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Stickball in the Shadow of Yankee Stadium

Panel Discussion on stickball at the Municipal Art Society Click for bigger picture
Panel Discussion on stickball at the Municipal Art Society
On 11/22/1999, several veteran stickball players gathered to recall some of the more colorful events and characters that contributed to their love of the game. The event was sponsored by Place Matters, a project of the Municipal Art Society of New York (a nonprofit organization that promotes urban design and preservation) and City Lore (another nonprofit that promotes the cultural heritage of New York City).

Steve Zeitlin, co-author of City Play, a book that details the rich history of NYC's street games was the program moderator. Charlie Ballard, Vito Giannone, John Kenney and Carlos Diaz, each members of the Stickball Hall of Fame recalled some of their most treasured moments playing ball. But it was Stephen Swid, a player back in the 50's now Chairman & CEO of SCS Communications who provided the audience with some of the evening's most memorable recollections.

According to Swid, when he grew up, stickball was not only a game, but a way of life. From the age of seven to the time he graduated High School, he and his friends would, walk around with a rubber ball, constantly bouncing or throwing it against the house, stoop, curb or wall. "You couldn't stop even though your mother would be screaming at you," he said. "In school you'd dream about 3:00 when you would get outside and play ball with the guys."

Swid described how he played on 162nd and Sheridan Ave, three blocks from Yankee Stadium. "The Concourse Plaza was the Hotel in the Bronx during the '40s and '50s. Visiting teams and Yankee ball players who weren't married would stay at the hotel. Every once in awhile one of the players would come down and join in one of our games."

"Now back then, you'd measure a guy by how many sewers he could hit the ball. Each sewer (or manhole cover) was 90 feet apart. I was a 2 1/2 sewer guy, not bad at all. A really big hitter would be a 3 sewer guy."

"One day Mickey Mantle came down. We gave him a bat and pitched in. He swung and missed, swung and missed again. A few more swings a few more misses. Finally he connected. Boom. It was the deepest shot any of us ever saw, more than 4 sewers. That was it - the news spread all over the neighborhood and then throughout the Bronx "Mickey Mantle was a 4 sewer man."

Swid continued, "In thinking back, I also recall some of the more interesting personalities of our neighborhood and their relation to our games. Some of the adults would get upset about us playing since the ball might bang into their doors and window. For example, there was "Hot Water Friedman," whose son, Bruce Jay Friedman is now a well-known author. "Hot Water" would leave her windows open (no one had air conditioning back then). If the ball went into her window, she'd pretend she was going to throw down the ball and motion "come here, come here," but if you got close enough she'd throw hot water down on you." "We had one guy Robert Zellman whose swing sent the balls way up, often landing on the roof. He was a good player but after a while we wouldn't let him play anymore because he kept losing the balls. He became immortalized throughout the neighborhood and school referred to in conversation as "Over the roof Zellman."

"One of my most interesting memories was a time when we challenged another block to a game and went in our regular play clothes. The guys from the other team all had these really cool matching uniforms on, which really impressed us. They were designed by one of the kids Ralph Lipshitz. He continued his career under the name of Ralph Lauren."

The evening progressed with the other panelists reminiscing about how stickball had played such a key role in their lives. In fact most of them still regularly play as members of the East Harlem Stickball League.

Charlie Ballard spoke of Stickball being "a poor man's game." He said, "In well to do areas they didn't play stickball, but in the poor and working neighborhoods everyone played. It only cost a few cents for the ball and a you could always find a broomstick."

The panelists also spoke of how the game helped break down racial and ethnic barriers. According to Ballard "Most of the times if I got in a different neighborhood, I got beat up. If another fella got caught in my neighborhood, he would get beat up. Stickball cut the gangs out. If we went into your neighborhood to play a game there was a sense of respect. I can't recall one fight that we had from playing stickball. We argued to the limit, but no fights."

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