I had an OK childhood as a suburban kid. The exception was when my parents put me in organized sports. In Little League, I was a catcher – none of the other kids wanted to squat in the dirt, sweat and peer at the world through steel bars. One day when my team, the Tigers, played the Yankees, a Tiger parent sitting in the stands turned to the man next to him and said “They should pull that catcher. He’s had four passed balls in this inning alone!” My father turned and growled, “That’s my son you’re talking about!” Things got interesting in the stands that afternoon. I also had a short history in organized Youth Golden Gloves Boxing. My father saw boxing as an opportunity to butch me up. He was worried that I was putting my nose into books too much. I was worried about putting my nose in front of someone’s fist. The upshot of that experience was that I learned I had promise as a blood donor.
Unsupervised, I rode my bike and foraged for frogs and turtles in a nearby pond. But the most fun was when I had a glove, a baseball, a bat, and some pals, plus an open field. Our favorite game was “Indian Ball.” The batter would toss the ball up, hit it to the guys in the outfield, then drop the bat on the ground. The guy who fielded the ball would throw it in, aiming at the bat. If he hit it, he got to bat. Not rule-intensive.
Recently, after playing tennis with my friend Gary P, I mentioned Indian Ball to him. He lit up. “You want to talk about games? We played games when I was a kid!” A gritty city kid, Gary grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, where there were fewer open fields than Republicans in a soup kitchen. We’re talking wire fences, asphalt, and brick walls. Of course, looking at Gary in his Phillies ball cap, spotless white Tee and New Balance tennis shoes, I couldn’t picture Spanky from Our Gang.
“I was eight years old. For 5 cents you could buy a Spaldeen or a Pensy ball at the corner candy store,” he said. These were called “pinkies” and made of soft rubber. Pinkies were used to play handball, stoop ball, boxball, or stick ball. Stick ball was preferred, the bat made from a broomstick. It was played in the street with the ever-present possibility that first base would drive off in mid-game. A ball misshapen from battering by broomsticks and ricocheting off manhole covers and car fenders would be cut in half and used in a game called “halvsies” (“halfball” if you were from Boston). A kid would draw a chalk square on a wall and a batter would stand in front of the square and hack at pitches. If you lost your last halvsie ball and didn’t have 5 cents, you could cut a 4-inch chunk off Mrs. Murphy’s discarded garden hose that had been run over by a lawnmower and use it for … wait for it… ta-dum: “hoseball.” Finally, if you had a halvsie ball but had lost your broomstick, you could play “Asses Up.” When a boy lost a handball game the penalty was to bend over, face the wall, present his bum to a thrower 30 feet away. The thrower reared back and fired. In boy terms there was no downside. The thrower got to show off his marksmanship and the throwee got cred for not flinching. Female readers may find this incomprehensible.
As a suburban kid, I played marbles on dirt. My bag of marbles: cat’s eyes, clayies, steelies, micas, and agates. Clayies were made of clay, small and cheap, OK to lose to an opponent. Steelies were ball bearings. Micas were clear with flecks of color. One-color agates were prized as shooters. The best shooters were just the right size to fit into your fist between pointer finger and cocked thumb when you knuckled down outside the ring, drawing a bead on a target. Shooters were also called taws, poppers, thumpers, toebreakers, mashies. You get the idea.
What does a city kid do when asphalt is hard on the knuckles and expensive marbles might skitter down a street drain? In Gary P’s childhood Philadelphia the answer was “Deadbox.” To play, you first dumpster dove the neighbor’s trash, the lush who drank Rolling Rock beer by the case. You pushed aside banana peels and coffee grounds to dig out the bottle caps. You drew a large box on the sidewalk, with 12 small numbered squares inside the periphery and a bigger square with a skull and cross bones, the Deadbox, in the center. Competitors started at box number one and shot their way from box to box. To shoot, you placed the “beery cap” down, crinkled edge up, and flicked it. You could knock competitors’ beery caps out of the way, but if you wound up in the dreaded Deadbox you had to go back to the beginning. Some players removed the cork insert from the bottle cap and wedged in a penny, creating a “blaster” to knock the other kids’ beery caps out of the game and off the sidewalk. These kids grew up to be Mafia enforcers and Aldermen.
For his part, Gary P. grew up to be a fine example of the adult species, a model of the benefits of unsupervised play. My Life’s Editor says that I am an example of unsupervised play but leaves it at that.
NB: Readers who may want to dive a little deeper into street games should watch the “New York Street Games” 2010 documentary with Ray Romano, Whoopi Goldberg, Regis Philbin and others. Click on the YouTube trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6c-vAJqSsQ.