Len Davidson is a sucker for lost causes. That might explain why he's best known as Philadelphia's chief neon preservationist, the long-suffering champion of a museum that, after decades of work, flickered into existence in pop-up form last year.
So no wonder, then, that one of his current obsessions is reviving the nearly extinct game of deadbox — an overly complicated pastime involving the tossing of bottle caps onto a chalked grid in a particular order, or, in Davidson's vision, on a vinyl game board rolled out in homes and driveways across the region.
It's a quixotic vision, this deadbox revival. But it speaks to something baked deep into this city's social history: Anytime you mention one of these games in the company of Philadelphians of a certain age, they're liable to wax nostalgic.
"It was almost a universal thing in Philadelphia," said Davidson, 71, who has not yet brought his deadbox to market. "I feel bad for new people moving to Philadelphia who don't know a lot of these traditions. They know about the Mummers Parade or the light show at Wanamakers. But the day-to-day community in Philadelphia evolved around street games and hanging out on rowhouse streets."
An attempt to understand this long-lost arcana took us down back alleys and side streets from West Oak Lane to South Philadelphia, testing the credulity with ridiculous names like "tinny tinny tin can" and "buck buck" and "kick the wickey" and the patience with rules too complicated and varied to explain here (we won't even try). Some of the people we surveyed told us stories too racy to print (you know who you are). Some told us things that probably aren't true.
Almost everyone mourned that the last generation that remembers these games is getting nearly too old to play them.
"Today you don't find the people on the streets anymore," he said. "It makes the street safer, it makes them more friendly when you've got people sitting out on stoops. We've lost that for many reasons — the internet, the architecture of houses with garages, roof decks, air-conditioning — all of these things lessen the incentive for going outside."
On a recent weekend on a blacktop in Mayfair, a group of old-heads marked what was likely the last half-ball tournament of the year.
It's a game created to make use of balls that have split in half — infuriatingly unpredictable targets as they float toward a batter — and just one of many classic Philly sports played with what is, in essence, trash. There's kick the can; stickball, played with deconstructed brooms instead of baseball bats; and hoseball, made with segments of garden hose.
"We had whiffle balls and sponge balls, pinkie balls, starballs, all types of balls. But when you hit that hose it really flew," said Larry Rubin, 77, who grew up in Oxford Circle. "The problem was, whose hose are you going to cut up? That was the most difficult part about hose ball, the supply end of it."
Likewise, almost any space could be turned into a ball field — parked cars marking off a football end zone for touch football, a two-story home creating a wall-ball court, utility lines inviting challengers to wireball. The steps of a rowhouse? That was a stepball court (or — forgive me for suggesting it, a stoopball court). Even a small space could be enough for boxball — like baseball, minus the outfield.
Trying to document the rules proves futile: They were flexible and often specific to the geography of the neighborhood. Balls and strikes were decided by the players' best guesses, and games ended when it got dark or everyone got bored.
"You inherited the knowledge," said Pete Zakroff, 73, and passed it on to the younger ones.
"It was a simpler time. I look at some of the games today, they're so tightly organized," he added. "We just picked sides and we played."
To Zakroff, his block of Georgian Road in West Oak Lane was the world's greatest playground — the pavement a concrete boxball court, a neighbor's wall home to a variation on handball. But by the end of the 1960s, he said, the last players had grown up and moved away. Many of them died young — but not Zakroff, who now lives in Ocean City and has become a late-in-life pickleball competitor.
It feels like another lifetime to him.
For others, the victories still feel fresh. Ted Furman, 66, of Wynnewood, recalls the day he led his sixth-grade diamond-ball team (that's boxball, but add the outfield back in and eliminate the pitcher; the batter serves to himself) into a "World Series" against a team of older kids from a nearby school in 1964. It was the year of the Phillies' spectacular postseason collapse — but for Furman it was a World Series triumph.
One game probably best left in the past is buck buck, which Frank de Luca of Villa Di Roma once described as a de facto training camp for the Italian Market Festival's grease pole.
In a ritual somewhere between leapfrog and hazing, one team member would brace himself and others would bend over and brace against him — then, members of the opposing team would jump onto their backs.
"If nobody fell off, that was considered a very good thing," said Rubin, who as a child never thought this ordeal strange or dangerous. "It was group therapy at the time."
In any case, you could do worse.
"Some of us jumped off shed roofs with umbrellas like they were parachutes," recalled Jerry Murphy, who grew up in East Germantown. "We survived."
Others played a game called "hide the belt."
"Talk about dangerous," Joe Ryan, 70, said. "The whole group had to go find the belt, and then the person who found it could smack other people that were close enough with the belt. Can you believe the crazy stuff we did in the '60s?"
Sometimes they even got in trouble with the law.
Rob Weiss, who lives in Mount Laurel now but grew up in Logan, described hours-long games of boxball or wallball, interrupted only by cars driving through or by the occasional cranky neighbor, irritated by the repeated thunk of ball against brick.
"A red car or, every so often, a paddy wagon would come around and we'd clear out. But it was like using a flyswatter on a swarm of bees," Weiss said. That was until the police picked up his friend in the middle of a boxball game — something about attitude — then detained Weiss for laughing at the sight of him in the police car. (They were released after one of their fathers came into the police station, red-faced and shouting.)
Today, Weiss said, these memories are all that's left of the neighborhood — which was razed after gas-line explosions alerted residents to the sinking homes across the Logan Triangle. The last time Weiss went back there was about 20 years ago.
"There were weeds and trash where some of my friends used to live," he said, "and a fenced-off street where I once chased down those 12-cent pimple balls."
In some ways, it was a worse time, a more chauvinist one, notes Linda Hahn, 70, who grew up in West Oak Lane. "The girls sat on the steps and watched," she said. They had their own games, too: jacks, hopscotch, double dutch.
On the other hand, they had to be more resourceful. "Kids are just different now. They don't have a lot of free time. For the most part, we had to figure out what to do. Nobody was out there organizing games."
Sometimes, they had to be really, really resourceful — as when there were no more balls, nor even half balls left, and no one had any money.
"Then," said Ryan, "we had to prop up the manhole cover and lower the skinniest kid, which sometimes was me, down in the muck and mire and the stench, and take it home and rinse that ball off so you could use it again."
It was that or wait for someone's father to go up on the roof to clean the gutters, taking a break to walk the length of the block and toss down all those long-forgotten foul balls.
Ryan, who taught at Archbishop Ryan for years and still serves as a sports official, said all that began to fade away in the '70s, as kids became more concerned with their Ataris, Little League teams, and travel soccer.
"I think to myself, 'Boy, the fouls I'm calling now, if you called them in hose ball, you would have been booed.' … Back in the day, it was almost like, no blood, no foul."
About 20 years ago, Davidson and a friend organized what was pitched as the "first annual" Philadelphia Rowhouse Sports Olympics — though it was never to be repeated.
Hundreds of players showed up to compete in eight events: half-ball, wallball, wire ball, deadbox, chink, stickball, box ball, and step ball. The hard part was getting everyone to agree on the rules, which varied from one neighborhood to the next.
Occasionally, Davidson tries to organize a half-ball game, among those who still know the rules.