When I was growing up in New York, my kid brother and I were, for a short and blessed time, the stoop ball doubles champions of 96th Street, that is, the block between the unrelieved distress of Columbus Avenue and the faintly seedy and démodé splendor of Central Park West. In those days, the early '40s, stoop ball was as popular as stick ball or punch ball, but I suspect it is now dying out; there are fewer stoops—the old brownstones that bore them are being torn down—and more cars are crossing the field of play, impeding the game and endangering the players.
The character of the city street determines the street game much in the same way that dedans, grilles and tambours, obscure projections and recesses derived from medieval buildings, establish court tennis. Box ball, for example, is played within boxes formed by the cracks in the sidewalk, and sewers or manhole covers are integral features of stick ball, as are cornices, fire escapes, lampposts, even trees. Cops and robbers is more logically set in the somber and possibly sinister streets than cowboys and Indians—although when I was very young I tethered a string of imaginary horses to one of the poles that supports the frame of the awning of 27 West 96th Street, where I lived—and stoop ball, of course, is wholly dependent upon stoops.
The stoops of my youth were long, sandstone flights, their balustrades ornamented with blind lions or terminal objects that looked like great pineapples or artichokes, and the rubber balls we threw against the steps into so many evenings were "spaldeens." A spaldeen—a corruption of Spalding, the signature that is on the ball—is pink and about the size of a tennis ball, and is as prevalent today as it was 20 years ago. There is a box of spaldeens in my neighborhood candy store, but what else has survived? The candy store where long ago I bought my spaldeens was dark, crowded and haphazard and, like a strange hold or attic, or even a second-rate magician's hat, promised minor treasures and mysteries. I believe "I. Israelite" was painted on the door. No doubt it is a bodega now. At present, my candy store is well-lit and orderly. You can buy a scale model of Wolf Man ("an all-plastic assembly kit") there and a comic book that depicts on its front cover a surgeon dropping a scalpel with one hand while clutching his head with the other. "What have I done...?" he is saying. "I've killed another one!" A beautiful, anguished nurse is passing the operating theater, a clipboard pressed tightly to her starched bosom. She is thinking, the ascending bubbles indicate: "Oh, my darling.... How can you be so blind? It's not your fault." No, it is the fault of the times. Where is I. Israelite, whose store of real possibilities was next to the laundry of Nguey T. Jew?
I don't really know how to spell spaldeen, any more than I know how to spell "salugi" or "scelzi." We never had occasion to write any of them down, much of our language being oral, like the tongues of certain primitive tribes before missionaries enlightened them by putting it all down so the Bible could be translated into yet another language. Salugi, by the way, is more a kind of urban torture than a sport. One kid grabs something—say a hat or a glove—belonging to another kid, hereinafter and with good reason referred to as the victim, and cries, "Salugi!" He then tosses it to a third kid who relays it to a fourth, fifth or sixth—any number can play. While they blithely fling it among themselves, the victim tries to reclaim it. No score is kept, since the success of a game of salugi is measured only by the degree of the victim's humiliation. Scelzi, on the other hand, is benign and sedentary, much like marbles, but played with bottle caps.
April 20, 1964
Stoop ball is still another kind of game, and one with inherent urban hazards. First of all, there was, even during gas rationing, traffic. My brother was once hit by a car that was backing up in order to park in front of our stoop. Then there were already parked cars that blocked the field of play. However, the most dread obstacle on 96th Street was an elderly blonde crab, who might have been German but was most certainly Germanic. I remember her as being a dental assistant, though my brother claims she was merely a landlady, which may tell you something about my brother and me. Whatever her occupation and origin, she was, for those years and our ages, a virtual caricature of torment and villainy. Outraged by the continual "thunk" of spaldeens against her stoop, she would appear at the top of the stairs like the witch who suddenly emerges from a Black Forest barometer and threaten us with buckets of boiling water and/or the police.
Aside from these perils, stoop ball, like stick ball and punch ball, is basically a variant of baseball. The batter throws the spaldeen against the stoop so that it rebounds. If the ball clears the sidewalk, and the fielder, who is stationed in the street, fails to catch it on the fly, each of its subsequent bounces represents the advance of a base. One bounce is a single, two bounces a double, and so forth. If the fielder does catch the ball the batter is out. Since 96th is a two-way street, any balls hit on the fly over the white line were out, for purposes of safety. In doubles, however, you hit the ball as far as you could, the assumption being that two fielders could watch out for cars better than one. The cry, "Car! Car!" meant an automatic time-out.
I can no longer recall how it was that my brother and I became the champions of 96th Street. I believe it was by our own declaration. I do recollect the first, and, as it turned out, the last game of our reign, however, for in the course of it there occurred what may have been the most remarkable athletic feat I have ever witnessed.
Our opponents in that memorable contest were the Whitelaw Bros. For some reason we always called the three of them "Bros." (pronouncing it bras) instead of "brothers." On this afternoon we were challenged by the oldest and the youngest. I remember the junior as being about my age, 13 or 14, I guess, and the eldest as 21, though I imagine he was, in truth, nearer 18. Whatever his age, to my brother and me he was that marvelously formidable and competent figure, a grownup.
The Great Play occurred when my brother and I were at bat. The senior Whitelaw was in the outfield, or slightly to the stoop side of the white line, and fair game for the eastbound crosstown bus. I hit a liner that shot by him and seemed destined to become a home run. The ball bounced once near the distant gutter. Incredibly, Whitelaw had almost caught up to it. He was going to hold me to a single! But then Providence, in the guise of a lady pushing a baby carriage, came along the sidewalk between the hurtling Whitelaw and the bouncing ball. Furthermore, directly behind the carriage was an iron fence topped with spikes that enclosed bushes planted in front of 27 West. I watched with mingled hope, horror and veneration as Whitelaw, without breaking stride, took off in a head-first plunge, clearing, in that splendid bound, the carriage and the spikes, and landed, hidden from my view by the petrified mother, in the shrubbery. When he arose he was clutching the spaldeen in his hand. (In what else, I ask myself? His teeth?) He had held me to a double.
Alas, my brother has a less heroic recollection of all this. Instead of being a liner, my hit was, he says, a long fly. The pursuing Whitelaw didn't leap over the baby carriage. Unable to stop in time, he crashed into it. But the ball did wind up in the bushes on the second, and final, bounce. The Whitelaw Bros., he tells me, indulgently allowed that the hit was a homer anyway. "I always thought it was a cheap run," my brother says, having gracefully borne this guilt over the decades. He further relates that the "homer" enabled us to tie the White-law Bros., but that they went on to win 2-1 in extra innings. "As they deserved," my brother adds. "It was a double."
My brother's memory no doubt serves him better than mine, but I recall yet another glorious event that in some ways surpasses even my romantic reconstruction of the stoop ball play. This one involves Saul, my best friend during our senior year at high school in The Bronx. Saul was a tackle on our football team. He was a moody, perhaps testy, redhead whose ambition it was to go to the moon. One dismal November evening we were scrimmaging the second team. Saul was on his hands and knees, waiting, in the rapidly fading light, for the second team to come out of its huddle. Pack, a little halfback who became a poet when he grew up, ranged behind the defensive linemen, exhorting them. When he came upon the silent and brooding Saul, he smacked him on the bottom and said, "Come on, Saul, talk it up. Where's your spirit?" The second team left its huddle. The linemen were about to get down when they stopped, dumbfounded. Saul was slowly arising. He turned and confronted Pack. Looking sternly down at him, he said in a loud, distinct and wrathful voice: "Noise is not necessarily a manifestation of spirit."
I have lost track of Saul in recent years. After graduating from college I visited him in Naples, where he lived above the flies. In his effort to reach the moon he had become a naval aviator and was flying admirals about Europe in R4Ds. I subsequently drank with him in bars in Hollywood, and in Baltimore, near the railway station. The last time I saw Saul was in Philadelphia. He was either an intern or a resident at Philadelphia General; now the way to the moon was through space medicine. One summer night I waited for him to get off duty, but he seemed to be awfully busy, and it grew later and later. About midnight I asked a nurse what was keeping him so long. "Dr. Saul refuses to allow his terminal cases to die," she said, with either respect or scorn. I have never been able to make up my mind which it was, undoubtedly because it was both. At any rate, I find that judgment and Saul's declaration on the football field that dreary evening in The Bronx to be of a piece.
Although I regarded myself as a great stoop ball player, I wasn't much good at baseball; in fact, I was lousy. The root of my trouble, I believe, was that I had no faith in my arm. This lack of faith made me concentrate so hard on throwing accurately that I either forgot to let go of the ball or else I released it too early. Throwing became a traumatic experience. Whenever I was fortunate enough to pick up a grounder, the necessity of next throwing the ball somewhere (but to what base, and how many outs were there?) panicked me. As a consequence, I always asked to play catcher, particularly in games where stealing was not allowed.
Last year I felt somewhat heartened when I watched two outfielders, both Los Angeles Angels as it happened, undergo experiences as shattering as mine. In a game against Baltimore, Ken Hunt held on to the ball so long on a mighty throw to the infield that when he finally released it, the ball struck the ground two or three yards in front of him. And, in a game with Washington, Lee Thomas let go of the ball so early in his windup that it fell two or three yards behind him while he looked, bewildered and in vain, after its nonexistent flight. Thomas, incidentally, was called Clang by his teammates; they told me his fingers were made of metal, and "clang" was the sound the ball made when it struck them and bounced off.
In pickup games I was always selected last, and regretfully. I am sure they would have rather made do with eight players. In fact, when they were choosing up sides, I would try to wander off to save either captain the embarrassment of picking me. Whenever I would come to bat, I'd be told to "wait 'em out" or "get a walk, for God's sake." Obedient, but inept, I usually struck out looking. I generally was put in right field, that preteen Siberia. I don't know why it was that there were no powerful left-handed hitters when I was a boy. On occasion, baseball fields were laid out more or less side by side where we played, and if the game I was taking part in was not sufficiently interesting, I would turn around and watch another or pass the time with my neighboring exile, a forlorn and uncoordinated wretch who had been banished to the right field of his game. Once, while gazing raptly at a game in which I was not playing, I heard a great shout at my back. I whirled around apprehensively, expecting to see the fateful descent of a tremendous fly I would never be able to catch in this world. I saw nothing, so returned to the game I was attending as a spectator. In a moment, a ball rolled intriguingly between my legs, as though I were a giant croquet wicket. I stared at it, fascinated. So that was what the yelling had been all about—a ground ball that had, quite literally, become a home run while my back was turned. I didn't laugh when Billy Loes said he lost a grounder in the sun.
Although graceless and unwanted on the playing field, I was, in the security of my room, a great molder, indeed a creator, of men. My brother and I devised games that we played with dice. There was dice baseball and dice football and dice boxing, etc. I made up teams and players for these games, endowed them with names—being careful to include the minority groups—and virile personalities, drew their steely portraits, kept voluminous records and statistics.
I don't suppose you have ever heard of the Gilbertian Goshawks, who once beat Georgia Tech, 33-20. Leon Lubbio, a halfback with toppling waves of blond hair, was their leading ground gainer. I am looking now at the team picture of the El Dorado Demons, a basketball team. The leading scorer was Mike Myers. I was a true believer in alliteration. He is very hairy, for hair was interesting to draw, his eyes are in meaningful shadows, he has outstanding ears and a religious medal hangs about his neck. Mike Myers was the Demons' leading scorer, making 471 points in 36 games, for a 13.1 average. Another one of my basketball teams was the Silver Zephyrs. I find, in their group picture, a business manager named Orovski. I had not forgotten the front office. He wears a snap-on bowtie and a room clerk's mustache. There's the assistant trainer, Canoek—only the players had the luxury of Christian names—and at the bottom of the page I have drawn a nondescript, and apparently huge, dog. The caption reads: "Bruno, mascot."
I don't suppose news of Big Ben Colfax, who weighed well over 300 pounds, has reached you. He knocked out Joe Louis in the sixth round for the heavyweight championship. Here's the Gilbertian Gladiators and their captain, Bill Oriko. Gilbertia is an island anywhere in the South Seas with a fine natural harbor, which is populated almost exclusively by athletes and fighter pilots. I come across Irv Goldberg and Clarence Debonair, who finished one-two in the 1,000-yard run for the Gilbertia AC. We blew that meet, 38-41, to the Thunder AC, one of my brother's clubs. I note, too, that someone called Afialara, whose first name has been lost to history, shared the dice baseball record for most hits in a game—five.
Another way of escaping the perpetual depression of competing with my peer group was to return to nature, or Central Park, where all clumsy boys are equal. We would hunt for crayfish there, finding them beneath stones in a shallow stream that runs under the Rustic Bridge in The Ramble; these names have always seemed to me to be way stations in a baffling religious allegory. We would fish with bread balls for catfish in the 79th Street lake—I hear it is stocked now by the Department of Parks with carp, sunnies and perch—and look for the gray-brown members of a certain family of moths that dwell, almost invisibly, on tree trunks. My brother and I were also bird watchers. This dedication led, years later, to my nearly having a nervous breakdown. One morning, in the woody heart of The Ramble, I became so frustrated by my inability to identify a swarm of warblers in their autumn plumage that I had to go home to bed.
The Central Park reservoir is a fine place to look at ducks when it is almost completely frozen over and as vast, calm and melancholy as a mountain's shadow. The puddle ducks are in the patches of open water near shore, the mergansers farther out, and the gulls stand in a great white crescent on the ice in the center of the reservoir, folding and unfolding their wings. It was on the cinder path that encircles the reservoir that I once endlessly jogged in the curious belief that this would make me a great 440 man. I never finished better than third in that race, but I once trotted past the Duke of Windsor walking with his dogs about the reservoir.
In recent years, my athletic accomplishments have been, as always, forgettable or absurd, but they now include a note or two of triumph, although played, predictably, off key. These are, in order of occurrence, if not consequence:
1) When, in my final high school game, I loped in from my linebacker position—the casual, reflective blitz—and tackled a fullback for a five-yard loss, inadvertently saving the day. I learned after the game that the ball had not been on our five-yard line as I had assumed. It had been on the goal line. I am, I have been told when I recount this feat, the last of the great Jewish linebackers.
2) When I saved an old, confused gentleman from drowning while a lifeguard and lover at an Adirondacks hotel. He had been in the act of stepping from a rowboat onto a dock and had fallen into the lake. I saw him frantically treading water and, after a mad dash, leaped feet first to the rescue. My feet hit the bottom of the lake with an unexpected and jarring crash. The water was only up to my chest. I waded behind the old man and, taking hold of his waist, firmly pulled him down, so that his churning feet touched bottom, to his great surprise and relief.
3) The day I won the Camp Kilmer swimming meet for Hq. Co., 1264th SU. I was covering the meet for the Eagle, the post newspaper. With the last event, the 400-meter relay, coming up, my company was deadlocked for first place with Hq. & Hq. Det., Reassignment Station. We were a cinch to win the relay as Frank Nauss, a two-time All-America from North Carolina State, who had already won three races for us, was swimming the freestyle leg. However, due to some overlooked technicality, Nauss, along with another one of our swimmers, was not permitted to take part in the relay. As I recall it, this left Hq. Co. with only three men for the four-man event, and in imminent danger of being disqualified and losing the meet. Sizing up the situation at a glance, an intellectual attainment that had heretofore eluded me, I raced into the locker room, changed into swimming trunks, feeling as Superman must when he rips his clothing off in handy doorways and alleys, and swam the breaststroke leg for Hq. Co. I was given an enormous lead and lost all but a few yards of it as I floundered, spluttering, up and down the pool, but we won the relay and the meet and, returning to the Eagle office, I modestly recorded my achievement in the next-to-last paragraph of my story. You can look it up.
This was not, however, my last race. Every once in a while, when I am tediously swimming my laps at the YMCA on West 63rd Street, I race some innocent, preoccupied stranger in the next lane and am almost always victorious. Alas, I suspect those I have defeated never knew they were in a race, but, at 34, victories are as hard to come by as they were when I was 12, and once again I am Frank Fremont, grim, crew-cut captain of the Gilbertian Garwhals, the peerless champions of the dice swimming league.
But when my stepson, who is 9, challenges me to a race to the corner of Prince and Sullivan Streets, near where we now live in the southern and shabby reaches of Greenwich Village, I tell him I will race him in the summer, on the beach. When summer comes, I will tell him it's too hot out for running or that I have not rounded into shape quite yet. And so winter passes into summer and then back to winter again, and pretty soon I won't have a ghost of a chance of winning, and the race will be still unrun, my stepson still shouting, "Last one to the corner's a rotten egg—no penny tax, no nothings, no back talk, everyone included, no backs, touching black, for 1964, period." And I will watch him charge off. I am not by any means the last of the great Jewish spectators.