It’s day two of the 2013 Emperor’s Stickball League Memorial Day Tournament on Stickball Boulevard in the Bronx. The sidewalk is lined with beach chairs and benches. Hundreds of people are there to watch the games—relaxing in the sun, but staying wary of zipping rubber balls and bats tossed by burly Hispanic men motoring to first base. There’s chicken and rice, empanadas and beer. Salsa music pumps out of two speakers, each with a red stencil of a stickball batter painted on it. Some people dance on the sidewalk. Others chat about the days when they were younger over old photos of chiseled teenagers glistening with sweat, laughing loud at the memories.
But the players on the blacktop wear scowls. One belongs to Ricardo Torres, Jr., nineteen, batting for the Bronx Emperors, the reigning tournament champions who’ve also gone undefeated so far this weekend. Though already well ahead in this game of self-hit stickball, a Bronx tradition in which players toss the balls themselves rather than have it pitched to them, the Emperors have men on base again, and Torres wants them to score. “Pretty Ricky,” as he is often called, goes into a little routine, bending over with his bat pointed skyward in his right hand and repeatedly bouncing the ball with his left. After a blink, he tosses it one last time, this with a slight thrust forward. The pink ball bounces once, twice, peaks in the air, and thwack! Torres hits a line drive up the middle of the street, right into the defense, but, with the ball hit so hard that it ricochets around the field, they can’t throw Torres out before he reaches first. Two runs score.
“This kid is like me,” observes George Osorio, known in stickball quarters as “Lolin.” (He was given the nickname as a young child in Puerto Rico, when he was known to chase after a girlfriend named Lola; neighbors took to calling him the masculine form, “Lolin.”) A dark-skinned, deep blue-eyed man of seventy-six, Osorio still plays stickball every Sunday, just as he has since the 1940’s, then a child living on 114th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. “Most of the kids today just want to hit home runs. But he’s fast,” Osorio says of Torres. “That’s much more important in stickball.”
“I just try to hit line drives,” says Torres. Last season’s Emperor’s League Most Improved Player, the young Torres was also in the running for the 2012 Memorial Day Tournament’s MVP and, after playing for five seasons, is now making a name for himself as a strong defensive outfielder and speedster. “I still want to be a better hitter though and just make good contact,” he says.
When a ball is hit in play in stickball, “it’s all you can get” on the base paths, Osorio explains. The line-drive ground ball can bounce off cars, curbs, trees, and lampposts that are in-play, while hitters run until the ball is finally secured and the defense can legitimately threaten them with a tag. If a batter attempts to hit a home run, slamming a ball high into the air, no crossed bases will count if the ball is caught on the fly.
“Lolin was one of the best because he always hit the ball hard on the ground and was so fast that nobody could throw him out,” remembers Carlos Diaz, sixty-three, curator of New York City’s Stickball Hall of Fame on East 123rd Street, of which Osorio is an esteemed member. “He was also very clutch,” Diaz adds. “Lolin was so reliable at the plate that his team could put a hit-and-run on and they just knew it would work.”
As good as Torres is, he plays in a self-hit league, where there are no hit and runs because there are no hard-nosed pitchers to stare down. It is a different form of the Manhattan version of stickball, which is called “pitching-in” and more closely resembles traditional baseball. Pitching-in is what Osorio grew up playing.
* * *
Osorio’s family moved to the Upper East Side from Puerto Rico when the ink on the World War II peace treaties was still wet. At nine years old, he did not hesitate to immerse himself in the king of the city’s street games—as long as his homework and chores were done. He and the other kids on his block would take to the streets in t-shirts and cut-off shirts to enjoy the “cheap game.” All they needed was a broomstick, a few Spaldeen balls—bought with money earned from recycling cans—and nine or so other guys from another block to prove themselves against.
“We’d play for a little money, five cents a game or a quarter when I was about ten years old,” Osorio says, recalling that if his team won, they’d take in a movie at the chic RKO Theater on East 86th Street. If they lost, they’d still see a movie, just at a cheaper venue. Sometimes kids would save their winnings to buy two-dollar Pumas, which were more sought-after than one-dollar Converses because they were better for running; plus, everyone knew they were twice as expensive.
“But really we played for bragging rights,” Osorio insists. “You were on the team from your block. You played for pride.”
That is, until the Irish beat cops would show up. Though there were few cars driving through the streets in those days and the rubber balls with which they played were as harmful to windows as a summer wind, many of the police officers would discover games and immediately order the kids to hand over their makeshift bats.
“I could never understand why they’d break up our stickball games,” Osorio says. “We played to stay out of trouble.”
For a time, Osorio remembers the cops slipping the sticks down into the sewer. But after the officer had moved along and the boys had feigned disappointment long enough, one of the smaller kids would climb beneath street level into the muck and emerge with the bat, covered in sludge. There was always an open fire hydrant somewhere that they’d use to clean off the grime from both the bat and the brave boy.
“Then the cops got smart,” Osorio says. “They started taking our bats, hold them halfway down in the sewer’s grating, and snap them in two.”
Undeterred, Osorio and his block mates continued to play throughout their adolescence, traveling farther away from their neighborhood with each passing year, challenging “The Paladinos” in Little Italy, all-black teams on the Upper West Side, and in the Bronx, where they humored the locals by playing self-hit stickball. Corner grocers-turned-bookies would gather bets on the boys’ games from gamblers in the area, setting odds that typically favored the team playing on their own block, because they knew the unique ways a ball could bounce off familiar structures—a literal home-street advantage. A frequent teammate of Osorio’s, Alfred Jackson, seventy-seven and another Stickball Hall of Fame member, remembers one particularly incredible shot struck by a rival of theirs named Tony Taylor. “He crushed the ball,” Jackson begins. “He hit it so hard that it went off the third-floor siding of a building, came down, bounced off a car, hit the building again, then it hit a lamppost and ricocheted to one of our outfielders who caught it for an out. The ball was in fair territory the whole time!”
As Osorio’s clan got older, more and more money was bet on their games. They can recall games played for upwards of three to five thousand dollars, with the victorious team getting a cut. Players depended on seasonal winnings as a sort of supplemental income, so, just like in a World Series game, there were some pressure situations under which to perform for one’s own financial benefit, and for their teammates’ as well. Spectators who had their own best interests in mind heckled batters trying hard to focus on a potentially game-changing pitch.
Still, money was secondary to the feelings of self-respect and community, which truly compelled Osorio to go outside and play each and every Sunday, even twenty-four hours after his wedding. “I got married on a Saturday,” Osorio says. “We had a bunch of leftovers from the wedding in the refrigerator. The players’ wives always made food for all of us, so I woke up and packed the leftovers to bring to the game,” he laughs, adding with a shake of his finger, “My wife wasn’t very happy about that.”
In the late 1950s and throughout the ‘60s, Osorio made a living building clock radios—and, briefly, delivering zippers—but always found time to participate in the first organized stickball leagues, like the Madison Flashes, that were emerging throughout Manhattan and beyond.
The boys that once ducked into sewers to reclaim their bats had grown into men, some of whom were not as mild mannered as others. Neighborhood pride would transform into violence from time to time. Gang members took part in the games and couldn’t resist the chance to lash out against their rivals if the minutest in-game disagreement occurred. The worst conflicts typically climaxed with fistfights, but stories of “shots fired” aren’t as rare as the old timers would like to comfortably recall. Much of the stickball-related violence had faded by the 1970s as teams made vows to show respect when entering other neighborhoods, but general participation was dissipating.
* * *
There are several theories as to why stickball play in New York City declined. Most agree that the ballooning of car traffic in city streets and the affordability of air conditioning in peoples’ homes are likely culprits. Basketball has risen in popularity as well over the course of the last forty years, spawning more urban youngsters trying to be the next Jordan instead of the next Mantle, who, as a widely-cited legend has it, once hit a Spaldeen over a distance of “four sewers” in the Bronx—a towering stickball home run, considering most stickball sluggers were “three-sewer guys.”
The game was already ancient by the mid-‘80s, when Frank Sanchez, Sr., Frank Calderon and Henry Rosado established the Emperor’s League in the Bronx—an effort inspired by nostalgia and pride over their old friends’ accomplishments. It began as a yearly reunion of old-timers, with the teams constructed of players from varied locations. Gone was the notion of playing strictly for one’s block, or for hidden money. Many Manhattanites begrudgingly abided by the self-hit rules or continued to play pitching-in on East 109th Street where the East Harlem National Stickball League carried on that tradition after its establishment in 1990.
“Not as many guys play anymore,” says Carlos Diaz, who has tried for many years to revitalize stickball in Harlem. “And most of the young ones that do play are sons and grandsons of the guys who played fifty or sixty years ago.” Part of Diaz’s efforts include opening the 123rd Street gallery this past winter, so that the Stickball Hall of Fame could finally become a physical reality after existing virtually since the ‘70s.
Ricardo “Pretty Ricky” Torres is one such player. “I got Ricky into stickball at a young age because it teaches discipline,” says his father, Ricardo Torres, Sr., better known as “40.” “I’ve been in the league for eighteen years and one thing I know to be true is that consistency is the only way to get recognition and respect.”
That lesson seems to have taken. Torres attends LaGuardia Community College and plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in either radiology or business management. A part-time manager at a Kew Gardens, Queens, movie theater, he seems more drawn to the world of business. After five years in the league, Torres relishes the weekend trips to the Bronx as a chance to spend time with his father and bond with his teammates.
“I love the huddle,” he says. “We’re a tight-knit group and we all get really excited.”
Later in that same Memorial Day tournament finals qualifier, Torres went up to bat, trying to hit just a line drive, again with men on base to build an even more comfortable cushion in the score for his team of Emperors. He hit a three-run homer, putting the game out of reach. “That was some shot you hit, kid,” Osorio, a Manhattanite pitching-in aficionado said, sincerely complimenting Torres afterwards. “You’re fast and you’ve got power!”
“Thank you,” Torres said quietly, his fatigue showing on his face. They kept chatting about the game, in English and Spanish, the younger player allowing the veteran to do most of the talking.
There are a lot of big names in the Stickball Hall of Fame. Men like Willie Mays, Joe Torre, and George “Lolin” Osorio. If he keeps hitting line drives, Pretty Ricky could join them someday.
“Oh, I’d love that,” he said. “But I have a ways to go yet.”
* * *
Michael Stahl is a Queens-based journalist and a features editor at Narratively. He barely tweets anymore @MichaelRStahl.
Kyria Abrahams is a photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed—Tales From A Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing” (Touchstone, 2009).