2005.11.23 Punchball in the Bronx

Written by David Green.


THE NOV. 14 “New Yorker” magazine has a story by John Lahr called “The Thin Man.” This particular thin man is John Buscemi, a rather odd-looking actor whom I remember most clearly from “Fargo” (the guy who went through the wood chipper) and “The Big Lebowski” (the skinny little bowler) and “Trees Lounge,” a movie that Buscemi wrote and directed.

He’s memorable, that’s for sure. His dentist wanted to fix his teeth, but Buscemi  knew he’d lose work if he looked good.

Oh, I forgot “Ghost World” where he played a reclusive record collector. There are probably others I’m forgetting, since I learned in the story that he’s been in more than 80 movies.

The story was chock-full of interesting tidbits, such as Buscemi’s story that he once kissed a girl in high school and she threw up on his shoes.

The author drove around Brooklyn, NY, while Buscemi pointed out some highlights from his youth.

“This is one of the more neglected neighborhoods,” he said as we rolled up Liberty Avenue where he used to play punchball and which was now littered with glass and garbage. As we got out of the car, a posse of Latina girls in toreador pants passed by.

That stopped me short. Not the toreador pants but the punchball. I had to ask my New York City contact—my wife from the Bronx—what punchball was all about.

“You take a Spaldeen...” Hold it there. She’s talking about a little pink ball made by the Spaulding company. It’s probably a handball, but in N.Y.C. it’s known simply as a Spaldeen.

So, you take a Spaldeen, you throw it up in the air and you punch it with your hand if you’re the batter and you run the bases like a game of baseball. Sometimes there’s a pitcher, but in her neighborhood the ball was usually tossed up by the batter.

Back to the story. Lahr and Buscemi drove on past St. Michael’s Church, now surrounded by barbed wire.

“The church was locked; part of the playground where Buscemi had flipped cards was now a parking lot.”

I had to consult my wife again. Flipping cards?

Colleen was a little hazy on this one. Something about flipping baseball cards. She said to call her sister, Linda, who lives in Brooklyn. Linda was less hazy, but her friend, Liz, was the one who was clear. Liz grew up in Brooklyn and here’s what they did.

Each player brings a stack of baseball cards to the game. Player A would flip over five cards, one at a time, and see how they land—either face up or face down. Player B had to match the number of face-up, face-down cards. If it was a match, Player B won all the cards. You kept flipping until the cards were gone and the winner had them all.

There’s something in the flip that I can’t put into  words. I’ve seen my wife do it, but I can’t really describe it.

WHEN I hear stories of punchball, card flipping and others (Skullsey, Hot Peas & Butter, Johnny on the Pony) I feel that I had a game-deprived youth. I played War and Hide-and-Seek and Freeze Tag, along with army games and home-made games such as Make Me Laugh.

Hide-and-Seek took on an extra element of excitement due to Susan Webster’s dog that would chase us from the front porch to the back porch. I was really afraid of that little mutt.

None of my games stand up to those of the New York City kids. They knew how to have a good time. And for my wife, it was an important part of her social development.

She’s mentioned several times how she had a socially-deprived childhood. I recall her saying that she never had a date in high school, but when I ask her now, she claims that she went to see “Billy Jack” with some guy and then went back to his bedroom to converse and stuff. It sounds like that was about the extent of her dating days.

But punchball was a glorious time. In fifth grade, she was the only girl the boys allowed to play, but that was only at recess.

I wasn’t all that impressed. “So what did that do for you?” I asked.

“It got me to first base.”

   - Nov. 23, 2005


  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.
  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.base Ball
    UMPIRE Thomas Henthorn tosses the bat between team captains Mikayla Price and Chuck Piskoti of Flint’s Lumber City Base Ball Club. Following the 1860 rules, after the bat was grabbed by the captains, captains’ hands advanced to the top of the bat—one hand on top of the other. The captain whose hand ended up on top decided who would bat first. Additional photos of Sunday’s game appear on page 12 of this week’s Observer. The contest was organized in conjunction with Stair District Library’s Hometown Teams exhibit that runs through Nov. 20.
  • Front.chat
    VALUE OF ATHLETICS—Morenci graduate John Bancroft (center) takes a turn at the microphone during a chat session at the opening of the Hometown Teams exhibit at Stair District Library. Clockwise to his left is John Dillon, Jed Hall, Jim Bauer, Joe Farquhar, George Hollstein, George Vereecke and Mike McDowell. Thomas Henthorn (at the podium) kicked off the conversation. Henthorn, a University of Michigan–Flint professor, will return to Morenci this Sunday to lead a game of vintage base ball at the school softball field.
  • Front.cross
    HUDSON RUNNER Jacob Morgan looks toward the top of the hill with dismay during the tough finish at Harrison Lake State Park. Fayette runner Jacob Garrow focuses on the summit, also, during the Eagle Invitational cross country run Saturday morning. Continuing rain and drizzle made the course even more challenging. Results of the race are in this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.
  • Front.hose Testing
    HOSE safety—The FireCatt hose testing company from Troy put Morenci Fire Department hose to the test Monday morning when Mill Street was closed to traffic. The company also checks nozzles and ladders for wear in an effort to keep fire fighters safe while on calls.

Weekly newspaper serving SE Michigan and NW Ohio - State Line Observer ©2006-2016