When I was King

When I was a teenager in New York, I was unremarkable and full of doubt. I suffered from low self esteem, struggled with my weight, and had a bad temper and jealous heart. Like many young people, I was having a difficult time finding my place in the universe. This angst was softened some by having a girlfriend I adored, and my complete joy in playing baseball.

One variation to the game of baseball was something called stickball. There were two ways to play stickball. One version consisted of playing in the street and involved hitting a bounced pitch with a broom handle. This was not an easy thing to do as the bouncing ball came quickly and often had a weird spin to it. How far you hit the ball determined if it was a single, double, etc, and many of these games involved running bases.  The ball was either a Pensy Pinkie, or a Spauldeen. Both were firm, pink hollow balls and could travel a great distance.

The other way stickball was played involved chalking a square box on the side of a school or building. This created the strike zone, and if a pitcher threw a strike, the ball would have chalk on it. This was my preferred way to play stickball as it allowed the pitcher to actually pitch, and was brilliant in its simplicity. The ball would hit the wall, and bounce right back to the pitcher. Again, the quality of hits was determined by distance and there was generally a fence which would determine a homerun. This form of the game also used a broom handle (or stickball bat you could buy) and could be played one on one, or with an outfielder. Here there was no running of bases and hits were determined purely by distance.

I took to the wall game very quickly and very hard. I played for years and became more than a little good. I could always play ball, and had a great stick, but those Pensy Pinkies were lethal weapons in my hand. I could throw from the side, throw overhand hard fast balls, and mixed speeds. I also had a curve that could make a hitter fall back sharply as the ball approached his head, and then would fall off a table and right into the plate. Kids would argue with me…”that couldn’t have been a strike”. And I’d show them the ball, covered with fresh yellow chalk. I froze batters, toyed with them, hardly ever walked anyone, and was dominate. As much fun as that was, hitting was even better.

Few kids could really pitch well. Most of them flat out sucked. I could hit from both sides of the plate, with equal ability, but from the right side I could do magic. A homerun was over the fence. That was a decent poke. Over the fence was a street, then someone’s yard, house, and backyard. I would load the bases batting left-handed and then switch to my power side. I would hit that ball as high as I did far. High into the sky and over the fence, street, and house. Many balls were never found and were no doubt on the next block. Then I would wait for the next fat pitch and hit bomb after bomb. I would also figure out the better pitchers and anticipate their next pitch. That would result in a rush of hits and runs, and at some point I would become tired from all the hitting and want to pitch again.

On that field, for those hours, I was really good at something. Sandy Koufax-like on the mound, I loved every moment, and found a transcendental place where I was something better than I could have ever imagined. It allowed me passage into an unknown world where I could pitch with almost magical powers, and assume control where it existed no where else.

Unfortunately I could not trade that skill in for something more useful. A gifted ball player, I had neither the confidence nor the motivation to play high school ball, and I largely stumbled through my teen years, finding respite in a simple game I loved and dominated, and the sweet promise of my girlfriend’s lips.

In my garage is a stickball bat I made 14 years ago, when, at the age of 50 I found some kids I could play with. The game is completely foreign in Colorado. I could just as soon find someone playing cricket (never have). I would play tomorrow, at age 64, and am willing to bet that I can still hit from both sides and could pitch with skill and confidence, albeit with less velocity.

To any and all older athletes out there, consider yourself challenged. Let’s get it on.

© 2013 Michael Fiveson

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36 thoughts on “When I was King

  1. Great post Mike and I can’t believe they never heard of stickball in Colorado. Oh do I remember the Pensy Pinkie. Great stuff Mike it brings back memories for me also !

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  2. Great post, Mike! I have never played stickball. In fact, I never heard of it when I lived in Nebraska, and haven’t heard mention of it in Oklahoma either. I must have read about it somewhere, but never looked into how it was played.

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  3. I don’t think the value of that game could be overstated. It saved your life as, I suspect, street games often do for kids. This is a touching tribute to a ball and a broomstick. I love that little boy.

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    • More than providing a place to be and an escape, it was my only opportunity to triumph. Well that and poker 😉
      I love that little boy too. I think we are all we have ever been. A whole made up of different parts that existed in various time frames. What that little boy never got was given instead to another little boy, my son.

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  4. Stickball. Played with a pink Sterling rubber ball. You never could predict — assuming you hit it — where it would go. We didn’t have such complicated rules. We just tried to play baseball without a baseball or a bat … or bases … or any defined foul ground. Great memory. Hilarious memory, actually.

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    • If I was 15 again there are three things I would do:
      Hug my grandparents for a long, long time, go play that game again, and find my girl who was soooo beautiful, I’d hug her for a long time also.

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  5. Everyone needs to have that thing that makes us feel good about ourselves, thank goodness!!! Never played (I suck at sports) but definitely heard it about it, through my Dad and his brother. Would love to see a Pensie Pinkie. I’m guessing it would be similar to the ball pictured?
    (love the tribute to your grandparents)

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    • I don’t think Pensie Pinkies are made any more but there might be a Spauldeen available which is very much like the pinkie.
      Ah, my grandparents. Not enough words to describe them.

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  6. My husband lived in East L.A. until he was fifteen. Your stories really resonate with the ones I’ve heard from him. This one’s a heart-warmer, because every kid needs a moment to feel like the world is spinning at the right speed, and they’ve proven their worth.

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  7. I don’t know stickball, but I do know ball! Bouncing or high flying or splashing in the water. whatever. Pink tennis ball or pink rubber ball. whatever. I’m all there! You are the King! This was a really nice story.

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      • Well, perhaps in some way it was. Yet it also lives in the present, frozen in time, like your photos, alive again so long as there are viewers. I just love this stuff.

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      • If you find the time read ‘Jesus and the $20 bill’ under memoirs.
        And thank you. Yes, the child in me is still there, and I love him very much.

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      • Mike, my friend, I find myself in and awkward position. I want to praise your writing, but there is a problem with that. I also have a fear that in my praise you might be insulted. What a dilemma. So what the hell, here it goes.
        I write like you, I mean to say, it sounds like me, or maybe I have seniority, I was born in June of 1949. Maybe you write like me. The point is that I can tell where you are going and the choice is the same choice I would make. So in my book, that makes you a friend.

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  8. St. Louis had corkball, which was invented there and sounds similar to stickball. It used to be a huge deal—lots of leagues. My uncles played it. Apparently it’s still played, but not the rage it used to be.

    I like the mix of writing and photography on your blog. You do both very well! I’m enjoying exploring.

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    • Corkball, eh. I am unfamiliar with that game. Drink a bottle of wine, play with the cork? I’m in! Lovely comment and it means a lot to me. Thank you very much indeed.

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