Just as their eccentricities make Fenway Park and Wrigley Field ideal places to play baseball, Worthington Hooker School in New Haven, Conn., was the perfect site for a kickball game. The school had six grades, late-Victorian architecture executed in pink brick, a tyrannical principal and an absolutely terrific blacktopped schoolyard. The schoolyard was essentially a rectangle but with paved extensions at either end; seen from above, it was shaped like a very fat block-letter C. Each of the protruding areas abutted the entrance porches to the school. The way our kickball diamond was laid out, one porch was directly behind first base and the other was in deep right centerfield. It was amazing what those porches could do with a cleverly placed line drive.
Anything booted over the green chain link fence that ran from the leftfield foul line to mid-centerfield was a home run, and if the ball nestled in one of the backyards adjacent to the school—instead of rebounding back onto the playground off a garage roof—the kicker had to retrieve it, truncating his victory trot around the base paths to cross directly over third, jump a small fence and circle through the backyards. A ball kicked over the much closer fence "down first" was a double. Between these clear-cut areas, occupying most of rightfield and right center, were the carom-causing walls and corners of the school building. For a time a large maple tree stood incongruously at second base, but it was chopped down, leaving only a slight heave in the asphalt to commemorate its life. The school windows overlooking the field were covered with protective screens, which made satisfying thwacks when balls glanced off them.
There were two times for kickball. During recess you played with your class. This was fun, but by no means serious kickball: Too many horse-crazed girls astride their phantom mounts galloped randomly onto the field of play, and too many teachers scolded after aspiring chemists for concocting bizarre compounds with ingredients such as peanut butter and lunch milk. By the time teams and batting orders were settled and the horses, teachers and chemists had cleared the field, you could never get in more than an inning or two before recess ended.
Truly special was Tuesday after school, when the Raiders played the Vikings in games presided over by Mr. Lucas, a substitute gym teacher who appeared each week to pitch for both teams. He wore high-top Converse basketball shoes and warm-up pants with a stripe down the seam. Mr. Lucas never said much, but I suspect the mere presence of a man who wore such clothes and—at least to a bunch of grammar-schoolers—appeared to make his living by traveling from playground to playground pitching kickball, militated against the kind of chaos that plagued our recess games and ensured the Vikings and Raiders a full seven innings of serious play. Of course, only those of us who were really interested in kickball would remain after school to play to begin with.
September 13, 1987
Any Worthington Hooker student was welcome to play; you had simply to join a team. At age six I began my kickball career as one of the few first-graders to sign on with the Raiders. Before every game Mr. Lucas selected a new captain for each team. We would then gather around the captain in the weekly ritual of pleading for fielding positions. There usually was some uncertainty as to who would receive the coveted shortstop and outfield spots. There was no chance that I would be playing anywhere but beyond the porch, deep "down first" and safely out of the way, yet I always begged for "down first" with fervor. And always I was granted the position as if it were a coveted prize.
That first year I didn't have many successes. When I was at bat, as Mr. Lucas dipped his arm and released the ball, the entire infield and outfield would creep toward me, inevitably smothering my most vigorous dribbles and throwing me out at first. When I was in the field, if a ball was kicked in my direction I would set for the catch, only to have a teammate step in front of me and make the play. On the whole, though, balls rarely came near me. So I was left with plenty of time to dream about the days when I would dash about the outfield making circus catches.
In addition to reveries of kickball heroism, I also developed an early sense of fashion. My mother accused me of having a foot fetish when I fussed about sneakers, and she was right. I was fascinated by the pale green low-tops fellow Raider Joe Zito wore as he glided through the outfield. I was even more taken with David Coffin's high-tops than with his headband and blond pony-tail. I fell into as much distant love as a first-grader is capable of with David's older sister, Amy, for the amazing kicks she could manage with her Hush Puppies. John Brown, who was school president until Miss O'Neil impeached him for showing up in class with a brown paper bag full of more penny pieces of prohibited bubble gum than anybody had ever seen, wore his father's Army boots everywhere but the Tuesday kickball games. Then he would change into sneakers and dash around the schoolyard like a hare. He claimed that wearing heavy boots the rest of the time was the way to "get fast."
If Army boots didn't quite catch on, kickball did. The late '60s and early '70s were a difficult time for New Haven, where in the space of four blocks the neighborhood changed from mansions to ghetto. The Vietnam War and the local Black Panthers exacerbated the tension that is bound to exist in a city that is simultaneously home to Yale University and some of America's dreariest slums. Worthington Hooker typified New Haven's makeup: The Coffins were the children of Yale's radical preacher, William Sloane Coffin; Arnold Gibbs's dad collected garbage; my mom taught school; Michael and John Buchina's parents worked in a factory; Jon Logue's father became mayor. Our innocence was such that we blithely referred to our school as Hooker School, never realizing that a Hooker was anything but a famous Connecticut doctor.
Kickball played a significant role in shielding us from the political climate. We respected people for what they could do on the blacktop, not for how much money their parents made. Joe Zito, for example, became school president largely on the basis of the home run record he set. The day he kicked his 100th of his career, he signed autographs for most of the school.
As for me, I progressed with determination on the playing field. In second grade I could occasionally reach the doubles fence, down first. In fourth grade I kicked my first home run. No Ruthian blow, the ball struck the trees just above leftfield and rebounded back so quickly that it inspired an argument. The homer was upheld, but the argument had deprived me of my victory trot around the bases. No matter, for weeks after I savored the hollow ping that comes only from a ball solidly kicked.
By this time, Mr. Lucas's path no longer took him to Worthington Hooker, and Mr. Wellins, my fifth-grade homeroom teacher, who wore a mustache and tinted glasses and drove a silver sedan with wire wheels, had taken over the pitching duties. As a fifth-grader I came into my own, booming 25 homers and playing mostly shortstop. I engaged in a home run competition with Paul Butkovich, whom I called Scrapper because he reminded me of a description I had read of the old Giant infielder Eddie Stanky. I don't remember who won, but I do remember the big grins Paul would flash in my direction as he trotted from second to third.
The smiles disappeared when it was announced that the East Rock Community School was near completion. That meant fifth-and sixth-graders from the surrounding school districts would no longer attend their local grammar schools, but would travel to the new glass-and-concrete bunker down by the highway. So much for a shot at Joe Zito's home run record. Worthington Hooker was reduced to a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade school, and after-school kickball was very quickly gone.
Perhaps coincidentally, the Worthington Hooker schoolyard scene changed as well. For the first time I saw graffiti on those previously sacrosanct pale brick walls. Teenage punks took to hanging out on the porches, drinking beer, smoking dope and tempering, if not eliminating, athletic activity. Suddenly the schoolyard wasn't a comforting slab of asphalt but a slightly hostile territory. A lot of us went elsewhere to play, mostly games other than kickball.