Written by Jack Garland Thursday, 20 February 2014 00:00
Magnet Fingers. It sounds like the title of a bad 1950s horror movie, but it was actually describing a horror of a ballplayer. In our daily ritual of stickball, it was common knowledge that any ball that was hit or thrown in my direction would land anywhere but in my glove. Many of us had nicknames. Steve Wolf was “Weiner,” Don Fleischhauer was “Flash” and Bob Zukowski was “Z.” For me it was “Magnet Fingers.” I really didn’t like the name or the sarcasm, but I understood that it was fitting, funny, and used in a good-nature.
From the time we were first allowed to play in the street until our early 20s, stickball was an evening way of life in the neighborhood. We batted from the intersection of Droesch Place and Wisteria Avenue, and thus had the advantage of a home on Berkley Road serving as a center field barrier.
True to the name, our bat was usually a retired broomstick. The batter was his own pitcher; he would give the ball a little toss into the air “fungo” style and swing. The event was always open to all participants, but we could get a decent game going with as few as six players. In that case, the field positions would be outfield, infield, and first base. I was always assigned first base where I could cause the least damage. If the infielder caught the ball, he would run towards first base and hand it to me for the tag.
My skills at bat were no better than those in the field, but I rationalized that perhaps I was just a good pitcher. With Billy Maier, however, it was a different story. In addition to being older and bigger than the rest of us, he was a good athlete and an extremely powerful young man. At least once each season, he would step up to the plate and shatter the stick or the ball. On one occasion, I had bought a brand new pink Spalding Hi-Bounce ball, wrote my initials on it, and placed it into service. In the first inning, Billy came to bat, connected, and the ball went out of sight. After a thorough search of the yard and gardens at center field, we were resigned to the fact that the ball and the game were history. The next day, while delivering newspapers, I spotted the ball in the front yard of a home on Kenilworth Road, some 450 feet downrange of home plate.
There was no set rule regarding the length of our games. The number of innings we played was usually determined by the time we ran out of daylight. As darkness fell, we would proceed with the second part of our tradition—the post-game sessions by the outfield lamppost on Berkley Road. These “clubhouse” gatherings would often last longer than the games. As we sat on the curb, we would light up cigarettes and discuss cars, girls, Hi-Fi equipment, sports, eccentric teachers, and politics. Yes, politics. During the 1960 presidential campaign, we engaged in many scholarly debates about whom we would rather see on TV for the next four years, Kennedy’s wife or Nixon’s daughters.
As 11 p.m. approached, even good lamppost sessions had to come to an end. My parents and I had worked out an effective paging system. When the outside light of my house went on, it was their discreet signal that I was expected to be indoors in ten minutes and the countdown had begun. One of our buddies, Danny, was not so fortunate. One night, during our macho teen gathering, his mother stood at the front door of their house and called out in her melodious, southern drawl, “Peaches, time to come home!” A red-faced Danny sheepishly walked home amidst a standing ovation from the rest of us. In order to save this individual any further anguish, I have not used his real name. It probably makes no difference; after that night, we rarely addressed him by his real name anyway.
From that moment on, as far as I was concerned, Magnet Fingers didn’t sound all that bad.