A Special Thanks to: Kevin Canavan, Dave Boll, and Chris Boll, who all provided techinal insight on how to make a stickball bat.
Disclaimer: There is a bug involving spellcheck, involving either WordPress or Firefox; out of protest, I’m not fixing my spelling errors; but don’t worry, there’s nothing major, atleast from what I could tell.
STICKBALL: 101 Okay, I’ve wanted to get everything straightened out with stickball for awhile: ever since I attended school in northern Vermont, actually, I’ve wanted to get stickball straightened out. I’m not really sure where to start, but I guess I’ll start up North, in the town of Burlington, Vermont.
If you’ve ever been to Burlington, you know that’s a pretty nice place. Vermonters consider Burlington to be the only urban part of Vermont, and in a sense, it is. Around 45,000 people live in and around Burlington, in a state where most of the towns don’t crack 10,000. There’s a pretty happening town center, with the whole city thing going on: parking meters, traffic, cops, punks, litter. There’s good restaurants; there’s ghetto areas. So yah, I’d say that constitutes being a city.
But in actuality, while Burlington may look like a city to many, most noticably Vermonters, it lacks what many cities have in abundance: asphalt, and concrete for that matter. Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. Walking around Burlington, there’s always something that I notice, on the ground: grass. There is grass everywhere. And not just in backyards. There is grass in vacant lots; grass on nearly every sidewalk; there’s healthy grass just about everywhere. About 90% of cities can’t pull this off: theres too many people walking around, and the grass gets trampled, and, eventually, the grass dies. And then: there is no grass. But Burlington has few enough people, coupled with minimal pollution, so that grass can survive, almost everywhere. Again, this is a good thing. Its also a reason I’ve never considered Burlington to be a true ‘city’; I consider it to be a highly urbanized town, of which I think there are many more around the country, all of whom should embrace the title. Why be a city or town, when you can be smack in the middle?
Okay, you’re probably wondering: What the Hell does all of this have to do with stickball? I’ll tell you what: atleast where I’m from, grass, that stuff that is great for picnics and kickball, is detrimental to any stickball game. Honestly, when it comes to stickball, grass sucks. No one in there right mind would ever want to play a game of stickball on a grass field (I’ll get into this).
Now, to get back to where I started. I don’t remember the exact situation: all I remember is that it was spring, it was beautiful, and it was northern Vermont. There was grass everywhere. People were out: guys and girls were playing frisbee, girls in bathing suits were lying on the grass, hippies were playing bongos (there are a lot of hippies in Vermont). I myself was outside with some friends, and it was decided by someone that we should play wiffleball, which sounded great. But on the way to our destination, I made the off-hand comment: “Man, sometimes I wish there were a place to play stickball up here.” I didn’t even really think about it: I just said it, not expecting a response. One of my friends started laughing.
“Stickball?! Who the Hell plays stickball?? I thought only little kids in Puerto Rico play stickball!!”
I was a little schocked; even more shocked when everyone in the group started laughing in agreement. I couldn’t believe it: no one had ever played stickball? I started angrily sticking up for my childhood pastime, talking about how great it was, explaining fast pitch vs. slow pitch, ect…But no one had a damn idea what I was talking about. My whole world was turned upside down: as far as I new, anyone who had ever attended recess in a schoolyard played stickball: but as I learned, I was very, very wrong.
The group of friends, if I’m not mistaken, included guys from Connecticut, Vermont, and Upstate New York. I started to think about it: stickball needs 3 things to be played: asphalt, hockey sticks, and tennis balls. Vermont lacks highly in the asphalt catergory, so it made sense that someone from there would have never played it. And then I thought about it a little more: if you drive ten minutes outside of Boston, you start hitting suburbs. And once you hit the suburbs, you start losing asphalt for grass. For the first time in my life, I realized something: there are a lot of people out there who didn’t grow up surrounded by asphalt, meaning there are a lot of people who didn’t grow up playing stickball.
It took me awile to grope with this.
But eventually, I did. And now I’m here to educate you, the reader who has never played stickball before/never heard of it/thinks its only played in Puerto Rico by little kids. Without further ado,
A COMPLETE HISTORY OF STICKBALL, VOLUME I, 1ST EDITION:
Stickball, to put it plainly, is a bastardized version of baseball, known by many as America’s “National Pastime.” Baseball, for those who aren’t familiar, is played on a grass field. There are nine fielders on the field at once: the pitcher, catcher, 1st basemen, 2nd basemen, shortstop, 3rd basemen, left fielder, center fielder, and right fielder. The opposing team sends one player to bat against this team. If he makes contact with the baseball thrown by the pitcher, he runs the bases, ultimately trying to get to the fourth and final base, home plate. I won’t go into baseball anymore at this time: it is much to complex, and more importantly, I think just about everyone understands the rules of baseball (even a loose understanding, such as knowing what a home run is, counts for something in my book).
The point being: baseball is an intricate part of American history. While I no longer consider it to be our national pastime (honestly, if we even have a national pastime anymore [I don’t think we do; I think its an outdated term that we should stop using], I would say its either the internet, TV, vacations, or sex). The main point: baseball doesn’t mean as much to this country anymore; actually, I’d say it matters very little. But from about 1920 until 1970, I would say that baseball, without a question, was our national pastime (and yes, I do think the term “National Pastime” worked during this era).
There’s always been a romantic quality to baseball; just watch “Field of Dreams”, one of the only sports movie that can be described as ‘magical’, to see what I’m talking about. There’s something about the uniforms, the glove, the cap: baseball is a pretty picturesque sport. And back in the day, everyone loved it. And kids, ofcourse, played it. My favorite movie about kids playing baseball, and one of my all-time favorite movies, is “The Sandlot.” Ofcourse, the kids in “The Sandlot”, which took place in the 1950s, had a place to play baseball: a sandlot. There wasn’t any grass, but dirt has the same type of density as grass, meaing a baseball can bounce off it in about the same way. And they all had baseball gloves.
But lets go to a densely populated city in the 1950s, say New York, or Boston. There aren’t too many sandlots that I know of around big cities: the sandlot in the movie was really big; there was a lot of open space, and there was even a wooden fence at the back of the lot where homeruns would go. In cities, there are a lot of the following: schoolyards and brick school buildings. Not a great place to play baseball. A baseball will get ruined on a surface like this: its too dense and hard for asphalt or brick, and the canvas-like surface of the ball will get chewed up. Not to mention other problems: in densely populated areas, there are a lot houses near school yards with glass windows, and we all know what happens when a baseball hits a glass window. To sum it up: while baseball is a romantically American game, and was without question our most popular pastime for about 50 years, you can’t play it in the city.
And so, at some point, stickball was born. I was planning on tracking the origins of stickball, and sharing them with you: the only problem, there’s nothing on the Internet that even really gives an idea as to how stickball was born. I was very disapointed with Wikipedia’s page: not only was it short, but Boston was totally left out of the mix, and I added about three sentences to the entry (I wrote the bit about Boston stickball bats, as well as the ‘monkey ball’ part). But, if you want, I’ll try to put what I know together with some sceintific guesses and explain it: kids in the city really wanted to play baseball like their heroes, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but couldn’t afford bats or gloves, and had nowhere to play. So they improvised: they took their moms’ old broomsticks, some rubber balls, and headed to the schoolyard, where suddenly, they were enjoying an improvised version of their favorite game. Little did they know, they were creating something which would be a cultural institute in cities around the Northeast U.S.: what we know today, as stickball.
On the Wikipedia page, most credit is given to New York for spawning stickball. The webpage describes broomsticks being used as bats, and any kind of rubber ball being used. It also says here that the game was highly popular among Irish and Italian immigrants from the 1930s to the 1980s, and it says manhole covers were often used as bases.
I don’t know how they did it back in the 1950s, but when I was growing up, we never, and I mean never, used manhole covers for bases. I can see it being done back in the 1940s, maybe: things were a little different back then. But these days, or in the 90s, if anyone tried to take a manhole cover for a base, they would be looked at as a lunatic. They have a thing called “spray paint” these days: you spray paint a base on the ground, and viola!, no one has to die by falling through a hole on the street.
As for the whole broomstick thing, when comes to playing stickball in Boston (I can’t speak for New York), broomsticks are simply not used. I had one broomstick bat growing up: and I used once in awhile, and I kind of liked it, and no one ever said anything (you wouldn’t get made fun of for having a broomstick bat), but, 99.9 percent of the time: broomsticks weren’t, and still aren’t, used.
Instead, shortened hockey sticks are used. They are cut with saws and are usually about three feet in lenght. There are four sides to a stickball bat, two wide, two narrow. When using a stickball bat (as they are known; they are not ‘sticks’) the goal is to hit the ball with the narrow part of the bat: this way, you get a good ‘pop’ on the ball. If you hit it with one of the wide sides, you wouldn’t get any ‘pop’, and the grip would be awkward. Sometimes, when hitting the ball, one of the corners hits the ball. This is not desired, and will usually lead to a ground ball.
There are two ends to a stickball bat, one usually being a little bit heavier than the other. There is often a nob at one end. Depending on the preference of the batter, either side can be used. It is not like a baseball bat, where the grip is much narrower than the bat itself. An essential part to any stickball bat is tape: tape is wrapped around the bat in ample supply, to allow for grip. The tape is usually colored: variations of blue and white, and red and blue, or black with anything are popular, although I have probably seen every color variation possible (execpt, yellow and orange, which I am not sure if I can ever remember seeing). It can be said that no two stickball bats are the same, much like snowflakes.
The ball used in today’s standard game is a tennis ball. A tennis ball is perfect for a few reasons: it has the bounce and speed of a rubber ball, but with a softer surface. They are bright green, meaning lost balls can be found fairly easily. And they last a long time, although nothing beats a fresh tennis ball out of the can. As little kids, we sometimes used rubber balls: I remember using a racquetball once or twice. The problem with this is that the ball is hit so far that it is almost always lost early, ending the game. When it comes to stickball, the tennis ball is king.
When playing the game of stickball, there are two main games that can be played: fast pitch or slow pitch. Fast pitch, most will agree, is the more advanced of the two. With fastpitch, two things are needed besides the bat, balls, and players: a wall of some kind, and some spray paint. Fast pitch usually consists of teams of two; sometimes teams of three play, but usually no more than this. Before the game is played, a strike zone is spray painted onto the wall: An important note on this: In all my days, we never actually never had to spray paint a strike zone onto a wall. Pretty much any wall in the city where fast pitch was played already had a few strike zones. And the spray paint used never washed off (most of them were probably touched up at some point). So thank you, to whoever spray painted all those strike zones on walls across the city.
In fast pitch, no bases are used. It works in the following way: if the ball is hit to the pitcher and he bobbles it, or if it is hit to the fielder and he bobbles it, it is a single. If the ball is hit over the fielder’s head, it is a double. After this point, things vary depending on the playing area. If there is large fence at the the end of the playing area, and the ball hits the fence, it is usually considered a triple. Often, the triple is simply eliminated, however, since there is often limited space to have four different sections where a ball can land. For a triple to be allowed, there usually has to be some kind of physical uniqueness in a playing area. At my former elementary school, for instance, there used to be a small section of grass after the asphalt ended, but before the chain-link fence started. If the ball landed in this small grassy area without being caught, it was a triple.
A home-run, like a home-run anywhere, is a ball hit out of the playing area.
A few discrepencies come up when playing fast pitch. For instance, honesty when calling strikes can come into play. If you think of a batter standing against a wall, with a strike zone behind him, you will realize that he can see the ball coming towards him, but doesn’t exactly have the best view of the strike zone. The pitcher and fielders actually have the best view. For close pitches, arguments will sometimes arise. But honestly, in all my years of playing fast pitch, there has never been an argument that actually ended a game. Somehow, things get worked out.
A visual example: this isn’t the best example of game-play, but notice the spray painted strike zone on the wall: that’s what I was talking about before:
The other version of stickball is slow pitch, which is played with a much larger number of people. Slow pitch is stickball’s version of kickball: anyone can play, even people who stink at sports, and just about anyone can be good at it. On Wikipedia’s page, it says that in slow pitch, the ball is usually bounced when pitched. While I have played versions where the ball is bounced, most of the time when I played slow pitch, the ball would be lobbed without being bounced.
In slow pitch, a larger space is needed, with all four bases and a mound. Base running is required in slow pitch. There are usually a few differences involving base-running when it comes to stickball and baseball. In stickball, while force plays are standard (a runner on his/her way to first is out if the fielder tags the base with ball in hand), monkey ball is also allowed. Monkey ball, for those who don’t know, simply means that a fielder has the right to get a base-runner out by hitting the base-runner with a ball. In the summertime, with shorts on, it can really, really sting to get hit with a fast-thrown tennis ball.
Mounding is also usually allowed in slow pitch, depending on how big the field of play is. When mounding, a pitcher acts as a first basemen: when a batter hits a ball, it can be thrown to the pitcher to get the batter out. This only applies to runners heading to first base. It is also known as Pitcher’s Poison to some.
When base running, it is not reccommended to slide, since the game is on asphalt. I mention this because when I was growing up, there was one kid who always slid, and wore sweatpants to protect his legs.
Besides the baserunning differences, slow pitch is essentially the same as a loosely played game of baseball.
These are the general rules to stickball, but there is another huge factor that comes into play: varying playing areas. What I mean is that, schoolyards are shaped differently from one another, whereas baseball fields are all pretty standard.
I will compare the two “fields” where I have played the most over the years, both located in the city of Somerville, MA. The Brown Schoolyard; and the now demolished old Kennedy Schoolyard.
I’ll start with Kennedy, since I played there much more over my youth. I attended the city recreation program at the Kennedy School from about the age of 7-10, and later went to middle school there. The Kennedy School yard, before it was torn apart for a newer, more improved Kennedy School, was great. It was really big, and also had some really cool dimensions to it. Way back in the day (early ’90s), there were two lob pitch fields: eventually, a basketball court was added which eliminated one. But luckily, they took away the lesser of the two.
The Kennedy School school yard’s slow pitch field was absolutely perfect. Located in the back corner of the yard, which was pretty big, it faced the backside of the school itself. For lefties, a long hit pretty much meant an in-the-park homerun: the field stretched into the basketball court, and if it was hit that far, it batter was probably gonna make it around. For righties, it was more interesting. If a true slugger who pulled the ball was up, he could actually hit it onto the roof of the school, which was always pretty exciting exciting. To hit up there, you really had to be a slugger: it was a really high wall.
But the best part of the field was straight-away center: there was courtyard in the old school yard, with a low brick wall, which was located in center field. A lot of power wasn’t actually needed to get it over the wall, which was only about 12 feet tall; that meant that almost anyone could hit a dinger if they hit it straight-away (sadly, I never hit a homerun there). But a lot of other kids did. The point to all this: a game played at Kennedy would be totally different if played at say, Brown.
The Brown School is the oldest school Somerville, built sometime around 1900. Its also the crappiest: there’s no gym or cafeteria, meaning that gym was held outside in the schoolyard, and lunch was eaten the classrooms. Luckily, I only went there one year, for SMILE (pre-kindgergarten), and so didn’t have to deal with this. Brown’s school yard isn’t that great either; its not that big, there’s no cool dimensions: its pretty sub-par, actually.
That being said, it has a unique fast pitch area located in an alley, and a pretty standard slow pitch area. It definitely doesn’t have the coolness that Kennedy had, but it gets the job done: for righties, there’s ample room for homruns to be hit. But an interesting thing about Brown: if you’re a leftie, you’re at a distinct disadvantage, due to the shape of the field: a leftie actually has to bat from a different spot to avoid foul balls, but still have almost no shot at hitting a dinger unless they go opposite field.
The thing about Brown is: there are a lot of little rules due to the limits of the field. For instance, if you a hit foul down the first base line over the chain link fence, you’re out: I think this is out of spite, since people probably got pissed at fetching the balls. Right next to the batters box, there is a little grass courtyard guarded by a really nasty fence with iron spikes: hit in there, you’re out. At any other place, this rule wouldn’t be applied, but because it sucks to get the balls out of there, this rule encourges batters not to foul it this way…or else.
The funniest rule at Brown is named after one of my longtime friends: its called the ‘Buckley Rule.’ My friend, whose last name is Buckley, played a lot of stickball at Brown growing up. The story goes that Buckley, who was sort of a goofball, hit an insane amount of foul balls, like 25 or something. I’m not sure what happened to his at bat, but I know that a rule was established that day: anyone who hits over 13 fouls is out. As far as I know, the Buckley Rule is still in effect, and is all still called the Buckley Rule. Its pretty funny that nine year olds who play stickball at Brown today may still refer to this as the Buckley Rule, when they have no idea who Buckley is.
Again, the point to all of this: the playing area itself has as much of an effect on the game as anything: this is much different than baseball, where despite differences in shape and dimensions, the games are usually pretty standard across the board.
A few more notes on stickball:
While perusing Wikipedia and Youtube for info and clips, I came across a lot of referrals to a game where a large rubber or plastic ball is kept off the ground by several people in a circle with sticks. Here’s an example:
It also needs to be mentioned: stickball is played in the Caribbean, at places such as Cuba and Puerto Rico. I watched a couple videos online of this, but they sucked so bad I refused to post them.
I have to leave with you this clip. I totally didn’t realize that professional wrestlers play stickball, but it turns out, they do. Remember kids….don’t fight.
Until Next Time,