July 20, 2010

Early Levittown was a baseball-loving boy's field of dreams; we could always find a bunch of boys to choose up sides

Baseball has been my passion since 1951. From birth to age 12, I lived in Forest Hills, NY. Not much baseball was played in that area of Queens because just about the only grass was growing on the front lawns of rich people. We baseball fanatics had no choice but to play softball on the cement playgrounds of the public schools. No wonder I never learned how to slide.

My family moved to Levittown in 1954, about two months into the seventh grade. Among the appeals of my new hometown were the sparkling green baseball fields. The more I rode my bicycle, the more ball fields I found. They appeared behind schools, at village greens and in parks. This place was made for me. No more wearing out my Keds on cement. No more softball. Now I could play the real thing. BASEBALL

Adding to my joy were the dozens of others youngsters like myself who loved to play our national pastime. It was a rare spring or summer day that I could not get into a pickup game. Mostly, I found them at the Azalea Road park, in the shade of the water tower. Also, there was a bunch of guys who hung out at the North Village Green who were always ready for a game. The North Green guys called themselves The Natives. I quickly joined their tribe. The best player in the bunch was a younger kid, Bobby Lombardi who went by the name of Lumpy. The swimming pool was maybe 50 yards from where a ball field had been created by the guys. We used to go for a dip in between games. Truly, I could not have asked for more.

Although it was not baseball, stickball games were great fun. Hundreds, if not thousands of hours, were spent behind Northside School playing the game. Bob Castro, Mal Karman, John Koehler and I spent many a sweaty summer afternoon tossing Spaldings and tennis balls into a chalked box we had drawn again a brick wall behind the school. Our bats were broom handles. John was a great hitter, Bob had a deadly fastball and Mal dreamed that he was Mickey Mantle.

We even imported kids from other parts of Levittown to play stickball against us for money. When you had John Koehler on your team, you expected to win. Truly, he hardly ever struck out. A few years later, he brought the same batting eye to the high school team and earned all-league honors for coach Joe DiMaggio’s the Blue Dragons.

I was too old to play Little League by the time I moved to Levittown, but did sign up for one year of Pony League ball. Classmates Artie Dorrmann, Tom Young (who moved to Roslyn before graduation) and Jay Citrin were teammates. Now I share my Pony League memories with my pal and classmate Don Davidson who fondly recalls getting a hit off of Pete Cybriwski.

I played in Pony League in 1956 and the big star in our age group was Cybriwski, a pitcher whose fastball was legendary throughout Levittown. Pete moved through the halls of Division Avenue like he was Elvis himself. He had an aura, a presence. He was a man, while the most of rest of us were still boys. I remember at parties around Levittown during high school, if the girls heard that Pete was coming, they would swoon. No kidding. The girls still remember him as Levittown's best dancer.

Opening day of Pony League, Pete is pitching for the Exchange Club again my team. During warm ups, we focused on Cybriwski, marveled at his size, the speed of his fastball, his charisma. Our manager gathered our team together and said not to be afraid of Cybriwski. Easy for him, he did not have to face this monster. Then he announced our batting order. “Barning, you’re leading off,” he said. “Take a couple of pitches. Let’s see what this kid has.”

The umpire yelled “Play ball.” I walked to the plate, took two strikes, swung and missed the third pitch and trotted back to the bench. Overall I struck out all three times, but did foul off two pitches. That day, I realized for the first time, that there were levels of the game.

Levittown was a great place for a baseball-loving boy to grow up. There were so many guys my age that it wasn't difficult to find a choose-up game. When he weather turned cold, there was the court under the Azalea Road water tower to play basketball. We even shoveled snow off the court when necessary. Levittown was a wonderland, hardly ever a dull moment, but I do wonder what the girls did in the summer to keep busy besides going to one of our wonderful swimming pools.

Photo: Frank Barning in 1958

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