Friday, 23 April 2010 00:00
(Editor’s Note: This article is being reprinted as the first time it was published, much of the article was omitted.)
In early March, Great Neck Weekend Softball Game players declared that they had enough of winter. They were ready to start spring training. But February’s two gigantic snowstorms, plus the soaking rains that fell in between, made the Great Neck fields unplayable. Out of frustration and severe softball withdrawal, the players began brainstorming via e-mail. Several ideas were kicked around. Jack Schonhaut searched for asphalt or concrete parks and schoolyards on the web. He checked out aerial views of nearby locations and then sent out a few possibilities to the players. Fran Alter and Bob Widawsky scoped out the locations. They settled on the PS 187 schoolyard in Queens. It was close by, well maintained, and had plenty of parking.
More than half of Great Neck’s weekend softball players were raised in New York City. They grew up playing ball on asphalt and cement, so it seemed to be a natural solution. But some never knew about playing ball on asphalt. Great Neck Softball has been around for almost two decades and nobody ever thought about playing on anything, but grass. To some, asphalt seemed bizarre. A day before the game, Dave “The Driller” Seidman rode by the field with his son Jason who asked him, “Where’s the field? You can’t play on asphalt!” Great Neck Softball has always made the players feel like kids again but never so much as on this day. To the majority of the players in their ’50s and ’60s, it brought back great memories.
So on March 7, 20 Great Neck softball players traveled outside the cozy confines of Great Neck and met at the PS 187 schoolyard in Queens. The bases were painted onto the ground but very faded. Jack Schonhaut remembered that children in the city would just rub a rock against the asphalt and it would function as chalk. But there was no need because the commissioner, a former city kid himself, had brought chalk in anticipation. He still remembered the necessary tools back from 45 years ago. There were handball courts beyond the left field fence, not tennis courts and a playground with monkey bars.
It was odd for some but so familiar to the rest. Jon Silver inquired before the game, “Should I bring a Pensy Pinky?” He was referring to one of the two basic schoolyard pink rubber balls that millions of city children played with for games such as stoopball, stick ball, punch ball, handball, triangle, hit the penny … Of course the Spaldeen was the other street ball. One player yelled with a big smile, “Chips on the ball $3.70.” Several extremely former city kids chuckled. “Chips” was the price one had to pay for losing a ball to the person who brought the ball, but back then the cost was 15 cents.
A ring of old snow hugged the outfield fences. One suburban raised player asked, “What do we do if the ball goes into the snow banks?” To most the answer was obvious. “Snow shmo, you just have to deal with the elements, the way we used to. Whatever happens, happens” was the response. Later on Mike Meehan smashed a ball high off the right field fence. The ball rolled down the fence and got caught in a curled up portion about 15 feet high. The right fielder, remembering that he had to “deal with the elements,” shook the fence forcefully to get it down. It came down in time to keep Mike at 3rd with a triple. Smiles abounded. It brought back memories of the unique quirks that every city schoolyard seemed to have and the strange rules that had to be invented because of them. Every schoolyard had a personality. Two innings later it was discovered that there was another ball in that curl and the wrong ball may have fallen back down onto the field. But since it was the first time playing at the PS 187 schoolyard no rule had been invented yet to cover the situation.
The players enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to play all pre-season games there until the official season opens in Great Neck on April 3. It was so nice to just go down to the schoolyard and play. There was no permit to get, no insurance to pay, no rosters to submit, and everyone could just wear sneakers. You didn’t even have to change into cleats. It definitely produced a nostalgic yearning for days gone by. Playing ball was so much simpler then. Some players said they were going to look for their old wooden bats and vowed to bring them. Metal bats just didn’t seem to fit the schoolyard environment. There was no such thing as a metal bat in the ’50s and ’60s. They were not produced until 1970. The clanging sound of metal against asphalt just seemed wrong.
The game’s opposing pitchers were 61-year-old John Hunt versus 65-year-old Steve Zuckerman. They remembered those days. Back then it was inconceivable to imagine that, 50 years in the future, they would still be playing ball in a schoolyard.
Upon hearing about the game, former GNSB player Steve Belenko, who now resides in Pennsylvania, exclaimed that this was the very same school yard in which he and current player Bart Simon “honed their baseball skills,” growing up. He wondered if the old ball that fell might have been one that he hit into the fence 50 years ago. He pledged to make the trip one Saturday or Sunday for a game.
For many players, especially the older guys, this was not only a trip outside Great Neck but a trip back into time.
Interviews and highlights from the first-ever Great Neck Softball school yard game will be broadcast on Public Access TV Channel 20 Cablevision and Channel 37 Verizon three times a week throughout the month of May. Fridays at 9 p.m., Saturdays at 10 p.m., and Mondays at 8 p.m. This game is a long time, mellow, town pickup game that has been going on for almost 20 years. New players are always welcomed. Join the fun. The regular fields are located at Allenwood and Kings Point parks. For more information about Great Neck Weekend Softball visit www.gnsoftball.com.