Friday, June 7, 2013

“B” as in “Ball”

It’s June in the Bronx. With the school year ending, hospitable climes, and the days growing longer and longer, it was, a long time ago, a favorite month of mine. This time of year used to mean play ball—all kinds of ball in the great outdoors. Nowadays, I see very few kids playing anything on the streets. This sociological observation is why I was quite surprised to encounter a cardboard tray of rubber hardballs in a local delicatessen—one run by Arabs. For some reason, rubber hardballs in an Arab deli called to mind Dr. Z, an affable Egyptian professor of mine from Manhattan College in the 1980s. He informed our macro-economics class that in his language—Arabic—there was no “P” as in “Peter” and “B” as in “ball.” And so, naturally, he always made a “mish, mosh, moosh” out of words with Ps and Bs, like “rubber hardball.”

A Bronx deli in the twenty-first century selling rubber hardballs just struck me as odd. Perhaps I’m missing something here and there is a real demand for them—for some game to be played somewhere unknown. They could also be inventory leftovers from the 1970s and a prior deli owner. I just don’t know. I do know, however, that one, among many things, that we urban youth did to pass the time in my Bronx neighborhood, Kingsbridge, was play pitcher and catcher and games of “errors” in our concrete backyards and elsewhere. Rubber hardballs, which I presume were manufactured for exactly that—playing on rough, synthetic surfaces, provided us with the ideal ball. Gradually, even they would wear out with use. This once versatile and robust orb would eventually be deemed too far-gone—an "egg"—and be put out to pasture.

While growing up in that simpler snapshot in time, my family’s front hallway performed double duty as an equipment room, where our baseball gloves, bats, and balls were placed and plucked from as needed. The ball selection included everything from spaldeens to whiffle balls; hardballs (cowhide and rubber) to tennis balls. When purchasing one of his stickball bats, I'll never forget “Herman” of Bill’s Friendly Spot on W231st Street lecturing me. “Do not use tennis balls with it,” he said, “because the bat will break.” In other words, he would not take back splinters—a broken bat under any circumstances. Of course, I ignored Herman’s counsel and the bat broke upon a second contact with a tennis ball.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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