175th Street, between Audubon and Saint Nicholas Avenues was the playing field for hundreds of boys each year, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Anchored mid-block by Incarnation Grammar School, 175th Street was a four-car-wide, smoothly paved, level, treeless, usually-blocked-off-during-school-days street. The sidewalks were also wide and level, the street curbs sharp and unbroken, and the six floor apartment houses had just two or three-step stoops. It was a perfect playing field for our daily, year-round sports.
Our sports equipment box (usually an empty cereal or paper packaged goods cardboard crate) contained: clip-on steel-wheeled roller skates and keys, Spaulding balls (in our neighborhood they were called Spaldeens), white and black adhesive tape, metal bottle caps, a candle, used popsicle sticks, white chalk, a hockey stick, a broom handle, a metal box (containing simple fish hooks, sinkers and a pocket knife), a bamboo fishing pole, a basketball and several horseshoes. Girls’ gear boxes would also include jump ropes.
With the stoop serving as a grandstand, “curb ball” was the primary team sport, three seasons a year. Organized by whoever was available, it was usually five players on each side – three were infielders and two were outfielders – first, second and third bases were chalked on the asphalt.
The batter, using a Spaldeen, would strike the ball against a home plate chalked on the curb edge and then run the bases. Fast kids became skilled bunters, and against stronger batters, the fielders learned to play the numerous balls hit off the building facades. There weren’t any umpires, the players making and accepting their peer judgments. During the week, we played everyday from school dismissal until the street lights came on. On the weekends, it was all day long.
If we weren’t playing curb ball, roller skates were always on our feet. Clamped onto old shoes or sneakers, ball bearings oiled, skate key on strings around our necks, I vividly recall how my teeth would ache after a long afternoon of endless steel wheel clatter on cement sidewalks and hard paved streets.
Incarnation Grammar School and neighboring Catholic grammar schools had after-school hockey leagues and provided and stored the nets. Hockey sticks were taped black at the blades, which became razor-thin from pavement wear, and white at the handles to ensure a good grip. There was no padding for heads, elbows or knees. Games were rough and corduroys and dungarees got maximum wear. Older boys served as refs. We played until our mothers shouted “supper!!!” from apartment windows.
Hockey wasn’t a girl’s game, so the girls created their own just as tough (perhaps tougher) sport—roller derby! On the street, with the same set of steel wheels, it was usually a Saturday sport in cool weather times. The girls set up an oval marked by chalk and by the city’s wire trash barrels. Organized into teams of four to six people, they careened around the track. Competition was fierce, with teams playing to win. There was no padding other than however many layers of clothes they could wear and still manage to maneuver. They would race, weave, elbow, dodge, trip and bump each other around the course. They were, of course, encouraged by their spectator boyfriends.
What was so surprising is how few serious injuries there were. Sure, cement and pavement scrapes, scratches, bruises and raspberries were commonplace, but there were few broken bones or concussions. There were only ever two kinds of sports fatalities in our neighborhood. One was when daredevil skaters hitched rides on unsuspecting bus and truck bumpers and would inadvertently be pulled under the wheels or run over by following vehicles. The other was when kids would swim in the Harlem River. When the weather got too hot, or the High Bridge Pool was closed because of the latest polio outbreak, the swimmers would decide to go in the river. Each summer, a couple of kids would drown or disappear in the treacherous and deadly whirlpools and eddies.
The only other sports hazard was the supers’ nasty cellar dogs. Most building superintendents lived in basement apartments and had dogs to protect their building. A Spaldeen that went into a basement or backyard and that wasn’t retrieved with stealth would sometimes result in dog-bitten, ripped clothes – or worse, kid’s flesh.
Basketball was limited to foul shooting, using the wire street garbage cans as ground level baskets. We emptied them and then placed them along a windowless portion of a brick wall to serve as a backboard. Then we dunked the balls as if they up high.
During the hot summer days, quieter one-on-one sidewalk games provided hours of fun and healthy competition. The key elements were a Spaldeen, a Popsicle stick, a metal bottle-cap, wax and some chalk.
The simplest game was called “box ball”. Two players separated by two sidewalk concrete boxes (usually two feet by two feet square), used a Spaldeen, and with open palms slapped the ball back and forth. It was played like tennis, only without a racket or net or fancy scoring words, like “love”.
A variation of the game was played by placing a popsicle stick in the crack between two boxes. (One side of the stick was marked with chalk.) In this version, the object was to hit the stick (one point), or flip it over (two points). Skilled players were able to hit the stick out of the crack and move it closer to themselves; thus making it harder for their opponents to score points.
A game requiring more skill, and lots of kneeling on the concrete, was simply called “checkers”. All it required was a metal soda pop cap, some candle wax and chalk. The candle was melted and the wax used to fill the cap, giving it a bit of weight and more solidity. Then what amounted to a squared off spider web was chalked onto a sidewalk box. The web contained thirteen squares; twelve arranged in the corners and along the edges of the box, and the thirteenth was chalked in the center. Then the chalked squares were connected to each other and the center box, in a spider-like web.
The first player to get to thirteen by progressing though the twelve numbered squares and then back to one was the winner. A checker stopped on the web was safe; one knocked off lost a turn and had to return to the previous box. Checkers were moved by flicking them with your thumb and index finger. You can imagine how scraped and callused your index finger became after hours of play each day.
The children on 175th Street didn’t fish in the Hudson River, in the vicinity of the George Washington Bridge or by the little lighthouse that sat beneath it, but oftentimes we watched the neighborhood grandfathers, who made six foot-long bamboo poles and melted lead for sinkers and hooks. Worms were dug up in the park. Half the fun was walking down to the river; the other half was the occasionally caught striped bass or eel. No one measured for throw-back length. The decision to discard or keep was if there would be enough of the fish to eat, after being cleaned.
Few went swimming there. The water was as treacherous as the Harlem River, with strong tidal currents, rock strewn embankments and large ships.
Ours was mixed ethnic neighborhood. Irish, Italian, Puerto Rican and German predominated. In the street games, there was a complete absence of ethnicity. Players were selected on their comparative skill and their willingness to share equipment. For some games it was speed, for others strength or accuracy. Fights were rare; a feeling of fairness was pervasive.