Thursday, June 23, 2011

Of Late I Think of the Spaldeen


During a recent stroll down memory lane, I unearthed an interesting tidbit of information. I knew that the Spalding Company, sometime in 1999, had reintroduced to the marketplace what we once upon a time called a “spaldeen.” This formerly ubiquitous, and amazingly versatile, high-bouncing rubber ball was, due to ever-waning consumer interest, discontinued in 1979. However, I was unaware until now that the manufacturer had subsequently trademarked the ball’s illustrious nickname. So, technically, I should at the very least be capitalizing the word (as I don’t have a TM symbol at my disposal).

But since this blog permits me to work from my own stylebook—unlike my corporate masters—“spaldeen” will remain lowercase in perpetuity as a well-earned tribute to the urban youth of yesteryear who played with the ball. To the generations of young people, who not only coined the term more than a half century ago, but also followed this bouncing ball to so, so many intriguing places, the spaldeen belongs to them. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Upon the ball’s reintroduction after a two-decade hiatus, the Spalding Company valiantly endeavored to teach a new generation a few old tricks, as it were, by familiarizing them with the myriad games played in the past with their very resourceful rubber ball. (It is held, by the way, that one particular New York City outer-borough accent perpetually pronounced “Spalding”—the company named stamped on the pink and pleasantly rubber-scented ball—as “spaldeen,” and, as they say, the rest is history.)

Plucking out a fresh spaldeen from a plastic container on the counter of Bill’s Friendly Spot—famous for both its delicious egg creams and not especially congenial atmosphere—was a familiar ritual for many in the old neighborhood. Aside from the legendary game of stickball, I could rattle off several others that I played with a spaldeen like box ball, box baseball, curb ball, stoop ball, Ace-King-Queen, SPUD, and Hit the Stick.

A couple of the games on a YouTube loop in my brain are, I believe, true originals, unique to the backyard lay of the land where I grew up. One we called “Single, Double, Triple,” which involved tossing a spaldeen against the back wall of a three-family brick house on Tibbett Avenue, with an opponent stationed in the backyard of a three-family brick house on Corlear Avenue. A spaldeen that wasn’t caught in the air could either be a single (one bounce), double (two bounce), triple (three bounce), etc. Another game unique to our topography was simply called “Throw It Against the Wall.” It necessitated throwing—yes—a spaldeen against a patchwork cemented wall, with an opponent fielding everything that came off of it from pop flies to line drives to ground balls. It’s actually a little too byzantine to explain here without visuals, but suffice it to say, it was the game neighbors and I played both the most and the longest—into the early 1980s, in fact, even after the spaldeen was temporarily consigned to the ash heap of history and many of us were, chronologically at least, adults. We used tennis balls. Spaldeens, after all, were originally reject tennis balls that were sold, dirt-cheap, to wholesalers.

I really hate to end on a sour note here, but the Spalding Company's best laid plans of bringing back the spaldeen, and returning it to its former glory, have been largely unsuccessful. Most of the ball’s current sales end up on nostalgic baby boomers’ curio shelves, and not in the hands of boys and girls out and about on concrete or asphalt enjoying all that they can do. No, I’m not likely to see any local boys playing box ball anytime soon, or girls playing Composition. “Composition letter S, may I repeat the letter S, because I like the letter S, spaldeen begins with the letter S.”

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