In punch ball, Cedric always hit low and never very hard, but he was a perfect position hitter. He bent at the waist to tie his shoes and study how they played with him. If with two players in the infield, he would hit the ball just above their heads, if with only one, he would move a slow roller to the third. You never got it out. He ran too fast and the ball was too slow.
He never tried to hit the ball over the outfielder’s head for a home run. He was cautious about everything and didn’t even aspire to be what Blue Book called a “shooter.” The only time I ever saw him shoot a marble it turned out bad. That was the day Barry Bogardus picked up a broken marble that someone had left lying in the gutter, rounded the corner onto West End Avenue, and placed it against the curb.
“Hundred if you hit it!” scream.
West End was twice as wide as the 88, so the actual number should only have been forty, not one hundred. They all ran towards the West End, including Cedric, who even with his pocket bulging, arrived first, his mouth open, no expression on his face.
Just as I never saw another boy bend over at the waist, legs stretched out, and reach out to tie his shoes like Cedric did, I also didn’t see anyone shoot marbles in his direction. Most of the guys stood with their legs spread wide and spun the marble thumb first. Cedric sat up, crossed his legs under him like a mermaid’s tail, held the marble between thumb and forefinger, and slid the side of his hand forward to release the marble. He wasn’t as fast, but he was more accurate and corrected his aim after every shot.
His first shot missed the right by three inches. He moved to the left and got closer shot by shot. His eighth shot missed him to the left instead of the right; He stepped back a couple of millimeters and his ninth hit Barry Bogardus’s broken marble square. We all clapped and Cedric ran through the West End to pick up.
Coldly, Barry counted the marbles Cedric had rolled up and dropped them into Cedric’s cupped gloves. “Seven, eight, nine,” he said. “That’s all I have now. I owe you 91.”
Then he picked up the broken marble and dropped it into Cedric’s gloves. “That makes it ninety-thirty,” he said.
Kenny Nails shoved his hands into his coat pockets and laughed into the windshield wiper, but the rest of us were stunned. For us, it was like the day the fire was discovered or maybe the day Cain killed Abel.
(At the time we were not aware that 376 four-engine bombers attacked Schweinfurt and Regensburg without fighter support that day. Sixty were shot down, another 87 damaged beyond repair. Newspapers reported ball bearings bouncing across Germany, but that turned out not to be true).
The other children shook their heads and walked away, but I knew that a snake had entered the neighborhood and that things weren’t going to stay the same. I stared at Barry, trying to get my nerves back, but he was older and bigger and had hit those two Columbus Avenue kids, and in the end, with Barry and Kenny Nails laughing at me behind my back, I walked away too .
I was right. That’s when the neighborhood started downhill and it still feels like Barry and people like him were the cause. I started doing push-ups, running around the block, trying to get the guys hanging out at the Optimo Cigar store on Broadway to teach me how to fight, but it was five years before I was ready to challenge Barry, and by then he ‘had completely forgotten.
Years went by, I went to college, the Korean War started, I entered the military, I got out, I went to graduate school in Europe with GI Bill, wandered around for a while and came home. I got married, moved to Fairfield County, started traveling to New York, and one day at Grand Central Station someone called my name.
I didn’t recognize it at first, but it was the Blue Book. Last time I saw it, it was an ax face. Now it was a moon face.
“Guess who died,” he said.
I was afraid to guess. “WHO?”
“Cedric,” he said. “I went to his funeral last week.”
That surprised me. “What happened?”
Blue Book shook his head. “I guess he just lost his life.”
“It was very kind of you to go to his funeral.”
“Hey,” Blue Book said. “Cedric was a Hall of Fame punch ball.”
“A great pass catcher too,” I said.
Blue Book acted as if it hadn’t listened. “The best starting man in the history of 88th Street,” he said. It had been more than ten years, but it still bothered him that he favored Cedric over him as a pass receiver.
“What was his batting average?” I asked.
Blue Book gave me an embarrassed smile.
“No, really,” I said.
“Around .875,” Blue Book said.
He knew the exact figure. Blue Book kept meticulous records on everything from nickel pitching to associate football. This is how it got its name.
“Lifetime?” I asked. “Or in the best season?”
“For life,” Blue Book said. “But his slugging average? Less than .900.”
“He was a singles hitter,” I said.
“What an epitaph!” Blue Book, he said shaking his head again.
He hadn’t put it that way, and a sudden memory of Bogardus counting the marbles Cedric had rolled, dropping them into his hollowed out gloves and saying, “That’s all I have now. I owe you 91” flashed through my mind. . It made me feel like it took me so long to do something about it and Cedric probably never heard what I’d done.
“A singles hitter was everything he ever wanted to be,” I said.
“Nothing against individual hitters,” Blue Book quickly objected. “In fact, he was a client of mine.”
It turned out that Blue Book had been in the business of selling insurance, selling one policy or another to every marble shooter and stoopball player from 79th to 96th streets. Except me, of course.
At that point, he invited me to lunch at the Oyster Bar. I knew what the topic would be, but in a moment of nostalgic weakness, I agreed.