I grew up one block from the Arlington
Avenue School. From my 3rd floor bedroom, I could look out the window
over the garages behind 427 Summer Avenue and across what we called
“Rutgers Field” to the playground entrance on Wakeman
Avenue. In the summer, I’d do just that, looking to see if
anyone had shown up yet to play ball on the blacktop field. The
gates to the playground were locked tight until Mr. Torre would
arrive at noon, but we’d still find our way in, either squeezing
through a narrow opening or climbing over the 20-foot high fence.
During supervised hours, only softballs were allowed; earlier in
the day we’d use a rubber-coated hardball for our games. We
could get by with 6 on a team, as the building wall made rightfield
and much of centerfield non-existent. 3 infielders, 2 outfielders
and a pitcher were enough to start a game – a non-batter from
the other team could catch and throw the ball back to the pitcher.
OF COURSE, we’d always have 9 per team before long and others
would be waiting around to fill in if someone quit or got hurt.
There were ground rules. A ball hit on the roof of the school
was 3 outs and you were responsible for getting the ball. Some kids
like Ron Cebula made a living getting paid nickels, dime or quarters
climbing the fence and shimming up the drain pipe onto the roof
to retrieve wayward balls. As a left-handed batter, the roof was
always a concern for me. Perhaps that’s how I became a proficient
opposite field hitter at a young age. A high foul ball to the left
could land in either of two yards. Just next to third base posed
the greater hazard – a mangy dog would grab the ball in his
teeth and you’d need to go rip it out from his slimy grip.
Again, there were those that would, for a price, set out to retrieve
the ball, but there was less interest in this mission.
The fence down the left field line was 185 feet from home plate
and we measured dead center one time at 272 feet (you had to hit
it over the far end of the school to hit one here). Beyond the fences
lay the Rutgers School of Pharmacy (now the North District Police
Hdqtrs). With a hardball the fences were reachable by many. With
a softball, it was a bit more of a poke.
There were playground legends who many may remember. Benny Galante
was one – the rumor was that he was drafted by the Mets out
of Barringer High. All I know is I once saw Benny throw a football
the length of the playground twice in a row, once right-handed and
once left-handed! There was Tommy Hahnes, who was almost automatic
over the fence and 50/50 to land one on Lincoln Avenue. And Broadway
was reachable for T. Hahnes as well. There was Luis Cardoso, better
known as “Hook” due to the permanent shape of his left
arm after a botched childhood operation. At 5’6” and
with basically one arm, he could hit it out once in a while, could
just about dunk a basketball and I also remember more than one 1-punch
KO when challenged to a fight. Many others as well – Arlington
Ave. playground had what legends are made of.