Contributor: Thomas Grochowski
Associate Chairperson of the Dept. of English
St. Joseph's College
The rubber ball from Spalding – and many other knockoffs, notably the softer, pink super-ball – defined an extended era of street games in working class neighborhoods of American cities. With the recent documentary about such play in New York City, there is a tendency to romanticize the eras that the film represents, and as a guy from Brooklyn, I find myself playing on those same chords the documentary does. (I imagine that many of the contributors’ first thoughts were of objects that were close to their own childhood experiences – an exercise that in and of itself is worth theorizing some time.)
The ball was a social force; around it a thousand games could be played, by oneself, with a friend, or an entire city block. The new-rubber smell alone could gather a crowd; to own such a ball meant you were ready at a moment’s notice to play. It organized actions on the street, where natural boundaries like sewers, parked cars, street signs set the playing field, with Old Goat’s front yard marked as “no man’s land.” (I think of that neighbor, who happened to live directly across the street from me, every time I see that scene from A Hard Day’s Night, where the lads tease the snooty city gent, “Hey mister can we have our ball back?”) Once in a while, you’d see kids at the corner sewers, trying hard to reach for a ball that found it way down the hole.
The ball established hierarchies on the school playground; the eras I’m referring to predated the excessive branding via clothing, and most of us was dressed the same anyway. Stickball – played right in the street, from sewer to sewer – privileged power. Stoopball – the repeated throwing of the ball against a stoop – required excellent hand/eye coordination only. Punch ball – stickball without the stick, and usually played in the schoolyard instead of the street – also required speed.
Gender boundaries were also very much enforced through the passing down of games on the street. This is not really something those who trade in nostalgia want to address. The ball games were played mostly by boys – and if there is a blind spot in this mini-essay, it is my own dim memory along those lines, as well as my own PS 127-fueled sexism. The selection of boys for the punch ball all star game was as much a matter of popularity with the opposite sex as it was about ability. (Okay, I’m still bitter.) I remember one game being a bit more egalitarian, a handball came called KING’S , which space does not permit me to explain. It wasn’t a power game, but one of speed, skill (if you had a wicked serve, you ruled), and the willingness to argue a point based on where the ball landed.
The Spalding ball is a symbol of an urban childhood, dating from the early 20th century to about the late 1980s, when fear and video balls arrived.
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