Stickball isn't a game it's a tradition
NEW YORK -- It's nearly noon on the last Sunday in May, and Pedro Eliza walks hurriedly toward a parked black Mercedes SUV in which his friend, Eddie Espada, sits with a baggie of unused syringes. Eliza, 40, who has made the short commute up to Unionport from his home in Spanish Harlem, opens the front passenger-side door and reaches for a piece of rubber tubing that Espadahas extended to him.
The sharp of a severed syringe is clamped to one end of the hose, and to the other a small, 250 CC air compressor. From the dashboard, Eliza grabs a pink ball -- indistinguishable in size and consistency from a racquetball -- eyes a random spot on it, and eases in the needle. He flips on the compressor and counts off seven seconds before sliding it out. Plugging the pinpoint rupture with his thumb, he hands the ball to Espada, who draws a viscous rubber cement from a jar with a separate syringe, inserts the sharp into the same hole, and plunges out a touch to seal it.
No Big Bertha's here ... only sticks, rubber balls and your bare hands.
Espada and Eliza are two of the nearly 130 men, ranging in age from about 18 to 65, who have descended on this Bronx neighborhood near Parkchester for the New York Emperor Stickball League's Memorial Weekend tournament. Fourteen teams, including squads from San Diego and Miami, participated in the NYESL's 24th annual event, generally considered the World Series of self-pitch stickball by those who play the game. There's no money or trips to Disneyland awaiting the winning team, only a trophy and bragging rights.
Like 16-inch softball in Chicago, stickball has and will always belong to New York City. It's a sport that has rarely existed outside the confines of a movie screen for the bulk of Americans. To hear the word conjures images of the Big Apple circa Eisenhower: uncapped fire hydrants arcing their precious cargo onto narrow streets while neighborhood kids toss together pickup games on blistering summer afternoons. Many of the NYESL's older members did inhabit such a landscape growing up, but stickball's spot as the preeminent preoccupation of New York's young began to weaken in the late '70s and early '80s. As kids started to gravitate more toward basketball courts, a couple of stickball diehards, Frank Calderon and Frank Sanchez, decided to organize a league in the Bronx for those who still loved playing. The NYESL held its first game in 1984.
Richard Marrero has been involved with the league for 22 years, initially as a participant and currently as both a player and the league's president. Imposing at first glance, with a bull-like physique, dark, heavy beard and a low-set black cap, Marrero's visage is less that of an ambassador than it is a bouncer, though he embodies the former. Both affable and alert, he stands at the curb and watches a game unfold not four feet ahead on Stickball Boulevard, a side street that the league has adopted as its own.
"This here is the real deal," he says, taking in the scene. His own team, the Gold, is playing one of four games happening simultaneously in a two-block area. (The Gold are the closest thing to a dynasty in the league, functioning as stickball's version of the Yankees. They've taken more titles than any other team, winning again this year for their third consecutive victory.) For the tournament, every team plays six games, three each on Saturday and Sunday, and the eight teams with the best records going into Monday are seeded accordingly and play single elimination matches until there's a champion.
The NYESL plays "fungo" or Bronx-style stickball, which means that instead of utilizing a pitcher, batters toss the ball up and pick it off one or two bounces. Games are seven innings, three outs to an inning, and scoring typically mimics that of baseball in that runs are hard to come by. The pumped balls are also unique to Bronx-style, employed so that the ball travels farther. There are eight fielders, positioned in the same roles as in baseball, as well as first, second and third bases 80 feet apart. It's 90 feet from home plate to first, and the batter is allowed the full range of that first ten feet to hit the ball. If he steps on or over the line painted at the ten-foot mark, it's an out.
Marrero chooses a "bat" from a scattering that lie along the curb and then approaches home plate. Players now use specially made bats -- three- to four-feet long depending on preference -- that are shorter than and about twice as thick as the broomsticks of the game's earlier days. Electrical or athletic tape is wound around the handles for grip. Marrero steps to the plate and a nearby official bounces him a ball. He snatches it from the air, tosses it up and lets it bounce forward twice before swinging through. He catches it flush, and the ball screams past a second painted line that lies 80 feet in front of the first, marking the distance any ball must travel to be in play. Batters get only one swing; a swing and a miss, a foul ball and a ball that fails to travel that first 80 feet all count as outs. Marrero makes it to first without a play. Like baseball, the ball has to be beat the runner to the base or caught on a fly to be an out. Ideally, batters aim for line drives as opposed to fly balls or grounders.
There's an inclination to think it would be easier to hit a self-pitched ball, but it requires an extraordinary amount of timing and dexterity do it correctly. For one thing, the bat is thinner and the ball tinier than those in baseball. Similar to golf, a batter has only himself to blame when he dribbles one off or whiffs, and even the best hitters are often humbled at the plate. Foul lines are painted or chalked on the street at a 45-degree angle from the top left-hand corners of first and third base, delineating the space batters have to work with.
In the Bronx, all roads lead to stickball.
There is a dearth of reliable information as to exactly where and when stickball started. Carlos Diaz, president of the Stickball Hall of Fame and coordinator of the NYIS World Series, says that the game came about sometime in the early 1920s, somewhere in New York City. As vague an estimate as that is, it's as close as anyone ever comes to pinpointing stickball's genesis.
The roots of the sport are pieced together by conjecture and lore, with the most common response to a question of "How did you first hear about stickball?" being "It was just there." Even the game's most weathered veterans can tell little more in the way of its history than how they came to it. Billy Friend, 81, who grew up in Harlem near Jackie Robinson Park, played his first game in 1931 and his last seven decades later. Formerly a NYESL player, he was inducted into the Stickball HOF in 2000 and is now just a spectator.
"Everybody played stickball then," he says. "You stayed out of trouble that way."
While its exact origins are up for debate, most accounts depict a game that rapidly began gaining popularity in early 1920s New York City. Baseball had firmly taken its place as America's favorite pastime, and kids, hoping to emulate their heroes, saw an opportunity. Stymied by an urban environment unforgiving to the rules of baseball, they made do with doctored mop handles, parked cars and manhole covers. Sewers ran every 100 feet down the middle of streets. One was designated home plate, and the subsequent one second base. Halfway between, stationary markers -- often a parked car or a lamppost -- acted as first and third. Mop and broom handles and hollow Spalding rubber balls rounded out the equipment -- and as always, no gloves -- just your bare hands. The balls were known as "pinkies," owing to their color, or "spaldeens" courtesy of a thick New York accent.
Forget about working the count, you get one swing for the money in stickball.
The sport continued to grow into the '30s, '40s and '50s, and caught on in other East Coast cities beset by urban sprawl. Bostonians adopted a similar style, but they used tennis balls and sawed-off hockey sticks instead of a broom handle because the flat surface allowed for more pop on contact.
By the early '70s, stickball had achieved a pseudo-professional gathering in New York City. Teams would assemble and stay together, challenging squads from other boroughs and neighborhoods. Bobby Oritz, 64 and a Bronx native, came of age during a time when money games were prevalent. Pots would span anywhere from $300 to $2,000 per game, and local bookies would take bets on the outcome.
Ortiz, who now lives in San Diego, is a 1992 HOF inductee and is credited with bringing the game West. He's at this Memorial tournament with his team, the San Diego Youngstars. Despite the mild gambling that sometimes went on, Ortiz stresses that it was actually an alternative to more illicit outlets.
"The beauty of stickball was that it helped you stay straight," he says, echoing the sentiments of most of the men who grew up playing. "It worked to a degree that the guys in gangs would look up to you if you were talented. You can do well for yourself as an athlete, and there's a lot of pride in that when you're young."
It's a message that the game's veterans try to perpetuate with their own kids. Aside from its appeal as a deterrent from some of the common temptations that urban environments can foster -- gangs, drugs, general inactivity -- stickball functions as a legacy of sorts, something that fathers can pass down to their sons and even do together. Although stickball has lost its ubiquity, the league acts to ensure that it will never be lost altogether by emphasizing a single, unifying idea: Stickball is not just a game, it's a tradition.
That is, verbatim, the rallying cry of another active figure in the stickball community, Richard Mojica, who grew up playing and has since gotten his children and grandchildren involved. Mojica, 59, is lithe and wide-eyed. He wears a well-kept ponytail and wants to use his hands when he speaks, but restrains his excitement with a professional demeanor. He runs the Stickball For Kids program, an outlet for some 150 children in the Bronx.
"The crucial part is keeping kids away from the gangs," he says, stepping away briefly from his duty as umpire for the weekend. "Kids who are introverted, who think they're not athletic, this shows them that they can be good at something if they are positively motivated."
At the tournament, players' wives, children and extended families line the street, huddling under golf umbrellas to shield an oppressive 3 p.m. sun. A tent off to the side pipes Spanish music out of five-foot speakers, and spectators pick at plates of brown rice, pork shoulder and pastelito -- fried dough filled with meat or cheese -- provided by two food tents that stand sentry at the beginning of the boulevard.
As Sunday progresses, every out takes on a heightened sense of importance with seeding in the balance. Among the last games of the day is one between New York's Emperors and the San Diego Whompers. It's a power matchup, as both sit close to the top of the standings going into Monday. The Emperors take the field as the Whompers' Mike Parks takes some practice cuts off to the side. He is there with his son, who is also a Whomper. A teammate of Parks' steps up to the plate, lofts the ball into the air and drives through it with a heavy thwap, sending it high into some tree branches overhanging the foul line. The ball is still in play and several Emperors huddle underneath hoping to make the catch. It drops through the branches and bounces off one player's hand, into the grasp of a waiting teammate. One out.
Frank Sanchez Jr., whose father, Frank Sanchez, conceived the league along with Calderon, stands observing from the curb. As a member of the Gold, he has a vested interest in the game, sizing up the competition for a possible Monday matchup. He speaks quietly and with purpose, of his father and his sport, and uses words that he's strung together countless times in the past, but still wields convincingly.
"He always had a vision of bringing back a game that brought men together, brought their sons together," he says, pausing momentarily as a foul ball call is debated ahead. "Some things have changed, but the tools are still the same: a stick, a rubber ball and a New York City street."
Kevin Kampwirth is a freelance writer who currently resides in Brooklyn.