Our Baseball Field — Building Our Own ‘Field of Dreams’ In 1960s Long Island
By Ed Dempsey
I used to teach Social Studies. One of the movies that I liked to show my students was ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’ The opening scene takes place in the early 1960s in Massapequa, Long Island; Ron Kovic is playing in the woods with his brother and friends. That scene always reminded me of my own experiences growing up not too far away in Centereach, Long Island.
In 1955/1956 Centereach was ‘God’s Country,’ way out in the sticks. We moved out there just before I started kindergarten. Our housing development was so new that it was still under construction when we moved in. It was being carved, block by block, out of the thinly populated woods and sandy pinelands that filled that entire area of Long Island in those days, so it was surrounded by woods on three sides. The woods became our playground for all kinds of games–hide and seek, war games–and we picked the wild berries and fruit we found there.
Eventually our development would have 50 houses. Many of the parents in our development and others like it had grown up in New York City: Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan or the Bronx. They moved out of the crowded City to the Island to provide a better, more healthy environment for their children. Families were big back then. Each family usually had anywhere from four to nine children. Our fathers and mothers had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War, and now that there was peace and economic stability, they finally felt safe enough to have big families. There were five kids in my family, we were part of the Baby Boomer generation. The large size of families was important, because it meant that there were always plenty of other children to play with, and enough kids around to make up teams for games.
When the developers planned our housing development, they didn’t think to put in a playground with playing fields even though there was plenty of land to do so. We were left to figure it out on our own. The woods had lots of trees, dirt roads and meadows. What we didn’t have was a place to play baseball, softball or football. Initially, we played all these games in our own back yards. My family’s yard hosted a lot of baseball and touch football games.
Playing baseball in the back yard eventually became a problem, though, as we all got bigger and stronger. Fly balls would crash through the windows of our house or the neighbor’s house next door. If we hit our neighbor’s windows, we lost the ball and had to pay for the window. Sometimes we hit the baseball into the woods and we couldn’t find it, bringing the game to a premature end if no one had another ball. Also, we were getting too big to play touch football in the backyard.
We had to find a new place so that we could continue playing our games. The basic outline of our development helped solve the problem for a while. The development was shaped like an elongated H with a quiet oval cul-de-sac at the top of both legs of the H. Somehow, a group decision was made to move the games out of our backyards and down to the cul-de-sac on Bonny Bill Drive. There were four houses on the dead end, and everyone’s mailbox was out by the street. It seemed like a great spot for playing baseball and football. We used two of the mailboxes for bases, first and third, and a piece of cardboard or a stick for second base and home plate. When we played football, we used the intersection of the short block that connected the legs of the H as one end zone and marked the other end zone with sticks near the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac.
Unfortunately, after a while we ran into problems in this new spot too. Occasional foul balls still broke windows and the families who lived there got upset with us. Not only that, but someone could have gotten seriously hurt playing football on the paved street, although somehow injuries very rarely occurred.
Then someone came up with the idea of going into the woods and building our own field. At the end of Bonny Bill Drive there was a dirt path that ran west about a quarter mile through the woods to Hammond Road. We called it ‘the secret path.’ We used it as a short cut when we had to go to the deli, the supermarket, or Smiles 5 & 10 up on Route 25. The path was elevated because it might have been next to a stream at one time. Part way along the path, another trail forked away to the left. This path led to a wide open field. It had some trees and bushes and weeds, but otherwise it was perfect for building a place we could use as a baseball and football field without bothering our neighbors.
We got axes, shovels and saws and proceeded to chop down, pull up, and do whatever else we had to do to clear that field of vegetation so we could use it to play baseball and football. It seemed like it only took a couple of days to clear it enough so that we could play our first game. The only two issues were that the field sloped down from west to east and once we had pulled up all the weeds and brush, the ground was all gray sand without any grass. You had to run uphill and deal with the bare sand when the wind blew or if it was extremely hot. Still, it was ours and we didn’t care.
The games began! During the summer, we grabbed our bats, gloves, and baseballs first thing in the morning, choose teams and played baseball or softball for as long as we wanted to! There were enough kids in the neighborhood for two or even three teams. We even had some of the girls play on our teams. We usually played until dinner time. After dinner, if it was still light enough, we would go back out and pick up our game where we had left off, or start a new game. The Fall brought football on the weekends and after school.
That field was paradise to us, especially since it was our own accomplishment. We played baseball and football there for years. Eventually, someone built a backstop, but that was after I had moved out of the neighborhood.
Our mothers always knew where we were and that we were safe. We were down the block in our field playing sports. It was long before cell phones, and most mothers didn’t have jobs outside the home. If one of our mothers wanted one of us, she used the old telegraph system of one mother yelling from her house to the mother next door. The message was passed from house to house, from mother to mother, until it reached us all the way down in our field. They didn’t have to worry about us drinking alcohol or doing drugs at this time. Drugs had yet to reach Centereach in the early and mid ‘60’s.
We usually just played against our own teams made up of the kids on Bonny Bill and Laura Drive, the other leg of the H. One day we were challenged by or we challenged–I don’t remember which–a bunch of kids from the next development over, on Smithtown Polk Boulevard. They had just as many kids in their neighborhood as we did, but they had an advantage over us. Unlike our housing development, when theirs was built it had included a playground with an level, open, grass-covered field at the north end of their block. They didn’t have to make their own field or play in sand like we did.
We played the game at their field. I don’t remember who won but I remember an important play that I was involved in. I played first base because of my height (6’5” at the time) and my best friend was playing second base. There was a player on first and one out. A ball was hit hard to second. My friend caught it, tagged second, and threw the ball to me. I stretched as far as I could and caught it before the runner got to first. It was a great play by both of us. I still remember that play and relish it to this day! That was the only time we played a game against another neighborhood.
I went back a few times and visited the field in the early ‘70s. It wasn’t being used for baseball or football anymore. Unfortunately, it had become a place to hang out and was being used for other activities.
Sadly, our field is no longer there. When the Long Island Expressway was built out east to Riverhead, the state decided to connect the Expressway with the Stony Brook University campus on the Island’s North Shore. To do this, they made Nicolls Road a major highway and ran it from the LIE all the way through Selden and Centereach to Setauket and Stony Brook. An exit ramp went right through the apple orchard on Route 25 and through our woods, destroying our field and the secret path. The busy road itself is now about twenty feet away from the once-quiet cul-de-sacs at the ends of Bonny Bill and Laura Drives. It is very sad to see how Centereach has changed since we have all left.
It probably doesn’t matter anyway since most kids’ sports now are now formal team affairs organized and supervised by adults, and there are plenty of playing fields. Also, children are more into playing video games on computers, Xboxes and PlayStations than going outside and playing sports on their own. Today it’s hard to imagine kids being allowed to play outside on their own for hours the way we did without any grownups around in a field they made themselves.
That field will always be in my heart! It was our accomplishment and we were proud that we made it ourselves and could play in it. It was an idyllic place where we could be innocent and safe. A memory of my life that I will cherish forever.
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