I moved into 28 La Salle Street when I was about 13. It was the only house on the block with black people living in it. I started playing ball and the neighbors soon saw that I was good. They invited me to play in the block team and I did for about two to three years (till I was close to 16), playing third base. From the start, I also always had a distinctive hitting style where I have my hands crossed (I'm right handed, but my left hand is on top). I wasn't a power hitter, but I was very good at connecting and placing the ball.
I was the only black kid on this team. My friends, in an all Negro neighborhood team told me that I should join them, because I'd never be really accepted in the white team, particularly as I got older. I didn't believe them, but one day an incident happened that made me realize this was true
It was after school, I went up to a house with a couple of the players. One of the girls hanging out with us suggested we play strip poker. Now it wasn't like we were showing our privates, we were just taking off shoes, socks, maybe a shirt. Well don't you know that her mother walked in and right away started blaming me. Saying it was cause of me that the kids were playing this game. That incident made me realize that my friends were right and that I wouldn't be accepted, so I quit the team.
This prompted me to join a Negro team called Amercks from 126th street. From there I went to the Nomads of 134th street and from there I started to play with the Colored Cardinals. This was the best Stickball team I ever saw in my life.
The Colored Cardinals were based in Colonial Park and 150th street. We almost always played for money, with games of up to $100 (that was a lot of money back in 1940/41), and we almost always won. It got to the point that no one wanted to play us anymore. When the war broke out, we just split up.
After the war, I played with a team called the Swanees at 112th and St. Nicholas Ave. A couple of the guys wanted to start up a new team and asked me to put it together. One of the guys was friendly with Minton, the owner of the Minton's Jazz Club up at 118th St. and St. Nicholas Ave. He talked to Mr. Minton and sure enough, we got a sponsor and our first real uniforms. They uniforms were green and white and said Minton's Playhouse on them. Mr. Minton was a saxophone player and he offered any of the guys free sax lessons if they'd come in early Sunday morning, but to tell you the sad truth, I don't think more than one or two of the guys ever took him up on it.
Right from the start we were good, but I wasn't looking to just put a regular team together. Most teams back then would be from just a small part of the neighborhood or a couple of blocks. I figured that each team had two or three really great players. If I could get some of the best players from the different teams we played to join us, well, this would be like an all-star team and we would be able to win most games. Whenever we played a team and I saw a good player, I'd talk to him to see if he might be interested in joining our team. I got John and Vito to join that way.
We liked going to different neighborhoods and playing on their home field. This would make the pot of money bigger. We regularly played for hundreds of dollars a game, sometimes even s much as between $500 and $1000, particularly when we went to Pleasant Avenue, where some of the bookies played and would bet on their team. Those guys really hated losing to us.
We won more than two out of three games we played back then and you could probably think of some of the guys as professional stickball players. One year I bought furniture for my kitchen dining room and living room with the money I made from stickball.
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