Notes of a Footnote – 4 – Spaldeen City
Little Red in Spaldeen City
Topping the list of essential items of sporting equipment in use during my West Village childhood were the pale pink hollow rubber balls – about the size and feel of freshly shaven tennis balls – that were known to several generations of New York City kids as spaldeens. Manufactured by the firm of A.G. Spalding & Bros., they were an indispensable adjunct to a multiplicity of popular urban street games. Girls tended to use spaldeens in playing jacks, and for a number of rhythmic bouncing-rhyming games similar to those involving skipping ropes. Boys, in the main, used spaldeens in playing punchball, stoopball and stickball; all of which were variations on the rules and forms of baseball.
Albert Goodwill Spalding, then aged 26, must have had a busy time of it in 1876. During that first year of the National League, Spalding, having been poached from the Boston Red Stockings by Chicago club owner William A. Hulbert, pitched 61 of his team’s 66 games, winning 47, losing 13, and posting an ERA of 1.75. Somewhere in and around the 528.2 innings he worked that year he found time to start the sporting goods company that bears his name to this day. Spalding was something of a Gilded Age archetype, combining go-getting business push with a passionate missionary zeal in promoting the game of baseball (which he resolutely refused to acknowledge as evolving from various other, mainly British, bat, ball and running games) and an often-Machiavellian politicking in pursuit of his business and other interests. Spalding’s 1910 autobiography, while full of self-serving bombast and robust chauvinism certainly throws a light – often misleading – on the sporting life of his time. Accounts of his machinations during the Players’ League war of 1890 that pitted him against Players’ League leader and star player, John Montgomery Ward show him to have had the scruples of a stoat and, to quote A.J. Leibling’s friend, Colonel Stingo, “the soul of Jimmy Hope the bank robber.”
The word spaldeen appears to be a Hibernicism, adding the Gaelic diminutive ‘een’ to the first syllable of the maker’s name. However, according to Robert Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, the word may derive from pillini, Italian for ‘small ball’, later corrupted into ‘balleen’; the name used for the target or ‘jack’ ball in bocce, the Italian version of bowls. As the word spaldeen is a usage exclusive to New York City, it is perhaps fitting that its true etymology should be lost in the moil of the melting pot.
The first spaldeen I bought, circa 1949, cost fifteen cents. By the time my street game days were over, ten years or so later, they had gone up to a quarter. Such sums represented a good slice of the average kid’s budget, and the selection and purchase of a new spaldeen was a serious business. Of course sporting goods outlets like Davega stocked them, but most spaldeens were bought from neighbourhood candy stores, variety emporia and local newspaper shops. I bought mine variously from the ‘white trash’ store at 4 Bethune Street; a general candy/periodicals & toy shop on Hudson Street just south of Bank; a similar establishment on the southwest corner of Eleventh and Bleecker – the site lately occupied by The Biography Bookstore; and from a candy store/soda fountain located a few blocks further south on Bleecker that was owned by prominent local middleweight boxer named Paddy Young. Five & Dime chains like Woolworth’s and Nicholls sold rubber balls as well, but these tended to be either inferior imitations of the genuine article, or spaldeens that had been stored for too long and had lost their bounce. And with a spaldeen bounce was what you bought.
The standard consumer test to be made before buying a new spaldeen was to hold the selected ball at eye-level and let it drop plumb to the floor. If it bounced back up to your chest or above it was a winner. If the rebound rose to between navel and sternum the ball was acceptable. A ball bouncing below the waist was a reject. The discerning purchaser would also look for telltale discolorations. Spaldeens were perishable and as they aged and went dead they would lose their rosy pinkness and develop patches of brown-egg-beige: this process was accelerated by some ignorant storekeepers who would leave boxes of spaldeens in window displays unprotected from sunlight.
Once you had your spaldeen in your hand (when brand new the best were pleasantly powdery to the touch) your next problem was deciding which game to play, and where to play it. The simplest of the baseball-derived games utilizing the spaldeen was punchball. As its name implies, this consisted of using the closed hand as a bat to hit the ball, which was either pitched on one bounce or tossed up, fungo-style, out of the batter’s non-hitting hand. Once you learned to hit the ball with the correct part of the fist, which was on the palm side, just where the meaty part below the thumb presses against the middle digits of the clenched knuckles, there weren’t many subtleties to the game and you could play it just about anywhere. The game was not a favourite in our neighbourhood and I didn’t play it much at all.
Stoopball, on the other hand, needed a bit more technique and a specialized venue. The name of the game derives, of course, from the short stone stairways built into the front of older New York City dwellings, and known from Knickerbocker days as stoops; a corrupting of stoep, the Dutch word for step or stair. The essence of stoopball as a baseball variant is the elimination of the pitcher, in that the hitter throws the ball against a solid angled or rounded surface, the ricochet thus putting the ball in play. To get lift and distance the trick is to aim the ball so as to hit the striking surface precisely on the point of the angle, or the cusp of the arc, causing the ball to fly up as well as away. Stoopball games in our neighbourhood tended to be low-scoring affairs as the hitter’s options were limited to the number of angles and trajectories he could conjure out of the strike, and the percentages were all on the side of the fielding team. There is a vivid and microscopically accurate description of New York City stoopball in J.D. Salinger’s novella, Seymour: An Introduction, that makes clear that stoopball could be played not only off stoops but also from the decorative moulding on the frontages of more modern apartment buildings, or even simply the iron-rimmed edge of a sidewalk. As noted earlier, our favourite stoopball strike was the plinth of the doughboy statue in Abingdon Square.
Abingdon Square, like many larger Manhattan so-called squares, is actually a triangle, bounded by Hudson Street, Twelfth Street and the first block of Eighth Avenue. Its name derives from an 18th century Earl of Abingdon who married Charlotte, a daughter of Sir Peter Warren, a privateer [read officially authorized pirate] who expended much of his wealth in buying up most of what is now the West Village. As well as the benches and trees that are still features of the little park, there was in my day a sandpit and, just outside the southern end park gate, one of the city’s last horse watering troughs. The centrepiece of the park is a larger-than-life bronze statue depicting a soldier of World War I. He is a stalwart figure, supporting the frozen furls of a standard with one hand and brandishing a huge automatic pistol with the other. The statue stands on a high granite plinth, the base of which afforded a perfect stoopball strike. The statue has since been moved – plinth and all – to the southern end of the park but in my day it stood opposite the uptown, Twelfth Street, exit of the park which had trees on each side of the gate. These were barely more than saplings when I was young and they acted as bases, thus turning the space between the plinth and fence into a symmetrical triangular infield – the outfield being the street beyond the park fence. To complete the facilities there was a drinking fountain immediately next to the first base tree at the east side of the gate. I spent many hours playing stoopball on this spot; whole days sometimes during school vacation times. I held my own as a player but, unsurprisingly, the star was Bobby Behan. He could hit balls off the statue plinth that would carom, on-the-fly, out of the park, across the street, and hit two or three storeys up the façade of the apartment building that still takes up the whole block of Twelfth Street between Eighth Avenue and Hudson Street. A kid named Marty Rosenberg lived in that building and was a regular player; as was Joe Sanchez who lived in another apartment building on Twelfth-street, just east of Eighth Avenue where his father was super. I remember one occasion when we were playing in the park and looked across to the entrance of another building on Eighth, just around the corner from Joe’s, our attention grabbed by the sight of an elderly gent in full 18th century fig who was standing by the kerb. He looked as if he could have been a visitor to Peter Warren’s estate in a flaired coat, long waistcoat, knee-breeches, white stockings, buckle shoes, plumed tricorne hat and powdered wig and carrying a three/quarter height walking stick. He was, in fact, the man who modeled for the Knickerbocker beer advertisements of the period, and he was waiting for a taxi, having completed a session in the studio of a photographer who lived in the building.
Due to its great adaptability stoopball was popular and widely played during my youth but, undoubtedly, the king of spaldeen games was stickball, which also had a number of variants, each ingeniously tailored to the playing space available. Classic long street stickball was simply baseball played in the gutter with a spaldeen and an old broom- or mop-handle. Gloves, although neither forbidden, nor even frowned on, were seldom used as a lively spaldeen tended to bounce out of a glove very easily. The traditional method of manufacturing a stickball bat (leaving aside the larceny almost always involved in securing the raw material) was simply to saw, or (sometimes) burn, off the redundant cleaning end of a broom or mop, leaving a shaft, ideally about four-foot long. Genuine old-fashioned New York City stickball was generally played in narrow cross-town streets, the wider up- and downtown avenues usually having too much traffic. On Bethune Street there was a combination. Home plate was a manhole cover near Greenwich Street, the infield was the block between Greenwich and Hudson, and the outfield was the broad, pavement-less expanse at the confluence of Hudson, Eighth Avenue and Bleecker Street. Would-be DiMaggios had to do a certain amount of bus dodging but I can’t recall any fatalities. Although no two stickball fields were the same, ours was fairly typical of those which were often the floors of noisy canyons of brick and brownstone tenements that rose abruptly on the first and third base sides and sometimes held spectators on the stoops or looking down from the fire-escapes. The most important batting technique in stickball was the ability to hit up the middle. Baselines were chalked only to the kerb, and anything that hit the sidewalk or the buildings was foul, if not out. In addition, the residents of the buildings did not relish having their windows broken, and would sometimes not return a ball that lodged on their fire escapes. Bloody street wars were known to start over such occurrences.
Many stickball players were extraordinarily expert, and some (although none from our neighbourhood) had a renown that went beyond the folklore of the streets. Famously, Willie Mays often played in Harlem pick-up games during his days with the New York Giants. He was a good stickball player but not by any means the best. Pitching in stickball was often raised to a high degree of sophistication and hitting was not easy. The pitcher would usually throw the ball on one bounce, and by turning and squeezing the spaldeen in various ways would cause it to ‘fluke’ before reaching home plate. This technique – akin to spin bowling in cricket – can be frustrating to bat against. According to Roger Kahn, writing in The Boys of Summer, Duke Snider, Mays’s opposite number as Brooklyn Dodger centerfielder and, at that time in the early mid-50s, a leading slugger in the National League, tried and failed at stickball, saying afterwards, “I couldn’t hit the damned thing with that damned skinny broomstick.”
I played a certain amount of long street stickball as a youth, but the game was beginning to disappear from our neighbourhood by the time I reached my teens. This was partly due to demographic changes: the growing exodus during the decade following the end of World War II of the dock-centred working class, who were increasingly leaving for places like Queens and New Jersey; and partly due to the existence of playing areas that lent themselves to other forms of stickball needing fewer players. Of these the simplest was straight fast pitch stickball. For this one simply chalked a strike zone on a wall and the pitcher let fly and the batter tried to cope. This was almost always a low-scoring game as hitting a fast rising spaldeen with a broomstick at all is difficult; hitting it squarely is almost impossible. The method of scoring in fast pitch was more or less the same as the game I played most as a youth that was known as ‘off-the-wall’. This game was also across rather than along the street, usually by teams of one, two or three. The method was for the pitcher to stand on one sidewalk and throw the ball against the opposite wall, allowing the batter, standing just off the kerb, to hit the rebound on one bounce. If the batter swung and missed once it counted as a strike out. If he hit the ball so that it bounced before reaching the wall and was fielded cleanly, he was out, as he was if the ball was caught on the fly. If the ball hit the wall directly off the bat and bounced on the nearest sidewalk it was a single; if it bounced into the street it was a double; if it carried to the opposite sidewalk it was a triple; and if it ricocheted all the way to wall behind the pitcher, or over, it was a home run.
As mentioned previously, the wall off which I most often played this version stickball was the six-storey façade of the building at 33-37 Bethune Street housing at that time a cardboard packaging manufacturer, the Pickwick Paper Company. Perhaps because I lived only a few doors away and was a familiar face I was treated – in contrast with the iron foundry at the east end of the block – with considerable patience and forbearance by the Pickwick workers. Even during business hours we were seldom chased away unless the ball actually got into the factory more than once during a game. Part of the Pickwick building’s attraction as a stickball venue was its ability to be transformed by me – a fanatical Brooklyn Dodger supporter be it remembered – into a graphically exact mental replica of Ebbets Field. It was there that in September 1952 I attended my first major league game. It was between the Dodgers and their archrival New York Giants, then still involved in a pennant race. The Dodgers won 4-2. Both Joe Black and Hoyt Wilhelm, the star rookie relief pitchers, appeared in the game. The most memorable incident of the evening was the appearance of a small white dog that ran on the field and managed to evade the combined posse of umpires and ground crew for over fifteen minutes. When playing I impersonated an entire line-up that ran: Gilliam, Reese, Snider, Hodges, Campanella, Furillo, Robinson (or Shuba), Cox and Erskine. If I was getting hit hard, Clem Labine was waiting in the bullpen of my imagination. The illusion was aided by the fact that playing the rebounds off the Pickwick building was akin to fielding the caroms produced by the notorious right field wall in the old Brooklyn ballpark. The second, third and fourth floor windows were covered with wire mesh screens that caused any ball that hit them to drop dead. In addition there were fire escapes and a company sign that ran the entire width of the frontage. This, being made of tin framed with timber, and angled slightly downward, caused balls hitting it to rebound eccentrically – as well as making a very loud and locally unpopular noise.
Eventually, mainly due to the lowness of the building opposite the Pickwick Company that caused so many balls to fly on to its roof, necessitating the tiresome recovery strategies detailed earlier [see Chapter One, ‘Down Around B’toon’) we moved our stickball games a block west to a parking lot attached to the John Swift Printing Company and opposite the Bell Telephone Labs building. This was a large, smoothly surfaced space that was under-used and, at weekends especially, often completely empty. Its real attraction though was its wall, the rear of a warehouse facing Twelfth Street, since converted into apartments. This wall rose six storeys sheer, with neither windows nor ledges. You couldn’t hit a ball over it, and the only way to lose a ball was to have it land on the roof of the company’s loading bay, and this, despite a bit of desultory barbed-wire, was pretty easily accessible. We lost some of the challenges offered by the unpredictable Pickwick bounces but generally the playing space was preferable, and amenable to a larger variety of games, as well as being more economical of balls. As I’ve said, spaldeens were expensive to us: expensive enough to warrant risks in recovering them, also to generate a small but significant black market in lost ones. A few kids around the neighbourhood, either by playing hookey or going to schools that got out earlier than most, would have leisure to prowl and climb around the various stickball venues and recover balls that had been lost on roofs, fire escapes or wherever; and they would hoard them for their own use, or try to sell them for what they would fetch. Needless to say, those going in for such opportunism were regarded by us less entrepreneurial types as the last word in lowlifes.
In the winter, when our various ball games were out of season, the Swift Company parking lot made for an excellent roller hockey rink. In its season hockey was as much of a favourite of mine as baseball and basketball. (I very seldom played football and to this day take only a tepid interest in the gridiron game, much preferring the Rugby Union code.) During the seasons of 1958-’59 and ’59-’60 the New York Rangers played 70 regular-season home games at Madison Square Garden and I was at 67 of them. I saw the other three on television and attended a couple of Stanley Cup play-off games as well. These were the Rangers of Andy Bathgate, Bill Gadsby, Gump Worsley, Red Sullivan, Camille “The Eel” Henry, et alia. I almost invariably watched these heroes from Section 329, the last section of the Side Balcony at the southwest corner of the old Garden. Tickets for this cost $1.50 (75 cents with my school G.O. Card), and it was a rotational duty to arrive when the Garden doors opened, rush upstairs and reserve the first two rows of Section 329 for the fifteen or twenty regulars. The view from these seats was tantamount to that offered by the End Balcony which cost a dollar more.
Across Eighth Avenue between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Streets, a couple of blocks south of the Garden, was Gerry Cosby’s old store where we bought the bulk of our street hockey gear. (The present Cosby’s is part of the new Madison Square Garden complex above Pennsylvania Station.) The most important thing to have, of course, was a good pair of shoe skates. This was long before the days of in-line or roller blade skates with their composition wheels, and the thing to have in those days were skates with solid steel wheels. These lasted much longer than ordinary roller skate wheels but were expensive to replace and we often wore them down from their original inch depth to bare slivers. Sticks, pads, shorts, hose and jerseys were all available from Cosby’s (this was before the introduction of helmets) leaving only the puck to be improvised. An actual ice hockey puck is unsuitable for the street game; it is too heavy and won’t slide properly along asphalt. In some places this problem is overcome by the expedient of using a ball. We would have scorned such degenerate inauthenticity – as we would modern purpose-built stickball bats. What we used was a roll of electrical friction tape with a bottle cap lodged in the centre to give spine. For special games we would sometimes cover the friction tape with a coat of melted candle wax and then put it in the icebox for several days. The first time I tried this my mother was somewhat taken aback to find several odd black objects in amongst the ice cubes and frozen peas. When I explained she shrugged in her characteristically tolerant way and said that she supposed it would be all right if I really had to.
Constructing a goal was also something of a challenge. A few public playgrounds, notably the one at Twenty-eighth Street and Tenth Avenue behind the Hudson Guild, had full-sized hockey goals made of iron pipes and chain-link fencing, but this was too far away for regular use and so improvisation was called for. Goals were made of packing cases, odd bits of wood and whatever else suggested itself. Sometimes a goal was just chalked against a wall, or even flat on the street, but this was unsatisfactory as it inevitably gave rise to arguments as to whether the puck had actually ‘gone in’ or not. Finally an ingenious local constructed a goal for us out of a single piece of light piping that he bent into a freestanding shape that would support netting. Its only drawback was that it had no depth at the top, but it answered the purpose quite well, and was easily portable. Sometimes (usually when no one else was at home) I would use the fire-screen in our living room as a goal; practising for hours in trying to perfect the technique of ‘lifting’ the puck, aiming at an equation of maximum vertical rise with the minimum of horizontal distance. Old Ranger fans will recall that the ability to do this was the basis of Camille Henry’s goal scoring, almost always the result of flipping or poking in rebounds. Out on the streets, when I wasn’t being Camille “The Eel”, I liked to tend goal. I was pretty good and although I haven’t had a pair of skates on for over 50 years I’m sure I could still skate backwards.
The game one really couldn’t play satisfactorily immediately around the block was basketball. I did hang the inevitable peach basket on the window screen of the garage across the street but perhaps because my imagination was atrophying as I got into my teens, it didn’t really make it as a facsimile of the Garden. One had to travel a bit to find a proper court and the nearest ones in our neighbourhood were part of what became the sporting centre of my adolescence. This is the recreational and cultural (there’s a library in it too) complex bounded by Seventh Avenue South, Clarkson Street, Hudson Street and St. Luke’s Place. The outdoor portion of this space is officially known as James J. Walker Park, in honour of Beau James, the charmingly corrupt Prohibition Era mayor of New York City who lived in a house on St. Luke’s Place. I never referred to it as anything but Leroy (after the street that continues to both the west and east of St. Luke’s Place) and I never heard any other neighbourhood kid call it anything else. This was pronounced with a long ‘e’ as in, “I’ll see ya down Lee-roy, huh?”
Until 1946 the area that in my time included the softball field and basketball and handball courts was Hudson Park, described by Terry Miller, a recent historian of Greenwich Village as “…a glorious sunken garden of marble terraces designed by the noted architectural firm of Carrere & Hastings.” For more than a century until 1918 the space had been a cemetery belonging to St. John’s Chapel, located below Canal Street. The physical arrangement of the park has altered somewhat since my childhood. The surface, which is now sandy dirt, was asphalt, and the tiered concrete bleachers that now back on Clarkson Street used to run around the Hudson Street/St. Luke’s Place corner, where home plate was located. The stone seats and tables now sited between the playing field and handball courts didn’t exist; there was just a chain-link fence between what was left and centre of the softball field and the handball courts. There were two basketball courts in right field, and the bocce court was along the St. Luke’s Place fence, parallel with the left field foul line. Then, as now, the outdoor swimming pool was beyond the wall of the handball courts. A ball hit into the handball courts was a ground rule double. To be a home run a ball had to reach the swimming pool. Inevitably, Bobby Behan once hit a ball over the building housing the indoor pool and gymnasiums and out into Seventh Avenue South.
Between the ages of about ten and fifteen I spent an average of, I suppose, twenty to thirty hours a week using the various Leroy facilities. During late spring, summer and early autumn we used the diamond to play softball or lob-pitch hardball. On Saturdays the softball games would often begin before 10:00am and continue until dark. These were generally just casual, choose-up games, with players coming and going all day. The age range was quite generous with kids as young as ten and eleven sometimes playing alongside young adults. I still remember the vivid gratification of the first time I was invited to play with my elders. I was, in classic fashion, sitting alone and watching, with my glove (a five-finger Rawlings “Marty Marion” model) tucked under my arm, when one of the players – they were all about seventeen or eighteen, and some were the older brothers of friends of mine – yelled at me, “Hey, kid, you wanna play? We’re a guy short.” If, as sometimes happened on really nice days, there were more players than were needed for two teams, three or even four teams would be formed and would play King of the Hill; the winners holding the field until beaten.
I was a few years older when a vogue for lob-pitch hardball hit my contemporaries. This came to be organized on a more formal basis, with continuing set teams. There were three or four such clubs in the neighbourhood and we played on a loose league system. My team was made up in the main of kids from around the immediate Bethune Street/Abingdon Square area and was called The Tigers, a name for which I was responsible. This had nothing to do with either the major league Detroit club, which was not only non-New York but also played in the American League which I despised; nor with Princeton University, which did not loom large in the consciousness of Lower West Side street kids. The name came about when I was browsing through the Little Red Schoolhouse annual bazaar and chanced upon a dozen patch-badges embroidered in the form of a tiger’s head. I took them home and showed them to Bobby Behan and some of the other guys and we agreed they’d make a great team logo. I had also in my travels discovered that the army & navy-cum-sports clothing store then on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street was selling good quality red baseball caps at a bargain price. We bought a dozen, had our mothers sew the tiger’s head badges on them, and there we were. The only drawback of these badged caps from a purely personal fashion point of view was that the bright red caps clashed violently with the faded maroon polo shirt that was my invariable sports top. Nothing would induce me to relinquish that shirt – my mother tried everything including bribery – and only when one washing too many caused it to literally disintegrate was I forced to replace it. This, I should say, was before I began to develop a reputation as something of a dandy but to this day I remember that polo shirt as the single most comfortable and well-adapted-to-its-purpose garment I’ve ever owned.
The other teams we played were more fluid in personnel than the Tigers. There was a team from the block of Eleventh Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets (notoriously the toughest block in the neighbourhood), another from the Hampton Apartments block of Perry Street between Bleecker and West Fourth Streets, and a fourth that called itself the Hudson Aces. The key player on the Aces was a kid named Billy Fields who captained the team and played second base with the ferocious competitiveness of three Leo Durochers multiplied by four Billy Martins.
As the name implies lob-pitch hardball was played with a proper baseball – often hide-less and covered in friction tape – on a softball-sized diamond, the pitching being overhand but not fast. It was a very good game to play, quicker than softball but still suited to the space available. The Tigers, mainly due to the exploits of Bobby Behan, were the best of the four local teams and we won at least four out of every five games we played. Bobby played shortstop and hit .800 with a couple of home runs per game. I was the youngest player on the team, played right field and batted last. I hit around .325, which at our level was undistinguished but not embarrassing. Despite a poor arm I fielded my position adequately, usually seeing only two or three chances a game. Right field at Leroy didn’t have the tricky fence like the one at Ebbets Field, but you did have to be careful not to run into the basketball stanchions that ranged across right and right-center field.
From my early teens onward I played basketball on those outdoor courts at Leroy; usually during the early fall, until it got too cold; or in the early spring, before baseball took hold again. The games there were of the usual pick-up variety, usually half-court with teams of two or three. There was nothing to distinguish these courts from hundreds of others around the city, and they didn’t see a particularly high quality of play. The Leroy indoor courts, however, were another matter.
During my early adolescence I spent altogether too much time on the two basketball courts on the second floor of what is now officially called the Carmine Recreation Center. Almost every day after school I would walk the couple of blocks from Elisabeth Irwin High School on Charlton Street up along Varick Street to Leroy. If there were other people in the gym we’d play half- or full court, depending on how many we were. If there were only two or three of us we’d play H.O.R.S.E. or 21 and, if I were alone, I would practice. Two straight hours of constant shooting: going around the semi-circle from corner to corner in six-foot increments, shooting until I’d hit five shots from each spot; or sometimes taking 100 consecutive free throws. In all of these activities I would be imitating my favourite professional and college players. I followed the New York Knickerbockers avidly, going to nearly as many Knicks as Rangers games, as well as many college contests. My stars were Carl Braun, Harry Gallatin, Richie Guerin, “Sweetwater” Clifton and, above all, Kenny Sears.
As far as organized, competitive basketball was concerned, I was on the E.I. team in my last year there – all you had to do to make the team was to go out for it. I got into one game and did not score. When I left E.I., as noted, I wasn’t good enough for the Commerce team, but during this period I played regularly for the Greenwich Village Lions Club Juniors. This team of 12-16 year-olds was coached by a man named Buddy Falco, and managed by Judge Chimera, a political Surrogate Court Justice of irreproachable Tammany Hall credentials. His son, Chris, played with me on that team, and later starred for Princeton. At twelve Chris showed some potential but had an exasperating habit of driving consistently into a corner and getting trapped in it. We played our home games at Leroy and I was, as far as I recollect the oldest player on the team and the highest scorer, averaging about fourteen points a game. We played similar clubs representing settlement houses, social and political clubs, churches and other community and fraternal organizations. We travelled all over Manhattan for our away games and, sometimes, even further. I remember one occasion when we went to play a game at a parochial high school somewhere in northern New Jersey. It was the first time I had ever had the opportunity to play a whole game on a court with real glass backboards and I rose to the occasion, scoring 20 points and leading the team to a solid win. My exhilaration was heightened by the crowd, which, there being a dance scheduled to follow the game, was full of girls in front of whom I grandstanded shamelessly. I was eagerly looking forward to staying for the dance and checking out how the local talent would respond to the night’s star player, when we were brusquely informed by Judge Chimera that we had to go back to the Village immediately. I’ve never had really properly respectful feelings toward the judiciary since.
Any account of my later basketball career (such as it was) is more a part of the general story of my social and other adventures consequent on my spending more and more time in the predominantly Italian-American South Village. By the time I turned eighteen I had been working full time for nearly six months and was being presented with other diversions and my athletic activities began to peter out. I found that when around Sullivan Street I no longer gravitated to the Boys’ Club or the Atomic Bowl luncheonette, but rather to Googie’s Bar, The Genoa, Milady’s and the bowling alley on West Third whose owners had employed me in their Port Washington alley and where (in preference to pool halls) I misspent such of my youth as was left. At my peak as a ten-pin bowler I kept an average of about 165; my highest game was a 238 that finished with nine consecutive strikes.
By the time I was both living and working uptown the final cap had settled on my games playing and from the time I was nineteen and until I left for Ireland, I hardly ever touched a ball other than a bowling ball. (I bowled for a couple of seasons in a league based in the old Circle Bowl on Eighth Avenue above a then-Horn & Hardart automat near Columbus Circle.) I do retain three street sport-related memories from this period. In the early ’60s, having shut the Broadway bars and had breakfast at The Brasserie, a few of us would go up to Central Park and fool around playing softball. My main companion in those games was my first dye transfer lab boss, Charlie Mantovi. He lived on Fifty-first Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, across the street from the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then the headquarters of the rank reactionary, Francis Cardinal Spellman, Roman Catholic Primate of New York. Charlie and I were returning from The Brasserie at about five-thirty one Sunday morning, when Charlie stopped by the Hamburger Heaven that took up the ground floor of his building, turned to the Cathedral and called out as loudly as he could into the echoey early post-dawn street, “Hey, Mrs. Spellmaaan! Can Franny come out and play stickbaaall!?
One day in the early summer of my last year in New York I was on my way to Brooklyn to visit a woman with whom I was then assiduously fracturing the Seventh Commandment when I stopped for a while at the basketball court that had recently been opened on Sixth Avenue next to the West Third Street IND subway entrance. It was a brutally hot day and I played full court for about 20 minutes. As I left the train fifteen minutes later I fainted on the subway station platform from exhaustion and dehydration. In the subsequent tryst I lacked somewhat of the energetic passion expected.
Not long before my move to Dublin, walking past the White House near Bank Street, I bumped into Bobby Behan, who I hadn’t seen since moving uptown. He was dressed in a suit and tie, and told me he was working in a bank. He looked preoccupied and notably careworn for a man in his early 20s who had always been known for his sunny and sanguine disposition. I asked him if he was playing anything anymore. “No,” he told me morosely, “I don’t have no time with this job. And I’m getting’ married.” When I recall that last time I saw Bobby it conjures up for me a street image I used to find more dispiriting than almost any other when I was young: that of a used-up spaldeen; discoloured, dead, split in half, lying at dusk half submerged in a gutter puddle rainbowed with gasoline.
In September 2016 Liam took the Great Britain National Team to compete in the four nation playoff pool for the final place in the World Baseball Classic, baseball’s equivalent of the football World Cup. The competition was held at the New York Mets Brooklyn Cyclones Single-A minor league team’s MCU field in Coney Island. During the pre-competition press conference the managers of the four teams (including Hall of Famer Barry Larkin managing Brazil) were introduced by Eric Adams, Borough President of Brooklyn. When Liam mentioned that his dad had grown up in New York and in the 1950s was a fanatical supporter of the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers he got a big smile from the Borough President. Liam’s guys were beaten in the final by an Israeli team featuring nineteen past and present Major League players and thus lost out on the chance of going to the WBC finals to be played in South Korea in March 2017. Despite that disappointment the G.B. team, coaches (including Hall of Fame candidate Trevor Hoffman) and officials made a notable impression on the New York public and media people. Everyone wanted to hang out with them.