You can’t grow up in a big city, any big city, without playing in the street. It’s not that playgrounds didn’t exist, it’s just that a) they’re never close enough to actually go to regularly, and b) every story about an abducted kid includes the phrase “last seen headed toward the park.” So into the comparatively safe streets of metropolitan areas go kids after every school day and all summer long.
Street games fell into three distinct categories. There were team sports like punchball and touch football; roller skating, where half the fun was sitting on the curb talking with your friends about the latest Top 40 chart; and the running and hiding games like freeze tag, iron tag, hide and seek, and ringolevio.
Team sports seem to have produced the most conflict, perhaps because they relied on the highest degree of participant integrity. First, there was the trust issue. On any given summer day, one of us was bound to have a cousin or friend from off the block join us. Every member of the opposing team had to trust the outsider wasn’t a ringer.
Second, and most obvious, ball games produced controversies based on split-second bits of action. Was she safe or out? Was the receiver in bounds or did his right big toe catch just a hint of the curb? Since we never had referees or umpires, decisions in such cases were reached by consensus, at best; argument, usually; or fistfight, at worst.
Just as every rule has an exception, so did our tradition of never having referees. The glaring exception was the 93rd Street Football Championship, also known as ‘The Day Scott, Sal, and Phil Turned Pro.’
The sports world turned upside down on January 15, 1967 when the National Football League, represented by its venerable champion, the Green Bay Packers, deigned to play the upstart American Football League, in the form of the Kansas City Chiefs, at a neutral site, the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Packers won handily, confirming what was in the mind of most pro football fans, that the AFL was no real competition for the NFL.
Joe Namath and his New York Jets would change those minds just two years later. However, the fall of 1967 witnessed Canarsie’s own championship right in the middle of East 93rd Street, when Scott, Sal, and I took on three kids from another block in an officially timed and refereed winner-take-all, pole-to-pole touch football game.
We’d never played a game like that before. Our games generally ended only when we got tired of playing, when the score got too lopsided, or when an unwinnable argument ensued after a close play. Timed quarters weren’t part of our routine. Refs weren’t either, but one of our neighbors sensed this was an important competition and offered to observe in order to prevent any game-ending conflict.
Having Sal on our team was not necessarily an advantage for Scott and me. He was chunky, clumsy, and slow. Still, he played every game we could think of, even though he was usually the last player chosen. But Scott and I were a well-oiled machine. He knew just how to catch my stubby-fingered spirals, and our Mississippi counting was always perfectly in sync. In spite of Sal, we had this game.
Street football games had a unique format, although they featured the two-hand simultaneous touch tackles common to touch football everywhere. The field, however, was the distance between two telephone poles. No lines were drawn on the pavement, so each team received four downs in which to navigate the entire field. If you failed to score in three plays, you were given the choice of “goin’ or throwin’.” Goin’ meant using fourth down for another attempt at the end zone. Throwin’ was the equivalent of a punt. Actual kicking was forbidden due to the chance of a broken window or dented car hood. You got six points for a touchdown. No extra point conversions allowed. Touchdowns had to be definitive or else an argument would end the game.
It was a closer contest than we thought it would be. The visitors, whose names I don’t recall, scored first and kept us out of the end zone for an uncomfortably long period of time. Finally, near the end of the first half, the Phil-to-Scott connection kicked in. Our favorite play would have Scott running full speed for three Mississippis, faking a turn toward me, and then running to the end of the nearest car and expecting an almost indefensible pass over the hood or trunk. Two or three of those put us in scoring position. On the next play, Sal snapped the ball and instead of blocking just ran the three steps into the end zone, turned, and caught my pass dead in his chest. Tie score!
In the second half we took the lead and, although it wasn’t a rout, our victory was never in jeopardy. When the referee called, “Time,” we led by two touchdowns. The three 93rd Street boys were champions. And then we were more.
After the game, our referee/timekeeper/spectator made an announcement to the winning team.
“Guys, I’m really impressed with the way you worked together to beat the other team. I want to give you something to celebrate your victory. My wife and I are getting ready to sell a few of our things, and I’d like to give you each something.”
He disappeared down the block while we stood around with puzzled faces. A few minutes later he returned with a box of household items and declared that, since I was quarterback, I should get first pick. I looked the box over and then chose a wall clock. It was kind of sixties modern. In later years I’d see that same design in a few other houses across America.
Scott and Sal made their choices, and the guy was gone. We looked at each other and grinned.
“You know what this means, right,” said Scott.
“We’re professional football players,” I replied.
“What do you mean?” Sal asked, always a step behind the rest of us.
“We played a game and got paid,” Scott explained.
“We’re pros.” I said. And I’ve never thought any different.
That clock hung on our living room wall, mostly covering an oily stain in the wallpaper, until the day Mom and Pop moved to Pennsylvania. I think it finally died sometime after Sandy and I hung it in our first home.
The 93rd Street Gang wasn’t really into sports, but the other kids in the neighborhood made up for their lack of interest. Scott, Sal, and I; sometimes Freddie Lombardo, who lived next door to Sal; and sometimes Robbie Renaldo, from a nearby block; played everything in almost every season. But winters, except for snowball fights and sledding down Suicide Hill next to Grace Church, were for hockey.
We didn’t play ice hockey on East 93rd Street, and street hockey with roller skates and a little blue ball wasn’t yet a thing; but we were passionate about “push-pull/twist-twist hockey”: those games with the little hockey players on metal rods. For two years in the late sixties, the living room at 1304 rivaled Madison Square Garden for hockey excitement.
Back then the National Hockey League consisted of only six teams, about twenty players each. We reproduced it by choosing teams and memorizing every player in the league. We changed lines and defenses, we called penalties, and we kept stats. Every game featured two players and an announcer/referee. The announcer was a non-playing league member. We were all so good at that, any one of us could have walked right into a radio or TV studio and applied for a play-by-play job.
Since there were six teams, but only five players (Scott, Sal, Robbie, my brother, and me), and since I owned the game, I got to play for two teams, the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Every time I visit a Tim Horton’s coffee shop I can't help thinking, “That guy was one of my defensemen.”
Although Scott was a formidable representative of the Montreal Canadiens, and John no slouch with the Boston Bruins, both seasons ended in a playoff between the Rangers and the Maple Leafs. I always chose the Leafs, and the person with the next-best W-L record took over for my Rangers. I think the Leafs won Season One and the Rangers pulled an upset at the end of Season Two.
The Baisleys and the Robinses adored hockey, the real life kind we watched on television and in person at minor league Long Island Ducks games in Commack Arena. It was this love that led to one of my most memorable sporting conflicts. It wasn’t a close call on a penalty, though. This would be a conflict between church and skate.
It began innocently enough with Scott and I securing tickets to a Saturday afternoon Rangers game. While tickets in the sixties cost considerably less than today, they were still pricey to high school kids. But every once in a while you splurge. We enjoyed the game from our nosebleed seats in what was then the “New” Madison Square Garden, near Pop’s office on Eighth Avenue.
Down in Philly there was a new arena too: the Spectrum. Someone must have skimped somewhere in its construction because, after only a few months, part of the arena’s roof blew off in a storm. Philly’s new NHL team, the Flyers, were forced to play their next home game at a different location. They worked out a deal to play that game, against the Oakland Seals, at Madison Square Garden.
How does one fill the seats at a sporting event between two expansion teams no one cares about in a venue that is home to neither of those teams? The solution was announced during the second period of Saturday’s Ranger game. Anyone with a ticket to that game, could get into the Sunday Flyers game for free on a first come, first served, basis.
Free professional hockey! But there was a catch. The Rangers were playing the Chicago Blackhawks at the Garden on Sunday night. That meant the Flyers game had to be played on Sunday morning. Therein lay the conflict; for me to go with Scott to the hockey game, I’d have to miss church.
Missing church was something a Baisley didn’t do. My great-grandfather’s name was on a stained-glass window in the sanctuary. Combined with my parents’ status at Grace, the only way their son was missing Sunday school and morning worship was for illness; and it better be serious illness like chicken pox or measles.
I did miss one Sunday one time. That was when I had to go to the bathroom right before the service started, and I was a little late making my way from the men’s room, which was in the Sunday school department, to the sanctuary. Billy Knudsen was hanging back as well.
“Let’s skip,” he tempted.
I’d never even thought of that before. But it was summer. The choir wasn’t singing, so Mom and Pop would be sitting hand-in-hand toward the front on the right side. The Grace Church members of the 93rd Street Gang always sat in the back, right side. Mom and Pop would never notice if I just weren’t there. I could sneak in at the end while everyone was shaking hands, and who would be the wiser?
“You coming?” my tempter implored.
“Sure.” And off we went through the Sunday school doors. We were headed for adventure.
Adventure found us three blocks away in a vacant lot on the corner of Avenue L and East 91st Street. Vacant lots were rare, but not unheard of in 1960s Canarsie, but one so close to a major shopping area was a bit unusual. Even more unusual was the mustachioed gentleman who stopped Billy and me as we walked by.
“You guys wanna make a dollar?” he asked.
Remember, this was mid-twentieth century Canarsie, not twenty-first century anywhere. We didn’t feel threatened. Heck, it’s not like we were going to the park. It was just a vacant lot, a little weedy but otherwise bright, cheery, and very public. And a dollar apiece was big money to junior high kids.
“Sure!” we both exclaimed.
The man asked us to walk through the lot picking up any trash we saw. He said something about wanting to clean it up for a potential buyer. He then handed us a couple of cardboard boxes and we were off. We figured it would take about half an hour, leaving us plenty of time to reappear at the church in time for the end-of-service handshaking.
Things went pretty well at first. We picked up some old newspapers, a bunch of candy wrappers, and a few tin cans. Then we hit the macaroni salad. There must have been twenty pounds of the creamy white substance hidden among the weeds. It didn’t smell bad enough to be that old, which was encouraging; but neither of us wanted to pick it up in our bare hands. A stroke of pure luck had us stumble across a bent old serving spoon about then. God was smiling at the little church-skippers.
After scooping up the last of the noodles and boxing the remaining trash, with just enough time to race back to Grace Church, we found the lot owner. Hands out, expecting two crisp one dollar bills, we each heard two quarters plop into them. A dollar. Split two ways. Disappointment turned to practicality: one chocolate ice cream soda, one egg cream, and a pack of Juicy Fruit. Per person. Not a bad morning’s work.
Billy and I weren’t caught that day, but the guilt kept me from ever wanting to skip church again, until the Flyer game. How could I not go to a free NHL game? What to do, what to do?
For once, in a rare instance of not overthinking, I chose to be totally honest with my parents. Okay, I hedged a bit. I told Pop first. Being a hockey fan, he might understand better than Mom, who was only a church fan.
The conflict between church and skate came to a head that evening, but it didn’t last long. The overarching principles were clear from the start of negotiations. We were evangelical Christians, descended from Huguenots who fled France in the face of persecution. Christians went to church on Sunday; it was simple as that. But those old Huguenots were Baisleys—Beselles originally—and Baisleys value two things along with their religion: hockey and thrift.
By a score of two to one, free hockey beat church. Scott and I went to our hockey game and, during the process, ran into NHL superstars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, who were playing in the evening game against the Rangers. I still have the photo of Hull signing my ticket stub from the previous day's game. I’ll always respect my dad’s religion for the tolerance he showed me that day. Maybe he’d learned a bit from his persecuted Huguenot ancestors.
I’m a romantic. I believe in Grand Gestures to win the hearts of fair maidens. You’ll hear about some doozies in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.