January 27, 2012

My field of dreams was a cement schoolyard in Forest Hills (Queens), NY


“Field of Dreams” is one of the great sports movies. My field of dreams was not in rural Iowa. Instead, it was in Forest Hills (NY) at PS 101, also known as the School in the Gardens.

Kindergarten for me started at PS 101 in 1947. By the time I reached third grade, the school yard had become the favorite place in my Lilliputian world.

I remember that Mr. Steinfeld was the physical education teacher and on mild days, instead of letting us romp around the gymnasium, he would lead the boys into the school yard, often to play softball. Learning to catch, throw and hit a ball was part of growing up for many boys. Kids today are more interested in becoming conversant with the internet, but in those years that followed World War II, simpler things were all that was available.

I can still remember the softball games that Mr. Steinfeld organized. We learned about batting orders, running and throwing to the correct base, where the various fielders were positioned, and other basics of the game. No one taught us to hit, throw and catch. I learned by watching the older boys, and trial and error, lots of errors. In my beginnings as a softball player, I idolized the older guys and watched some of them closely to learn the game.

Mr. Steinfeld was particularly patient with his young would-be athletes, but he had a problem with me when it came to hitting. Every time I hit the ball, instead of dropping the bat as I began my run to first base, in my excitement I would fling it. He was none too pleased because I was damaging his precious equipment and putting my schoolmates in harms way. After awhile, my dangerous habit was broken.

From this humble beginning, I became a softball addict. It might seem strange that it was softball, not baseball, that became my game of choice, but there was no option in Forest Hills then and probably now. Nearly all of the ball fields had cement surfaces, Rare was a grass field, especially at public elementary schools in the Borough of Queens.

The bases on these diamonds were simply painted squares, not the padded bags found on baseball fields. Few of us ever slid into a base. I was in mortal fear of tearing my pants and incurring my mother’s wrath. When I started to play what we called “hard ball”, I was totally unable to slide on a dirt infield, the residue of my softball days.

The first chance I had to play real baseball was when the Forest Hills Little League was inaugurated in 1954. I was 12 years old and have always regretted that I only had one year of Little League. My team was sponsored by Alexander Cleaners located on 108th Street. Our motto was something about cleaning up the rest of the league, which we did.

One of the highlights of my youth was the summer “vacation playground” at PS 101. We played softball every day, could use the gym for basketball, volleyball and other activities and there was even a lunch program which was similar to the regular school-year lunches. The food was usually so bad that my mother packed a lunch for me and I only bought milk and ice cream. I can still remember the terrible tuna sandwiches on Fridays, provided in deference to the meatless needs of the Roman Catholic students, and the world’s driest peanut butter sandwiches with raisin mixed in. Yuck.

The vacation playground program had a wonderful feature, traveling softball teams. We would play other nearby Queens schools and it was exciting to travel with a group, usually by bus or subway. To me that was a road trip. While my Brooklyn Dodgers might travel to Boston or St. Louis, I was thrilled to visit PS 3 or PS 144. There were teams for boys under five-feet tall and for the bigger kids. If you were short but a good enough player, you could be part of both teams. One summer, I played for both teams.

For me, the opportunities offered at PS 101 were as much as a child who loved to play ball could have hoped for. We learned sports, teamwork and leadership skills.

And at night, a few hours after the schoolyard gates had been carefully locked, there was usually a “hardball” game on television, in black and white. My beloved Dodgers were on Channel 9, but if they were not on the tube on a particular evening, then the Yankees or Giants were usually available on Channel 11.

What a great childhood featuring my own field of dreams.

No comments: