It was Saturday morning. No school, thank God. My best friend David Wilens and I met at Manny’s misnamed Candy Store—It sold everything from dustpans to egg creams. (milk, seltzer, and Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup.) Manny also sold pink balls. I have no idea why a ball, used mainly by boys, was always pink.
Anyway, David and I were there to pick out a ball to use in our stickball game. It wasn’t sufficient to simply decide between PennsyPinkie or the lighter-pink, rough-surfaced, and therefore more likely to curve, Spaldeen. (I don’t know why every one called it a spaldeen. It was clearly labeled Spalding.). We had to carefully pick the ball because each individual ball had a different amount of air in it—the more air, the farther the ball would travel. I, who fashioned myself more the homerun hitter, preferred the harder ball. David, the small-ball guy, tried to convince me to go for a softer one “because we’d be less likely to lose it.”
As we’re picking out our ball, I notice a four-foot-tall cardboard box with the tops of sticks sticking out of it, the diameter somewhat wider than the broomsticks we played stickball with. I pulled one out. Not only is it wider so maybe I wouldn’t so often swing and miss, it’s wrapped at the base with black adhesive tape so it would be grippier. This was a stickball player’s dream come true.
We didn’t have the $1.49 between us so we ran to my house and I begged my mother for the money. Seeing the urgency of the matter, she gave it to us without interrogation.
We returned to the box of bats, and to select one, we must have pulled out half of them, maybe 10 oversized broomsticks, creating a slip-and-fall hazard in the tiny store. Fortunately, Manny understood, or at least understood kids.
Why did we take out so many? You see, like the balls, they varied. Because wood weight varies, some were heavier than others—more power but lower bat speed. Some were darker and thus more powerful looking. We compromised and, now, firm spaldeen and stickball bat in tow, we bee-lined to the Junior High School 216 schoolyard, which had a concrete handball court that faced out toward a 200-foot-away fence---the perfect stickball “field.”
It must have rained a day or two before, so the outline of the chalk strike zone had mostly washed away. It was barely visible so that not only would the pitcher have trouble seeing it, there’d be no proof that a close pitch actually was in the strike zone. (Chalk sticks to pink balls.)
Creating the strike zone also required compromise. David’s pitching had better control and so he preferred a small zone. I tended to pitch wild and high, so I wanted the strike zone big and up to the top of the shoulder (one major league definition) rather than the armpit (an earlier definition.) We compromised and I chalked the agreed-upon strike zone. But in being the designated artiste, I subtly tweaked the strike zone toward my preferred size and location. (As with adults drafting agreements, s/he who wields the pen, gets the gray area.)
We tossed a coin to see who would be the home “team.” I won and so I pitched first and David batted. Always pretending to be an all-star, I pretended, that day, to be Whitey Ford, Yankee lefthander, I too being a southpaw. David, ever the Dodger fan, pretended he was Maury Wills at bat.
Like in the majors, I got six warm-up pitches. My philosophy of warm-up pitches: Throw the first few slow and easy so you can get your rhythm and control (At age 12, you don’t worry about pulling a muscle.) but on the last warmup, throw as hard as you can even if, maybe especially if, it’s wild, scaring the hitter both with the difficulty of trying to hit against “Whitey Ford’s” best fastball but the possibility of getting beaned by it.
For the first real pitch, I decide to throw a hard fastball just outside of the strike zone so it’s close to the batter. That could make David, on the next pitch, move a little away from the plate so he'd find the ball unhittable if I then hit the outside corner. Oh, if only I had that much control. In actuality, I’m guessing the pitch was a foot above the strike zone. I always could plan better than perform.
Sometime during the game, I swung that new stickball bat and truly hit the crap out of the ball. It sailed out of the park, well past the fence 200 feet away. It is such moments that make millions of kids think they have the potential to go pro.
Our remembering, indeed detailing, such moments become some of life’s more pleasant memories.
Are there any moments you want to savor or even write about?
Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.