Glory Days: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 1948

by

10/24/2021

Neighborhood: Crown Heights

Arthur Leipzig Stickball, 1951.

“We’ll have tables for each of your epochs,” Judy brimmed. “One for your elementary school friends, one for your high school friends, one for your college friends, one for your law school friends, and one for your now friends.” She was planning a 70th birthday party for me and was on a roll. “It’ll be such fun! We’ll invite everybody you’ve ever known. And, how about this: you’ll give a speech about the most memorable day in your life.”

I wasn’t so enthusiastic and couldn’t understand why such a party made sense. For example: why would my elementary school friends be in the least interested in my law school friends? And the whole idea of celebrating my birthday with 50 others, most of whom I’ve rarely seen over the years, seemed over the top. But Judy was very excited, and what a jerk I’d be to put a full stop to that. So I went along.

As the party drew near, I began thinking of memorable things I’d done in my life and drew a blank. Nothing came to mind. Christ, was it seeing the Rose Window in Chartres Cathedral the first time? Yeah, that was memorable, but it had nothing to do with me. In 70 long years had I done a single thing that was spectacular and unique enough to be talked about? How depressing.

Then it hit me. Yes, I had. Yes indeed. And this is how I told it, after Judy introduced me, to the podium that night in a big restaurant in Little Italy with everyone I’d ever known in the audience.  

© Bruce Davidson
For reproduction please contact  Magnum Photos

It was 1948. I was 14. The war was over. America was Number One. Life was good.  I was a Gem, the name of our Crown Heights social and athletic club. We were about 15 kids, all of us in high school, ranging between 14 and 16.  Girls were still peripheral to our lives. We existed for one reason: to play ball.

There were a lot of choices in those days. My apartment building on Brooklyn’s Washington Avenue was across the street from two schoolyards.  One, PS 241, was a broad expanse offering baseball, football and basketball. The other, narrower, fit for my two favorite pastimes: “pitching in” and “long stickball.” Around the corner, Carroll Street was a dead end, so we could also play punchball on the street without traffic interrupting us. Our “nabe” was a kid’s Valhalla.

My best game was long stickball, played with baseball’s rules. We gathered in the Girls Commercial High School’s narrow schoolyard, marking the bases with chalk. Our bat was a broom handle. When, occasionally, it broke, someone would steal into his mother’s closet to “borrow” a new one. The pitcher stood about 20 feet from the batter and lobbed in a hard pink rubber “spaldeen” ball, but, by flicking his finger into the ball, a skilled pitcher could make it spin ferociously, so that batters often swung and missed the pitch. There were no “balls” and “strikes” in the seven-inning game. You had one swing only, and, if you whiffed, you were out. Besides the pitcher, four guys were in the field, one for each base and, because the concrete “field” was so narrow, only one in the outfield. The schoolyard extended about 300 feet from the batter’s box to a 20-foot wall topped by an iron fence. Home runs were very rare at that distance and height.

The Gems weren’t the only ones playing long stickball in Brooklyn in 1948. I learned in the Erasmus Hall High School cafeteria that many adjoining neighborhoods also indulged. 

One day Chip D’Alessandro from my chemistry class joined me for lunch. He hung out at PS 161 on Nostrand Avenue. 

“Yeah, we play it all the time,” he offered, his mouth full of ripe salami.

“Really?”

“Yeah, really! Every day. In the 161 schoolyard. We gotta pitcha, Joe Cicerone, you know ‘im?  The guy with the duck-ass hair in biology? He can make a spaldeen jump left, and then jump right, all in a row. Nobody hits him. And then we got Angelo Falco, you know him? The big fat guy that sits behind that girl with the big tits in English? You might think he’s too fat to do anything, but that fat fuck can hit the ball a fuckin’ mile. We got a coupla guys like that. Do you guys play it a lot?”

“All the time. In the Girls Commercial schoolyard on Carroll Street.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really! 300 feet to the fence. I doubt Angelo Falco could reach that on his best day. But we gotta guy, Mike, who hit two homers there in one afternoon. He’s a natural. And Paul Angard, you know him? He’s the guy in Spanish who kisses Mrs. Rubin’s ass all the time, but otherwise not a bad guy? He puts a curve on the ball that you never saw before. Unhittable. And you know what, I’m not so bad a hitter myself. Easily three sewers, and maybe four.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really! I got a stance like ‘Teddy Ballgame’ but I’m a righty.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you hit like Williams. Bullshit! What’s the name of your guys?”

“We’re the Gems. Who’re you guys?”

“We’re the Bucks.” You saw Falco in a blue and white jacket yesterday? That’s us.”

“If you’re so good, maybe we should play ‘ya.”

“Ha, are you kiddin? We’d kick your ass so far down Carroll Street you wouldn’t know what the fuck happened.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really!”

“Oh, I’m real scared. OK, I’m gonna ask my guys. You ask yours. I’ll see you tomorra.”

The challenge electrified us, challenging our hyper-sensitive sports egos as few things could. “We’ll kill ‘em,” said Peter. “Fuck the Bucks,” we chanted and got down to business, selecting the five guys for our team. 

I got fingered for being a good hitter.  Of course, Angard was our pitcher. He grinned like the Cheshire Cat and promised us, “They won’t get near my effin’ pitches with a ten foot pole.”  Hal the Gal was our best infielder and Paul Cohen and Lenny Asch, were almost as good. Mike Schimmel roamed the outfield with the best and could hit like the Duke. We were complete.

The game was on for next Tuesday. We practiced three days straight, with me “fungoing” balls to all the fielders. Angard came up with a new pitch where he flicked his middle finger under the ball so that when it landed, it bounced back toward him throwing the batter way off his stride. We called it a “change up.” Angard grabbed his crotch and brayed like a donkey every time a batter whiffed on that pitch. 

We were ready. All of us went to bed early Monday night and, after the final bell at school, we got the first trolley to Empire Boulevard so we’d be at the schoolyard on time. The Bucks showed up around 4 p.m. They brought their own broomsticks. I can’t say they were friendly. Things were tense from the get go. They introduced themselves around, but none of us paid attention because we hated them now, regardless of what they called themselves. We “chose” for who batted first.  “Once, twice-three, shoot.” We won, and told the Bucks to bat first.

No one scored for five innings. Their pitcher, Cicerone, turned out better than we had expected. He put a new spin on the ball we hadn’t ever seen before that somehow made it bounce high and inside. It fooled us all. We were striking out big-time. Whenever I got up, Hal the Gal kept encouraging me: “Hit the pebble babe, a little bingle is what we need, go for it Big Norb.” But I kept swinging at air. 

After the fifth, I was 0-for-3, and dejected and embarrassed. Meanwhile Angard was doing a credible job mixing up his usual spaldeen curves with his new change of pace. But in the sixth inning game, Falco doubled for the Bucks. Then the next batter, a pimply little guy they called Boiardi, like the Chef, hit an easy grounder to Hal the Gal who let it go through his legs for one run. ARRRRRGGGG. No one could look at Hal when we came in for our at-bat.

Now things were really tense, behind 1-0 with only two chances left, and it quickly became worse when we didn’t score in the bottom of the sixth. In the top of the seventh, the last inning, the Bucks went down one, two, three. So now it was do or die for us. The Bucks were chatting it up in the infield, making noises like the game was already in the bag. Angard batted first and struck out. Mike up next. He took 5 pitches before he swung and got a little piece of the ball which dribbled down to third base so slowly Boiardi had no chance to toss him out. But Hal the Gal lofted an easy fly to the pitcher. So now, two out and a man on first. And guess who’s up next.

I was scared and wished it wasn’t up to me. This pitcher had me fooled. I confess, the clutch was never my favorite place to be. Gripping the broom handle tightly, I loosened my fingers one by one. I remember feeling the quiet. Then, “C’mon Big Norb, nail one. Norb, Norby, Norb.” Every Gem had his hands cupped to his mouth. It was loud. 

The pitcher eyed me. I took his first two pitches, each of which bounced in crazy directions that would’ve had me swinglng wildly and probably missing, again. Then Cicerone made a mistake and threw a third pitch with nothing on it, trying to send me off balance and fake me into swinging wildly. The ball approached me on a simple arc. I thought, it’s now or never. Hit the mother. I began my swinging cadence by “dancing” forward to the ball with my left foot on one beat followed, in waltz tempo, by the right and then the left again. That almost balletic stride is etched into my mind. The broom-bat lifted behind me as I locked my hands into my grip and straightened my left arm. My eye to ball synchrony was elegant. I actually saw my bat make contact with the ball as I connected.  My swing swept in a wide upward parabola. 

The ball left my bat and rose, it soared, it escaped gravity, rocketed into the sky in an unforgettable arc, a tiny pink sphere, sure of its destination and bound for glory. As I ran to first I stopped to follow the spaldeen’s flight. “Go, go, go,” shouted Hal the Gal, and it went, with all eyes watching, over the fence onto Classon Avenue: not simply a 300 plus foot hit, not simply a home run, not simply a  walk-off game winning smash, not simply a transforming Ruthian blast, but, for me, an explosion of pride, of belonging, of jubilation, of winning and, yes, of love for my fellow man, the likes of which have never been duplicated since. 

As I rounded the bases and stepped on home plate, cementing our victory, Mike jumped on my back and screamed, “You’ll never forget this one.” That night on the dais in Little Italy, almost 60 years later, in front of that birthday audience, I thought: “You were right Mike baby, that was The Day.”

***

Norbert Weissberg is a resident of East Hampton, New York and a student in the memoir writing class  offered by the East Hampton Library under the direction of noted journalist Andrew Visconti

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§ 9 Responses to “Glory Days: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 1948”

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Wonderful story. The cacaphony of voices is magical.

  • Ann Cody White says:

    Evocative in the extreme. A terrific read!

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    i love this story, and i loved Norbert Weissberg’s previous one published here. in general, stories about NYC street games practically move me to tears because of the passion behind them, the ingenuity, and the deification of everything related to them. Weissberg is a master of this domain and i can’t wait for the next one. Go, Norby!

  • phyllis leventhal says:

    An A+ on the cement playing field in ’48, A+ in the 70-year-old birthday boy’s recounting, and surely A+now, memorializing the wondrous Memory Lane.

    The best part: it’s ‘your voice,’ Norby.

  • hal bromm says:

    Norby,
    What a brilliant recollection of the most memorable day in your life.
    The exhilaration and pride you felt is palpable in your fine writing, a great read.

    Imagining guests at your party expecting to hear your jubilation at the birth of your first child, the joy of your wedding day or some other indelible memory, they were no doubt delighted to hear what really held lasting meaning for you. I sure was.

    Hal

  • Sheila Brog says:

    It seemed like an Ebbets field performance.

  • Suzanne Thompson says:

    Enchanting. The language is so rich, the detail so vibrant. Your description of your winning hit is out of the ballpark.

  • Ken ferrin says:

    Brilliant!
    How come I wasn’t invited?
    Let’s get together this week. We could have a conversation on our porch.
    Ken

  • Daniel Donofrio says:

    You are still great remember last year at the tennis club we played stick ball and I threw u my first pitch and u hit a home run into parking lot
    I was amazed that a 87 yr old man hit home run
    “You still got it”

§ Leave a Reply

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