Saturday, September 07, 2013

Slapball

I've been very fortunate in that most of my life I've had a best friend.  Growing up, it was David.  He lived diagonally across from me.  Both our houses faced 56th Avenue.  His was on 211th Street.  Mine was on 212th Street.  There was one big difference between the two places.   My house had a one car attached  garage and the driveway was rather steeply sloped, good for when we got the sleds out in the winter, but not for much else.  The garage at David's house was a separate structure, for two cars, and the driveway was flat.  It became part of our infield.  (As I'm thinking back on this, I know that 56th Avenue itself was on a hill, with a base near Oceania Street to the west and rising till 214th Street to the east.  Now I'm wondering whether the driveway at David's house really was flat or if it was at the same grade as that hill.)

We moved to Bayside in 1959.  That first year I attended a private nursery school, Flushing Progressive.  I believe I had gone there a year earlier as well, when we lived in an apartment on Parsons Boulevard.  I carried a mark from that earlier experience, a blackened tooth that resulted from some kid whom I was playing with slamming me into an elevator door. Luckily, that was a baby tooth.  There was no carry over after it fell out and the adult tooth appeared in its place.

My parents probably kept sending me to that school because it was where I knew people.  The teachers had worked patiently with me on my fine motor skills.  Lunch was served downstairs but you had to carry it on a tray upstairs to where we ate.  I couldn't do it at first.  I kept spilling the food or dropping the tray altogether.  In this case, slow and steady won the race.  I still have my report cards from Flushing Progressive.  They indicate I had a gentle disposition while working through "my problem."  It's hard to tell cause from effect here, but surely this was a hugely formative experience not of the academic kind. 

There were other reasons to continue at Flushing Progressive.  My dad took the Subway to work and the school wasn't too far from the last stop on the number 7 IRT line.  Further, my mom played tennis at Kissena Park and it was not too far from that.  Then, too, it was an all day deal, while Kindergarten at Public School was only half day.  So it was daycare before there was something called daycare.

I did have a good friend from Flushing Progressive, Wendy.  I will always associate her with the candy Pez and the TV show Fury.  At school during playtime I would get on all fours and Wendy would ride on my back, just like in the show.  She came over to my house once and I have a distinct memory of us being in the candy store on the corner of 48th Avenue and Bell Boulevard, where we got the Pez with the fun dispensers.

Friendships like that don't survive a school change, especially when it takes a car ride to get the kids together.  For first grade I went to P.S. 31.  I needed some new friends.  Not one to take the initiative at that young age, I recall my mother bringing me to Steven's house, where he and David were playing.  Steven lived 5 houses in from 56th Avenue on 211th Street.  I recall going upstairs where the kids were playing, perhaps with Mr. Potato Head.  I must have seemed an intruder at first, but we soon were playing well together.  Sometime later (perhaps years, it's hard to pinpoint through this sort of recollection) we would play with those plastic toy soldiers that preceded GI Joe, making up stories of the battles they were in.  And I have some vague memory that we also played with Mr. Machine.

The next year a new elementary school opened up, P.S. 203.  One of the boundaries for which school to attend was 56th Avenue.  So David continued to go to P.S. 31 while Steven and I went to 203.  It's funny how this worked out.  For five years my friendship with David was based on play only, not on school.  As kids, that's the way it should be.  We became very close.  We spent our afternoons together, at one house or the other, or outside playing ball.

I don't know when we started to play slapball, but I'm quite sure it was David's older brother, Lesley, who taught us and who made up the ground rules, of which there were many.  There were only 3 bases.  The pitcher stood in the street, but near the driveway and pitched diagonally to home plate.  A Pensie Pinkie (not a Spaldeen) was used and it had to bounce once before the batter would take a slap at it.  The three bases together formed a scalene right triangle.  First and third base  (there was no second base) were on the "mall" that divided the westbound part of 56th Avenue, that formed the rest of our infield, from the eastbound part of 56th Avenue, that was part of the outfield.  The mall had a curb around it and was raised a short step above the street.  The pitcher's mound was approximately on the same line as the path from third to home.

If a slapped ball reached the mall or beyond on a fly that was an out.  This was a game that encouraged you to hit a hard grounder or low line drive.  The game could be played with between four to six people.  On defense there needed to be a first baseman in addition to the pitcher.  If there was a third player, that person played shortstop/third base.  In real baseball or softball, that's where the best athlete plays.  In slapball, however, that position was like being told to play the outfield when the kids couldn't hit it out of the infield.  Mostly what that position did was to chase the ball when it got through the infield.

There were assorted obstacles in chasing down the ball.  The mall itself was used by many to walk their dogs.  So you had to watch out for the dog poop.  Then there might be a car coming on the eastbound side of 56th Avenue.  When that happened, somebody might shout out

Car, car
c-a-r
Stick em in the ashcan two by two. 

At that point, play would temporarily stop.  It resumed after the car passed.  The other obstacle to encounter happened if the ball made it all the way to the lawn on the other side of the street. We were afraid of the old lady who lived in that house.  She very well might yell at you.  "Get off the lawn!"  So we hoped she wasn't watching us.  Even then, we'd dart for the ball and return to safety as quickly as we could.  There was a fairly large tree in the mall.  You couldn't throw the ball back in until you had cleared enough of the branches.  So a ball that made it through to the old lady's lawn had a fair chance of becoming a home run.  For this reason, our rule was that if after the relay the ball reached the garage before the person rounding third arrived a home plate, the person would have to go back to third.  Likewise, in a bases loaded situation, having the ball hit the garage before the runner on third made it home was a force out.

In the beginning, Lesley (who was at least five years older than David) was the designated pitcher.  He acted kind of like a benign camp counselor.  He taught us the skills we needed to make it a game.  And gave us nicknames to personalize the experience.  Mine was lannabase.  You can see where that came from.  David's sister, Julia, was soolie.  David was either sophol or darmus.  I never figured out the origins of those.

Eventually we got skilled enough where there was no designated pitcher and we took turns doing that.  I liked to deliver a curve ball.  I'd make a circle with my thumb and middle finger. Then the Pensie Pinkie would be inserted and my index finger would help to make sure the ball didn't fall out of its hole.  As I would make a gentle throwing motion aiming to bounce the ball, I would flick my middle finger.  That imparted spin on the ball.  It wouldn't fool the batter.  There was plenty of time for the person at the plate to adjust to the direction of the ball.  But by making the ball come in at more of an angle, there was a tendency for the batter to pull the ball, either hitting it foul or at the pitcher.  I was not a great fielder.   If the ball was hit a few steps to my left with any pace on it whatsoever, it almost surely would get by me.  So I looked for any trick I could find to have the ball be hit right at me. 

David was always a better athlete, with good hand-eye coordination.  He was much earlier at being able to catch the ball with one hand.  I relied on both hands and even then made plenty of errors.  Much of this must have been due to gifts of nature.   But there was another factor too.  Around the time that President Kennedy got shot, I got my first pair of glasses.  It was nighttime when I got them and I remember the various lights along the highway seeming so much sharper than they had been previously.  It's hard to catch a ball when you can't detect its flight until it's almost upon you. 

Slapball was our favorite game, but there were other ball games too, especially useful if we didn't have four players.  With three we might play roly poly.  One person would bat and fungo the ball (still a Pensie Pinkie) to the other two who were in the "outfield".  This game was played entirely in the street on the westbound part of 56th Avenue.  The batter stood in front of David's house.  The outfielders stood up the hill closer to 212th Street.  If one of the fielders caught the ball on a fly it would be that person's turn to bat.  If the person got the ball only after it had already hit the ground, then the person had a different chance.  The batter laid the bat in the middle of the road, it's length in the direction between David's house and the old lady's house.  The fielder would roll the ball down the hill attempting to have it hit the bat.  If it did (which happened only rarely) and if the batter didn't catch the rebound on the fly then the fielder would become the new batter.  Otherwise the batter would take another turn fungoing the ball out and the process would repeat.

If it were only David and me, we might then play stoopball.  We played that at my house instead because that had better steps, which had sharp angles instead of rounded edges.  If you got a "pointer," where the ball hit the sharp edge squarely,  it would travel quite far.  That's how you'd get a home run.  Sometimes we'd use an old tennis ball for stoopball because we didn't have a Pensie Pinke.  The tennis ball was a bit firmer, which mattered most because sometimes the ball would bounce off the step and instead of ricocheting back into the field of play it would continue on its original path and hit the house.  Once or twice I broke the outside light above the front door that way.  My dad was none too pleased by that. 

I did participate in more organized sports, mostly in summer camp where softball was the game of choice for the first few years and then basketball became preferred later on.  David and I both did little league during the spring of sixth grade.  He made the "Majors."  I only made it to "Triple A."  The more organized ball was fun too, but it required adults and had to be planned in advance, done on a schedule.  Slapball was something we did spontaneously when we wanted to.  There's something good about having kids control their own game playing.

Further, it was cheap and remarkably safe.  You'd think playing in the street would carry risks with it, particularly from automobiles, but kids become more aware of their environment that way and make adjustments to mitigate the risk.  Learning to throw and catch a ball soft enough that you don't need a glove is a real plus.  And the entry level skill you need to start playing is pretty minimal.  The first time I had a real hardball catch with a kid at summer camp, I mistakenly put my right hand in front of my glove and the split the nail on my middle finger.  Klutzy kids will have their bumps and bruises as they learn to play ball.  Some of those early accidents might end up blocking further learning.  There was no such risk with slapball. 

And it taught a kind of approach where winning mattered but it surely wasn't the only thing.  After the game David and I would always have fun, giggling a lot and doing a lot of silly kid stuff.  There was a balance in the total picture that seems to me to be missing now.  I wonder if we can ever get that back. 

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