Some of my fondest memories go back to playing sports in the Bronx, where I grew up.
The Bronx in the 1950s was a melting pot of cultures, a place where children from diverse backgrounds could come together through shared experiences. One of the most cherished aspects of their childhoods was the abundance of street sports. These activities brought joy, camaraderie, and a sense of adventure to all of us boys and girls growing up during that era.
During the school year us kids would go upstairs to our parents’ apartment. We changed from school clothes and shoes into jeans, they called dungarees, and put on sneakers. We then ran outside and enthusiastically met our friends to play.
Stickball was a street sport with a special place in our hearts. It was a variation of baseball. Using long broom handles made of wood as bats, kids would gather to create makeshift fields on the blocks of their neighborhoods. I can almost hear the reader ask, “Well, where did the broomsticks come from? We would sneak into the cellar of one of the apartment buildings and steal a stick, unscrewing from the broom. Usually, we would sneak back into the cellar and return the handle.
One of the interesting aspects of playing competitive street games involved how to form teams for the afternoon. I remember standing in a circle and announcing whether we wanted an odd or even number. Then, on the count of three, we immediately placed one hand in the circle and flipped with one finger, an odd number, or two fingers, an even number. It was repeated three times, and the kids who flipped the majority number finger formed the first team, and the other kids formed the second team.
Jump Rope While not a street sport, jump rope was a common activity during the 1950s, allowing girls to take part alongside boys. Stoops, sidewalks, and schoolyards became the stage for elaborate jump rope games. Competitions between teams formed the backdrop of countless summer afternoons. One of the most astonishing aspects of jumping Rope was these girls using two ropes and jumping between them. It was common to see three girls playing jump rope, with two holding the opposite ends of a rope, swinging it, as in the picture, and the third girl would jump until she tripped.
One of my favorite games to play was Johnny on the Pony. It was a game that required a lot of physical activity and was perfect for a group of energetic kids like us. The game involved two teams, one forming a line and the other riding on their teammates’ backs like a pony. The game’s goal was for the riders to try to knock off the other team’s riders while riding on their teammates’ backs. It was a lot of fun and always got our hearts racing. Looking back on it now, I can see why it was such a popular game for kids in the 1950s. It was a great way to burn off energy and have fun with our friends.
We loved to play hide and seek. It was a game that required a lot of creativity and strategy, and it was perfect for a group of kids who loved to have fun. The game involved one person, “it,” counting to a certain number while the other players ran off to hide. The goal was for the “ it “ person to find and tag all the other players before they could return to the starting point. The “it” person stood at a particular starting place in the street and kept his eyes closed while the others found hiding places. The “it” person had to leave the starting point and search for the hiding kids. If one kid came out of hiding, which was required, he had to race to the starting place before the “it” person. If the hiding kid was late getting to the starting place, he became the “it” person.
Punchball was another popular game us kids loved to play. It was a game that required a lot of hand-eye coordination and timing. The game involved one person throwing a rubber ball against a wall while the other players tried to catch it. If a player caught the ball cleanly, they would take their turn throwing it against the wall. The goal was to keep the ball in play for as long as possible without dropping it. Punchball was a great way to improve reflexes and hand-eye coordination, and playing with friends was a lot of fun. Kids often spent hours playing punch ball, trying to beat their high scores and impress their friends with their skills. It was a simple game, but it provided hours of entertainment and helped kids stay active and healthy.
Slapball was another popular game kids loved to play during that era. Slapball was another variation of baseball. The game involved one person throwing a rubber ball to a batter who tried to slap the ball and score a run. In the street were the pitcher, batter, and fielders. As in stickball, each corner of the four-cornered street was a base. The idea was to slap the ball thrown to the batter, who then slapped it, and if caught, they were out and onward, just like baseball.
We had fun roller skating in the streets. We used ball-bearing skates. These were metal skates braced under our shoes with leather straps for our ankles. We chased and raced each other in the streets of the Bronx. Sometimes, we used white chalk to draw a roller-type derby in the black tarred streets and had a lot of fun playing various games. The best fun was to skate uphill to the top of the street, kneel, and coast down the hill as fast as possible.
We were inventive. To make a scooter, there were empty milk crates made of wood. It was easy to unscrew our roller skates, and we nailed the front two wheels and the back two wheels to a wooden slab that we nailed to the cart. Then, wood was available to make handlebars nailed to the crate’s front. We now had a scooter that we joyfully used to ride around the neighborhood.
These were fun games, but there was arguing over what may or may not have occurred during the game. Then, too, there were arguments over the rules of the game. Most of the time, everyone ended the argument to continue playing. During hot summer days, the arguments ended over everyone deciding to go to the candy store down the block and buy ice cream pops.
There were few cars to worry about, and crime was not an issue. Our parents did not worry about us. When our moms wanted us home for supper (called dinner today), they stuck their heads out of the apartment windows and called us to come home.
Also, there were no guns, no shootings, and no murders.
If it sounds like an ideal time to grow up, it was. It could have been better, and there were lots of problems. But those were for the adults to figure out. We kids just had fun.