Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The games we played on 71st Street

No, that's not 71st Street -- it's Breugel's 1560 painting, Kinderspiele, of children at play in dozens of different games, listed here alphabetically from ball games to whirligig. (Thanks to Atlanta Guy for bringing the painting and list to my attention.) My learned friend Dr. M. also reminds me that Rabelais' writing (same century) contains hundreds of references to games, real and imagined, including games of chance. I don't have any Rabelais handy, but according to The Rabelais Encyclopedia, "the most elaborate mention of games is found in the list of 217 games Gargantua plays."

A Kinderspiele updated to 1940s-50s 71st Street in Bay Ridge would look just as busy as the original. When I remember the details of my boyhood, I'm amazed how much of our after-school and weekend time was spent in the street. How we managed to cram so many different games into our limited street time is beyond me. I lived it, yet thinking about it now, I don't see how it was possible.

Admittedly my list is incomplete, as I cannot write with authority about the games girls played. I had no sisters, and frankly, for reasons beyond the scope of this report, girls made me a bit nervous in those days. Except for games of Hide and Seek, our playtime was strictly segregated along gender lines. Rachel Marie, who lived across the street, was the only girl who preferred our boys' games. She could hold her own in any of them. (Rachel Marie eventually became a nun.) I do remember other girls playing hopscotch, jacks, and various ball-bouncing and rope-jumping games, accompanied by a chant that went, "A my name is Anna, my husband's name is Albert, we live in Alabama, and we raise apricots. B my name is Betty, my husband's name is Bill, we live in Boston, and we raise bananas..." and so forth. For us boys, future spouses and the raising of produce were not yet on our radar screens. Competition was all.

I'll confine my list to street and alley games, leaving aside the nightly ping-pong games in the basement with Dad, and such sedentary indoor/outdoor pursuits as dice baseball, flipping bubblegum cards, board games, word games, and card games. Including all of them would bloat this post to Rabelaisian proportions.

The non-baseball-related street games:
Hide and Seek
I Declare War
Three Steps to Germany (it retained its name even after World War Two)
Red Light, Green Light
Red Rover
Kick the Can
Hit the Penny (or Hit the Popsicle Stick, depending on availability)
Chinese Handball
King's, a variant of Chinese handball
Boxball, the handball variety (another game also called Boxball falls in the baseball-related category)
Touchtackle, as opposed to Roughtackle (i.e. football)
Roller Hockey, played with those awful clamp-on roller skates

Two street games I scrupulously avoided:
1. Poison Ball, an especially vicious game played by the older, rougher kids. If you relished getting drilled in the head or some more sensitive area with a hard rubber ball thrown with maximum force by a sneering opponent, this was the game for you.
2. Buck-Buck, in which (it seemed to me) one boy hunched over while another boy jumped violently onto his back. I'm not sure what the object of Buck-Buck was, except to cause maximum mayhem and provide a good, steady living for a future generation of back specialists.

Then there were "the fads." That's what we called them: fads. A fad would appear mysteriously out of nowhere and soon everyone, including me, was doing it obsessively. One year it was yo-yo's; the next year marbles; the next year cap pistols; the next year those small wooden paddles, each with a rubber ball attached by a rubber band; the next year it would be tops that you unleashed with a string and sent spinning and careening out into the street. Joe Triniello's top, "The Traveler," was a legendary performer until it got flattened by a passing car. The local candy store (Brooklynese for soda shop/variety store) was where you bought all your fad paraphernalia. Maybe the fads weren't spontaneous after all. Maybe they were artificially concocted by an insidious, all-powerful, borough-wide consortium of candy-store owners.

Now to the meat of this report, the baseball-related games, to which most of our street time was devoted. Parks -- nice ones -- were nearby, and we used them for weekend games of real baseball on real grass, or for an occasional challenge game against another neighborhood; but as a rule, the street, the sidewalks, the alley, and our front stoops were our playing-fields of choice for:
Running Bases (two basemen and a runner in a "pickle")
Slapball; only we never called it that. Played with four bases, it was called Boxball. If personnel was limited because some kid's mother made him go to the grocery store, it was played with three bases and called Triangle.

Until the summer of 1950, 71st Street was pale blue cobblestones, which for a ballplayer meant lots of frustrating bad hops. The Great Paving of 1950 ushered in the golden age of stickball on 71st Street. A one-way street with little traffic, 71st became stickball Mecca, drawing many "ringers" from surrounding streets. As is well known, the game was best played with a spaldeen, i.e. a Spalding Hi-Bounce pink rubber ball (25c at better candy stores everywhere). When new, a spaldeen was incredibly lively. Any stickball player who has ever connected solidly with a brand-new spaldeen and sent it a mile knows that sweet sensation: it made you feel like Babe Ruth. If a spaldeen was unavailable -- or if the game spaldeen had rolled into a sewer and no one had a quarter to spring for a new one -- a tennis ball could also be used. Hitting a tennis ball wasn't nearly as satisfying. Hitting a wet tennis ball made it feel like you were playing in the deadball era, c. 1908.

Stickball came in three varieties:
1. Straight "stick" in which the batter threw the ball in the air, let it bounce once,  and swatted it.
2. Pitching-in-on-a-bounce. (Couldn't we have come up with a more imaginative name?) The main problem with p.i.o.a.b. was too many delays: if the ball got past the catcher, someone had to run all the way down to Narrows Avenue to fetch it, a chore no one wanted.
3. Catch-a-fly-yer-up; derived, I believe, from the ancient game of One-O'Cat.

The most magical time of year for all street players, accompanied by surging feelings of exhilaration and liberation, was the onset of Daylight Savings Time, meaning we could go out and play after supper. Which brings us to one final street game, for which we had no name. It's what we played when it was too late and too dark to play anything else. Competitors would gather under a streetlight; then Joe Triniello, who had a gun of an arm, would throw the ball straight up as high as he could -- a cosmic pop-up disappearing in the nighttime sky. On the ball's return from the blackness, it would suddenly become visible as it re-entered the glow of the streetlight, which was approximately one-millionth of a second before you had to catch it. I managed to catch two during my career.

A 71st Street Breugel of the 1940s and 50s would devote little or no space in his painting to parents. Grown-ups were mere bit players in our street-game dramas, appearing only to call us in for supper. During the pre-television 1940s, they didn't even have to do that. We were pre-teenagers then and 5:00 p.m. meant you went home to listen to "the stories." These were the 15- or 30-minute radio programs between 5:00 and 6:00 while Mom was cooking. If you were a WOR loyalist, as I was, this meant Sky King, Superman (sponsored by Kellogg's Pep), Captain Midnight (Ovaltine), and Tom Mix. If you were a WJZ man, your pre-dinner program consisted of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy (Wheaties) and Dick Tracy. By the 1950s when stickball had become serious business, our parents really did have to call us in, or else we'd never have eaten. One father down the block used to call his son by emitting a loud, piercing whistle. I always thought that strange because he would call his dog by name.

No 71st Street version of Kinderspiele would be complete without three additional, and crucial, visual elements: sewers, ice cream trucks, and "crabs." These will be the subjects of future posts -- far too important for any self-respecting chronicler to omit.


  1. We played buck buck but didn't call it that. I don't remember what we called it. We also played a game similar to hit-the-penny except it was played with three boxes. You "curved" or spun the ball with your fingers into the opponent's box and he had to hit it back into your box. it was difficult because the ball would veer when it bounced and he had to react to that. We also played a game with either coins or baseball cards where you pitched them towards a wall. The one who got closest to the wall got all the coins or cards. And don't forget the steel roller skates with the skate keys or the wooden box scooters with skate wheels attached. Also, wooden guns with a rubber band on top with which you shot pieces of linoleum at your friends or else you used a rubber band and shot paper clips at him.

  2. Thanks, Dominic, I forgot about those guns and the scooters. When we put a spin on a ball, so that it bounced weirdly, we called it a "fluke." Did you?

  3. That sounds familiar but after 60 years....

  4. Wow, i always thought Three steps to Germany was made up by some older kids from my block. I grew up in the Bronx in the 70's. That was one of our favorites.

  5. What, no skelly on your list?

  6. In Williamsburg Bklyn we called it johnny on a pony.

  7. We played Three Steps Over Germany in the Coney Is. Projects back in the 1960s. The kids would take three giant leaps off of a park bench and then yell, Three Steps Over Germany! Then a kid in the playground would try to tag kids and put them in prison (monkey bars). The kids who got pas the one kid were free. I'm Italian-American but most all of my friends were children of European Jews. It was very much tied to their parent's experience since it was Jews fleeing from prosecution.

    1. Just a Girl from the Pink Houses10 April 2018 at 19:50

      Funny how I thought only my friends and I played Three Steps Over Germany! We also played Ringolevio (for days), Johnny on the Pony, and Cop and the Mole! It’s wonderful to think about those games and those times again... I am (still) just a Girl from the Pink Houses.

  8. I grew up in a small city near Boston and played almost all the same games you mention. It's amazing how kids passed the info about these games. No adult ever taught us; we just learned them from other kids. Here in Mass. we didn't have spaldeens, or stick ball, however.

  9. I used to go to the Saturday matinee movie in Bensonhurst on 86th Street delish were the days for dime we had 10 color cartoons a newsreel and a double feature. We went in at 10 o'clock in the morning and out by 4 in the afternoon just in time to go to the candy store. Sunday was a walk with a guys to Gravesend Bay to play baseball. I lived on 83rd Street in Brooklyn and played all the great games that everyone played. Yes we were all thin because we never set still. As a young teen with our t-shirt sleeves rolled up and a pack of cigarettes folded in the t shirt sleeve we were cool we were rocks. And don't forget the transistor radio. Yeah we used to stand on the corner checking out the chicks. Great days.

  10. Great article and A+ comments.
    I grew up in the "Red Hook" section of Brooklyn, now know as Carroll Gardens. We played all the games mentioned and loved the many candy stores. We bought all our special stuff at Daves Department Store...they had everything! Tops, marbles, paddles, skates, little green "Army Guys",Disneykins,and anything cheap and playable.
    When we couldn't find a Spaldine,a new Pimple ball would work until it was hit about 10 times.
    Great memories...great times!

  11. Amazing days and so happy to have experienced them. I’m from 53rd street in Sunset Park Brooklyn. So many good memories and great games.

  12. I grew up in Bushwick in the 50’sWe alsoplayed a of cowboys and Indians, stick ball in the school yard, and tops. Object was to break the other kids top with your top. We flip baseball cards. The yo-yo was also big,walk the dog with the yo-yo was big also plus all the street games.,and riding in back of buses was popular along with carpet guns. Great memories.

  13. Yeah, yo-yo's were huge for a few years. I could make it sleep but I couldn't walk the dog or do round-the-world. Every year it was a new fad - one year, it was marbles, one year, tops - and of course, yo-yo's.

  14. I played 3 steps off to Germany in NY around 1970. Do you remember the rules of the game?

  15. I played 3 steps to Germany as a young girl in Jackson Heights, New York in about 1943. Those were frightening times, and I imagine that games like that helped us deal with our fears. We also played jacks and jump rope.