Summer Street Games

by Lewis Roht

          During the summer months all the men and boys on our street played stickball.   The game was played with the pink “spauldeen” balls and a broom handle for a bat. Sometimes we played with the pitcher throwing the ball with one bounce to the hitter.  When we got better or older, the bigger guys would throw it like a baseball without a bounce.

          Another game was punchball.   We used the same “spauldeen.”  The ‘batter’ would either throw the ball in the air like a tennis player serving, and punch it with his closed fist instead of a bat or tennis racquet.  Alternatively, you could bounce the ball and when it rose to the right height you would punch it.   The bases were various places along the curb or the manhole covers in the middle of the street.

          These games would come to a sudden but temporary halt when someone would yell out ‘CAR COMING.’

          We also played “Boxball,” also using the “spauldeen.”  This was like ping pong / tennis, played on the sidewalk.  Each player had one section of the sidewalk as his, and the opponent had the box on the other side of the demarcation between them.  You used your open hand like a ping-pong paddle to hit the ball into the opponent’s box.  He could hit it on a fly (without waiting for it to bounce) or he could hit it after one bounce.  If you hit is after 2 bounces, you lost the point.

          The other game I remember playing in the street was called, “Stealing Bases.”   This was usually played with the manhole covers as the bases.  One person, usually one of the older boys would be assigned to each of the bases.   These guys would throw the ball to each other.  While that was happening, all the other kids who were in the game would try to get from one base to the other without being tagged.  Once tagged you were out of the game for a while.  The last kid who wasn’t tagged was the winner or champion of that game.

           We had another game called “Territory.”  This was played with pocket knives.   You drew a square in the dirt and then divided it into two halves.   Each player would try to throw the knife into the other player’s territory.  If the knife stuck in the ground the thrower would draw a line in the sand along the blade axis, further dividing the opponent’s territory.  A variation of this was to have each player put one of his feet in his territory.  That of course put a bit of danger into the game, because your foot might get hit by the knife.  The game ended when one player had eliminated all of the other’s territory or when one kid’s foot got injured and he had to go home.

           Another game that we played was with soda bottle caps.  The idea was to toss the bottle cap and get it closest to a wall which was probably 5 or 6 or 10 feet away.  If you filled your bottle cap with melted lead, then when the lead cooled you had a weighted bottle cap.  This made it easier to control the toss.  A similar game could be played with a penny.   If your penny got closer to the wall then you would win the other kid’s penny.

           Playing with baseball cards was another favorite game.  These were cards with picture and information about various players who were in the major leagues. You collected cards from packets of bubble gum that you bought for a dime.   The idea was to flip your card to the ground and your opponent would flip his card to the ground also.  If his card came up on the same side as yours did (face up or face down), then he would win that card.  If his card came up opposite to yours then you would win.  Baseball cards were collected even if you didn’t play this flipping game.  Some of them could be quite valuable.  An original Honus Wagner could once sold for a million dollars.   Mickey Mantle cards are also very valuable.

          My wife has reminded me that we also played marbles.  The idea of this game was to make a circle and put several marbles in the middle.  Each player had a special marble called a ‘shooter.’   The idea was to put the shooter between your thumb and index finger, aim it at the marbles in the circle and forcibly eject your shooter with your thumb.  Any marbles that you could knock out of the circle became yours.   My ‘shooter’ was called a ‘cleary.’  It was reddish brown and solid color.  If you held it up to the light you could see through it – hence the name ‘cleary.’   Alas, after many shots, that marble shattered and I never did find a suitable replacement.  Of course, tag and hide-and-go-seek were other games too.  There was one other called ringolevio.  I don’t remember how that was spelled or how it was played, though.

          I had one friend, Eugene Lembo, who lived around the corner from me.  He and I played together almost every day.  After my family left Sunnyside, I never bothered contacting him.  But a couple of years ago I got nostalgic and with a little searching on the internet I was able to track him down.  He eventually became a distributor for Coca Cola and now lives on Long Island.  He said his mother and grandmother at that time were still living in the same apartment as when I lived there.

          There was a sandlot across the street from Eugene’s apartment and we played baseball and football together there…just the two of us.   There were stones and pebbles on the lot and I wound up breaking an ankle one day while we were playing.  I can still recall hobbling home and then my mother taking me on the train to Manhattan where I got the ankle taped up.  I can’t remember if they put a cast on it, but I doubt it.  The ankle is still enlarged from that injury of many years ago.

          My grandmother used to call my friend “Yougene, Megene.”  She was an amazing woman.   Her husband died at age 37 from esophageal cancer.  He walked to the hospital the day he died.  My grandmother was left widowed with 6 children.  My mother was 7 at the time and she basically raised her younger sister and brother, aged 3 and 5.  My grandmother took any job she could find.  I think she was mainly a seamstress.  She was all of 5’1” or 2”   and probably never weighed more than 110 pounds, but she was of strong Russian (Ukranian) stock and a real survivor.  When her children were grown she would visit all of them and spend anywhere from 2 weeks to a couple of months, so all of us 11 grandkids got to know and love her very much.   She loved to play cards and taught all us kids many different card games.  We have passed some of them down to our great grandkids too.   She survived until 83 years of age.  I still think about and miss her dearly.