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Just Another Summer's Day on The Block

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Old 11-30-2017, 11:11 AM
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Default Just Another Summer's Day on The Block

It was a Saturday morning about eleven-thirty. The day was already hot and humid, as I stood in front of my building, wondering whether to go swimming or whether to go to air-condition theater to see a movie. I decided the city pool would be best, and just as I was about to go into my building to go upstairs for my bathing suit, I heard the toot of a car's horn. Turning, I saw my friend Michael sitting behind the wheel with two other guys inside it.

Michael stuck his head out of the window and shouted to me, "Hey, you want to come up to the Bronx with us? We have a stickball game with a Puerto Rican team?"
Stickball being one of my favorite pastimes as a child, I immediately forgot about the sweltering heat and tormenting humidity. "Yeah, I'll come," I said to him as I trotted into the street to hop into the back of the car.

Michael, whom I had known since the second grade, was the captain of the stick ball team. Only five-feet and five-inches and about one-hundred forty pounds, he was an exceptional athlete, and he knew I had a bit of game in me as well. When we were younger, we always played together in the streets. Whether the game was stoopball, punchball, stickball—it seemed as though Michael and I had spent our childhood playing with a rubber ball.

Those childhood years were good days, but that was so long ago. Now, at twenty-years-old. I hadn’t played any ball in more than five years. My once favorite pastime had given way to newer pasttime: mainly smoking marijuana and listening to the Beatles and Stones and other rock bands.

Jumping into the back of Michael's car, I immediately learned he had invited me to play because his team was short one player and because nobody else was around our neighborhood on that sweltering morning. A few of the team's key players had gone to the beach and that left his team short-handed. Therefore, needing a player, Michael invited me.

About a half-hour after I had gotten into the car, Michael pulled into a parking space in the South Bronx, on Fox Street. There we were met by another four players from my neighborhood whose car was parked in front of ours. Together the eight of us walked across the street where we were greeted by members of the Puerto Rican team that we were going to play.

The meeting between the two teams -- the Puerto Ricans and the Italians from my neighborhood -- was a long time rivally. In the summer they played each other about four times a month. The teams would travel to each other's neighborhoods twice and then play on their home turf twice. On this weekend, it was our teams turn to play on our oppenent's home field.

Fox Street was a narrow strip with old tenement building, quite similar to my neighborhood except that the residents up here were either Puerto Rican or black, while in my neighborhood most of the residents were Italian. Nevertheless, I felt comfortable in the similar surroundings—the fire hydrants, trash cans, lampposts, fire escapes, littered gutters; it felt just like home, even though the eight of us were the only whites for miles around.

After Michael, our captain, and the captain of the Puerto Rican team went over the rules of the field, the teams were ready to play. And since we were the visiting team, we batted first. Our captain Michael, who was well aware I hadn't played in years, and uncertain how I would play, had me batting eight in the lineup, which was last. He also put me on first base, which happened to be the easiest position on the field to play. He wasn’t taking any chances, knowing how rusty I was.

The Puerto Ricans took the field, and when our first batter stepped up to the plate, the block was filled with people watching the game. There were people shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk, and there were people standing on the fire escapes and others looking out their windows watching. It seemed as though the entire neighborhood had come to watch the game. And judging by the excitement filling the air, one would have thought the first game of the world series was about to begin.

In the top of the inning, our team made three quick outs; and, now it was our turn to take the field. The first batter on the Puerto Rican team was a left-handed hitter, and he hit a sizzling line drive which came at me so fast that I didn't even have a chance to raise my hands. The ball struck me on the forehead above my eye, and after striking me, it ricocheted off my forehead and bounced back towards home plate. I ran after it to retrieve it but not before the batter ended up on second base with an easy, stand-up double.

After chasing down the ball, I started walking back to my position at first base when two of my teammates concerned about my safety approached me. On my forehead, where the ball struck, an angry-looking, welt was visible and although my forehead was throbbing and hurting like a son-of-a-gun, I waved my two teammates away from me. I wanted no sympathy, not with a neighborhood of strangers looking at us.

By the time I came to bat, It was so hot and I was so sweaty. I removed my t-shirt and wrapped a red bandana around my fore head to keep the perspiration from dripping into my eyes. When I walked up to home plate, I heard some of the spectators who were standing on the sidewalk near home plate tease me: "Com'on Samson, let's see if you can hit." They were teasing me because my shoulder-length hair probably reminded them of the Israelite warrior and because I drove my teammates when they wanted to ask me if I had been injured.

For the remainder of the day, every time I stepped to the plate swinging my bat, I heard the crowd chanting: "Come on, Sampson, get a hit." It was quite amusing both for the spectators and for me. But it wasn't so amusing for our team. In the first game the Puerto Rican squad had given us a good, old-fashioned whipping, easily beating us by a score of 8-3.

In the second game, our team was faring much better though. In the eight inning, we were ahead 3-0 but then an argument broke out over a close call at first base and the game was never finished. Both teams quit. Afterwards, as we drove back to Manhattan, I sat in the back seat quite pleased with my performance. My two game statistics in seven plate appearances amounted to three base hits: two singles and one double, hitting the ball hard six of the seven times I batted. Not too shabby for someone who hadn't touched a bat in years. I proved I could still play ball with the best of them.

I always regarded those athletes on both teams -- many super stars too -- as much more than stick ball players. I saw a diplomat in each and every one of them. At a time, when travelling to another's neighborhood could be quite dangerous, these men were not afraid to do so. In fact, they bridged the racial gap -- bringing people of all colors together. I remembered one spectator up there say, "Watching these two teams play is better than watching the Yankees play, much better."

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Old 12-01-2017, 01:18 AM
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("...good read, thanks for sharing..." went the goblin not sane enough to correct anything much, instead he just enjoyed reading it as he has done now)
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Old 12-07-2017, 10:23 AM
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Originally Posted by fleamailman View Post
("...good read, thanks for sharing..." went the goblin not sane enough to correct anything much, instead he just enjoyed reading it as he has done now)
"We played different neighborhood teams with all kinds of action on the game by both the players and the people on the block. A big game might have $500 riding on it, so there was a lot of pressure." In addition he lived near PS 51, the setting for some of the more legendary games from that era, including the matches against teams from Mott Street Manhattan. -- Tony Rosado

"In the late 1960s, Bouncer put together a team that combined the best players from the different teams like the Lucky Sevens & 60s boys, the Vikings and others. "We would go down to Mott Street on Sunday's to play the guys in Little Italy. There was a lot of money bet, usually $300-400 a game. I think back then they might have won more than we did, but they were really great games." -- Sonny Hernandez

Cherokee recalls. "When we played the guys from from Mott St and Paladino it would often go to $600 - 700 per game. Let me tell you, those games were rough. When you were tagged, you knew you were tagged. You'd get a real black and blue mark." -- Cherokee Ruiz

"We'd also go down into Manhattan to play the Italian guys on Mott St. -- Jose Mandes

"Starting in 1947 I started leading teams from Spanish Harlem up into other neighborhoods in the city. We went downtown to Little Italy, to Brooklyn and the Bronx. This was a big change because until then, guys would primarily stay in the neighborhood and just play teams that were within a few blocks. " -- Pete Velez

"I was invited to join primarily because of my defensive skills. I was one of the top outfielders around and could chase down some really tough shots. Defense had been a weak point for the Bronx teams and this had put them at a disadvantage against the Italian teams from Manhattan."
-- Bobby Ortiz

After a few years, as we got better, we started playing competitively against the established teams. By the mid 70s we were the best team in the City. We'd beat the Bronx teams, as well as the Italian guys from Mott Street who had been the best for awhile."

"Now lots of the Italian guys had good power, and were long ball hitters. I was a line drive man. I'd hit shots that we called skeeters, which were low to the ground and could rise or skip on you. I remember one game that we were playing down in Mott Street, when this big guy on first base named Moose kept taunting at me, telling me that I couldn't hit. I took aim and sent a skeeter right at him. It smacked him hard right in the chest. It looked like a target had been painted on and he had to put on his shirt, which I appreciated since he always played with it off."
-- Jose Rodriguz

"We took the games seriously," Billy said. "I remember one time when we were playing up by York Ave and the 80s. Our captain John "Baldy" McNamara got a hit and was going towards second. He started to slide, but hesitated which caused his sneaker to get stuck on the pavement and resulted in a broken ankle. The local hospitals were closed so we called the ambulance and as they were loading him in, we were already flipping the coin to see who would take his place. He got a little annoyed with us seeming so unconcerned about his condition. We just shrugged at him. You know, "the game must go on." -- Bill Burney

After the war, I played with a team called the Swanees at 112th and St. Nicholas Ave. A couple of the guys wanted to start up a new team and asked me to put it together. One of the guys was friendly with Minton, the owner of the
Minton's Jazz Club up at 118th St. and St. Nicholas Ave. He talked to Mr. Minton and sure enough, we got a sponsor and our first real uniforms. They uniforms were green and white and said Minton's Playhouse on them. Mr. Minton was a saxophone player and he offered any of the guys free sax lessons if they'd come in early Sunday morning, but to tell you the sad truth, I don't think more than one or two of the guys ever took him up on it.
Right from the start we were good, but I wasn't looking to just put a regular team together. Most teams back then would be from just a small part of the neighborhood or a couple of blocks. I figured that each team had two or three really great players. If I could get some of the best players from the different teams we played to join us, well, this would be like an all-star team and we would be able to win most games. Whenever we played a team and I saw a good player, I'd talk to him to see if he might be interested in joining our team. I got
John and Vito to join that way.
We liked going to different neighborhoods and playing on their home field. This would make the pot of money bigger. We regularly played for hundreds of dollars a game, sometimes even s much as between $500 and $1000, particularly when we went to Pleasant Avenue, where some of the bookies played and would bet on their team. Those guys really hated losing to us.
We won more than two out of three games we played back then and you could probably think of some of the guys as professional stickball players. One year I bought furniture for my kitchen dining room and living room with the money I made from stickball.
-- Charlie Ballard

John Stephens, Minton's first white player, was affectionately referred to as "Stickball's Jackie Robinson in reverse." John originally played as a member of the LaSalle Street Boys, mainly an Irish and Italian team and joined Minton's at the age of 20 in 1949. -- John Stephens

When I was 18 in 1950 we had a game against Home Relief. It was a big money game (I think we were playing for $800). The score was 0-0 in the last inning and it was starting to rain. I hit a line drive through the infield that skidded on the street and shot into the outfield. As I was rounding the bases, the third base coach wanted me to stay at third, but there was no way, and I just kept chugging. They must have had me out by 20 feet, but I came around, flew into the catcher, knocked out the ball and slid to home. We won, but my knee popped so far out of the socket that I looked totally distorted. I remember my brother running onto the field saying hold on don't move. He took my leg and gave it some twist. It just popped right back into place, but man did that hurt.

That same year at 149th street and Tinston Place I caught a ball and fell through a pane of glass in the front of the store. I cut an artery in my leg and was rushed to Lincoln hospital again. I don't remember what happened on that play.

I guess the next big injury I got was back in '57 on Willow Ave & 134th Street and St. Francis Ave when I caught a ball and fell down on the curb. I got knocked our and had double vision for 3 months. That really got in the way of my game. I had something like that happen to me a couple of years ago, back in the late '80s. We were playing the Minataurs in E. Harlem on 105th street and a ball came down off the fire escape. I caught it but fell backwards onto the curb and got knocked out cold. They had an ambulance bring me to over to St. Vincent's hospital where they brought me around. The funny thing was that the whole time, I wouldn't let go of the ball. I even kept trying to get up to get back into the game. -- Vito Gannone

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