Lots of things fall from the sky at this time of year, and rain is only one of them. While we concede first place to the raindrops for their sheer numbers, they're only slightly ahead of the Number Two competitor - balls. It's hard to tell what led mankind to invent something as simple, and yet as elegant, as the ball. Whatever it was, I'm glad we did it. Balls, I have learned, are intended to be regular in shape. Most are round, with the football's somewhat elliptical form being the most glaring exception. That regularity is a key component of the ball. Without it, neither the thrower nor the catcher can rely upon the missile's flight pattern. And that's what made ball-playing so interesting in the 'way-back days of the Forties. COMING ACROSS A good reliable (read "round") ball was not always an easy thing for the kids of my South Philadelphia neighborhood. In the first place, the only affordable ones were the five-cent "pimple balls" sold at the corner candy store. The balls were hollow and covered with little protrusions we called "pimples." Their purpose eludes me. We learned early on that the balls would curve sharply when thrown in a certain way. Perhaps the pimples helped. But probably the fact that the balls weren't actually round was the primary ingredient. The pimple balls were more on the order of oblate spheroids. Not unlike the Earth itself, they were sort of flat at the poles. Pimple balls faked out a lot of young would-be pitchers. It was easy to toss wide, sweeping curves. But later, when we tried it with real baseballs, the curves weren't there. A lot of budding Major League careers died when a genuine baseball first came to hand. THERE WERE THE ten-cent "sponge" balls, hard and dense and good for fastball pitching. They wouldn't curve as readily as the pimpled variety, but when thrown as a brush-back pitch, they'd produce an angry red welt on a kid's arm that could easily lead to a round or two of impromptu boxing. Sponge balls were okay, I guess. At least they didn't explode when a car's wheels ran over them. But you could buy two pimple balls for the price of a sponge ball. And the way we used them, even the car couldn't put the pimple ball out of commission. One air-filled pimple ball, when popped by a passing Buick or when surgically altered with a pen-knife, gave two "half-balls." With a pair of half-balls, a couple of kids could while away an entire afternoon. Add a broomstick and a street, and you had a baseball game - complete with stadium, radio commentary, and crowd noises. He sets; checks the runner on first. Here's the stretch, and the pitch… He swings! It's a long fly ball to deep left-center - DiMaggio can't get to it… Yayyyyy… The broomsticks themselves could serve as the subject of a thousand-word essay. Not the sticks so much, for they were just simple affairs well-suited to their intended missions. But the imaginative ways in which we'd steal them from our mothers - there's your story. No doubt some mothers are still wondering how so many new brooms could disappear over the course of a summer. Here's the game. One boy, armed with the broomstick bat, would take his place on the sidewalk. The other, holding the half-balls, took up station across the street. The object: pitch the missile to the batter, who would try to whack it with his stick. If he missed, that was one out. Three misses ended the half-inning. Hitting the half-ball to the opposite curb counted as a single. Get it on the fly to the wall of the house across the street: a double. Above an agreed-upon height, usually a second-story window, counted as a triple. No base running was involved. And should the batter put the ball over the roof, that of course was a home run. Two home runs ended the game, now that both half-balls were gone. If the contest were to continue, someone had to climb to the roof and retrieve the balls - or produce another nickel for a new pimple ball. THE ROUNDNESS OF the pimple ball was seldom at issue, despite its spheroidness. Being made of rubber, it would hold its general shape fairly well - even when cut in half to produce the popular half-balls. But we also played regular baseball on the vacant lots of Philadelphia. For those games, we needed something more sophisticated than the reliable but lowly pimple ball. The games called for a sphere that at least resembled a baseball. Something hard and hittable with a standard bat. Baseballs, real ones, were beyond our means. Even the "nickel rockets" cost a dime; we had to find and redeem five empty Coke bottles to buy one. And the "rockets" were notoriously mushy and hard to throw. The most common way to come up with a baseball was to make one. Here's how you make a baseball. First, steal a golfball. The nearby public golf course was a likely place to go, if you didn't mind being chased by an angry man with a five-iron. Second, steal some string. Third, wrap the string tightly around the golfball until the mass becomes roughly the size and shape of a baseball. You must use a bit of imagination here. Fourth, steal enough tape with which to cover the ball to keep the string from unraveling. Black "friction" tape was okay and served as the standard covering for our balls. But for formal games, as on Sundays, we opted for something more realistic. Only proper-looking balls would do. For Sunday balls, we'd have to steal some white adhesive tape. FOR A WHILE, the makeshift balls would work well. After a couple of hard thwacks, though, they tended to become a bit lopsided. It made for interesting bounces - which is probably why so few kids wanted to play third base and shortstop. If you hoped to keep your teeth, you tried to play outfield. Usually by the fourth inning, the ball's tape had begun to come loose. A ball hit to the outfield would often have a few inches of "tail" as its tape trailed off behind. We made it illegal (or "no fair") for a fielder to stop a ball by grabbing or stepping on the tape. By the sixth inning, our ball had turned to a mass not unlike cornmeal mush loosely constrained in a nylon stocking. Hitting it with a bat would produce a dull ffffwhap. Its flight resembled that of a bumblebee after a sampling session among the fermented grapes. Yet the game went on, at least until the tape had peeled completely off. There was no way to continue without the covering, because the hand-wound string would tend to come off in large globs of tangled threads. Game called on account of ball. EVERY SO OFTEN one of the kids might produce an honest-to-God baseball. A gift from a generous uncle, maybe, or a ball "found" at one of the local semi-pro games. Whatever, the real baseballs never came close to the business end of a bat. They were not for hitting. They were for throwing. The proud owner of the genuine ball might come by your house of a warm summer evening. If you were very lucky, he'd bestow upon you the ultimate honor. "Wanna have a catch?" With a real baseball. Round and firm and smooth, with faultlessly beautiful skin, unscuffed and unworn, and with a gentle but somehow untamed scent emanating from its mysterious perfection. Reminds me of a girl I used to go with. Maybe that's how it all starts.