Stickball: A meditation on a game like no other

Joe Luca

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My first stickball bat was a broom handle “borrowed” from my mother. Please don’t tell her, she still wonders what happened to it. I cut it off before the brush. Taped the top with electrical tape borrowed from my Dad’s workbench and went out to play.

I did it, because I didn’t have the dollar needed to buy a bat and ball. I didn’t have the patience to earn it; and what I needed right then and there, was to play. To step outside of the city; the heat, the bricks and concrete and imagine just for a while that I was playing with Mickey, Wille and The Babe.

Stickball was not then, nor will it ever be, a substitute for the real thing - baseball. It may seem that way, but you’d be wrong.

It was a game motivated by need. A visceral reaction to the stifling sameness of walls and asphalt and the never-ending sounds of the city, drawing you in, like a net around a school of fish.

It was one part skill, one part daring (as we were always dodging cars, dogs and irate neighbors) and one part imagination. You imagined the crowds and adoring fans as your rounded first base (an old Chevy) on your way to second, (a manhole cover). The distant smell of newly mowed grass. And the bleachers out in centerfield as you visualized the journey from city corner to the Major Leagues.

You were Whitey Ford or Satchel Paige on the mound throwing curveballs and knucklers to Bobbie or Gino or anyone else who said – yeah, why not.

With bat in hand, you were anyone you wanted to be or just yourself. The best hitter on 69th Street. The best homerun guy on New Utrecht or Dyker Heights. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

For the hour or two it took for a game, you were not where you were. You were not who you were. You were adrift in a land of reality that pretended to be make-believe. You were content and focused and could feel the smooth spots of a bat handle, like a lover caressing a woman’s thigh. It was an extension of your arms, your mind, the things you wanted most in life.

It was a diorama come to life for a short while, before it folded itself up and became 68th Street again.

Stickball as Meditation

Without the mats or awkward positions. Without the chants or eyes being closed. But make no mistake, it took you to another place and time. To another world, if that’s what you wanted. Or kept you rooted right where you were, in Brooklyn or The Bronx.

It allowed you to focus on the reality of a small synthetic rubber ball (Spaulding) that bounced like nothing else and when hit – God, it was a treat to watch it scream off the bat and sail straight, then fly upwards like an F-15 taking off.

It never moved the way you thought it would. It was never going where you thought it should. It had a mind of its own. It wasn’t connected to Nature or the Universe and for that hour or two, it defied the Laws of Physics and gave a rather eloquent fuck-you to all the other laws as well.

It adapted, not to conventional wisdom but to the needs of the people playing the game.

A “Spauldine” (variant of its manufacturer’s name – Spaulding) could travel 90 MPH off the bat and come right at you like a demonic bullet with a bad attitude. Weaving and whining as it threatened bodily harm – but that was alright.

You put your hands up (no gloves allowed), moved your body to the side and coaxed that ball upwards with cupped hands and a strong tolerance for pain. There it would fly, then falter and come down harmlessly into your hands. One out.

Stickball Therapy

The 1960s was a rough time to be growing up. Times were changing; attitudes were getting together at conferences across the country and deciding unilaterally to be the opposite of whatever they were before.

Right became wrong. Manners became restrictions. Music grew rebellious and dared its listeners to react, talk back and be different. All the things we were supposed to be and do, because that’s what our parents did, were instructions for something completely different.

It was a mess; with Richard Nixon an icon. The Vietnam War, a national objective and right of passage. And politics, a game played by aging white men who uncannily looked like the same bunch of aging white men that came before them, memorialized in old photographs hung throughout Washington.

But stickball, never changed.

It was at its simplest, a lesson in time management and patience. Feel the weight of the bat. It’s resistance to the air as you swung it. Watch the ball bouncing as the pitcher readied his next pitch. How time slowed and became less demanding as the ball made its way towards you. One bounce, two bounces. The bat coming off your shoulder. Your eyes seeing nothing else. Just the ball, turning and moving.

The explosion of rubber against wood as the pink sphere launched itself toward centerfield – Mike’s Bakery. Past Tony and Richie and the new kid from Bensonhurst.

The joy as you rounded third base and headed home. No chance of being out.

A homerun. A moment when the world slowed. The pain and confusion took flight. And the anxious hand-wringing of everyday life, said enough.

Stickball didn’t change the world. Didn’t alter the people in power or make your dad less grumpy on weekends. That wasn’t its aim.

It was just a game. Like, life is a game.

It was there to distract and engage. Take hold of your mind, wrest it away from conventions and reality and shift control over to you.

Stickball, like Zen, was an exercise in being in the now. No mats. No gurgling water, chimes or incense. Just a thin bat and a pink ball that bounced like nothing else.

“We hung out on the streets, played stickball, and did all the things that other kids did.” Bob Cousy

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To inform, entertain, enlighten and otherwise engage in the age-old practice of storytelling. To be part of the process of keeping all of us informed on what is happening in the world around us and perhaps, if I do my job well enough, bring about change in the way we control our own lives and make the decisions that will impact our future and those of the people we care about.

Los Angeles, CA
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