Sports has always been a big part of everyday life in my America. Baseball is known as America’s National Pastime and for many kids was probably the first professional sporting event they attended with their fathers. I can still remember a couple of chartered bus trips my father took me on with the gang from Skippers Seafood Restaurant and Sports Bar. These were always meant to be father-son outings, not meant for the whole family. Unlike tickets to the other 3 major sports, baseball tickets were always affordable, and in the case of the hometown Fightin’ Phillies of my youth, always available.
As I was growing up in South Jersey, time away from my family was dominated by playing sports. I lived in a large residential neighborhood that had enough kids to play full pick-up games in every sport. Back then, you could always tell which pro-team was doing well, because that’s what we’d be playing. When the Flyers were winning their two Stanley Cups, we built our own nets with 2 x 4’s and chicken wire and played street hockey every day. Sofa cushions made good goalie pads and those of us without shin guards were relieved when Mylec came out with the soft blue hockey ball, replacing the hard orange ball which stung and left bruises when you were hit with it. And being Flyers fans, no game would be complete without a fight. Usually by the same brothers, and more of a wrestling match than a fight with actual punches. Once in a while we would all join in, allowing the opportunity to payback a friend for an earlier slash or cross check. More than the score, this often signaled the end of the game
We also played football in the street, where parked cars made for great picks and an easy pass completion and the curbs were out of bounds. Like the other sports, using different balls could change the way the game was played. How much different was it playing the game with a Nerf football where the quarterbacks could throw the ball higher, farther, faster, and with more control? Balls thrown in tight spirals instead of the wobbly wounded ducks thrown with regulation sized balls. Frisbee football was another favorite, although it was best played on a field, which usually changed the game to tackle football, instead of the two-hand touch played in the street.
Basketball backboards, rims, and sometimes nets, were attached to telephone poles…there were no expensive retractable Goaliath or Goalrilla set-ups like kids have today. The greatest change to the game we experienced was the red/white and blue ABA basketball. Since the games were always in the street or a dead-end (known to today’s middle-class as a cul-de-sac) they were always half court and sometimes played with rules based on who was there. Who wants to see a 6′ 2″ teen knicknamed Lurch take a 5′ 7″ middle schooler to the hoop. So rules were made to keep dominant players inside or outside the foul line. Rules which usually went out the window after the first infraction. Games of H.O.R.S.E challenged your shot-making, shot creativity, and spelling. The game of PUTBACKS could be played with any number of players. Player 1 would score points taking foul shots. The other player(s) would stand half-way between the shooter and the basket. When the shooter missed, the rebounder would have to jump, rebound the ball, and take a follow-up shot before he landed again.
Baseball and the even harder-to-play, half-ball, were played using tennis balls and mom’s sawed off broom stick…and never take the broomstick/bat home for fear it would be used for a third, more painful activity. The most popular version of baseball however was whiffle ball, where a player who could make the ball curve, drop, or rise when he wanted became a neighborhood legend. Of course, having money to buy new whiffle balls, and a bike to get you back and forth to the 7-11 quickly also assured your place in a game. Other games used skills required in baseball, Run the Bases was played using 2 bases, 2 fielders and any number of runners, Pops and Grounders was played with one batter hitting balls to a group of fielders, all looking to catch the same ball, with no drops, and after cleanly fielding a pre-determined number of balls, becoming the hitter. And the game requiring the least amount of players and equipment was Wireball. All you needed was a tennis ball, 2 players, and telephone/electricity wires strung between two poles. One player, the batter, would stand underneath the wires and throw the ball straight up in the air, or as straight as possible, accumulating hits and runs when the fielder was unable to catch the ball. Hitting different wires had different outcomes, single,double, triple, or home run as long as the fielder was unable to catch the ball.
As a professional driver, my work takes me everyday into many of the neighborhoods in the town I live in. Occasionally I will see a couple of kids throwing a football or shooting a street hockey ball at a net, but I don’t see them playing the high energy pick-up games the way we used to play. Pick-up games help to build freindships and provide exercise and will always help to define my Americana. It’s a shame it just seems to be one more disappearing part of our Americana.