Stickball In Brooklyn

STICKBALL

My Flatbush, neighborhood was centered around Martense Street where our apartment was located. We had the first floor of the building, which was in the middle of the block. Most of the buildings were two and three-stories tall They created a canyon in which children could play safely. The families were mostly Irish-Catholic.

The canyon walls were brown and ocher with the exception of, what we called the ‘New Red Apartment Building,’ which rose to a towering six stories and had an elevator.

Maple and sycamore trees lined the entire block on both sides, arching over the roadway. The street had cars parked on both sides with scarcely ever in a vacant parking space. New Yorkers didn’t use their cars much. My family kept our Nash Rambler in a garage some three long blocks away.

When I first ventured from my apartment I fell into the company of nine and ten-year-old boys. I was tall for my age so, even though I was only seven-and-one-half years old, I fit in pretty well.

The stick ball game that I’m going to describe took place in the middle of the street. We used a red rubber Spaulding ball. The bat was a broomstick from some unsuspecting-mom’s cleaning closet. Home plate would be a convenient sewer. Bases were chalked on the street. 

Teams were determined by a schoolyard pick with the boys in a circle as two leaders picked the teams. The leaders would take turns choosing until each side had maybe three or four boys. That would be enough to man the bases with one outfielder.

Traffic was minimal so when the occasional car came we would shout “CAR,” and clear the road for a few moments.

The sound of a stick hitting a round rubber Spaulding ball was a unique ‘plop-plunk-flap’  that remains still in my middle ear somewhere.

Because the older boys had better developed skills, I was always the last one chosen and usually relegated to third base where very little action would occur.

I was not a good catcher or batter, an awkward runner, and I lacked catching skills. I was happy to be chosen – last. You see, not every child on the street participated. Girls never. Peter Robins, a Jewish boy who lived on a second-floor apartment near our preferred game area, sometimes looked through the window but I think he was too busy with his studies to actually participate. Once in a while we’d go to his house on a rainy day and play Monopoly.

My friend Edward Talley never played with the kids on the street although he was in my PS 246 third grade class. I think he was smart but his handwriting and drawing skills were zero and he had no athletic abilities or interest. His mom kept him indoors in the big red apartment building. Little Patrick Leone was a little too young and small for us.

Wilbur Smith and the Hartley boys, at the end of the street near Bedford Avenue, never played with us, but they were believed to be good athletes, and probably good guys. Just standoffish.

Thwuft

The shouting in the streets and the thwuft of the red rubber ball being hit with the stick remain firmly in my mind. We experienced an occasional whiff of car and bus exhaust. The grinding of the trolley cars on Church Avenue, the birds in the trees and the joy, the absolute joy, of playing with my friends, remain in implanted in my soul – a kind of anchor in my lifelong journey through time.

I still remember the names and qualities of each child in my circle:

Frankie Hennigen – 12 – an older boy; tall, trim and athletic.

Huey Develin – 10 ­– Hefty. You noticed when Huey bumped into you when rounding the bases.

Billy Whalen –  8 – Young, like me. Slim and very well liked.

Bobby O’Connor – 11 – Wonderful kid. Nice manners and very athletic.

Billy (Fiendish) Ferry – 10 – Always a little awkward but fun to hang out with.

Vinny DiJoya – 11 – Short but a terrific hitter and base runner.

Eddie Ford – 10 – Serious about stickball and everything in his life.

Johnny McNicholl –11 –  Irish – just off the boat. Good at running and catching. A bit of a firebrand.

Billy Serle – 71/2 –Tall enough but awkward. Acts like a damn seven-and-a-half-year old.

I’ve been in touch with John McNicoll, Eddie Ford and Huey Develin in recent years. I’ll send Johnny and Huey a copy of this and post it on my blog. (billserle.com)

What a blessing to remember and to be remembered.

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