Stickball A Window Into America's Essay

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The article remarks with respect to asphalt that "a baseball will get ruined on a surface like this: it's 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." (Beccary, 1) Foregoing this blanket statement -- given the evolution of inner-city athletic youth programs in recent decades -- the point of Beccary's remarks remains useful. Namely, the unique game that was stickball would come to fruition in response to the desire to play baseball and the absence of many of the contextualizing features constituting a true baseball game.

A primary reason for the distinct popularity of stickball in the contexts where it did gain such cultural prominence would be its shoestring affordability. In many ways, stickball is a pauper's game, reserved for the enthusiasm and grit of the young boys and men growing up in close proximity to one another on the city streets. As with the origins of baseball itself, stickball is a game that is typically attributed to the innovations occurring on the East Coast of the United States and thus, its lore is colored by the same warm reminiscence through which we tend to romanticize America's early urban development. Greene (2004), writing on behalf of the Stickball Hall of Fame, an exhibit located in the larger Museum for the City of New York, poeticizes the neighborhood experience stickball, contending that "no game could be more local. Your street became the ballfield. Lamp posts, car doors and manhole covers were recast into bases. Your neighborhood was the stadium and your neighbors were the fans, adding commentary from field level seats (the building stoops) or from windows and fire escapes that comprised the 'upper decks.'" (Greene, 1)

This is a perception which helps to hone in on exactly that which drives the sentimentality and wistfulness with which stickball is described. To Greene, the game would not just incorporate the energy and imagination of the youth. Indeed, it could be a spectacle around which an entire neighborhood could socialize and revel in an often brutally difficult cohabitation. Thus, through stickball, these immigrant neighborhoods could affiliate through one another with an emergent American identity that actually included them. This would be the beauty of stickball's accessibility, for whatever exclusions in baseball were forced aggressively back by the hands of time, stickball would largely exist outside of these controversies. Within one's own neighborhood and amongst one's own neighbors, one could aspire to Babe Ruth proportions on a single fading summer evening.

This is a compelling image that would find the sons of immigrants emerging with expectations of greatness on some level, if not the baseball field. The ties between stickball and actual baseball would also be inextricable in the 1940s and 1950s, as baseball increasingly made itself at home through the radio in homes everywhere. The rising celebrity of baseball heroes and the increased sense of civic pride for children and adults alike in the success of their local teams would have an impact on the popularity of stickball as well. Local baseball success would breed a greater dedication to this backstreet variation of the National Pastime. This is reflected in the first person account by a baseball writer who recalled his own relationship to improvised street play and a shared community affection for the local professional organization. Devlin (2009) would reminisce "born in Philly in 1948, rowhouse kid, always playing stick ball, step ball, box ball, half ball, Wiffle ball, wireball, hoseball and, yes, even baseball; any kind of ball, it didn't matter, but always imagining you were a Phillie. Kids fighting over who was Ashburn, Tony Taylor or Callison; I remember the Hall of Famer Robin Roberts getting off the 56 trolley, walking down our street to visit my neighbor Walt Derucki, who was a Phillies minor league third baseman, and trying to catch popups they would throw us that would disappear out of sight into the urban sky." (Devlin, 1)

Here, Devlin connects the sense of connection to the local team with the urban experience of cobbling together baseball competition on any scale possible. In this respect, the romanticizing of stickball is not mere rhetoric, but instead bespeaks the close connection between urban life and this mode of recreation. To the boys of their neighborhoods, the air of baseball would resonate with both fantasy and reality. Stickball was an opportunity to connect with the occupation of accomplished men, with the larger American culture and with those in their neighborhoods who endured a similar struggle in the new country. With that said, it is still fair to reflect on the elements of stickball's reflection of certain negative aspects of the lifestyle.

With respect to the racial unification alleged in the stickball arena, anecdotal evidence from the sport's heyday suggests that quite to the contrary, such competition could often be the breeding ground for contempt and violence. In some regards, stickball was a reflection of the isolation of different groups and ethnicities. It represented the opportunity for competition generally segregated in the same way that residential settlement and school attendance were segregated. Blacks played amongst blacks. Hispanics played amongst Hispanics. Jews played amongst Jews and so on. Stickball would reflect not just the socioeconomic disparity of the times but also of a set of stark ethnic lines of separation. All united in an affection for baseball, these various ethnicities would nonetheless explore the tradition in isolation from one another.

Further, just as we associate stickball with the halcyon days of American youth and the promise of immigrant ambitions, so too must it be associated with the labor class struggle for survival and the economic disenchantment of those in America's over-crowded ethnic barrios. Where such lifestyles persist, so too will crime, violence and tension. A compelling account in a Time Magazine article from 1957 details the connection between stickball and violence, remarking that this pastime for urban youth would simply serve as a forum for the disaffected and violent way of relating that often emerged from this increasingly rebellious generation. The article reports a deadly attack on two boys by the members of a rival teen street gang such as the many that the article reported to be popping up all over New York City. The article explains the attack by noting that "days earlier, the Egyptian Kings had played stickball (a street version of baseball) with the Jesters. The Kings had lost, refused to pay off a 50¢-a-man bet on the game. Aroused by the Jesters' protests, the Kings decided to whip a few Jesters. Mike Farmer and Roger McShane were the first boys that the Knights met on their caper -- although, as far as the police could learn, neither victim was a member of any gang." (Time Magazine, 1)

This article provides some insight into the culture which often surrounded the sport in urban contexts. Though it would be the province of the very young and innocent, its direct affiliation with the urban lifestyle specifically suggests that many of those who played it would bear the features of a city experience. This might mean exposure to crime, poverty, violence and other elements of city life that invoke a certain preciousness and premature hardening. Such qualities might often be lived out on the stickball course or in relation thereto as in the deadly incident cited above. This helps to suggest much about the culture which is reflected in the game of stickball, a relic to the positive and negative aspects of 20th century immigrant life. As an artifact to this time and place, stickball is frequently glorified. As we see from this example, such a glorification becomes a way of glossing over the less idyllic features of a lifestyle largely disappeared today.

That said, there is a clear interest on the part of many urban dwellers to revitalize some aspects of the tradition. It is somewhat ironic that stickball is less culturally common today, when professional baseball is so economically inaccessible. The salaries and physical training associated with the sport today makes it appear as an activity less compelling to those living in urban poverty. Simpler and more accessible sports such as basketball would cut into youth interest in baseball and thus realization of this interest through stickball. The cultural erosion of its visibility and importance would be a reflection also of the waning period of America as a cultural melting pot for immigrants. Though this remains true in one sense, a shift in the cultural perspective of immigrants has diminished the ambition to assimilate. Cultural enclaves are increasingly reflective of the…[continue]

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