Friday, 12 August 2011

The games we played: spaldeens and sewers

The sewer was a hugely important factor in our street play of the 1940s and 50s.

It must be explained that there were two kinds of sewers. One was a unit of measurement, the other a menace. First the benign kind, used for measurement:

This sewer (or manhole cover) was located in the middle of the street. It was home plate in stickball. If you could hit a ball on the fly to the next sewer, you were a one-sewer man. I was a good contact hitter, even after switching from left- to right-handed hitting. That was important because one swing-and-a-miss and you were out. But for distance, I maxed out at a little more than one sewer. The massively rotund Jackie Magnussen was the only legitimate two-sewer man who lived on the block. His swing seemed slow and effortless, but it had all that avoirdupois behind it and his drives were awesome. I can still see Jackie standing at home plate chuckling as some poor sap went chasing one of his Ruthian clouts beyond the apartment house on Colonial Road.

I've heard unconfirmed reports from other Brooklyn precincts with claims of three-sewer shots. I'm skeptical. On 71st Street that would not be possible, even with a brand-new atomic-powered spaldeen. On this subject one correspondent has written:

I don't believe that a "sewer" was ever a standardized measurement. It's like the dark ages, when measurements were different from town to town, or like early music, before A was standardized at 440 and had different values in every city in Europe, causing major tuning problems. I'm going to guess that an East 9th Street sewer was about 100 ft.

If sewers are spaced differently in different neighborhoods, then there's no basis for comparison when it comes to hitting for distance, and statistical chaos reigns. Until proven otherwise, I'm going to file these three-sewer claims, along with the story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, under M for myth. But that won't be the end of it. Only an exhaustive analysis of street diagrams buried in the archives of New York City's sewage and water supply departments, or a fact-finding mission to the actual sites, will put this controversy to rest.

Now to the evil kind of sewer, the open sewer by the curb:

Most of us were familiar with the Songs of Safety, lyrics by Irving Caesar (lyricist of Tea for Two, Swanee, Crazy Rhythm, Sometimes I'm Happy and other pop hits), music by Gerald Marks (composer of All of Me, Is It True What They Say About Dixie? etc.). Songs of Safety were intended for use in classrooms. The most famous of them, the song we all learned in school, was Let the Ball Roll. You can listen to it here.

The only problem with letting the ball roll was that sometimes it rolled into one of those dreaded open sewers. Unless a replacement ball was immediately available, this meant instant death to any game. A spaldeen rolling into an open sewer in the middle of a good game was like the sudden, unanticipated rainstorm that washes out a major-league game. Whenever we saw our precious pink ball rolling its way to sewer-oblivion, I -- the make-believe play-by-play announcer -- would say, "Here comes the rain!" It was a bad, sinking feeling.

Then along came "Sewer Boy." Little did we know it when Angelo and family moved into their house down the block, but the reign of open-sewer terror was about to end. Angelo was a wonder. He earned his sobriquet by cleverly fashioning from wire coat hangers a long contraption with a loop at the end, perfectly sized to cradle a lost ball in the depths of the sewer. Somehow, with a long reach and a surgeon's delicacy of touch, he managed to raise and rescue many a spaldeen, thus saving many a game. After a brief intermission for a power-washing in Angelo's father's garage, the no-longer-pristine-pink ball looked like it had been to hell and back, but, mirabile dictu, it was stickball-worthy again. No longer would the open sewer be a sword of Damocles hanging over our games.

This was about the time Nat "King" Cole's Nature Boy was becoming a big hit, so whenever we saw "Sewer Boy" coming we'd all start singing in tribute: "There was a boy, a strange, enchanted sewer boy..." Granted, "Sewer Boy" wasn't as neat a nickname as "Slats" or "Sparky," but the nickname and our song-parody were the sincerest forms of admiration and gratitude we could muster.


  1. Dominic Schiavo writes:
    Open sewers were no problem for us. When a Spaldeen went down we used a broomstick to which we taped a stretched-out wire clothes hanger. We made a horizontal loop on the end of the hanger a little smaller than the Spaldeen and fished the ball out. The other alternative was to run into the corner grocery store and borrow the food grabber thing that was used to reach the food on the upper shelves. We stuck that down the sewer, squeezed the handle and carefully lifted the ball out. After all it cost 25 cents, which was a whole week's allowance. The grocer would then use the grabber on the food but it was all in boxes so no harm done.

  2. Dominic, you guys were more "on the ball" than we were. And you're right, 25 cents was a week's allowance. Spaldeens were precious!

  3. Here's a guy who claims four-sewer drives:


  4. I loved standing out in the middle of the street on the second base sewercap, eyeing the third base chrome car door handle. Greatest feeling in the world.

    Annie Lanzillotto

    1. I knew that feeling well, Annie. Thanks for the comment. It's fun to share these memories.