Tuesday, April 10, 2012

We Had a Ball

For anyone too young to remember, the "Spaldeen" from this blog's title was a pink, high bouncing ball used for so many street games of the 1950s. They cost around 15 cents; cheaper imitations could be had for a dime but no self-respecting boy would even think of saving the nickel. That's really saying a lot because in those days, a nickel could buy a Coke, an ice pop or a Three Musketeers bar too big to eat in one shot. If we had no money, a quick trip to a neighborhood roof would usually yield some Spaldeens hit up there during  stickball games. (Can you imagine a modern-day child going to such lengths for a weather-beaten rubber ball?) But the Spaldeen was highly prized in our circles. It could turn a slow summer afternoon into one filled with shouts and excitement.


The beauty of Spaldeen-based games is that they could be played by anywhere from one kid to a dozen or more. There might be other equipment like a bat involved, but most games required only the ball. The rules for all games were simple, but our street code of honor demanded they be strictly enforced. A kid unwilling to play by the rules often found himself on the sidelines when we chose up sides for the games. Interestingly, although some kids were more talented players than others, everybody got into the game. As long as the weak players were equally distributed between the two teams, it was no harm, no foul. If another group came along after a game was already in progress, they had the right to challenge winners for the next game. We worked this out for ourselves with no adult supervision. Differences were settled with a quick game of odd or even fingers. "Once, twice, three, shoot!" Problem solved.


Solo Spaldeen games included my favorite, stoop ball, where a ball was thrown against the steps of a stoop and points accumulated based on whether it bounced after hitting the stoop or flew back to you on the fly. If you were in the park, a game of solo handball against the wall was an option. Girls played Jacks or a game where they bounced the ball repeatedly while lifting a leg over the ball and reciting one of the rhymes that accompanied the game. For example: "A my name is Anna and my husband's name is Al. We come from Alabama and we sell apples." The point of the game was to make it as far through the alphabet as possible without stopping or allowing the ball to get away. These were easy, fun games that amused us when, on those rare occasions, there was no one else to play with. 


Group games included the well-known stickball, where parked cars and manhole covers served as bases. There were two common versions of the game, one where the batter bounced the ball himself before hitting it, and another where the ball was pitched in on a bounce. If there were only two players, we used a rectangle painted on a brick wall that represented the strike zone. One kid pitched and another hit. Balls pitched into the painted box that the batter didn't swing at were strikes; others were balls. Rules defined what batted balls were singles, doubles, triples and home runs. After three outs, the pitcher and batter switched places and the game went on. Variations included slap ball, triangle and punch ball...all played without a bat. There was also box ball, Chinese handball (a.k.a. Ace-King-Queen) off the point (don't ask) and a dozen other games.


One I remember fondly was simplicity itself; a game called "hit the stick". Two players would face each other with a wooden ice cream stick placed between them at a distance of maybe five feet. Each player took a turn trying to hit the stick with a bounced Spaldeen, and points would determine the winner. Sometimes for a challenge, we would use a penny, a much smaller target making for a more difficult game. This game sticks in my memory because it was one of the few games my father ever played with me. He wasn't the athletic type, but often on Sunday mornings after church, we'd have a game in front of the house until dinner was ready. My Dad always wore a suit and tie, and we made an odd couple playing ball on the sidewalk. He would encourage me and praise my skill, usually allowing me to beat him. Those were nice times.


I can't imagine my childhood without the Spaldeen and the joy it brought. My daughter bought me one recently, and the first thing I did was smell it. It had the same wonderful rubbery smell and was coated with a fine pink powder...both earmarks of the genuine article. It sits on my shelf now, a reminder of the days when I could run and jump with the best of them. These are the memories that fuel my Spaldeen Dreams.



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6 comments:

onecent said...

You bring back amazing memories of Brooklyn!!!!!!

The Whiner said...

Ah I bet you coud still beat the best of 'em at hit the penny. you need a Spaldeen for wii.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks onecent...always glad to hear from another Brooklynite.

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Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks Andy, you made my day.

John Conlin said...

I was just given a new Spalding version of the Spaldeen and while it is a rubber ball and the right size the balls we used in the city in the 50s and 60s seemed to have a much rougher feel and were great for gripping a curveball. This current version seems to be more like the Pensy Pinkies of the past.
Am I dreaming or does anyone agree