Stickball Memories

Just curious, do kids still play stickball?

Probably not. They say it’s bad for the arm to fire a light tennis ball day after day at a strike zone drawn in chalk on a brick wall.

Hmmmm? Maybe so. But playing stickball is what we did whenever we couldn’t round up enough players for a diamond game, and never did I experience significant arm trouble. Early-season tendonitis? Yeah, of course. I think we all battled a touch of that at some point. But nothing serious. That’s what those pungent tubs of greasy Red Hot and liquid Bengay were for. Just rub it liberally into the affected area, work out the kinks warming up and let her rip. The tenderness would linger for a few days, then vanish.

So here I sit, closing in on 70, away from the game I loved for 30 years, pain free and still capable of throwing. No, not like I once could; and, yes, it takes longer to loosen up the cranky old right wing. Plus, my balky left knee complicates matters, altering my landing and follow-through. But once loose, I’m confident I could still sink the carnival dink on a cool autumn night.

Our favorite stickball court was up against the shop-classroom wall in the parking lot behind the high school. The hitter faced the high-school diamond from deep left field. All we needed was three players – pitcher, batter, outfielder – for daylong, round-robin competition. One strike zone fit all, and trust me, it was much bigger than the one you see in hi-def on flat-screen TV these days. That was a negative. It’s always best for a hitter to narrow his or her strike zone. The positive was that a tennis ball is smaller than a baseball and tougher to hit sweet.

I wish I knew that tiny major-league strike zone we see on TV, and, more important, was disciplined enough to make the pitcher hit it during my years as a free-swinging, free-wheeling ballplayer. So, yes, that big stickball strike zone did give us bad habits. Either that or we developed into decent bad-ball hitters. I always thought the strike zone extended higher than the one we see on TV.

The three-man rotation in those old, round-robin stickball contests went from batter to outfielder to pitcher, and we each kept our individual tally of runs. Outs were recorded by strikeouts, anything caught in the air, and ground balls fielded on the pavement by the pitcher. We used salvaged, cracked, wooden bats with taped handles, saving good bats for real games. Impoverished city players were said to use broomsticks, which I never saw.

Our batters were protected from rainy weather under the flat-roofed building’s deep overhang. Far behind the pitcher loomed the high-school diamond’s backstop, way out of reach for us. To the left stood a basketball hoop with a galvanized backboard and metal net. To the right was the “aggie building,” and behind it the garage, where tractors and other grounds-maintenance equipment were stored. We’d drop a marker in short left field to establish a foul line. The right-field line was marked by a lilac bush two-thirds of the way down the aggie building’s west wall.

The ground rules were simple: groundballs past the pitcher were singles; to the lilac bush in the air was a double; past the aggie building was a triple, and to the garage was a home run. Walks and errors also put imaginary runners on base.

Round and round we went, games lasting all day. On nights of Little League games, we’d rush home around 4, get a quick bite, dress in our white, woolen, South Deerfield uniforms with red trim, and head to the little league field at the base of Sugarloaf for a game against Sunderland, Hatfield, Whately, Conway, or Old Deerfield.

Our seasons didn’t end with the school year, just after the summer solstice, as they do today. We played all summer, savoring hot, sticky weather made for baseball.

I never could understand it when, working on the Recorder sports desk, scribes were taking youth-baseball scores for league-championship series before the Fourth of July. Why, I thought out loud, would anyone complete a youth-league season before the best baseball weather arrived?

The answer was that parents didn’t want the season to interfere with their summer-vacation plans. Sad. Who’s youth baseball for, kids or parents? My answer is likely a minority opinion nowadays.

Although playing stickball hour after hour kept us out of mischief for the most part, we weren’t what you’d call perfect little angels. We stretched the rules a little, and practiced individual sovereignty to gather stray tennis balls off the roofs above. Tennis balls broke down when thrown against brick walls and clubbed with bats. Once their fabric cover started to split, balls did little tricks when thrown, and it was only a matter of time before the ball itself split in half. But we had the perfect remedy for maintaining an ample supply.

You see, stickball wasn’t the only summer activity practiced against the high school’s back wall. Tennis players practiced their stroke against the tall gym wall that met our stickball court on the left, and somehow wild mishits put many a brand-new ball atop the 40-foot roof. To collect them when no one was looking, we’d shimmy up the drain spout onto the lower roof on the other side of the gym and climb a sturdy, stationary, metal ladder anchored into the gym roof. We’d gather the balls and throw them down before descending the ladder and circling around the front to gather stray balls from the shop-building roof directly above the stickball court.

Someone could have been hurt badly or killed by a fall from that tall roof, or even that of the lower shop building. But we were careful and no one ever got hurt, not even when we had to run and jump off a lower roof to avoid authorities passing through. In fact, the only roof-related injury I recall occurred after we were in high school, and it had nothing to do with being on the roof. The victim was late friend Franny Redmond.

I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, probably just horsing around after school. Franny had jumped up to hang from his hands on a cross beam out front by the eight doors leading into the gym area. When he released his grip to fall down, his class ring got caught on the crimped lower edge of protective copper sheathing and left him dangling in pain. With his full weight on the ring finger, the skin peeled back into an ugly, bloody mess. We helped lift him up as he used his free arm to pull up and release the snag. Once free, he dropped to his feet, wrapped the wound in a t-shirt, and went to the hospital for repair. I think doctors had to cut off the ring before stitching the wound.

Other than that, never a serious problem we couldn’t escape with aplomb. Small-town devils we were. We knew the routine, not to mention every dark corner in the neighborhood, and stayed on high-alert for “heat” whenever bending the rules.

It was kids’ stuff, not crime. At least that’s how it was viewed when I was young. I’m not sure cops know the difference anymore. Sad indeed. I sincerely doubt we would have “benefited” from being run through the system and punished.

 

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