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Left Coast/Right Coast: Kids games New York City style

Mike Gold describes two games from his youth; Johnny on a Pony and Stickball.
Mike Gold is a retired entrepreneur providing his views. Photo credit: Katie Stearns.

Mike Gold writes for the News of Mill Creek on a regular basis. He is a retired entrepreneur and describes himself as a, “relatively recent transplant to the West Coast. I have lived (born and raised) in the Northeastern U.S. So these observations are based upon ‘living the dream’ in the Pacific Northwest.”

We all played kids games. My very favorite in New York City was Johnny on a Pony (which is called Buck Buck elsewhere).

The basic goal of Johnny on a Pony is to cause more mayhem and injuries than in a pro football game. This game could only be a New York City street game.

The idea is to create a line of kid’s horizontal backs anchored by the kid at the end. In New York City, the “end” kid is usually standing against a telephone pole for support.

So you have a long line of kid’s backs – say 10 or more. The opposing team runs one at a time full speed at the last kid in line and using that kid’s back as a “launch pad” jumps up as far as they can towards the back of the first kid in the line (the kid who is anchored against the telephone pole).

The main objective is to get all your own team on top of the backs of the horizontal kids. If you succeed, you get another turn.

If a single jumping kid falls off the pile, that team then has to take the place of the “horizontal” kids and it is the other team’s turn to jump.

If the horizontal kids team falls down, they have to be the horizontal kid team again.

Now the injuries: Since this is a New York City street game, there are many small variations in the jumping techniques.

The first is to land on the backs of the horizontal kids with your knees first. It does tend to “sting.”

The second is to sort of “skin” the heads and ears of the horizontal kid team with your inner thigh (especially if you’re wearing old jeans with the New York style rivets in them) as you scrape across the kids backs on your way to a landing. (the horizontal kids know this one and usually tuck their heads down under the elbows of the kid ahead of them – but this is not foolproof).

One way to sort of cheat in order to insure the jumping team gets to jump again, is to have everyone land on the same kid’s back (you aim for the smallest kid in the line). After you’ve got three or four bodies having landed hard in that back, it is inevitable the kid will collapse and you get to jump again.

Now the jumping team can also get injured. The most common is for the first jumper (who is trying to land as far forward as possible on the line of backs) to slam against the telephone pole that is supporting the anchor kid.

Another is for any jumper to miss the entire line of backs and land on the ground. (Oh, just to remind you, this is a NYC street game – where the telephone pole and all its surroundings are sidewalk – not even blacktop. Good old fashioned concrete).

Picture a 150 lb. kid running as fast as possible – launching himself into the air at 15 mph and sort of getting launched sideways. Occasionally, this kid would wind up on the hood of a Buick.

I always liked coming home and being asked, “What is this blood all over your clothes?”

My standard answer was, “It’s not my blood.” That worked about 95% of the time.

The worst possible outcome would be to get impaled on the rear of a 1959 or 1960 Cadillac (you know the ones with the lethal sharp fins on the back). This was a far more common outcome in my second favorite NYC street game, Stickball.

Stickball New York City Street Style – is a sort of baseball game for inner city "yutes." (That’s Joe Pesci saying “youths” in the movie, My Cousin Vinny).

Stickball is played in the middle of any New York City side street (It would be impossible to play this say on 6th Ave in Manhattan. Simply too much traffic).

These are narrow streets with cars parked on each side – leaving an approximate 12 foot-wide corridor in the middle of the street.

You always use a manhole cover as home plate. The video pictured here is incorrect in that it shows the older men bouncing the Spaulding ball (just a “pink” rubber ball) and hitting it. In the kid’s game, there is a pitcher who has to bounce the ball over home plate (very much like a bowler in Cricket, a British game on which Baseball is allegedly based – but I can assure you no red blooded American would ever be caught dead playing Cricket – which is so boring you’d rather watch grass grow).

At any rate, the pitcher bounces one in and the hitter – using somebody’s mom’s broom handle as a bat – hits it.

Door handles of parked cars serve as first and third base and second base is usually the next sewer cover up the block.

If a fielder catches the ball, it is an out. If you tag a runner between bases, they are out.

A well hit Spaulding can travel 100 yards. Imagine a kid running full speed looking over his shoulder at the fly ball and there is that 1959 Cadillac parked on the street. Ouch!

Now there is one thing worse than that 1959 Cadillac. At every NYC street corner there is a sewer by the curb. Unlike the manhole covers, these are open to allow stormwater to drain off the streets. If you hit a Spaulding and it winds up in the sewer, you as the batter, have to retrieve it.

On many occasions there I was face down in the gutter trying to retrieve the Spaulding from the floating pile of sh*t in the sewer. (In those days, there was no difference between the stormwater and actual sewer systems. Same pipes).

The “trick” was to bend up a wire coat hanger and use it to retrieve the ball. If you want to know how Cholera epidemics got started in NYC, that’s how. I can only say I rarely ate dinner after sewer duty (and “duty” is a pun).

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