After seeing deck hockey, soccer baseball, Ping-Pong squash and Frisbee golf, I thought I had run the gamut of hybrid sports. Then one day on a plane I met a man named Rick Shapiro, who described a game called sockey. "We started playing it in high school in Old West-bury, New York," said Shapiro, an Arizona real estate mogul. "We graduated in 1971, and every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving a group of us returns and plays again. Basically, the game consists of a bunch of guys kicking a tennis ball around an outdoor basketball court, but we make something big out of it. We have a league, a commissioner, two teams and a banquet, and every game is written up in SI—Sockey Illustrated."
This I had to see. So I drove to Wheatley School in Old Westbury for the 16th annual game between the All Stars and the Boobs. Twenty-eight alums, some from as far away as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Boca Raton, Fla., began gathering around 1 p.m. Some 20 spectators milled about. Babies and videocams looked on too. For the first time, there were even two gum-chewing cheerleaders, Julie Whitney and Jean Phillips, complete with pom-poms.
In the traditional rookie initiation, a new player had to kick a ball straight ahead. If he succeeded, he became a Star; if he failed, he became a Boob. The Boobs have always outnumbered the Stars.
The game started promptly at 2 p.m.
Sockey is more exciting for players than for spectators. It's not easy to kick a tennis ball where you want it to go. Manfully flailing away, the players aim toward two 2½-foot-wide goals. Soccer rules prevail when the ball is bouncing on the asphalt. When it veers onto the grass, checking, gouging, garroting and other hockey traditions apply. This, of course, is sockey at its best. Many of the players are nicknamed after hockey greats, the most inventive moniker by far belonging to Boom Boom Jeffrey Zahn.
Sockey's most controversial year was 1982. Arriving at Wheatley with a flourish, Jon (Berry) Landsberg began selling maroon National Sockey League jackets for $40 apiece. "He had difficulty explaining the $17.98 price tags on the jackets," Sockey Illustrated reported.
That same year, two women, Nancy (Genghis) Kahn and Gail (Over the) Hill, petitioned to play. The men formed a huge huddle. "Does anyone want them in the game?" Danny (Rocket) Reich asked. "No!" the men chorused. "Who's going to tell them?" Reich demanded. Needless to say, women have played ever since.
Reich, a textile executive, is sockey's conscience and custodian. As the editor of Sockey Illustrated, he tabulates stats, and by his own reckoning, he is the leading scorer in sockey history.
Rocket and David Elgart are believed to have played history's first sockey game one afternoon when they were in the sixth grade. The site, Rocket's basement, has since been declared a shrine—by Reich. "It's about 40 feet long, and we kicked a ball toward the doorways on each side," says Reich. "In order to score, we had to go around chairs, over tables, off walls, tackling each other whenever we could. I soon began challenging anyone who came into my basement. I figured I had a home-basement advantage because I knew the angles off the barstool."
The following year sockey went outdoors. In 1969—Reich's sophomore year at Wheatley—the National Sockey League was formed. Three 10-minute games punctuated each 43-minute lunch period. The next year, league play lasted one day because the players had different lunch breaks. By 1971—senior year for the founders—the league was back in force with two sizable teams called the All Stars and the Boobs. Playoffs followed, complete with overtimes lasting into the next class period. No one ever left a game to attend class. Swelling with success, Reich suggested an old-timers' reunion game the Thanksgiving weekend after graduation, and a tradition was born.
In the 1986 game, the Stars prevailed 3-2 and regained the coveted Mellor Memorial Trophy, named after a former classmate, a player of dubious distinction who dropped out of the game following his junior year.
Afterward all retired to the Gatsbyesque house of Patti and Pete Orshan. There was a slick video presentation featuring player introductions and highlights of the game, which several players and friends had produced, and everyone admired the view of Long Island Sound and munched on pizza and chicken. "Next year we'll have sushi and sockey," said Patti. Actually, sockey goes well with anything.
RICHARD DI FATTA
Jim Kaplan's new book, about the defensive side of baseball, is called "Playing the Field."