I was about 12 or 13, or about high school age, when I stopped going to the Crotona Park handball courts and began going to the Macombs Dam Park courts. Crotona Park was a handball center for the Bronx and had some good money players. However, Macombs Dam was where the really top money players were and they played with the small black ball used in handball tournaments and not the pink rubber “Spaldeens” we used at Crotona Park.
I was able to walk the twenty or more blocks from my apartment building in Simpson Street to Crotona Park but Macombs Dam was way up at 161st Street so I had to take a streetcar there. I guess I somehow found out which streetcar and then how to get to the courts when I got off at the proper stop. There were more courts, I think, than at Crotona Park, probably 24. Certain courts, as at Crotona, were reserved for the money players.
Of the top players, I remember Buddy Wolf, a good-looking guy as well as a good player; Leo Lassman, a stocky guy with glasses who looked like an accountant; Russ, lassman’s partner, as ugly as Buddy Wold was handsome; Junior, a tall, spidery guy known for his blocking ability; and Dominic, a short Italian. There was also a bookie, someone who handled the betting and the money, maybe more than one. I also remember a guy named Bennie, who nowadays would be called mentally challenged, who used to sweep down the courts with a broom and who knew all the money players.
I don’t remember how but, as I had at Crotona Park, I got to know almost everyone at Macombs, in particular, three older guys, maybe in their twenties and all good players---George, who worked in a print shop; Eddie Lemon, a dour-looking guy as befitting his name; and Big Gene, who nowadays would be called an African-American but back then was a big black guy who hit the ball a ton. I got to know these three because one time they needed a fourth and invited me in. I also became a doubles partner with another black guy called Slim, who had some missing teeth and was reputed to be an ex-boxer. Slim had great wrists and used to dive to pick up shots that looked to be winners and I tried to emulate him.
My weekend routine was to take the streetcar to Macombs Dam, play in the morning, walk to a Nedick’s for lunch, two hot dogs and an orange drink for a quarter, return to the courts, watch the money games, maybe play some more, then take the streetcar back home. During the summer months the top players wouldn’t be at Macombs Dam; they’d go to the Brighton Beach courts to play. I’m sure it was hot and humid in the Bronx but I don’t recall that it stopped me from my handball playing.
One event stands out in my mind, the day that Vic Herschkowitz came to MacCombs Dam. Herschkowitz was an almost legendary figure in the handball world, a New York city fireman (or maybe subway worker) who’d already won numerous titles and at that time was probably the best one-wall handball player in the world. Having him come to Macombs Dam was like having Joe Dimaggio or Willie Mays suddenly turn up at a Little League game.
Herschkowitz came with a manager, who arranged the betting for him and I don’t remember if he had a partner. I do remember that he first played singles against Dominick, using only his left hand. Herschkowitz wasn’t a big man but he was strongly built, as quick as a cat and, unfortunately for Dominick, his left hand was as good as, or almost as good as, his right. I don’t know how many points Dominick was spotted but he had no chance. Then Herschkowitz and a partner played our top two players who were there at a time, using both his right and left hands. I’m sure they gave our guys a substantial spot but of course the world’s best player came out on top. I assume that on this particular day Herschkowitz for some reason didn’t play at his usual place, maybe the Brighton Beach courts, and had come up to the Bronx to pick up some easy money. I saw him play one more time, at Brighton Beach, where I’d gone for the day with my cousin King, who lived in Brooklyn. He and his partner played against Moe Ornstein, another world-class player, and his partner. Ornstein was built like a football player and was hard to get around once he’d planted himself in front of you. I believe he also worked for the city but as a lawyer. Ornstein’s partner was really good and they actually won that game.
When I was in my junior year at high school (Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan) a handball team was formed. I think this was because one of the teachers, Mr. Penzer, was a handball player and volunteered to be the coach. I became the captain. I didn’t think I was fast enough to be a good singles player but I was a good doubles player so I teamed up with another player who I thought would also be better at doubles. Mr. Penzer was nominally the coach but never actually came to our initial practices, at some courts in Manhattan, so I made up the team line-ups, three singles players and two doubles teams.
The handball teams were under the aegis of the Public School Athletic League (PSAL). Our league was comprised of teams from high schools in the Bronx and Manhattan. Another league was comprised of teams from Brooklyn, reputed to have the best players, Queens and maybe also from Staten Island. The winning teams from the two leagues played each other at the end of the season.
Our games were played at my home courts at MacCombs Dam on weekday afternoons. The highlight of our first season was our match against DeWitt High School from the Bronx. DeWitt was known for its good football teams and also for its good handball teams, which always won our league’s title. At our match, their coach was there and their players all had nice jackets, pants and caps, just like their football team. The best Stuyvesant could do for us were white t-shirts. We were also definitely underdogs. Our team had lost a couple of early matches and DeWitt Clinton was undefeated. I don’t recall the details but in a great upset we beat them 3-2. My doubles team won its game and I think we won two of the singles games. Unfortunately, DeWitt won all the rest of its matches and as they’d lost only one and we’d lost two matches they were league champs even though we’d beaten them.
The next year I think both DeWitt and Stuyvesant were unbeaten when we played them. At any rate the winner would go on to be league champs. My doubles team won its match. I remember one point in our game; I dove for a kill shot and got it back for a winner, just like my mentor slim. The match was tied 2-2 and came down to the singles match between our number three player and theirs. Our guy was pretty good but theirs was a little better and won in a close game. So for a second year in a row we were denied a championship and a chance to play in Brooklyn. My doubles team ended winning all but one of our games over the two years.
So my memories of Macombs Dam are bittersweet. I have one more memory also not that great. Somehow it was arranged that I have a singles match against another high school player, his name was Norm. I think we were considered the best two players of our age at the courts and maybe there was even betting on our game. If so, anyone who bet on me was disappointed because the match showed that my self-assessment of being too slow to beat a really good player in singles was correct. I forget what the score was (maybe I want to forget it) but it was decisive.
But my being captain of the handball team had a more significant consequence than beating the mighty DeWitt team once and almost bringing home a championship. Our coach Mr. Penzer was a graduate of Yale University. I guess back in those days an Ivy League grad might end up teaching at a New York City high school, at least at an elite school as Stuyvesant was (and still is). Up to this point I assumed that I’d be going to some college in New York---New York University, City College, maybe Columbia, depending on what kind of scholarship I could get. Mr. Penzer suggested I apply to Yale.
I didn’t know anything about Yale except that it was somewhere up in New England and that it played Columbia in football. I did apply and was offered a full tuition scholarship; also I could have some job on campus that would pay for my room and board. This would leave paying for books and other expenses and I could do this by working at a summer job. I considered and decided I’d go to Yale. The main factor in my decision was that going to a New York college would mean four more years of subway travel and I’d had enough of that going from the Bronx to Stuyvesant in Manhattan. Yale didn’t have a handball team, but in a way, as I tell people, I went there on a handball scholarship.
Ironically, I suppose, going out of town to college meant the virtual end of my playing handball at Macombs Dam. During the next four years I did go to Macombs Dam on occasion but I was an outsider and never played there regularly again. I did play handball on the four-wall courts that Yale had in their gym, but that’s another story.