They’re Still Swinging for the Rooftops in East Harlem

Slowly, the old-timer makes his way to the middle of the street, his beefy hands gripping his makeshift bat. It is the bottom of the third, and his team is down by two with a runner on second.

“Let’s go, baby,” someone shouts, the words floating into a clear blue sky.

The four East Harlem stickball teams that compete on Sundays are made up mostly of old-timers, but there are also younger players. The game has been played in the neighborhood for over 70 years.

The four East Harlem stickball teams that compete on Sundays are made up mostly of old-timers, but there are also younger players. The game has been played in the neighborhood for over 70 years.

It is Sunday morning in East Harlem, the time when East 109th Street between Second and Third Avenues becomes a stickball field with chalk-drawn bases, bounded by school buildings and parked cars. These days, much of the old neighborhood has disappeared, transformed by higher rents and unfamiliar faces. But for a few hours on Sunday mornings, the pride in this poor man’s game is on full display.

“It’s all about tradition,” said Carlos Diaz, stout in his baby-blue uniform, his gray hair belying the pace at which he can charge around the bases.

Four stickball teams compete in the East Harlem League here on Sundays, two on each end of the street. It is the midpoint of the 12-week season, and the game is still drawing fathers, sons and grandsons, brothers, uncles and cousins, old classmates and neighbors, mostly from outside the neighborhood.

A game on Sunday morning on East 109th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

A game on Sunday morning on East 109th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

“A lot of these guys don’t live here anymore,” said Marcus Ortiz, one of the coaches. “But they come back on Sundays.”

Every block once boasted a team: Young Devils. Home Relief. Sharks. Acelets. Minotaurs. Viceroys. Roaches. Dandy’s. Minton’s Playhouse. El Barrio. While some in Upper Manhattan enjoyed watching the old New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, “this was our baseball,” said the former Clean Machine first baseman Eric Gonzalez, 56, watching the team from a beach chair at the curb.

For those who are unschooled in the game’s traditions, there is now the Stickball Community Gallery, which opened this spring on East 123rd Street in what was an abandoned storefront. Hundreds have viewed the old black-and-white photos of the game’s legends, the championship jackets, commendations, signed balls and famous broomsticks, like the infamous one marked “Sanitation Department, 1950,” preserved under glass.

Those who grew up on stickball, whose parents might have spent their lives as laborers and garment workers, remember how families crowded onto the fire escape to watch a doubleheader. The rich smell of fried pasteles, meat-filled cakes, wafted through the air, along with the lively sounds of Latin music. Stickball was dubbed a poor man’s game, since all you needed to play was a broomstick and a rubber ball. Bases were manhole covers or fire hydrants. Corner stores sold the balls for a few cents. The broomstick was harder to come by.

Looking on, Mr. Gonzalez chuckles at the memory. “We would steal broomsticks from the super,” he said. “Or our mother.”

“Not my mother,” chimed in a Clean Machine player, tossing up his hands. “She’d probably beat us with the stick.”

“Man, if your mother lost her broomstick,” said the old-timer Wilfred Renta, wearing a straw fedora, “she lost it.”

Bragging rights were the most coveted prize, though numbers runners were known to take wagers. And for all its simplicity, stickball could be unforgiving: You got only one swing of the bat, one shot to make it right.

To play against the best, a team would venture out from its swath of the neighborhood, crossing borders that might have been drawn along racial lines. The games, ironically, led to some harmony, many old-timers said.

“When we played, it was peaceful, it was quiet,” said a former Roach player, George Lolin Osorio, wiry at 75, with piercing blue eyes and olive skin. “When they left our territory, we gave them time to leave.”

The game fell on hard times in the 1950s, said Mr. Diaz, as players joined the military, got married or had children. But players like Mr. Diaz, who founded the gallery, promised the old guys they would keep the tradition alive. Outside the bonds of the game, the trash talking and competitive lying (“I swear on my mother, he was safe”), many thank the game for keeping them out of trouble.

“It made me a better man,” said Mr. Diaz, who still lives in East Harlem, with his wife of 42 years. A grandfather of four, Mr. Diaz works as a hospital administrator; he started in the field 30 years ago as an office aide.

When he was a boy, he said, his mentor, a stickball legend named Charlie Ballard, would tell him to continue playing on Sundays instead of hanging out with the wrong crowd. “Did I use drugs? No, I never used drugs,” Mr. Diaz said. “But at one time I had the opportunity to hang out with guys that did.”

Stickball, he said, kept him away. The game also introduced him to suited professionals like the broadcast journalists Geraldo Rivera and David Diaz. “And they kind of encouraged me to say, you know, continue your schooling,” he said. “Don’t hang out too much. Go home at 8 o’clock.”

Others, Carlos Diaz said, were not as lucky.

The league hopes to expand to 10 teams, like a league in the Bronx. The Sunday games, along with the annual 111th Street Old Timers Day, which took place on Sunday, keep the fire going. “It’s basically a reunion,” Mr. Renta said. Mr. Diaz added: “If you haven’t seen a guy in many years, that’s the place to see him — especially guys who owe you money.”

At the gallery, next to an exhibit on the musician Tito Puente, the game is elevated. A flat-screen television sits in the corner, showing an ESPN segment about the league. “Are there professional stickball players?” Mr. Diaz, dressed in a crisp shirt and tie, asked one recent afternoon. “I say yes.”

He also noted, more than once, that at last year’s old-timers game, Babe Ruth’s granddaughter threw the ceremonial first pitch. The league also holds clinics in schools, in the hopes of luring a younger generation.

The Sunday games act as another draw. As a recent game wound down, the Clean Machine was losing, 3-0, to the undefeated Sugar Hill.

“You guys are giving us the game, baby,” said the Sugar Hill pitcher, sauntering and grinning in his red uniform. “These guys are nice guys.”

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