Stickball was a popular game in mid-20th century New York City. The game was played by children in the streets, using whatever resources they could find. The informant, who spent most of his childhood in the New York City in the 1970’s would play the game with the neighborhood kids.
This piece was related to me over a Zoom call
MK: Stickball was my least favorite. I had terrible hand-eye coordination and could never get contact with the ball.”
Me: It’s akin to baseball, right?
MK: Yea, it’s a poor man’s baseball. You’ve probably seen it played in those movies about the mob and the mafia – like the Bronx tale. The church they used in that movie was the church my family went to. We played stickball outside. There was a batter and a pitcher and a bunch of kids playing in the street. We used trashcans or whatever we could find as bases, and a little pink rubber ball. They made stick ball bats, but most kids just used a broom handle – a skinny broom handle.
Me: It had all the same rules as baseball?
MK: It was supposed to, pretty much. Sometimes we only had two bases. We would use boxes, trashcans, manhole covers. There was one kid named Davie who was miniscule – underdeveloped. No one liked him because he talked funny and we’d only let him play if he agreed to be a base. Kids would hit and run and as they ran by him they’d slap him across the gut real hard. But it was our version of baseball. When we’d get home from school everyone would drop their books off, say hello to their mother, and run down into the street to play. There was a pitcher and an outfield of a few guys. We had two team captains and they’d take the bat and one would put their hand around the bottom. Then the other captain put their hand on top of the other captain’s hand and they’d alternate up until the top of the bat. Whoever had the last hand on top of the bat got to pick their team first.
Me: Were there cars bustling down the streets you played on?
MK: Oh yea. We had lookouts and whenever a car was headed toward us, the lookout would scream, ‘Car! Car!” and everyone would grab the bases and run out of the way. As soon as the car had passed we’d bring everything back and get right back into the game.
Me: How long did you play for?
MK: We usually played five or six innings in a game because a lot of kids wanted to play, so we couldn’t play a full game of nine like baseball. But we’d play game after game, until enough of our mothers called us home and there weren’t enough kids left to play. We’d sometimes lose too many balls also and wouldn’t have one to play with. That was always devastating. Like the end of the world devastating.
Stickball is a game that I’ve seen only in cinema or read about in literature. The game was probably a weekly or daily tradition where many friendships and bonds were formed and cemented. It was probably a proving ground for many kids, as most of the time, the kids who are dominant in athletics get the respect and admiration of the other kids. Although it was just a game in the street, the kids probably played with a grave seriousness and competitive nature. One thing I found interesting was the guerilla-style that stickball was played in. The informant remarked that they used whatever they could find as bases, sometimes not even having four bases to play with. It was a tradition that was sacred amongst kids, and it must be played at all costs.