Friday, June 10, 2011

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stickball Bat

Stickball has been called the “poor man’s baseball.” An urban game largely associated with the streets of New York and some of its gritty metropolitan neighbors, like Jersey City, it’s the stuff of legend. Believed to have initially taken flight in the early 1920s, stickball was played on the streets with a broom handle and a rubber ball colloquially known as a “spaldeen.” Manhole covers served as bases and key game markers.

But like virtually every city street game from the past, stickball sightings are pretty rare these days. I can honestly say that my generation was the last to play it faithfully and informally in neighborhood after neighborhood—and in various incarnations, too—throughout the spring and summer months. My father and his friends played countless stickball games in the 1940s and 1950s on the local streets of Kingsbridge in the Bronx. In sharp contrast with today's mega-congestion, the streets were then lightly trafficked with very few parked cars to get in the way. From the photographic evidence in my possession, guys sometimes sported dress clothes and dress shoes while taking their cuts and sprinting around from sewer to sewer. Apparently, there was no such thing as going home and changing into more appropriate attire after work. It was play ball. And, too, people dressed up and stayed dressed up on Sundays back them, stickball game or not.

By the time I came of stickball age, games were still played on the streets. But slowly but surely, a newer stickball incarnation was taking hold: fast-pitching against a wall—some kind of backdrop—with a spray painted or, as we more law-abiding youth employed, a chalk-outlined and even masking-taped strike-zone box.

The combined one-two punch of youthful love of the game and corresponding lack of disposable income inspired us, on occasion, to fish the neighborhood sewers for spaldeens—the ones that got away. Spaldeens on the streets were ubiquitous during my boyhood in the 1960s and 1970s, and used for a variety of purposes. Naturally, a fair share of them inevitably found their ways into the four corner sewers at intersecting streets. Were it not for a long-handled fish net, these landings might have been the spaldeens' final-resting places. Admittedly, the balls were foul-smelling and quite grimy to touch after we plucked them out of the sewers' putrid muck, and only marginally improved after we thoroughly hosed them down. Hand sanitizers would have come in handy.

We eventually switched to tennis balls as our preferred stickball orbs, but Bill Jr. of Bill’s Friendly Spot, a local candy store, chastised us when we returned broken bats bought from him. “How many times do I have to tell you guys!" he said. "You can’t use tennis balls with them!” The price we paid for purchasing stickball bats solely for their coolly painted yellows, reds, and blues were lectures from a cantankerous shopkeeper and no refunds.

We once thought we had solved our stickball bat dilemma for all time with an aluminum broom handle taken from my mother’s mop. However, that thing was dinged, dented, and irreparably distorted in very short order. We likewise surmised that a super-thick wooden flagpole was a stickball bat godsend, but it, too, just wasn't up to the task. Shattering after only a couple of innings of play, the pole’s visible thickness evidently didn’t equate with its denseness. And one neighbor family was without a flagpole.

Eventually, a friend and stickball devotee discovered a very strong broom handle—as lean and mean as they came—at his family’s fish store. Our bat problems were forevermore solved—through, in fact, the very last game we played at nearby John F. Kennedy High School, the ideal locale for a stickball game. As is so often the case with so many things in life, we didn't realize at the time that our very last stickball game would be our very last—and the end of an era, too.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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