Remembering a stickball showdown in 1950s Brooklyn
The other day I gave a Zoom talk on my book, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” and in the Q&A, soon the chatter turned to stickball. Stickball is the epitome of the “necessity is the mother of invention” game. No one was too poor to be able to cobble together the minimalist requirements needed.
It is a game that sticks with you. There are a bunch of codgers in Palm Beach County who have a stickball league! Most are Brooklynites.
I only needed to see stickball once and I was hooked that day when an eighth grader about the size of an NFL guard swung and hit this pinkie (a.k.a. pink rubber ball, also known as a “Spauldeen”) in a high arc. It flew over the schoolyard fence, over the street, and landed on the roof of the five-story apartment house facing “left field.”
Transfixed by that feat, thus began my obsession with stickball — an obsession so long-lasting that many years later, I took my boys back to the schoolyard for one last game. Those results later.
Stickball was an anybody sport. Needed were a broom handle, a piece of chalk, and a Spauldeen, making the cost next to nothing. That was particularly true when the broom handle came from a broom that somehow “just disappeared” one day from the garage, the chalk disappearing from a classroom, and the ball itself costing a quarter. If you really wanted to go whole hog, electrical tape was wound around the bat handle — but that was it.
One drew a batter’s box on the wall and/or a plate on the ground. In a two-boy game, there was a pitcher and batter. In a three-boy game, add an outfielder. And much like baseball, it was a mental duel between batter and pitcher.
Most games were won with a Wee Willie Keeler “hit ’em where they ain’t” strategy, and others with a mammoth homer foretold immediately by the thwack produced by the ball compressing as it hit the bat dead-center. Unlike a baseball, a Spauldeen compressed when hit and it literally flew off the bat.
Stickball could be organized with teams, but in my neighborhood, it was mano a mano, all for individual bragging rights. And that’s what it came down to one fateful, late fall evening.
I can see my opponent, but I can’t remember his name. We had met over the summer, played some stickball, and quickly got into a rivalry that was to be settled back in Brooklyn at the schoolyard.
On that evening, we walked down the street to the side entrance of PS 217. The fence, of course, was locked, followed also by, of course, the fence being cut. The shape of that cut was a giant beehive — and continually patching it became foolish, so the custodian just stopped.
We used the yard facing us because with the building there, balls hit over the fence were retrievable. Hit one over the fence in the adjacent yard, and it ended up in the middle of four-lane Coney Island Avenue, shortly to be hit by a passing car and knocked halfway to Coney Island. Even at only a quarter a pop that became expensive.
Facing the fence was the red brick wall on the north side of the school. Just above where the batter’s box would be drawn were heavy-duty iron grates over the first-floor windows. Thus, there was no chance of getting a “gimme” call on a ball that was high. It hit the grate and ricocheted away, cutting down on a lot of arguments.
Thus the game began, not at high noon in the O.K. Corral, but at about 5 p.m. when few, if any, kids would be in the yard. He was a flame-thrower. I was a junk pitcher — sneaky fast when needed, augmented by a really good curveball. A Spauldeen could turn someone with strong fingers into the Clem Labine of the neighborhood. You could put such spin on it that it curved about sixteen feet — well, not quite, but you get the idea.
My foe was the Yankees’ power hitter, Mickey Mantle. I was the Dodgers’ scrabble ball hitter, Pee Wee Reese.
First inning, I didn’t come close to catching up to his fastball. He, in turn, looked like a corkscrew trying to hit my curveball. So it went for three or four of the first “regulation” seven innings. Why seven? No idea. Then lightning struck. I hung a curve and he smacked it. 1-0.
Inning after inning progressed toward the fateful 7th. In the 7th, I came to bat and sure enough patched together a few scratch hits to tie it up.
The 7th came and went. So did the 8th and the 9th. They were followed by the 10th, 11th, and 12th. It was fall. The sun was setting, and it was getting chilly. It was also getting hard to see, creating a batter’s nightmare. But the trash talking became more and more intense — and even if we had to play by the light of the green, Art Deco-looking streetlights, this was not going to end in a tie.
By the way, there’s a reason why good baseball coaches don’t let kids throw curveballs until well into their teens. To throw a curveball, the wrist is snapped to rotate the ball. This also rotates the forearm, which twists the bicep, which is attached to the shoulder.
Suffice it to say that by inning thirteen, my right forearm felt like hot lead was flowing through it, and also felt like it weighed more than my entire body. I went to the fastball but even if it was getting dark, it wasn’t fast enough.
Then one of those things happens which causes a belief that God really does love you.
In the top of the 13th, he hit another one. He was working his mouth pretty good; all seemed lost. The cement turned into mud and I sank into it. I could barely hold the bat much less swing it. But swing it I did and on the first pitch, I blooped one over his head.
Man on first — actually, imaginary man on imaginary first. Then I whiffed twice. Need I go on? Surely, I must, even though this is the stuff of sappy movies.
Down to my last out, and only able to see the ball because it was new and still very pink, I leaned into a fastball and “Holy stickball, Batman!” I hit it.
The ball didn’t rise to great heights and disappear onto the roof; rather it flew like a bullet shot from a rifle. A rising line drive, it barely cleared the fence and bounced off the roof of a parked car.
I won and carry that triumph over Mantle in my heart (or ego) to this day.
And my boys? Years later, we played in the other yard. I wound up and threw my oldest, maybe ten, a high, hard one, or the kind of high, hard ones fathers throw to their 10-year-old sons, and he hit it. Hit it but good. Another rising line drive, it cleared the fence and bounced into Coney Island Avenue. It was before automobile air conditioning was common, so everyone drove with the windows down.
The ball? It hit the street and bounced — right through the driver’s side window space and onto the front seat of a passing Oldsmobile. Lost forever — unlike the memory.
Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.
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