey Mantle. I was the Dodger’s scrabble ball hitter Pee Wee Reese.

In the first inning, I didn’t come close to catching up to his fastball. He looked like a corkscrew trying to hit my curve ball. And so it went for three or four of the first “regulation” seven innings. Why seven? No idea. Then lightning struck. I hung a curve, and he smacked it.

1-0.

Inning after inning progressed toward the fateful 7th. In the 7th, not-so-mighty Casey, me, came to bat. I patched together a few scratch hits to tie the score. Was fate on my side? That wasn’t apparent yet.

The 7th came and went. So did the 8th and the 9th. They were followed by the 10th, 11th, and 12th. It was Fall. The sun was setting, and it was getting chilly. It was also getting hard to see, creating a batter’s nightmare. The trash-talking became increasingly intense – and even if we had to play by the light of the green, deco-looking streetlights, this would not end in a tie.

There’s a reason why good baseball coaches don’t let kids throw curve balls until they are well into their teens. To throw a curve ball, the wrist is snapped to rotate the ball. This also rotates the forearm, which twists the bicep, which is attached to the shoulder. The constant torque could badly damage the arm.

Suffice it to say that by inning 13, my right forearm began to feel like hot lead was flowing through it and like it weighed more than my entire body. I went to the fastball, but it wasn’t fast enough, even if it was getting dark. He knocked it out of the park.

2-1.

Then one of those things happens, which causes a belief that God really does love you.

Having hit that not very fastball over the fence, he was working his mouth pretty well after that; all seemed lost. The cement under my feet began to turn into mud, and I began to sink into it. I could barely hold the bat, much less swing it. But swing it I did, and on the first pitch, I blooped one over his head.

Man on first – actually, imaginary man on imaginary first. Then I whiffed twice. Need I go on? Surely, I must, even though this is the stuff of sappy movies.

Down to my last out, and only able to see the ball because it was new and still very pink, I leaned into his fastball, and “Holy baseball, Batman!” I hit it.

“Thwack!”

The ball didn’t rise to great heights and disappear onto the roof; It had no majesty. Instead, it flew like a bullet shot from a rifle. A rising line drive, it barely cleared the fence and then bounced off the roof of a parked car. But a homer it was. We both watched in disbelief. It was 3-2.

As Tweety would say, “My doodness draycious.” I won and carry that triumph in my heart (or ego) to this day.

And my boys, remember them? I took them to Brooklyn. We played in the other yard, not facing any building. I wound up and threw my oldest, maybe 10, a high, hard one, or the kind of high hard one’s fathers throw to their 10-year-old sons. He smacked it. Hit it but good. Another rising line drive, it cleared the fence and bounced into Coney Island Avenue. Before automobile air conditioning was common, everyone drove with the windows down.

The ball? It hit the street and bounced — right through the open driver’s side window, onto the front seat of a passing Oldsmobile, whose owner kept it.

Gone forever — unlike the memory.


Leave a Comment


Leave a Comment