View Full Version : Asphalt and Brick: Inner-City Games

01-11-2018, 09:51 AM
There were so few parks and fields. They were as scarce as hens' teeth. It was mostly brick, mortar, and asphalt. Stark. Like an old black & white movie. That’s why many kids – myself included – who grew up in Boston’s Dorchester-Mattapan section spent much of their time playing ball in schoolyards or on city streets. They were: Inner-city games. In those days, we used what were called "pinky" (Spaulding) balls and white "pimple" balls to play a variety of games, including stickball, box-ball, handball, etc.

As a boy, one of my favorite haunts was an elementary school that was then called the Frank V. Thompson. “The Thompson” was located about a quarter-of-a-mile from my Morton Street apartment building. In an alcove in the school’s back play-area were both a handball and stickball court. The stickball area came complete with a QuestTech-like strike zone that was painted white on the school's wall; there was also a white line for handball. Nearby, around the corner, was a box-ball area.

Occasionally, when we grew tired of playing the outdoor games, we’d call out to the school’s custodian, a man named Wally. After we called his name, he'd usually peek his head out the window and call back, "What do you boys want?" "Can we play basketball in the school’s gym?" we’d answer. He’d usually say yes, but he first required us to pick up every scrap of paper that we could find on school grounds. Once that was accomplished, he’d let us into the gym. The only requirement: We had to take off our shoes. We were thrilled. It was as if we were playing in the Boston Garden.

Around to the front of the building there were other "adventures". One such challenge was that of scaling a drainpipe (I must have been crazy; the things we did in those days). Why would anyone be nuts enough to risk their life to reach the roof of an elementary school by scaling a drain-pipe? Well, motivating factors were: group status and peer pressure (dares). Yet, the main reason was because there was a “mother lode” of "pinky" and "pimple" balls that had been hit up on the flat three-story school roof from stickball and handball games. Once I got up there, I would throw down dozens of balls to my friends. No need now to spend a nickel for a ball. If my mother had ever known…

Oh, another game we played was called: "Walking the plank." Only we weren’t really walking on a plank, Matey. “Shiver me timbers!” We would get up on the school’s first-floor window ledge and try to shimmy (squeeze our way) along a thin concrete ledge to the next window. All the time our backs were "glued" to the school’s brick facade. As you were inching your way from one window to the next, you had to be extremely careful because if you lost your balance and toppled forward, it meant dropping down about ten feet. If you landed the wrong way, it meant, at the very least, a sprained ankle.

Yet, where I lived, there was one more place where you could usually find neighborhood kids gathering to play ball. It was on a city street called Doone Ave. It was here during the late spring and sometimes during the fall that you’d find as many as a dozen or more youngsters playing a variety of games. The street was ideal. First, it was flat for nearly 100 yards; and second, there weren’t many cars that used the road.
Well, on warm spring evenings, you might find kids playing a variety of games. Games you may never have heard of, such as: "Over-the-(telephone)-Wires, "Run Around the Block" (One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock, rock). The starting point is the same for each runner; yet they’re headed in different directions. One kid sets off in one direction, the other goes the opposite way (You could tell how you were doing at the half-way point).

Finally, a game we called "King". "King" can best be described as a mini-handball game that was played against a flat retaining wall. The player’s job was to protect his own "turf" (these are the squares in the sidewalk that are formed by separating cuts in the concrete). The "king" is the player on the extreme left. He starts the game by serving the ball on a bounce into one of the blocks to his right. The player into whose block the ball has landed (after bouncing off the wall) has to hit it. If he misses, he could be out of the game. The object of the game was to become and remain "king". Everyone to the "king’s" right is trying to "dethrone" him. Players are also trying to take out others in the game (less competition) by having them miss balls that are hit into their concrete squares. This game included such terms as "bloopers" (balls that hugged the wall) and "babies" (balls that were hit with teeny-tiny bounces in your opponent’s block). That game was one of the highlights of my younger days.

As matters stand, I’ve been back to the old neighborhood on a handful of occasions. I don’t see anyone playing the games we played. They only live on now in our memories, or whenever we “the youngsters of the 50s” get together to reminisce about ol’ times.