February 9, 2011

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

By Frank Barning

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 boys 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. The rich kids in Forest Hills were sent away to summer camp. Given a choice, I would have picked a summer in Levittown.

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 and he could throw a knuckle ball. A few years later, he brought the same batting eye to the Division Avenue High School team and earned all-league honors for coach Joe DiMaggio’s 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 Cybriwsky.

I played in Pony League in 1956 and the big star in our age group was Cybriwsky, 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 Cybriwsky, marveled at his size, the speed of his fastball, his charisma. Our manager gathered our team together and said not to be afraid of Cybriwsky. 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.


Marilyn Monsrud Frese said...

Baseball memories in Old Levittown! It reads like poetry! I can tell by your choice of words how much the game means to you Frank. An how much it influenced your life- from school sports writer to a major collector of base ball cards and a lifelong avid fan. I am so happy for you that Vivian shares your passion. Makes life that much sweeter. Wonderful memories, and such great recall of names and places! Good job!! (Do you remember what an amazong dancer Pete was? He was a big guy, but he had such grace! When he danced it was like his feet never even touched the round!)

Anonymous said...

From Gary Parker, class of 1962

You have captured the moment of TIME

Anonymous said...

From Cliff Fromm, class of 1960

Really good baseball story. I remember the box on the wall at Northside School. I even remember playing in the foundations when the school was being built. But most of all I remember Sherry Kruger. (I often wonder where she is today and what she looks like)

As Bob Hope used to sing, "Thanks for the memories".

Anonymous said...

From Ira Selsky, class of 1960

I loved your post on baseball in Levittown.

I grew up south of Hempstead Turnpike and attended Wisdom Lane School (elementary and junior high, although in the 6th grade we were bused to Levittown Memorial for one year). There was a large field surrounding the school and I used to play pick-up baseball games with Bill Stanley, Toby Rutner and Richie Bernhardt,among others. We also played football and basketball on those fields/courts.

I also played “organized” baseball in the Little League from the age of 8 to 12 and Pony League at 13-14. In Little League I was a pretty good pitcher and infielder, and recently my wife found an old edition of the Levittown Tribune from 1952 in which my photo appeared describing me as a nine-year old with a good pitching form. I had great control and could throw a little curveball but unfortunately not much of a fastball. By the time I started Pony League, I was still too small to pitch and felt that I couldn’t compete with the big guys (like Pete Cybriwsky and John Shibilo) anymore. That was the end of my baseball career.

dewain said...

Great story, Frank. You summed up the experience of so many of us at that time. Levittown and baseball go together.

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