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Player: John Stephens   Team: Minton's Playhouse

John Stephens Click for bigger picture
John Stephens, maintaining a tradition through the decades
John Stephens, Minton's first white player, was affectionately referred to as "Stickball's Jackie Robinson in reverse." John originally played as a member of the LaSalle Street Boys, mainly an Irish and Italian team and joined Minton's at the age of 20 in 1949.

Back in the late 40s I was considered a pretty good player for the LaSalle Street Boys. I've always been a good infielder, and a consistent hitter. I wouldn't hit the ball the furthest, but I would connect the most often.

One day our team played against Minton's and after the game, Charlie Ballard came up to me and asked if I wanted to join their team and make some real money. I said sure. We played all over the city and won a lot of games. I was the only white guy on the team for awhile. Vito and a couple of other guys came along a little later.

We really were a great team, and would usually play games as much as $500 to $1000. This was a lot of money in the early '50s. I guess stickball was my second job back then, and I'd regularly be bringing home $40-$80 extra per week. Of course there were some weeks when I lost that amount of money, but we had such a good team that we regularly won better than 2/3s of the games we played.

Of course you had to be careful of how you handled the money. You couldn't just give it to a guy to hold, because he might disappear with it, so the teams would usually put the money in an envelope and tape it to a post during the game. If you were really behind, then a guy from the other team could hold onto the money.

I remember one time when we were playing a team of Italian guys from Pleasant Ave and 114th street. It was late August and we were up by about 6 runs near the end of the game. Their money had been taped to the post, but just then, a procession for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel proceeds down the street, through the field. By the time it passed, the other team was nowhere to be found and neither was the money they had posted up. They knew they were going to lose, so they just made a nice quiet and clean get away. They probably went to Church and had a good laugh."

Another time were playing a team and were way behind so we gave one of their guys the money. We ended up coming back and winning. The guy had left, thinking they'd won. We ended up calling around all over the neighborhood till we located him hanging upstairs with some friends on one of the roofs.

I played with Mintons till the late 50s when the fellows started drifting their own ways. I had a couple of kids by then too and needed to get a more steady second job (there were less money games by that point too). I also moved with my family up to the Bronx, so it was harder for me to come into Manhattan. I got together with some of the guys who wanted to keep playing and we put together the Roosevelt Schoolyard Team. This was really just a pickup game but we started meeting regularly up in the Bronx at the Roosevelt High School yard and play three or four games each Sunday morning. We'd put in a buck or two per man just to keep the interest up.

We still get together every Sunday morning through the fall, winter and spring, as long as its not raining or snowing. We've been doing it for about 40 years so I guess you could say it's the longest running pick-up stickball game in history. Now that's something.

Back to Minton's Playhouse

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