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 d�mod� 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.
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."