Yeah, they 'hoid about dat' Spaldeen

Comeback: For years, the Spalding Co. sent tennis balls without fuzz to New York, where they were wildly popular. Production stopped in 1979, but they are being reissued.

August 29, 1999|By LOWELL COHN

THIS COLUMN is about a ball, the most wonderful ball ever invented. It's better than a baseball, basketball or football. It's better than any ball you can name. It was gone for 20 years, but it's making a comeback.

It is called a Spaldeen, which might not mean anything to you, unless you grew up on the East Coast, preferably New York, before 1979. I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, which means my childhood memories are filled with Spaldeens.

Starting in the 1920s, the Spalding Co. manufactured tennis balls at its home base in Chicopee, Mass. But overruns would occur, so there wasn't enough of the fuzzy stuff for the outside of the tennis balls.

Some anonymous genius -- and I use that word "genius" with reverence -- got the idea to market the bright pink, unused rubber cores as the "Spalding High-Bounce Ball."

Because New York people don't talk so good, they pronounced Spalding as "Spaldeen" -- as in, "Hey, Joey, you wanna play? I got a Spaldeen."

Spalding would box the Spaldeens and ship them down to New York, where kids would buy them for a quarter each.

And, my God, when you bought a brand new Spaldeen, the aroma alone would cause ecstasy; it was the smell of Bazooka bubble gum and summer and childhood and joy and hope.

Then you would go out and play. All those legendary New York street games began and ended with Spaldeens. I'm talking about games you've heard about but might never have played -- stickball, punchball, stoopball, hit the penny and a million others.

When it came to inventing games with a Spaldeen, the only limit was your imagination.

We didn't have baseball fields or any other kinds of fields. We played ball on playgrounds -- really slabs of concrete surrounded by cyclone fences -- or we played in the street, using sewer covers as bases.

The virtue of a Spaldeen, besides that you could whack it a mile, was that it didn't break things. You hit Mrs. Samson's Olds 88 with a Spaldeen, no big deal. No broken glass. No broken mirror. No broken nothin'.

Of course, Mrs. Samson would come running down her steps, screaming, "I'm gonna tell your mutha."

I apologize, Mrs. Samson, wherever you are.

I mostly played in the park on the corner of Avenue L and East 18th Street. It was called the park, but it never had a tree that I ever saw.

And every kid would come to the park with a Spaldeen in his back pocket. If someone had a stick, we'd play stickball. The stick was an old broom handle or a dowel from the closet. We'd draw a box on the wall and pitch to it, and if the batter hit it over the fence, it was a homer.

We'd play handball with the Spaldeen, and sometimes we'd go to a friend's house for stoopball. A kid would throw the ball at the steps in front of someone's house, and as the ball sailed back, you'd try to catch it on a fly. If it bounced once, it was a single, twice a double, and so on.

But the king of Spaldeen games all over New York City was punchball. You'd toss the ball over your head. You'd swing down overhand, as if you were serving a tennis ball. And then you'd punch it with your closed fist.

Guys could hit it 200 feet, long fly balls that seemed to never come down. The puncher would be running around the bases -- painted squares on the park's grimy concrete -- while the outfielders ran like mad after the Spaldeen.

The greatest punchball player I ever saw was Ronnie Salmonson, who could punch the ball to Queens. At least it seemed he could.

He was a legend, and now he's a dentist on Long Island, but he still signs his e-mails, "The punchball champion of Brooklyn."

The Spaldeen Era ended in 1979, when Spalding shifted its tennis-ball operation to Taiwan. An entire tradition wiped out just like that. All those baby boomers forced to go cold turkey with Spaldeen withdrawal.

But wait a minute. The ball-playing public did not take this lying down. After the company stopped production of the ball, people began sending a steady flow of letters and, later, e-mails to Spalding: "Where can I get a Spaldeen? You're robbing me of my memories."

So Spalding relented in January and began reissuing the Spaldeen. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is so excited by this development that he has organized a stickball tournament throughout the five boroughs, the finals to be played in front of City Hall.

Giuliani, who's a cost-cutting guy, wanted to know how come a Spaldeen costs two bucks. "Why isn't it still a quarter?" he asked Chris Waldeck of Spalding.

To which Waldeck replied, "Mr. Mayor, why isn't the subway still a quarter?"

Waldeck told me Spaldeens will be sold nationwide. In June, I tried to buy one in Brooklyn. I took my son along and told him all about Spaldeens, while I lied about how far I could punch one.

But no store I went to had a Spaldeen.

"They're supposed to be reissuing Spaldeens," I said to one shop owner.

"Yeah, I hoid about dat," he replied, shrugging.

Waldeck assures me that demand is outstripping production, but that Spalding will catch up soon. I hope so.

Lowell Cohn wrote this article for The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, Calif. It was distributed by the New York Times News Service.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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