Pick a Sunday afternoon in the spring or summer, and on one stretch of road in the Bronx, you can be sure the sidewalks will be lined with men and women watching an exciting game of stickball.
Those who turn their back to the action, perhaps to scoop some rice and beans or chicken wings out of a deep baking pan onto a paper plate, must stay alert for the thwack of a rubber ball — and be prepared to duck.
Because here on Stickball Boulevard, the players do their hitting, running, and catching in the street with lightning-quick speed.
Stickball is a street version of baseball that was popularized in post-World War II New York City.
Traditionally you just needed a broomstick, a rubber ball, and some imagination to play.
Immigrant children from across Europe and Latin America, as well as those born in the U.S., played both alongside and against each other in the city streets. A clan from one block would challenge those from a rival block, playing for bragging rights and sometimes a little bit of money.
Field boundaries varied greatly, depending on the features of the street on which a game was being played. It wasn’t uncommon to have a batter slam a ball off the side of a building only to see it ricochet off a lamppost into a fielder’s hands for an out. Once a ball was hit, and if a fielder failed to corral it on a fly, the batter ran the bases as fast as they could. Bases could be a car bumper, a fire hydrant, or a chalk outline on the asphalt. In some areas, home runs would be awarded if a batter shot the ball beyond a certain sewer.
Respected power hitters were sometimes known as “three-sewer guys,” those who hit the ball past a trio of sewers, planted across multiple blocks. Mythologically, Major League Baseball stars of the city — like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, who in the 1950s would sometimes play with the kids on the streets — were “four-sewer guys.”
As decades passed, stickball play waned in New York City.
The emergence of basketball — which quickly became a more dominant street sport because it required fewer players — and increased car traffic both contributed to its decline as did the prevalence of TV sets, computers, and video game consoles.
But on Stickball Boulevard in the Bronx, the game is alive and well.
It’s there that the nine teams of the New York Emperors Stickball League rule, welcoming players from their teens to late 70s from any background or gender.
Teams seeking championship trophies battle each other in league games and tournaments, with fans cheering and heckling players, just like at a professional game.
Two of the finest players in this league today are a talented father-son duo who play on the same team.
They’re also both named Ricardo Torres, with the senior Ricardo aged 45 and the junior, Ricky, 23.
Ricardo was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he was introduced to stickball in his early 20s by a co-worker who invited him to the Bronx for a friendly game. “I thought, ‘All right I’ll give this a shot.'”
“One or two tries later, I’m hitting these balls deep, and my teammates were like, ‘Perfect, this is the guy we need,'” he recalls. And before long, he was hooked, playing on Stickball Boulevard, and he soon coaxed his son Ricky into playing.
“My dad knew I was serious was when I was about 13 years old, I would always hit the ball against our house in the backyard,” Ricky says. “I would do this at like seven in the morning, and I would wake up my dad.”
Ricardo, excited to have Ricky involved in stickball, remembers telling him, “Spread your wings.” Ricky has since earned a reputation as one of the league’s best fielders and fastest runners.
Like many players in the Emperors Stickball League, he’s molded great friendships with other players.
Sometimes, they become especially close during stickball tours that have given Ricky and others the opportunity to play as far away as San Diego, across Florida, and Puerto Rico.
But for Ricky, it’s the relationship with his father that has been strengthened the most by stickball.
“I love playing with my father,” Ricky says. “It definitely gives us more time to hang out, and to share a hobby is cool. We talk about the sport a lot.” Ricky also fondly recalls his father championing his all-out style of play early on.
“He’s the core of our team,” Ricardo says of his son. “I’m just proud of him, how he’s developed and been able to bring respect and enjoyment to the game.” But Ricardo also notes that, more importantly, stickball has given him the opportunity to spend every Sunday with his son. “As a young man, to have people in our circle constantly come up to me and speak on how good of a person he is, it’s a great feeling,” he adds.
Members of the Emperors Stickball League are working to unify stickball organizations from France to Puerto Rico and throughout the U.S. under one governing body.
That means even more kids and adults — fathers and mothers with their sons and daughters — from numerous backgrounds can coexist and compete on the field, between two curbs.
Hopefully the growing league will encourage more kids to put down their smart devices, come outside, and experience the simple, pure joy of hitting a ball out of the park, or past three sewers, as it were. It may be a ragtag sport, but when it’s bonded family and communities together for generations, you know it’s something special.
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