A Forgotten Game

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03/27/2012

Neighborhood: Jackson Heights

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I don’t know who invented the game or whether it is still played today. Slap Ball had a brief vogue in New York City schoolyards in the early Sixties, and in Jackson Heights, Queens, where I grew up, it attained minor cult status as the game of choice for the physically challenged. A welcome alternative to punchball, softball, and baseball, in which I performed so poorly the other kids would crowd around snickering when I got up to bat, waiting for me to strike out—slapball was my chance to shine.

A game of extreme constraint, played in the tight confines of a handball court with the diamond grid of the ballpark chalked in miniature on the buckled cement, it demanded more cunning than real skill, more spryness than hand-eye coordination, more gumption than athletic prowess.

As an aphorism is to an epic, so slap ball shrank the expectations of the ballpark to bite-sized proportions. For whereas the vast sweep of the playing field ringed with onlookers had always seemed intimidating, invariably bringing on bowed shoulders of defeat and an asthmatic wheeze, its microcosmic equivalent squeezed into the confines of an outdoor handball court felt strangely comforting. It was as if the safe haven of my childhood nursery had been lifted, walls and all, from home and plunked down in a distant corner of the schoolyard where nobody noticed it. That precisely was the game’s greatest attraction and its greatest fault: that nobody noticed.

Slapball victories were won way off the radar of public approbation, and any attempt to boast about them would have been met with blank looks.

But I can still recall the day in sixth grade when a few of the same champions, gruff Kenny P., tall Mark R., glib Gary S., and my nemesis Robert H., not a one of whom would ever in the grand public sphere of the spectacle have deigned to choose me for their team, stood there holding their ground with meager expectations, when somebody pitched. Bluffing with a grin at Gary S. and a wink at Robert H., I swung with the flat palm of my hand, putting a devilish spin on the red rubber ball so that it went careening, almost perpendicular to my slap, in between the legs of a disconcerted Kenny P, grazed the crack at the chalk baseline near third base, and bounced toward a rattled Mark R., who fumbled with and dropped it, while Robert H.’s jaw dropped, permitting me ample time to round the bases and make my way to home plate.»

They stared at me as if I had just stepped out of my loser’s skin and revealed a hidden side of myself, like the bespectacled Clark Kent morphing into Superman, or the wimpy Peter Parker into the spry Spiderman, a local hero who had recently made his first appearance in the pages of Amazing Fantasy. Just this once I might have earned bragging rights, were it not for the news report from Dallas.

It was just after the start of recess, approximately 11:35 Eastern Time, Friday, November 22, 1963. The teachers suddenly called us into the auditorium for an unexpected assembly, at which the principal announced in a solemn voice that the President had been shot, simultaneously perhaps also the death blow for slapball, and we were dismissed for the day. Expecting adulation, I could barely choke back my disappointment. Dallas seemed as far away as the moon. All everybody really cared about was the half day off from school.

A writer in multiple modes, Peter Wortsman is the author of fiction (A Modern Way to Die), drama (Tattooed Man Tells All and Burning Words), and travel writing for newspapers and websites, and selected for five consecutive issues of Travelers’ Tales’ The Best Travel Writing 2008-2012. He has also translated numerous books from the German. His forthcoming books include Ghost Dance in Berlin, a rhapsody in gray, Travelers’ Tales/Solas House, 2013; Tales of the German Imagination, From the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, an anthology, Penguin Classics, 2013; and Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm, a new translation, Archipelago Books, 2013.

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§ 3 Responses to “A Forgotten Game”

  • Jason Trask says:

    I love it, Peter. Very good story and I love the way it’s told and I love the way the cruelty of the news gods crushes the narrator’s finest moment.

  • pamela rikkers says:

    I loved the slap ball article/memoir. The thinking is so true to kids. One of the best articles I’ve read about “where I was the day Kennedy was shot.”
    Thank you for sending!!

  • Ron says:

    I remember playing slap ball after lunch in the school yard of IS 145. Circa 1964. The rule was if you hit the top bar of the fence setting the boundary for the yard, it was a home run. If the Pennsy Pinky went over the fence, it was a out.
    My claim to fame was when my team hit around the lineup twice, and both times I hit that top bar. Two homers in 1 inning!
    I’m 60 and don’t remember what I had for breakfast, but that day sticks to me like crazy glue.
    Peace
    Ron

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