In the late 1960’s Philadelphia Steel & Wire, a small steel processing company located on Belfield Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, decided to move its operations to a larger, newer facility to be built near the North(east) Philadelphia Airport in Northeast Philadelphia.
So, in 1966 our family moved from a twin on Penn Street to a brand new rowhouse in the Holmesburg section of the Great Northeast. Our old house, which was just across Penn Street (now Penn Boulevard) from the quaint red-brick buildings of Germantown Hospital, is long gone. Just a parking lot now; devoured at some point by the growing hospital.
The relocation was the end of the old; the beginning of the new. And for a 10-year old, barely familiar with the world outside of the five-home Germantown enclave he lived in, it was an anxious, unsettling move.
Much of our new rowhouse was still in its proverbial cellophane wrapper when this Germantown refugee walked outside to explore his new environment. One of my first memories of the new ‘hood was watching three brothers from down the street pour out of their brand-new rowhouse in a cacophony of harsh words and flying fists.
Great, I thought, I moved into a Three Stooges episode!
In minutes I was the unwitting ally in a fraternal civil war fought with stones and insults. But when the dust cleared, it was the beginning of a new stage in my young life.
For some reason, these three brothers, who were always at each others throats – or so it seemed – could do one thing without reaching for the Missile Launch Codes. They could play Wiffle ball!
Wiffle ball – for the uninitiated – was one solution to a city boy’s dream of playing ball in tight quarters without causing property damage. Played with plastic bats and relatively short-flight plastic balls with perforations engineered for the purpose of throwing junk pitches, it joined the ranks of half-ball, stickball, hoseball and boxball as urban versions of baseball, the game played by boyhood Heroes.
No need to find an open basketball court. No requirement to round-up six or eight compadres in order to cover a full football or baseball field. Just find a vacant lot suitable for a field and choose up sides!
Like all neighborhoods in large cities, our games were dictated by the surrounding geography. And although we had the luxury of the playground at Robert B. Pollock Elementary School roughly a quarter-mile away, the convenience of playing smaller games just a few houses away from the comforts of Home was hard to beat.
Our house sat directly across from a PECO (Philadelphia Electric) substation on Ashton Road. In later years our house and the fenced substation would serve as Home Field for our half-ball games. Homeruns most obviously defined by hitting one over the substation fence; triples up against the fence or falling on the sidewalk across somewhat busy two-lane Ashton Road; and doubles – if the fielder chose not to dodge the traffic – were those halfies that landed in the roadway.
But it was our wiffle ball field (Let’s call it Duplex Field, since it sat next to one of the two-apartment duplexes that framed each set of rowhouses.) was the only field of play that FELT like real baseball.
As with all great baseball venues, our wiffle ball field had its little quirks and unique characteristics that went missing when legendary baseball cathedrals gave way to the cookie-cutter, all-purpose stadiums that became the rage in cities like Philadelphia (Veterans Stadium), Pittsburgh (Three Rivers Stadium), and Cincinnati (Riverfront Stadium) in the 1970s.
Petco Park’s homage to Duplex Field
Our long ago Field of Dreams was much more like present-day Citizens Bank Park and Camden Yards. It had features that rivaled images from Connie Mack Stadium, Crosley Field (Cincinnati) or Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn, New York. Or at least it did for a bunch of 10-year-olds.
The physical characteristics of Duplex Field included a Petco Park-type brick building, the duplex running the length of the 3rd base side; jutting precipitously into the left field corner; and offering an imposing challenge to the dead-pull right-handed hitter who wanted to yank one down the left field line.
The outfield “wall” was a chain link fence (Aaron Rowand meet Citizens Bank Park!) protecting the outfielders from a nasty plunge into the sunken yards of the row homes of Ryerson Circle. The right-center field portion of this fence was fronted by triples-producing trench (a Bizarro World reversal of those famed warning track mounds at Crosley and Ebbets Fields), usually full of leaves and discarded paper that made retrieval of in-play balls a slapstick farce of flailing arms and flying trash.
Crosley Field had The Terrace hill. Imagine instead a trash-filled trench …
The most endearing feature of Duplex Field was the rock strewn diamond itself.
Real estate limitations and the flight dynamics of the plastic wiffle ball made a true outfield totally unnecessary. We could barely fit a reasonably sized infield into our bandbox ballpark; so the rough dimensions of our diamond made up almost the entire playing surface.
Second base sat maybe four feet from the centerfield fence. First base crowded the guardrail boundary of the neighboring gas station (at Ashton & Willits Roads), and third sat on a slight incline bordering the lawn on the duplex property. Homeplate enjoyed its own green space backstop where the at-bat team could loll about in semi-suburban luxury.
And that’s how we spent the two or three summers when there was little else to worry about other than how to fill up those idle summer hours. We were Wiffleball Kings!
In a time when parents would see their children – especially their sons – at breakfast and not again until dinner time, there were no video games, no cable TV (three channels unless you had a UHF-capable set), no internet, no DVDs in stacks by an entertainment center. As kids we found all sorts of distractions and activities to fill those long summer days.
For us in the middle years of the 1960s, before we were pulled away by the semi-grownup responsibilities of newspaper routes, part-time jobs, and – gulp! – girls, we did little but play wiffle ball. We would start at 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning and play all day, or at least until the woman running the developer’s office in the basement of the duplex had enough of the noise and chased us off!
And when she climbed into her pink Mustang and went home for the day, we played until dinner, then played some more until the dark chased us on to other idle meanderings.
At times we went a bit too far in trying to emulate our real-life baseball heroes. Keeping records and statistics that rendered our games more adult and serious than they should have been. But our games were also a doorway that opened up our own little world to the larger neighborhood we would live in as teens. Challenges received and issued with other neighborhood clans expanded our circle of friends and introduced us The Outside World.
In the end, wiffle ball was a portal to relationships that would blossom in the years to come.
Our field became the preferred wiffle ball venue, our own version of the old, original Cathedrals of Baseball. It was the perfect melding of the grown-ups game with that of the kid’s size game. The grown-up world with the life of a kid.
It was the kind of life we took for granted as all kids do. The kind of life you never thought would end, would never change. The kind of life that in later years you looked back on with nostalgia and – maybe – a touch of envy for the carefree existence you wish you could recapture if only for a day … maybe even for just a few hours.
It was a time when there was no bigger aspiration to live up to than being a Wiffleball King!
PRUPDATE: (Kind of an pre-update since I haven’t even posted this yet; hence the term prupdate.)
I was going to include several pictures of the old wiffle ball field in this post. Even drove down to the old ‘hood to take pictures like some creepy tourist.
But the pictures of Duplex Field suck (a technical photography term) from the point of view of giving you a true appreciation of our once semi-magnificent field. I post them below, just to back up my earlier “teasing” up of this story on Facebook.
I was shocked when I saw the old field, really just another yard. I said to myself, “Where the hell did all these trees come from?”
Oh yeah … That was almost 50 years ago. Then I uttered the “C” word …
That was almost half-a-Century ago.
No … Not a very good moment.