It's a sound of the city — as authentic as jackhammers, sirens and blaring horns. But hearing it at 8:30 on a Saturday morning in serene, sunlit John Burns Park in Massapequa is jarring; almost as if the F Train had decided to come barreling down Merrick Road.
That's the hollow, chunky sound of a rubber ball being hit hard against a concrete wall; then bouncing off and being whacked again with equal dispatch. That's the sound of the quintessential New York City game of handball.
For brothers Eddie and Steve Yandrich of Farmingdale, that thwok-thump, thwok-thump has been part of the soundtrack of their lives for more than half a century.
Eddie, now 65, and Steve, who turns 64 next month, grew up playing the game that has been a primary entertainment of kids in crowded city neighborhoods since the late 1800s. Unlike many kids who outgrew the sport, however, the brothers kept at it, even after moving to the suburbs as adults.
Here, they were delighted to find that the old city game had migrated east, where it continues to be played by a small but dedicated cadre of Act 2-generation men in a few parks on Long Island.
Dripping with sweat after a spirited two-on-two game against friendly rivals Jim Nargi, 50, of Hicksville and Rick Thomas, 60, of Merrick, the brothers are quick to acknowledge that they — and handball — have come a long way since they were kids growing up in Manhattan on First Avenue and 93rd Street. Or, as Steve jokingly calls it, "the very poor side of the Upper East Side."
The Yandrich brothers' father was an auto body worker trying to raise a family in the lean years right after World War II. There were three children in all, including their younger sister, Diann, who now lives in Colorado. It was a struggle. "We lived in a four-story tenement," says Eddie. "Now they call it a brownstone," adds Steve with a laugh.
In that time and place, there were few sports facilities for kids. "You did a lot of things in the street," recalls Eddie, "Nobody had any money. We couldn't even afford softball gloves."
When they were still in elementary school, the two brothers found their way to a tiny neighborhood park that had little more to offer than a concrete wall. "It turned out to be a great thing," Eddie says. "It's provided a lifetime of exercise." Indeed, thanks to decades of regular handball, the two brothers — almost identically built at 5-feet-8, and 150 pounds — are in fighting-trim shape. And speaking of fighting, that's something these siblings say they do less of because of handball.
Now both retired — Eddie is a former meteorologist, Steve, an environmental consultant — the game has brought them closer in many ways. About 20 years ago, Eddie, a bachelor, moved from the Bronx (where the brothers had lived as adults) to Farmingdale to be closer to his job with the National Weather Service in Brookhaven. Steve — whose daughter is in college — decided to follow his brother to the same town. "Don't tell his wife," jokes Eddie, "but handball was one of the reasons."
While the game can be played one-on-one, it is frequently a two-on-two affair. That's how the Yandrich brothers decided to pursue it, once they became adults. "We used to play against each other," Eddie says. "We work better as a team." So much so that they are known to their fellow handballers simply as "The Brothers."
By the time The Brothers defeat the Nargi-Thomas team by a final score of 21-14 this morning, the rest of the Saturday handball-playing crew has arrived at Burns Park. Soon, three games are going on simultaneously and the air reverberates with thwoks and thumps along the wall on the west end of the park. Scattered at each game are spectators and other players who are waiting their turn on the 20-feet-wide courts.
Handball has changed little in the half-century since The Brothers first started playing, and the rules are fairly simple. "It's like tennis except that instead of a net, you have a wall," says Tony LoPilato, 53, of Farmingdale, a veteran handball player who has known the Yandrich brothers for years. The average 21-point game lasts about 30 minutes, LoPilato says, but a blowout game may take a mere 15 minutes, and a knockdown, drag-out brawl can last for 45.
One significant difference since The Brothers started the sport is the ball itself. Handball used to be played with the small, pink high-bouncing rubber ball made by Spalding known to generations of city kids as a "Spaldeen." Today, players use a larger, blue ball. Some even call it the "Big Blue" handball to distinguish it from other varieties, such as the fancier four-wall indoor, black ball and team handball (an Olympic sport that is as far removed from the New York City game as an Iowa cornfield).
Still, whatever you call the one-ball, one-wall version of the game, the strategy is simple. "Hit it where they're not," Steve says. "That's how you win." But getting off a good "kill" shot (one so low or placed at a point along the wall where it is virtually unreturnable by your opponent) is not the only satisfaction derived from the game. The camaraderie of these men is evident, even if there are occasional disputes about shots being in bounds or not.
All of these guys at the park this morning know The Brothers, who are familiar faces at courts here and in the city. They play three times a week, almost year round. "Nobody enjoys the game more than they do," LoPilato says. "And they're very consistent. They're here every week."
Steve politely disagrees with the latter assessment, and the protective knee brace his brother wears is a hint of their advancing age. "We win as many as we lose," he says. "When we were younger, we won more than we lost."
Ed chimes in, "Eventually we'll just be happy to get on a court and play."
LI handball hangouts
If you'd like to recapture the fun of a pickup game of handball or just reminisce about the inner city days, check out a town park that has the courts.
Handball veteran Tony LoPilato says players with experience are usually willing to show newcomers the basics, but he warns, "There's a learning curve, it's intense hand-eye coordination." At the parks, LoPilato says, you often can find pickup games from late afternoon through the evening on weeknights, and 8 or 9 a.m. until early afternoon on weekends.
Big Blue handball is played at several town parks, including John Burns in Massapequa, Casamento Park in West Islip and Speno Memorial Park in East Meadow. For more information on Big Blue and other forms of handball, visit ushand ball.org.