When I was growing up in the late '40s and early '50s, a popular game played on the streets of Brooklyn was stickball. The game was played with a stick and a pink rubber ball.
Getting hold of a stick could present a problem, especially if you sawed off the handle of your mom's broom without telling her.
There were less troublesome ways to acquire sticks. Mrs. Gianelli, after hanging out her wet mop on the clothesline one evening, found only the mop head the next day.
We called the ball a "Spaldeen," and if you were fortunate enough to have 20 cents, there was no greater joy than walking down to Sarah's candy store and buying one of those pink beauties. We spent so much time squeezing and bouncing every ball that Sarah, losing patience, would threaten to throw us out.
Stickball was played similar to baseball. However, the ball was pitched to the batter on one bounce and the ground rules had to be modified according to street conditions. First base could be the fender of a parked car. Second base was the manhole cover in the middle of the street and, if we were lucky and found no obstacles, third base could be drawn in chalk next to the curb. The leftfield foul line was the corner of Mr. Bonatelli's apartment house at the end of the block and the rightfield foul line was the telephone pole behind Mrs. Gianelli's yard.
Besides hitting and catching the ball, a player had to be able to maneuver between parked cars, pedestrians and neighbors sitting on their stoops. Cars driving down the block presented an annoyance and slowed the tempo of play. Billy came up with the idea of putting empty garbage cans at the end of the block so we could detour traffic to the next street. That worked for a few days, until a call to the local police station ended that.
Most of the neighbors were sympathetic and tolerated the racket and nuisance of balls bouncing off houses, cars and stoops or whizzing past their heads. An exception was Mr. Bonatelli. Besides chasing us every time we came near his property, he showed particular disdain for the game.
The game could produce some bizarre events. One ball went through the open second-floor window of Mrs. Epstein's apartment. We had to send one of the guys to knock on her door and explain what happened. After about five minutes, the ball was found under her living room couch.
A ball lost down the sewer presented a unique predicament. The sewer not only collected rain water but all the dirt and debris left in the street. After missing a ground ball, Benny watched the ball roll along the curb and into the sewer.
We spotted the ball about five feet down, lying in what looked like a pile of mud. Joey, who never refused a challenge, volunteered to be lowered down into the sewer. After some thought, it was decided that this plan was too risky. Holding onto Joey would be difficult, and if he fell in we were not sure where he would end up. Sonny said, "Why don't we get Albie?" Albie (short for Albert) was a diminutive 9-year-old who was always hanging around the older kids and was considered a big pest.
It took little to persuade Albie to help. In fact, he felt thrilled that we needed him for something important. We had two guys lift the iron sewer grate and Eddie, the strongest kid on the block, slowly lowered Albie by the ankles down the sewer. Showing no fear, Albie quickly retrieved the ball.
Balls landing on the rooftops of houses offered little chance of recovery. But when a ball landed on the roof of Mr. Schultz's garage, we hoisted Albie on the shoulders of the tallest kid and Albie lifted himself onto the garage roof. To our surprise and good luck, Albie found not only our ball but two other lost balls as well. We all cheered and began to resume play until Albie, still on the roof, shouted, "Hey, what about me?" It took us some time to come up with a solution on how to rescue Albie after rejecting Sonny's idea of leaving Albie on the roof just in case another fly ball landed there.
Although we did our best to avoid Mr. Bonatelli, it was inevitable that some incident involving him would arise. During a game, a line drive bounced off Mr. Katz's Buick, ricocheted off the front door at 216 Crystal St. and hit Mr. Bonatelli, who was sitting in front of his house. It was no big deal -- only a rubber ball, but Mr. Bonatelli did not see it that way. He began to wave his arms and in a loud voice declared that we would pay for our mistake. A week later, in an act that shocked us, he retrieved an errant ball, pulled out a pocket knife and sliced it in half.
We got some measure of revenge a few weeks later. Mr. Bonatelli had a small yard next to his house that was enclosed by a high metal gate. Well, you guessed it. A batted ball landed right in the middle of his yard. To get the ball, the only option was to try to squeeze between the metal bars, which were about six inches apart. After making sure Mr. Bonatelli was not at home, Albie, who had now gained newfound respect, was able to squeeze his lower body through the opening but not his head. Albie was determined to keep trying, but we ended the attempt, concerned that his head might get stuck and fearing the consequences if Mr. Bonatelli showed up.
We positioned a few guys at the corner to watch for Mr. Bonatelli, and then Sonny and Eddie placed themselves on opposite sides of the two middle metal bars and began pulling them apart. We all took a turn, and after some time we were able to move them just enough for Albie to squeeze his head through. We were not sure if Mr. Bonatelli noticed that his gate was now slightly bent, but we were happy to have access to any ball landing in his yard, as long as Albie's head didn't get any bigger.
Looking back, the games played on the streets were our principal source of amusement. There were no electronic games, computers or iPhones. We grew up in a much simpler time, when all you needed for more fun and excitement than a kid could ever imagine was a stick, a pink rubber ball and, of course, Albie.
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