A major play activity for us, when weather permitted, was baseball or some variation thereof (stickball, punch ball, triangle). Baseball was king in my neighborhood, and everybody played. Other sports were kind of just coming into their own, but baseball was the national pastime and dominated our play schedule. We played in vacant lots where you had to pick the rocks and broken glass off the base paths before the game started. Usually pieces of wood or cardboard served as bases. Sometimes we got to play on cement playgrounds, and if we really hit the jackpot , on real grass and clay fields in Highland Park.
One nice thing about baseball is that it helped bridge the generations. Most of our fathers were baseball fans, and it was common for baseball to be a topic of discussion at the dinner table. Fathers played catch with sons to introduce them to the game. We could listen together to games on the radio ( or when TV entered our lives, watch them). Usually, being loyal sons, we rooted for the same teams as our fathers. If we got really lucky, our fathers would take us to see an occasional game; we had three local teams in New York then, the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants. My Dad and I were Yankee fans, so I endured the insults of most of my friends who were die hard Dodger fans. I was not popular around World Series time when the Dodger season was either over or they were about to get beaten again by the hated Yankees.
Most kids had some equipment such as gloves, balls and bats, and this was readily shared with kids who had none. It was common for a kid to leave his glove in the field when his team came in to bat so that the kid on the other team who played his position could use the same glove. If it wasn’t for tape, most of our equipment would have been in the trash. Balls, bats, and sometimes even gloves and sneakers were held together with adhesive or electrical tape. If we were lucky enough to get a new glove, we broke it in by soaking the pocket with linseed oil, putting in a baseball to shape the pocket, and wrapping the glove with rubber bands to sit for a few days. We had no uniforms, no coaches and no parents fighting with each other in the bleachers…come to think of it, no bleachers! All we had was a childlike passion for baseball.
We threw ourselves into the game with abandon. We chose up sides, settled disputes, and learned about fair play and how to practice it street style. Often we played until it was too dark to see the ball. Even when we weren’t playing, we talked baseball. We could recite the starting lineups of all three New York teams, we knew the current batting averages of the players on the team we rooted for, we even flipped and traded baseball picture cards. As I got older, I played CYO baseball for my grammar school team, and later varsity ball in high school.
Today, I’m lucky if I can watch an inning or two of my once beloved Yankees. The game just isn’t the same. Players have no team loyalty; they are hired guns playing for the highest bidder. The designated hitter rule changed the game for the worse. The final straw is the cheating; “icons” of the game like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez needed their pharmacists to help them excel. In the process, they tainted themselves and the game of baseball. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?