by Frank LoBuono
When I was a kid growing up in the 60’s, the word “gang” had a completely different connotation. At that time, Fort Lee, NJ, was in a state of transformation, and so were we. Fort Lee was changing from a small town, most famous for being the birth place of the movie industry, to a sort-of 6th Borough of New York. We were in the process of being City Kids to becoming so-called Suburban ones. Most of my friends’ families had emigrated from the Bronx. Some, like mine, came from Brooklyn. Either way, we brought many of the City Street traditions and games, as well as our accents, with us.
One of the traditions was to have a gang. Now, at this time, it had NO association with violence. It meant kids in the neighborhood who shared similar ages, backgrounds, and culture; particularly street culture. Boys and girls mixed freely in our ‘hood. There was me, my brother Joe, and my sister Joanne. Gary and Michele were down the block. Joe Del and his sister Kathy lived on the corner. Ritchie and Frankie were on the next corner. Jerry and Joe were just down the street from the them. Bobby and his older brother, Joe were just a few blocks away. Our ages, proximity, and, in general, our backgrounds and goals, made it easy to come together and share things we were most comfortable with. This was clearly expressed in the games we played. In addition to new ones that suited our spacious, new surroundings – we actually had grassy fields to play on – we continued playing many of those we had learned during our brief stays in the Bronx or Brooklyn. These included “Ring-O-Leeveo”, and “Red Light-Green Light” which required no equipment. Others, like “Box Ball”, “Stoop Ball” and the ubiquitous “Stick Ball”, obviously required, well, at least a ball.
Those games, according to street etiquette, HAD to be played with only one type of ball: The Spalding “High- Bounce” ball. And, despite it’s rather simple spelling, the name was to be pronounced only one way: SPALDENE. If you were to pronounce it any other way, you were immediately marked as a rube and not truly worthy of the game. Despite years of extensive and exhaustive research, I have yet to discover the origins of the pronunciation Spaldene. Be that as it may, Spaldenes were used exclusively because they were just perfect for the type of games we played. Hard, but not too, durable, cheap, and pink, they could take a liking and keep on ticking. For Box Ball, one could squeeze them just enough to add enough spin or “english” to make your serve difficult to return. With Stoop Ball, they were just hard enough that, if you flung it with all of your might and hit the corner of one of the stairs just right, the recoil would send it far over your opponent’s head for a sure home run. The same could be said for Stick Ball. It was just the right size and weight to hurl it a great speeds. The consistency was such that you could squeeze it to make it dip and spin. As a hitter, with the proper, sawed-off broom stick for a bat (another prerequisite for the game to be properly played), and you nailed it on the “sweet spot”, you could send that baby sailing, well, a City block! And it was durable enough to take the pounding it was bound to after a 9-inning game of Stick Ball!
Now, in Fawt Lee (another native pronunciation), suiting our transformation, we played a modified version of Stick Ball. In the City version, it is played on the open street and the pitcher bounces the ball before the hitter. The game can be played with anywhere between 4 and 6 participants. Safe hits were usually measured by the batted ball traveling the distance of sewer drains or manhole covers. Outs were registered by not reaching these marks, having the ball caught (if you had a fielder), or by strikeout. Our game combined some of the City’s while taking advantage of our new, more spacious surrounds. Instead of playing it in the streets, we would find a wall, usually at one of the schools in town, and spray paint (or chalking – most preferred by school janitors everywhere!) a box that would suit the strike zone of most players. This would eliminate the need for at least one player, the catcher. So, you could play with as few as two participants. This adaptation would also allow the pitcher to throw the ball more like a true baseball player. Since no bounce was involved and there was no need for a catcher, the pitcher could throw as hard as he liked and add trick pitches if he had them. This, of course, made it more difficult as a hitter. We believed it made it more like the professional game where good pitching almost always trumped good hitting. Hits and outs were recorded in similar fashion to the “City game.”
This made the Spaldene even more essential to our game. You could throw it hard and, so, when you connected, you could hit it equally hard. And when you didn’t (which was most often), it had to take the pounding of being smashed against a brick wall – again and again. And the Spaldene could handle it. It was almost solid rubber so it could take a beating. I always felt the pink color belied the fact that they were actually so durable. There would be a time when they would eventually split apart, but that was normally after a few games. And they were cheap, so we always made sure that we had an extra on hand for those lost to wear and tear or fouled-back unto the roof of one of the schools (in addition to irate school officials, one of the hazards of our game).
The Spaldene and Stick Ball become part of our lexicon and our lives. There were periods when I was growing up that, at any given time of a day, on any given school yard, you could find a game of Stick Ball. For us, it became a central part of our daily lives, especially when school was out for the summer. I remember playing Stick Ball almost every hour of every day in the summer. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but it did play that significant a role as to have created that memory.We formed leagues and kept statistics. We knew who the aces and sluggers were. And some kids were both. I remember how competitive I was. I didn’t like losing at all. You’d think that, with my disdain for defeat, I would have been better at it. I wasn’t. I lost more than I won. But, in those days, it didn’t matter all that much. What mattered was that you competed and you had fun, in the most simple way, with your friends. It seemed that there was always a way to drum up a game of Stick Ball. And, so, it was one of the most wholesome of activities, combining physical activity with social bonding.
But I’m not sure if anyone plays Stick Ball, or any of the games that I remember from my childhood, any more. I suppose that, as with all things, methods, moods, and morals change. This is reflected in the games children play. In my travels, I don’t see kids playing Stick Ball anymore – or Box Ball – or Stoop Ball – or even Red Light. Green Light. These simple games, involving both physical and social skills, have been replaced by those requiring little more than an ass and two thumbs. The wave of technology has transformed all of our lives. It is no different for children. In fact, they are most directly involved with, and, I should add, evolved, by technology. Their reality is reinforced by the games we offer them to play. And, remember, ADULTS design games and toys for children. Now, in the New World of the Video Game, young people (and many adults) are occupied by sitting on their asses and using there thumbs to play (mostly) violent games that require less physical exertion that getting up and walking to the bathroom to take a leak. Not all young people are completely mesmerized by the splashy graphics and hyper-realism of the games. But most are. It is the wave of the future. I do not fear change for it is inevitable. And I don’t want to over romanticize the past. However, it does give me cause for concern.
While taking my 90 year-old mother to her beauty parlor appointment in the town of Westwood, NJ, I stopped in one of my favorite stores which happens to be located around the corner. It’s a REAL, old-fashioned 5&10 Cent Store. It sells EVERYTHING. In fact, I think that I did about 90% of my Christmas shopping there this year! It takes me so happily back to another aspect of my youth: the old Woolworth’s 5&10 – long ago out of business. There are so few left. Well, imagine my surprise and joy when, while perusing the aisles, I spied a box of pink balls. I thought to myself, could it be? I came closer. Sure enough, it was a box of official Spalding High- Bounce Balls! $1.49 each – a little more than we used to spend for one, but, still a bargain! Perhaps, there is still hope. Now, if I could only find a broom handle, and a wall with a strike zone painted on it . . .
Frank LoBuono has lived in Nyack for over 30 years writing and covering Rockland County in print, on TV and online. He works as a cameraman and an editor for a major TV News organization. You can read his blog at Talk-Frank.blogspot.com.