Dateline: College Point (Historical). We were prime-time Baby Boomers in densely populated Queens, New York, and there were certainly a lot of us. That didn’t mean that you could always count on enough boys to play a full game of baseball or football though, nor did it mean that you could always get one of the baseball diamonds. We were very adept at scaling down our favorite games to fit the number of boys that wanted to play, or the space that was available to us.
When school was out, or over for the day, many of us would take our baseball gloves and head for the park. As soon as our numbers reached critical mass, two boys would spontaneously take charge and we’d choose up a game. Baseball was our game of choice, and we had lots of options.
The main diamond in my town was very interesting, as in “the curse of interesting times.” The infield was very nice. It was full sized and laid with a heavy layer of real infield clay, and there was a half shell back-stop made of mesh fencing. But there were problems. Inside the bases were another set of bases for soft ball. These were in the area that had been grass, but now the spots for bases and the base paths connecting them were rough dirt. Not ideal for fielding ground balls. Many locals walked their dogs along the third base path, and there was always some dog shit over there, just outside the field. Since it was New York, broken glass could sneak up on you from out of the grass. So yeah, it was interesting.
The outfield barely stood muster. Center field was a considerable hill, rising pretty steeply from just outside the infield. Right field was dominated by a large tree, the branches of which began just off the ground. It was a great tree for climbing, but a mixed blessing in a baseball game. (Balls hit into the tree were considered to be “in play.” Local rules! As the ball made its way to the deck, pinball style, if a player caught the ball, it was an out.)
But like I say, many times we did not have enough boys to field whole teams. If there weren’t enough for full teams, we’d play that your own men pitched and caught. This livened up the game too, because your teammate would lay them in there so you could hit the ball. As our numbers went down, we might play only to the left field side. That way there was no need for a right fielder or a second baseman, so you’re down to five on a side. We played “Bunts” too, any ball that rolls out of the infield is an out. Three or four on a side was plenty for that. All of these games so far had full base running, with a player at all three bases.
Fewer boys than that could play “distance.” No bases, your own man pitches, and the limits for a single, double, triple or home run are just agreed upon. You still got to hit and field.
I generally avoided football. There were some full contact games played without pads or helmets, but I learned the hard lesson fast playing that. No thanks. Touch football was okay, even if I was lousy at it.
Four boys on a side street could play a nice game of touch football. You had your line of scrimmage, a quarterback, and one or two receivers. Decide on the location of the goal lines and you’re ready to go. The curbs are the sidelines. I played a few times when there were only two of us. You were the quarterback and the receiver, all in one. You had to toss the ball up in the air, cross the line of scrimmage, get past the other boy, and then catch your own toss. Thinking back on it now I wonder why we didn’t just have a catch with the football. Some of the boys were very competitive though, and nobody ever won a game of catch.
There was a lot of stick ball played. And handball, and the closely related box ball. Wasn’t there a version of box ball called diamond ball? Stoop ball, punch ball. What am I forgetting? Stick ball was the best of these, as I recall.
You could play stick ball with three boys all together. Three one-man teams, rotating from outfield to pitcher to batter. Four boys was better, two two-man teams. I don’t recall a lot of games larger than that. We always played in concrete school yards, just climb over the fence when school was not in session. I know that other neighborhoods played on streets, but I never saw that. You needed one or two rubber balls, preferably the good ones. They cost 25 cents, but they were worth it. Spauldings (Spawl-Deens) and Pensy Pinkies. The 10 cent balls were kind of dead. You needed some chalk too, the big kind. You marked out a box on a wall for the strike zone, and chalked a score card of some kind in the concrete. The stick was very important. An ordinary broom stick was acceptable, but really not thick or heavy enough. A commercial mop handle was best, and some of the boys had them. They were very durable, not like baseball bats. The bats were easy to break; the mop handles could last generations.
Stick ball, I can tell you, was an awful lot of work. All of that pitching would just plum wear you out, and there was a lot of chasing down balls. Many of us loved that game, in spite of it.
Oh, don’t wait for me to discuss basketball! I know almost nothing about the game. The only situation that could get me to play basketball was gym class in high school. Then at least you had an adult around that would prevent most of the horrible violence that I associate with basketball.
There were always pick-up games at the park, but after a few tries I stayed completely away. Those were always the biggest, strongest, most competitive boys, and often the toughest to boot. There were no adults to keep an eye on things, and the games were very rough and tumble. All assholes and elbows, and quite a few fights. So no thanks.
Unknown Games And Conclusion
We saw Puerto Ricans playing soccer sometimes, but we never tried it. I played volleyball a couple of times in gym class, but never in town and never for fun. Some of the rich kids played tennis, but I never did. Golf came later, with its shame and regret. What a horrible game.
We sure did love the games that we did play, though. We had a great time too. We played games that included a lot of throwing, catching, hitting and running, typical American games of the mid-twentieth-century. I had a big check-up last month that included an EKG, an echo-cardiogram, and a cardiac stress test, and the doctor told me although the blood pressure was a little bit high, all of the signs and rhythms were very good. “You have the heart of a race horse,” he told me. I was waiting for the gag line, but it never came. (“A very old, decrepit race horse.”) If that’s true, maybe I can thank all of that strenuous game playing when I was a boy. We played these games every day and often all day. Before school; at recess and lunch; after school; weekends; summers. Maybe it was good for something.