by Len Lear
When I was a kid, I used to go to the Pennell School playground, Ogontz and Nedro Avenues in West Oak Lane, where my friends and I would play softball almost every day of the week in the spring and summer for hours. We started about 1950 and continued until I left home for college in 1958. First we would “flip” baseball cards against the school building and hope to win the cards of our heroes like Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, etc. (Even though the Brooklyn Dodgers were “the enemy,” I overlooked that fact because “Campy” was a North Philly native and because Robinson was so exciting and “The Duke” was so regal.)
After about 45 minutes of “flipping” cards, we’d go over to the other end of the playground, choose up sides and play a game or two of softball. Now the term “softball” is a misnomer because the damned thing, though much bigger than a conventional “hardball,” was just about as hard. How do I know this? Because, even though I was a shortstop, I was usually the only kid on either team who did not have a glove, and many of those grounders on our cement “field” stung like hell.
There were five kids in our rowhouse, and our working class dad, a South Philly native who never went past the eighth grade, could not afford to pay for frills like baseball gloves or football equipment. (Thus, I actually did play football with no equipment, even a helmet, which may be why my brain is in its current condition. The play that ended my football “career” was when I tackled Joel Browndorf, an All-City running back for Central High School who had generated a full head of steam in the open field. He was 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, wearing shoulder pads, a helmet, etc.; I was 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds, with no equipment except what Mother Nature gave me. After that collision, I realized my future lay in sitting at a desk.)
I did try to save up money from summer jobs, like delivering papers on my bicycle for the Philadelphia Bulletin or making change in a pinball machine gallery at Broad and Erie or working behind the counter at Cooper’s Bar BQ at Broad and Olney or being a “soda jerk” at the Cedar Park Pharmacy in West Oak Lane. But I never made more than $10 a week, which was usually wasted on hoagies, milkshakes and pinball games. (Or if I could refrain from pinball games and junk food for a couple of weeks, I would save up enough money for a ticket to a rock ‘n’ roll show at the Uptown Theater in North Philly, where I might see Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Lee Andrews & the Hearts, Solomon Burke, etc.)
I made more than my share of errors at shortstop, and I tried my best not to blame them on the lack of a glove, which actually made me feel pretty macho. (“Only wimps wear baseball gloves,” I once told a teammate who complained that my late-inning error lost a game for us.) I think I did pretty well, considering my handicap, but I never did make it to the major (or minor) leagues. Then again, I don’t think there even was such a thing as a major league for softball.
In any event, today I can definitely appreciate the way great shortstops like Jimmy Rollins field their positions, but let’s face it, they have actual gloves and play on that soft grass. So what’s the big deal? If they want to really earn their millions, they should play on cement without gloves, like I did. Otherwise, they should donate most of their millions to charity.