The Game's the Same
by John McGuinness
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, often with a baseball glove in one hand and a bat in the other. Now, many years later, I remain an avid fan of America’s true pastime.
Much has been said in recent years about how football has replaced baseball as the most popular spectator sport, and how youth baseball loses its best players to soccer and even lacrosse. But, to this observer, resurgent player and fan interest in baseball figures to return the sport of summer to its former and rightful dominance as the best game on earth.
Whether it was in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s or in the present-day Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or New Jersey, the game of baseball is basically the same as it always was. More significant, though, is the resurgence that we are presently seeing in this great game. Many feel that this resurgence is significant in our Garden State and is stimulated by some of the magnificent training centers that have recently emerged. Many of these training centers feature year-round training with qualified instructors who teach and train fundamentals and mechanics.
Despite the growth of these training facilities, I find many similarities to the resurgence in the game that I witnessed in Brooklyn during the 1950s and 1960s.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, baseball in Brooklyn was anything but organized. Still, detail conscious baseball people like Joe and Frank Torre, Rico Petrocelli, Sandy Koufax, Bob and Ken Aspromonte, Joe Pepitone, and Sal Campisi were products of this era. As a matter of fact, there was a time when many of these guys were on a sandlot field together under the discerning eyes of professional scouts who lined the field wall-to-wall. I remember seeing Sandy Koufax, while he was shagging fly balls, casually pick up a ball in the far right field corner and throw it toward home plate on a “bee line” that hardly rose above five feet. At the time Koufax was about to begin his first semester at Cincinnati University as a FIRST BASEMAN; however, when a scout witnessed his throwing ability from right field, everything changed and the best pitcher of my generation soon emerged.
During these times there were no Little League or Babe Ruth or Cal Ripken Leagues. The closest we had relative to those levels of organization was the Police Athletic League (PAL). Most often, our daily routine was to get as many guys together as possible, pack a lunch, and either walk or, if we were lucky, ride a bike to fields like Bay 8th Street, Marine Park, or The Parade Grounds. Since these parks were usually miles away from home, we would spend the entire day there, playing baseball. Often the ball we used was a taped-up remnant of a baseball whose cover had long ago eroded, and our bat, usually the only one we had, was laden with nails and tape to repair cracks.
Bases were brown bags with a rock on top or someone’s tee-shirt that was discarded in the heat of the day. We had no umpires, and calls were hotly disputed and often decided after a fistfight or two, with the toughest guy often being the decision maker. Very seldom did we ever utilize a regulation field, since it was impossible to round up 18 guys, nine for each side. To accommodate fewer players, we would divide the field in half and use just 1st base, 2nd base and home. We would not use a pitcher’s mound, so that the pitcher could situate himself properly for the smaller field.
During these games, we often did not have enough players to bat after runners got on base. Thus, the term “invisible runner” came about to designate a runner at a base. The game was ongoing as players would leave and be replaced by others who would suddenly arrive. It was impossible to keep score, yet every inning was intense and practically every play was contested. If a pitcher threw wildly or if a fielder threw to the wrong base, he would be subjected to the wrath of his teammates, and the ridicule was so intense that he would not allow it to happen again. The fundamentals of the game that we exhibited were generally passed down to us by our fathers, uncles, cousins, etc., and were mostly accurate, although not polished.
On days when we could not gather enough participants, we would revert to stickball. This was an unremarkably inventive game, which utilized a broomstick that was often pilfered from someone’s back yard or front porch and then sawed off from the broom end. The ball was a “spaldeen” which was a pink, rubber ball made by the Spalding Company, with a large seam running across the middle of it where the two halves were joined, that, when pitched properly, could be used to make the ball curve significantly.
Home plate was a box, shoulder-high to the knees, which was drawn with white chalk or painted on a wall behind the batter. The advantage, of course, always went to the pitcher, since every batter, short or tall, had the same strike zone drawn on the wall behind him.
Stickball usually took place in a schoolyard and only required two participants, a pitcher and a batter. Balls and strikes were determined by hitting the box behind the batter, and the pitcher threw from a distance that we could best approximate as the regulation 60’ 6”. Ground balls were outs, since we assumed they would be handled without a problem. A single was a ball in the air that landed beyond the pitcher, a double, hit also in the air past the pitcher, had to land at a pre-designated point, a triple was hit in the air against the fence, and a home run had to clear the fence, which was usually located about 250 feet away from where the batter stood.
Although we were only using a stick and a rubber ball, stickball was a great learning experience. Since the ball was easy to curve and came at you more or less from the required distance, we either learned to hit the dreaded breaking ball, or we got beat by it. Also, because changeups were a necessary part of every pitcher’s arsenal, we learned to throw and hit different speeds of pitches.
Since we seldom got tired and we were all physically fit, we needed something to do on warm, summer evenings. We were too young to chase girls, and we were restricted by our parents to stay close to home. The solution was a game called “triangle.”
“Triangle” also consisted of two people per team, one a pitcher and the other a fielder. When not in the field, the team at bat would slap the ball with the palm of the hand. The field was the “gutter” – i.e., the street between two curbs. We were constantly interrupted by the cars who drove through the street and at times they narrowly missed running us down as we ran across the street to 1st and 2nd base.
The game centered on the pitcher who would underhand-toss his “spaldeen” on one bounce to the batter. The trick was to “fluke” the ball or spin it so that when it bounced en-route to the batter it would spin one way or the other. The batter was restricted to hitting the ball on the ground, trying to slap it between the pitcher and the fielder, and then run across the gutter to first base to beat the play. Since we were once again dependent on our integrity (or lack thereof) to determine the call, the usual arguments ensued. Still, it was great fun, and, except for beating each other up, it kept us out of trouble and enhanced our skills and instincts.
As we got older the trips to the old fields also became less frequent. Concrete playgrounds were being built that accommodated softball. No longer did we have to gather people together for pickup games in the “gutter;” the playground was our new Mecca and, because we were older, we found various ways to get there. Still, every day we had an ongoing game with players constantly leaving and departing. We used the entire field and were thus able to enhance our knowledge and use of fundamental baseball skills such as throwing to the right cutoff man and running the bases properly.
One thing we all had in common was our love for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Consequently, Ebbets Field was a second home to us. We would play in the morning and, upon conclusion of our game, we had free tickets from the PAL. Off we would go on the bus to the Dodger game. Our seats were bleacher seats which, in the cozy confines of Ebbets Field, were always good seats. During the game, though, we always tried to sneak our way to even better seats, behind home plate or along one of the baselines.
Mostly, we aggravated the ushers who spent too much time escorting us back to the bleachers. We all lived in the section of town known as Bay Ridge, where many of the Dodgers’ players also lived. We also managed to annoy the Dodgers’ players and their families, by ringing their doorbells just to get a peek at them and request their autographs. We did not recognize their need to rest during the day after a night game and took exception when someone in their families informed us that they were resting. Now, as I get older and experience fatigue, I regret those intrusions.
I attended Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan, best known for basketball (Kareem Abdul Jabbar, aka Lew Alcindor). I tried out for and made the baseball team. Power’s home field was Macoombs Dam Park, located in the Bronx. Since I lived in Brooklyn, travel to-and-from the field took more than four hours per day. The travel time was impossible to maintain, particularly with the mindset of the Irish Christian Brothers who gave us two hours of homework daily and insisted that it be completed. So, invariably, it was back to the softball fields.
Although my “flat feet” affliction aborted any real chance that I might have had to advance as a player past the college level, I am once again happily engaged in the sport that gave me and so many others all those treasured memories from the halcyon stickball, “triangle,” and “spaldeen” days of our youth. After a successful career in the world of business, I now coach a group of young men, aged 15 to 18, who comprise the New Jersey Premier Travel Baseball Team.
Today’s players are routinely scouted at their high school or college games or at the aforementioned training facilities that have sprung up all over the Garden State. While the path to advancement has changed, the beauty of the game is that it remains essentially the same. The common denominator to advancement remains one’s willingness to play and learn the fundamentals of the game. Where we suffered the scorn of our teammates for missing the cutoff or running ourselves into an out on the base paths, today’s prospects benefit from professional instruction provided by experienced, competent players and coaches who employ videos and high-tech equipment.
The more the game changes, the more it remains the same. The more it remains the same, the more valued our memories become; and, the more treasured our memories are, the more resurgent the game becomes, yet again.
# # #