June 512, 1997
ultimate summer fun
Wild In The Streets
There are a million games in the naked city. Here are a few of them.
By Brian Howard
(L. to R.) Jeremy Sparks, Victor DeFelice (background), Michael Serrano and Walt Hawthorne of the Sepviva Street team.
"Oh, that really gives up my age," says Matt Cianciulli when I ask him about half-ball, a game I've heard of but never seen played. "I haven't seen that played in years."
Cianciulli, owner of Matt's Market, a tiny grocery at the corner of Sixth and Wilder, has lived on the corner most of his life and grew up playing half-ball. He takes me outside to the corner and explains.
"We used to play right here," he says, pointing to the house adjacent to the store. "Do you remember no, of course you don't, you're too young but they were called pimple balls, they're like tennis balls, but real light and we'd chop them in half. We'd have to pitch in to buy them and they were only like 5 or 10 cents."
It's been at least 40 years since Cianciulli, 54, started playing half-ball, but he doesn't see it in the neighborhood too much these days.
"The neighborhood's changed."
And so have kids. But even in this era of Nike-hawking megastars, street games persist, born of limited space and ingenious appropriation of whatever is lying about. Here's a play-by-play to games being played and games some people only remember in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
Kill The Man
Basketball was born in a gymnasium, but its street variation is as different from the gym version as baseball is from half-ball. In Grays Ferry recently during the Unity in the Community festival, Maurice Quann, 13, Jason Funderburk, 11, Isiah Mitchell, 8, and a ragtag brigade of friends were playing a hybrid of another sort. Kill the Man, a.k.a. Kill the Carrier or Fumble Rumble, is a mixture of football... and anarchy.
Where football is the field sport most bogged down in rules, this derivative's one rule is simple: kill and be killed. Requiring at least three people (the more people, the more dispersed the bruising), a (preferably) grassy expanse and one ball, Kill the Man has no boundaries, no set teams and no mercy.
The game begins with a jump ball of sorts above a gathering of all comers. The person who catches the ball instantly becomes a team of one versus a team of the rest. The brave soul runs like hell; the remaining group runs after, its purpose to "kill" or tackle the carrier. Once the prey is caught and the pile-up dispersed, the recently deceased throws the ball in the air and the process resumes, ad infinitum or until parents call for dinner.
Kill the Man rates high on the grass-stain scale. The game is simple but chaotic never the same twice.
Due to the game's frantic nature, quotes were hard to come by. When Mark Johnson, 8, carrier at the time, was asked on the fly why he likes to play, he exclaimed in a voice both exhilarated and terrified, "It's fun!"
Robert Heller, apparently in his 20s and with a tattoo prominently displayed on his forearm, is talking with friends outside Gabriel Enterprise, a novelty store at 1708 South Two Street. He's asked about dead-box.
"Geez, I haven't played that in a long time," he sighs.
An odd mating of hopscotch and marbles, dead-box requires a slab of pavement, a piece of chalk, bottle caps, crayons (only if you're serious) and a good flicking thumb.
"You melt the crayons and fill the bottle caps so they're heavier, so you can flick them better," says Heller.
Once your caps cool, you're ready to start. First you draw a dead box on the ground:
Don't land in the dead box.
The object is to flick your cap from box to box, starting with number one and ending with 16. The challenge is to keep your cap from landing in the center box marked with the skull the dead box.
"If you land in the dead box, you're done."
Sounds easy enough, but it's a cutthroat game. Other players can knock your bottle cap into the center with theirs. And by design, every other advance requires a trip directly through the center one is across the square from two, three from four, etc. Each attempt at success factors the possibility of sudden death. Dead-box accommodates as many players as available and, according to Heller, "can be an all-day game it can get pretty competitive."
John Jedrzej pitches on Dauphin Street.
On Dauphin Street in Fishtown, Paul Roberts, 16, Matt McCarrie, 16, John Jedrzej, 18, and some friends have just finished playing stickball, a baseball derivative.
"All you need is a high wall, like the side of a big warehouse," says Roberts. "First floor's a single, second's a double... if you hit it on the roof and it stays, it's a home run."
"You play with a two-swing strikeout," adds latecomer Joe Maryanski, 23. "You make outs if you don't let [the ball] hit the ground."
The equipment is simple: some sort of rubber ball whole for these purposes and a stick of some sort a broom handle or a more official-looking stickball stick which resembles a billy club. The ball is pitched overhand, the ball is hit, runs are scored and outs are made. The game breaks when home runs are hit someone's got to retrieve the ball from the roof. When the ball returns, the game resumes.
Maryanski also knows wire-ball, the mythic North Philly street game that his younger cohorts can't seem to remember.
I first heard about wire-ball from a girlfriend who grew up in the Northeast. She explained, to my disbelief, that the object of the game was to throw a ball at a wire. It takes its cues from baseball, but in a much more roundabout way. Another game with terraced scoring, it requires even teams, a tennis ball or similar orb and one or more power lines.
"There were a bunch of older guys, like my age and up into their 30s, playing it here the other day," Maryanski says. "You have two teams; you throw the ball at the wires and if you hit the lowest line, it's a single, the second lowest is a double... "
"You play with doubles and singles?" a cohort inquires.
"Well you can play it that way, or with just one wire which is a home run," Maryanski retorts. "If you miss the wire and the fielders catch it, it's an out. If you hit the wire and they catch it, it's an out. But usually if you hit it, the ball'll go off in a weird direction."
(L. to R.) Jeremy Sparks, John McKnight and Joey McKenna shoot on Walt Hawthorne.
Say what you will about ice hockey being a sport of superstars, street hockey, by name and execution, is a street game. Played on side streets and empty lots throughout the city, hockey is this town's zeitgeist, for the time being at least.
The Sepviva Street team (pronounced "seh-vi-vah" as in "I'm a sehvivah") in Fishtown practices and plays pretty much every day after school. A group of seven 12- to 14-year-olds, today they're getting tuned up for their big game the coming Saturday against the Cree Street squad.
"Each street has a team," says John McKnight, who despite a casted foot is slapping one-timers off the passes of a chocolate-faced Michael Serrano at goalie Walt Hawthorne. Hawthorne, for his part, does an impressive job fending off most he'd tell you all of the wicked drives.
Playing in the width of the recently dug-up corner of Sepviva at Norris, McKnight and company boast of the ferocity of their play. "See that broken window?" McKnight inquires, pointing at a broken pane in the garage door of the vacant building across the street. "We did that."
"Who cares," blurts another. "No one lives there."
Broken up regularly by yells of "car!" the game moves in fits and starts.
Using only one goal, an adaptation of necessity which qualifies the sport as a true street game, Hawthorne is net-minder for both sides, an impartial judge who also calls penalties. The penalty box, incidentally, is the stoop of the vacant-paned building.
Possession changes work like those in half-court basketball. When possession changes, the ball must be "taken out" to the top of the key, or center ice as it were, where the offensive and defensive sides switch.
The game today alternates between organized play and random shooting.
I put out an open inquiry: "Hextall or Snow?"
"Snow!" shouts back the pad-laden Hawthorne in reference to the Philly Flyers' dilemma of which goalie to play in the NHL Playoffs, cagey veteran Ron Hextall or upstart Garth Snow.
Going for the goal on Sepviva Street.
Matt Cianciulli may be the last repository of half-ball knowledge in the city.
Drew Williams, 8, knew of the game and knew it was played in Grays Ferry, but couldn't give any specifics.
Around the neighborhood, Shante Mason, 4, Shamira Mason, 5, and Laneeka George, 8, skipped with a makeshift jump rope. Not quite ready for double-dutch, the trickier game that employs two ropes and a huge oral history of complicated rhyming, the youngsters hadn't heard of half-ball.
An adult who requested to remain anonymous wandered over. "Oh yeah, half-ball. I don't think anyone plays that anymore."
But Cianciulli can still tell you how the game works. Here's the rules, paraphrased from his description:
Half-ball operates on premises similar to baseball. There are two teams. The defense has a pitcher and one or more fielders. The offense uses a cut-down mop handle to bat a pitched semi-orb. Any ball caught on a fly is an out.
However, as the playing area is often no larger than the width of a South Philly side street, there are no bases, and therefore no base running. Hits are determined solely by how high or far the ball travels.
For a small game of two two-player teams, the field is the width of the street and the higher on the facing house your ball strikes, the better your hit. As in stickball, first floor is a single, second floor a double, etc. With more players, the game can be played on the street lengthwise, where distance, not height, determines the magnitude of the hit.
The ball is pitched underhand. Cianciulli demonstrates: "You hold the ball with the hole on your palm and your thumb on top and you lob it in. Some guys would put a little twist on it which made it harder to hit."
"I've actually seen stores selling half-balls already cut in half," he adds. "We used the half-ball so that it was harder to hit. And so it wouldn't roll as far."
"It was a great way to kill a day."