In my old neighborhood, the best stickball pitchers were Barry Director (lefty) and Phil Rubinstein (righty.) Bruce Kobin was the best basketball player, Bob (Dynamite) Meyer the best football player, Joel Kruh the fastest runner, Dennis Buchman the best switch-hitter and Stan Nusenko the best punchball player.
Harvey Hyatt was the best spitter, for distance and accuracy.
I give you this All-Playground starting lineup because spring is in the air, but not spring’s traditional ballets nor its music. Where are the sweet librettos that once filled the streets and yards and schoolyards of every neighborhood, to wit:
“I was safe.”
“That pitch was low.”
“So’s your mother.”
Where are the kids chucking up for sides on their Louisville Sluggers? Where are the voices laying out the official ground rules for games in the street? (Second base is the manhole cover, first and third base are the closest parked cars.)
Or if you were lucky, there was a nearby schoolyard. In my neighborhood, just off Rogers Avenue midway between Reisterstown Road and Liberty Heights, we had the brand new Grove Park Elementary School built for the post-war baby boom years. (That school was closed in the past year or so – not enough kids in the area.)
Or we rode our bikes over to Howard Park Elementary. (That school’s closed, too. It’s now an old-age home.) Or we rode over to School 69. (Gone now, long gone.)
Gone as the street games of yesteryear.
What feels like yesterday was, literally, another century ago.
Every neighborhood had its long-ago athletic heroes, mainly boys in those pre-enlightened times. But even the geeky kid condemned to play right field was part of the gang.
And if you only had a couple of kids available, there were variations on the baseball theme: stepball and curb ball, running bases and three flies in, stickball and punchball and step baseball.
You weren’t sitting in your living room, watching “Romper Room” with your little sister or “Quiz Club” with your mother. You were running and hitting and breathing fresh air. And testing yourself.
You were taking part in an American panorama, and extending youth as long as possible. Who would want to become a grownup when you could race about forever? Or as John Updike once wrote, “In America, a man is a failed boy.”
Maybe you were never varsity material – but out there with the other kids, you imagined you were as good as your dreams.
Now, I go for long walks and see empty streets. I drive through neighborhoods and look at playgrounds after schools have closed.
Where are all the kids?
They’re indoors, that’s where. They’re home watching television, they’re playing video games, they’re on their computers. The weather gets warmer, and they have air conditioning. If we wanted air conditioning, we had to go to the movies.
I know, I know. I sound like an old fogey.
But I wonder if today’s kids, huddled over their newest technology, understand how much they’re missing: the sheer joy of sliding safely into home and the creation of a lifetime of memories.
I bet they don’t even know what a Pennsy Pinkie is.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in paperback.