April/May 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 2
A humble sport in a stylish capital
In the thirties I played some rough-and-tumble stickball in New York City—on the East Side, the West Side, uptown, downtown, in Chinatown and Little Italy, surrounded by pushcarts and cooking smells. Although the sport was born in Manhattan and its environs, it caught on in many cities where asphalt had replaced grass. The left front fender of a parked car made a good first base. Second was usually a manhole cover or a square chalked out in the middle of the street; third might be a fire hydrant. We measured a prodigious wallop by the number of manholes it passed.
I was reminded of those games a few years ago when the Spalding company announced that it would once again manufacture the pink rubber ball called (in a melting pot of urban accents) a spaldeen. Although not an official ball, it was the one universally used for stickball, and in 1945 a shipping error delivered a supply of them to France, where I was working as a U.S. Army counter-intelligence agent.
It was early in the summer after the Germans had surrendered. My unit had been hunting for spies and collaborators in Paris, interviewing working girls in brothels and strippers in nightclubs. We mingled with Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, had tea with Gertrude Stein, sipped champagne with Marlene Dietrich, trying to determine who had worked in the Resistance, who had supported the Nazis, and who had done both. Acting on a tip from a dancer at the Folies Bergères, we rounded up four German spies who had been “dropped” somewhere near Provence. They arrived at the Gare de Lyon dressed as French Army officers and carrying American K rations. Didn’t they know no real Frenchman would ever be seen in the company of K rations, much less bring them to Paris?
When the war in Europe ended, the French Sûreté took over our investigations, and we sat around studying Japanese and awaiting reassignment to the Far East. One day I drove over to visit Mac, a big, brawny guy who had played tackle at Iowa and was now in charge of Special Services. I always brought him a few bottles of fine cognac and champagne, and he would hand me two or three dozen tennis balls that I could use in trade with another friend, a Parisian liquor distributor and tennis fanatic. During those times you couldn’t buy a tennis ball in all of France.
That day Mac was irritated. “I don’t know why they sent me these things,” he said, showing me boxes of pink Spalding rubber balls. “Nobody seems to want them.”
I glanced at the spaldeens, shrugged, and told him that I’d take them off his hands. Then I rushed back to my apartment building to show my friend Mike. We quickly got 10 or 11 guys together, finagled a broomstick from the concierge, wrapped tape around the handle, and voilà. On our little street in Montmartre, just around the corner from the magnificent old opera house and within sight of the Sacré Coeur, we began to play the first stickball game ever in France.
A few inquisitive Frenchmen stopped to watch us, and word got around. “The Americans are up to something in the ninth arrondissement,” they whispered. “ Vous allez voir .” Within days clusters of Parisians began to gather. When one of us made an outstanding catch, the onlookers cheered, and we could hear an undercurrent of approval when someone hit the ball a long way.
Even after the Japanese surrender we continued our games for several weeks, and the crowds kept growing. The spectators began bringing bread and wine, cheese and sausage, and their hurrahs became louder and louder. Our contests had become street fairs, with families bringing babies in carriages and marveling at our every move.
Finally we tired of playing stickball and quit; our interest was increasingly focused on our imminent return to the United States. The first afternoon we didn’t play, my friends and I were having drinks in Mike’s apartment when we heard a commotion outside. I walked over to the window, opened the shutters, and looked down at a throng of Parisians sitting curbside, clapping their hands and shouting, “Steek Bawl, Steek Bawl, Steek Bawl!”
To appease them, we went downstairs, gave them the remaining rubber balls, explained how to cut off a broomstick and tape the handle.…
Now, six decades later, I like to think that young French boys still play old time New York City stickball, shouting formidable or fantastique when one of them smacks a spaldeen at least two manholes.