Aging NYC stickballers keep street game alive
They run with a little less speed, hit with a little less power and worry less about shattering nearby windows, but a graying crew of stickball enthusiasts is keeping the urban sport alive and honoring the legends who shaped the game.
Six players from around the country were being added Friday to the 144 people already in the Stickball Hall of Fame, selected by a committee of so-called old-timers who have followed the sport since its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s.
Their grading scale is not exactly scientific. The game’s lore is passed on in stories and arguments about whether the Pleasant Avenue Boys were better than the 100th Street Boys and which pitcher was harder to hit, which batter most feared at the plate.
“We don’t have statistics; we have bragging rights,” said Carlos Diaz, 64, a hospital administrator who held the first induction ceremony a dozen years ago and now runs the Stickball Community Gallery out of an old storefront in East Harlem.
“When we were playing, if you broke a window, you ran or the cop would come and take the stick away from you and put it down the manhole covers,” Diaz said.
The game is played on city streets throughout New York City’s neighborhoods and took off around the turn of the 20th century. It’s a form of baseball with a twist: Instead of bats, hitters use broomsticks; instead of baseballs, pink rubber balls; instead of three strikes, each batter gets just one swing to hit the ball off the bounce; and instead of a baseball diamond, the field is determined by street lamps, manhole covers and parked cars.
Teams were largely reflections of the neighborhoods where they played: Italian players from Queens, black players from Harlem, Spanish players from East Harlem. Professional baseball players such as Rusty Torres and former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre played growing up in Brooklyn.
The game was more than a diversion, said Alfred Jackson, who was still shagging fly balls barehanded at age 78. He proudly identified himself as from 112th and Lexington, recalling a time when every block had a team.
“Every Sunday you’d see the kids out playing stickball in the street, and the cops chasing us,” he said. “We played for money. It’s how we got money to pay for whatever we needed — food, clothes, rent. And not every Sunday was a winning Sunday.”
George “Lolin” Osorio, a Hall of Famer from Puerto Rico who moved to Manhattan in 1945, told of watching the older guys play when he was a kid. They would play for big money, and give the kids a quarter to run up on the roof and fetch the balls.
But the game has lost popularity with time, said Diaz. Players moved away, first to fight in wars overseas and later as the ravages of drugs and crime stripped city neighborhoods of their safety, their populations and their sense of community. A small group of followers including George Vega, who was being inducted Friday, kept the game alive by playing in the late 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
“I’m getting inducted because of the way I used to play, not the way I play now,” said Vega, now 58, who grew up playing stickball on 104th Street in East Harlem but now resides in Bayonne, N.J. “The cataracts are getting in there. I’m a little slower, but I still run and I still hit.”
Diaz estimates there are probably around 2,000 active competitive stickball players, playing in leagues in the Bronx and Manhattan; Miami; Tampa, Fla.; San Diego; Puerto Rico; the Dominican Republic and Panama.
At a game prior to Friday’s induction ceremony, a dozen old-timers gathered in a weed-choked, concrete schoolyard in Spanish Harlem. They jovially talked trash in a mix of Spanish (“Ay! Que macho!”), Brooklynese (“Fugghedaboutit!”) and general profanity-laced New York City English. Their laughter was often sealed with a hacking cough.
At 76, Osorio was still one of the fastest guys out there.
“It’s not like any other sport,” he said. You don’t really have fans and reporters and announcers. What you have is a small community. We don’t forget. We have our memories that keep us going.”
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