Calling All City Kids
You Might Remember A Few Of These Games
You’ll Only Appreciate This If You Grew Up In The City
By Jack Coll
Growing up in the Olney section of Philadelphia I remember playing a lot of street games as a kid. Sitting around my office during this coronavirus I was cleaning out a couple of old scrapbooks and came across a few old photographs including a picture of my old elementary schools. I attended James Lowell School, founded in 1913 located at the corner of Nedro and Fifth Avenue. I went to kindergarten there and remember very little about attending school other than we were forced to take a nap on these cots set up on one side of the classroom every day, I never remembered falling asleep and as a five year old city kid I walked to and from school five blocks each way, every day, AS A FIVE YEAR OLD! (No it wasn’t up-hill both ways)
Following kindergarten at Lowell School I moved about three blocks up Fifth Avenue to Fifth and Godfrey Street to attend St. Helena’s School. I had a forgetful five years there, my first and third grade nuns were the kindest human beings put on the face of this earth. My second and fourth grade nuns beat the living S#!? out of me.
I found my little slice of heaven in the school yard at Lowell School, they had a large blacktopped area that covered an entire block and on the weekends we’d get there early on a Saturday morning, they had two baseball area’s that were custom made for Stick-Ball, Boxball, Handball and Halfies. Broom-handles and Pimpleballs were the necessary equipment for these three games. I remember pimple balls were 15 cents and a penny tax back then. Pimpleballs were a big part of my life back then.
In order to accumulate 16 cents back then, (Yes it was a lot of money for a kid) most of us kids would work two jobs during the week. From Monday thru Friday you would be on the lookout for soda bottles and on Saturday mornings, (Payday) you would cash the bottles in at the corner stores, small bottles were worth two cents and the larger bottles were worth a nickel.
Once you cashed in your bottles in at the Store, most weeks the take was twenty, maybe twenty two cents. However if you fell short of enough cash to buy a pimpleball you had to work on Saturdays. Saturdays were trash day in some areas of Olney, in my neighborhood it was Monday but we knew where to go on Saturday’s. So I had a Saturday morning partner, I didn’t know him real well but he had a wagon and the two of us would go around trash-picking newspapers, once we had a wagon-full of papers, which was a lot of work we would travel over to the junkyard, (I forget where that was) and we would cash-in on our haul of papers.
I remember the guy at the junkyard being some-what dirty and rough, he would grab the wagon and look it over, he would check for rocks hidden among the papers and then wheel the wagon over to the scale. (We got away with the rocks hidden in the papers to add weight once and got caught the following time, we never hid rocks in the papers again) He would grumble a little and head for the office. My business partner and I were always excited about how much this week’s haul was worth as the junk man paid by the pound, and he would come out of the office and give us a quarter, not a quarter each just a quarter, we had to split it. I remember looking back at my junkyard days years later and thinking we never got more or less than a quarter, no matter how many pounds of paper we wheeled to the junkyard. Looking back at it is really quite funny because I don’t think we ever brought in enough papers weight-wise to make two cents but the guy always gave us a quarter, I’m not sure but this went on for about two years. I wish I knew who that guy was because I would like to have gone back to thank him for his generosity and the life lesson that working hard paid off. Anyway I’d make enough money through the week to buy a Saturday morning pimpleball and a pocket full of candy for the day.
Then there was Boxball, a game played without a bat, the pimple ball was bounced to the plate on one bounce and the batter, or hitter would swing with an open hand or a fist. It was played like baseball but different school yards had different rules. At Lowell School we played with rules that included that you could swing and miss, or hit a foul ball, but two strikes or two fouls were an out, a foul on your first swing and a miss on your second swing was an out or a swing and miss and then a foul ball still gave you another swing.
Depending on the pitcher if you just wanted to make contact you swung with an open hand, fingers tight just to put the ball in play, or if you were confident in your swing you swung for power with a closed fist.
Stickball was played with the same rules with the pitcher bouncing the ball once to the batter but a sawed off broom handle was used as a bat. Once the air was knocked out of the pimpleballs the balls were cut in half and used for a game of Halfies. Lowell school yard had a perfect layout for a game of Halfies. I don’t remember running bases in Halfball and you only got two strikes, we batted towards the school wall. A hit that bounced off the first floor of the building wall and not caught off the wall was a single, a hit to the second story was a double, the third floor was a triple and on the roof was a home run. The difficulty of Halfball was the pitcher would throw the Halfball with lots of spin and could grip the ball to make it sink, rise, a pitch starting off at your knees could end up over your head and of course it could go inside or outside much like a whiffle ball.
Any of you guys ever play Wireball? The game in our neighborhood was played with two, three or four players, each player was his own team. It was and easy game with boundaries set up in maybe a 20×20 box on the street usually marked off with chalk. The game was played with just a ball and overhead wires. When you batted, of course there was no bat, you simply threw the ball straight up in the air aiming at the wire. Every bat, or throw hinged on one of the other players catching the ball on the way down, anytime the ball was caught it was an out. If the fielders missed the ball it was a single as long as it landed in the chalked-off area. If the ball hit the wire on the way down and no-one caught it, that was a triple and if you hit the wire on the way up and no one made the catch it was a home run, as I said anytime the ball was caught on the way down it was an out. You got two outs per inning.
Stepball was always very cool and very challenging. Once again the game was best played with a pimpleball, no bat needed, typically this game was played with two-four players. There was a little bit of skill involved in this game, you would throw the ball off the flat part of the step close enough to strike the back part of the step and send it flying into the field of play. There were lines marked on the street with chalk or stones for single, double, triple or home run. If the ball wasn’t caught in the air it was a hit.
Some older kids were very talented and could throw the ball and smack it right off the edge of the step sending it into home run territory, however if you aimed too high normally the ball would go screaming upon to the porch and smack the storm door nice and loud bringing the owner of the house out and causing a delay in the game because we had to move to the next set of steps. It was best to start at the corner of the street, (All row houses of course) and you would work your way down the block and with any luck you would eventually come to a house where nobody was home and we’d call that home field advantage.
Then there was Wallball, This was one of my favorite games because I was a big kid with a powerful arm. My powerful arm came from me “working out,” a term I don’t think was used back then, I could spend hours just throwing a ball against a wall when there was nobody else around to play with. I believed back than that my fastball rivaled that of Jim Bunning. We normally played wallball in the alley behind Widner and Nedro Streets. It was a drive-thru alley where the back of the brick houses were perfect walls to bounce a ball off. The first floor was a garage so you would use the second floor wall as the point of contact for the wall. The rules were much like that of stepball only the wall was the striking point. The downside of this was the back walls were somebody’s kitchen on the other side. And once again it was best to start at the corner house and work your way down the alley.
Within minutes the kitchen window would fly open and the home owner wasn’t all that kind with their words yelling “Get the hell out of here.” That was our notice to move to the next house and so-on. By the time we got to the other end of the block the game was normally over, but like stepball if we found a wall where nobody was home then we could finish the game on that wall.
Then there was the game we called “Quicksand,” it turns out that there was a lot of different names for this game but we only knew it as Quicksand. It was also called “Cooley Box,” “Deadbox,” “Skully” and a number of other names. The needed equipment for this game included chalk, bottle caps, and Popsicle sticks. Possession of the chalk generally came from a number of kids who would lift the chalk as they departed the classroom, not me, I was in Catholic school, anyone who went to Catholic school knows the penalty for stealing, stealing from a Nun, stealing from the Catholic school. Trust me, the punishment was worse than any Yardstick across the knuckles, any Pointer across the top of your thighs or ass, hearing the “Swoooosh” as the pointer cut through the air at a rapid speed, headed towards your ass was the worst part. Stealing from a Nun or catholic school meant you were going straight to Hell and your trip down began immediately. So to answer anyone thinking it! No I never stole chalk from school.
You also needed Popsicle sticks and bottle caps to play Quicksand, those props could be found in any gutter outside a corner store, and parents talk about getting germs today, they really should have hung-out with city kids back in the day, they’d learn all about germs.
So someone would draw-out the playing area which was a box, generally between four and six feet square. Numbers were drawn in all four corners of the box with small squares that were numbered 1-4. In between the 1-4 small boxes were drawn and numbered 5-12, and in the center of the box was number 13, once you put your bottle cap in 13 you won the game. Around the13 was a boxed out area that was quicksand if your bottle cap landed in quicksand you had to start all over again until someone successfully won the game.
So to play one would take a popsicle stick and flick-the-bottle-cap from one, (the starting point) towards the two, as long as you didn’t land in the quicksand you could either take a second shot immediately or wait for everyone else to take their turn, if you wanted to chance a second shot immediately and didn’t land it in the ”2” box you had to start over, putting you behind every other player. You would continue through the numbers until someone successfully landed in 13 to win the game. See drawing.
There were other games, we’d play like Hide and Seek over a three block radius, we’d spend hours playing Buck Buck, that’s right the same game Bill Cosby made famous during one of his early skits, we’d play tag, playing with the older kids was rough as they would play tag with a punch. (Not Fun)
Looking back as an adult I’ve come to the conclusion that no one, I mean no one, was as cool as us when we were eight and nine years old. Yea we did other things as time moved on like sneaking onto the subways and riding all over the city and I don’t know why but whenever we spotted a cop-car, (I think they were red back then) we would run and hide, not that we did anything wrong but that’s what the older kids always did so we did the same thing, looking back maybe they had reason to run and hide, for us it was just practice for when we got older.
Everyone’s got a story to tell, what’s yours.
I loved growing up in Philly, but they tell me there was no better place to grow up than Conshohocken and I believe them, because growing up in the early 1960’s was a great time in America.
There were a lot of landmark moments throughout this country’s history. Going back to World War One, 1916-1918, Prohibition throughout the 1920’s, the fall of Wall Street in 1929, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and of course World War Two, and the Korean War. We jump to the fall of the Twin Towers in New York on a September morning in 2001, and the current coronavirus interrupting this generation’s lives.
For my generation we were forced to grow up way to fast over a six year period and it started with the assassination of President John Kennedy on a November day back in 1963, the Vietnam War, and the daily box score on TV every night, just like the current coronavirus, box score meaning the daily up-dates on deaths. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the overdose deaths of a number of our musical hero’s, and it all came crashing down when the National Guard slaughtered the students at Kent State University in the spring of 1970. During our lifetime I believe all of this and more took a toll on the innocence of our childhood and teenage years.
There comes a time when we have to put politics aside, and look out for our children, neighbors, friends, family and strangers. Never a better time to start than now.
Below is a little something from the Conshohocken Recorder
A Pledge of citizenship is an enthusiastic and whole-hearted support in act and thought, of Conshohocken, its institutions, its homes, its attractiveness, its advantages, its business and of our neighbors.
When any individual or local organization makes an effort for a bigger and better Conshohocken they deserve and have a right to expect the loyal support of every citizen. At the moment they represent Conshohocken and there should be no bickering, no backbiting factional disagreement which will detract from gaining the objective.
Only in proportion to our combined efforts can we hope to make our town more attractive and more prosperous. No matter the size, every town is too small in number of citizens, to grow when part of its folks take their money and trade to other centers. Our interest in state and national prosperity is not diminished through a strict loyalty to home affairs and town development. On the contrary, when we build and up-and-doing, prosperous and progressive town we add to out of state’s assets and, likewise to the nations.
Let Us Make Conshohocken
This was an editorial taken from the Conshohocken Recorder Newspaper from 95 years ago, May 12, 1925.
It certainly gives us something to think about as we enter these exciting times in Conshohocken!