As a child growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I very much enjoyed playing baseball. Stickball was a great pastime for many of us in the 50’s and 60’s when I did my playing. To play baseball you needed organized teams; stickball, on the other hand, could be played spontaneously with just two to four people. It became widely popular in urban areas in the Northeast where, in fact, baseball had its origins.
I had the good fortune of attending elementary school at Victor Mravlag School 21. Good fortune because the school provided a natural place to play with all the boundaries needed for an artificial playing field. Two brick walls were sandwiched by the school itself allowing for two playing fields. The pitcher would pitch to a box outlined with chalk on the red brick surface of the back of the school. The front half of the stickball court was concrete cement surface behind which was a black tar surface, the back half of the stickball court. At the back of the playing area was a fence dividing the school playground from privately owned home owners (poor souls). When I started playing stickball, seriously, probably around the age of 9 or 10, all the rules were in place.
The rules of the game that very much followed from baseball were both simple and clear, points that very much facilitated the play. A single was a ground ball that the pitcher could not field or a pop fly that landed on the concrete part of the field (usually caught). A double was a fly ball, not caught, that landed on the black school yard surface a distance behind the pitcher. A triple was a fly ball that hit the fence and, most naturally, a home run was a fly ball over the fence (a pretty good distance for any of us to hit). An out occurred when the pitcher caught a fly ball, fielded a ground ball, clean, without bobbling it, struck out a batter or if a batter hit the ball over the side part of the fence (the school was fenced in on all sides) in what was considered foul territory.
Equipment was simple: I had the handle of an old broomstick and, at that time, a pink spalding ball that cost all of 29 cents, a fair amount when you were not yet working. A tennis ball was not a good substitute because it simply did not have the bounce and movement that the spalding rubber ball had. Like a contemporary player’s baseball bat, the stick was fashioned around the build and taste of whoever employed it. Certainly, a precious item for a boy aged 9 or 10.
I remember it well: I had finished elementary school and was entering into a new school, Hamilton Junior High School so it was the summer of 1957. It was midsummer perhaps a month before we would have to return to the school boy grind. In those days, stickball was the thing to do: Skateboards did not exist and neither did i Pod, i Pads or i Phones. I suppose life was much simpler in those days.
I had just finished playing stickball with a friend that I had beaten badly, and without a doubt, I was feeling pretty cocky. I wanted to play more but my friend had had enough. Low and behold, Billy Richmond was alone and, apparently, had no one to trounce. I say this because Billy was known as the stickball player to beat or to put it differently, like the fastest draw in the West, he was one of the best, if not the best, at stickball. A natural athlete, he excelled, in most sports.
As he was there alone and given my elevated mood, I challenged him to a game. He let out a laugh and said: “Buzzy do you really want to play me: How many runs can I let you have when we start?” I boldly replied: “I don’t need any runs.” With a big smile of confidence, and, I suppose, having no one better to play at that moment, he agreed to play. Sometimes, when you are the underdog, in a competition, you feel less tension, less pressure to perform with the consequence being more grace and more skill as you throw all caution to the wind.
Perhaps it was one of those days when Billy was off, and I was on enough, to make that very significant difference in the outcome of an event. After all, I was a Red Sox fan, and spent many a painfully long Sunday at Yankee Stadium, seeing the Red Sox lose. But then again, every once in a while, the Red Sox did win at Yankee Stadium. I wondered if this might happen on this day.
I took an early lead in the first inning. There was no pitch that he threw that I could not hit. Soon it was 3 to 0. Billy, may have felt, perhaps it was just luck. But if it was luck, it didn’t stop. I continued to hit on the offense but on the defense, he being a lefty like me, was having trouble hitting my pitching. In addition, I made some very good fielding plays on balls he did hit.
By the bottom of the 7th inning (we played 9 innings in Jersey), Billy was up and I was leading by the impressive score of 8 to 3. Suddenly, it started drizzling, some thunder came and it appeared like it would turn into a downpour in a matter of moments. We agreed to stop the game but would continue it at some later date. In a strange way, I was happy that the rain was coming because in the back of mind, I wondered whether my luck or, his “bad day” might change.
Well, when Billy and I resumed play a few weeks later in the heat of summer, things went differently. It was almost like we were two different players than when we had met last. Needless to say, things changed very quickly: Everything I threw, he managed to hit: Some of those hits were home runs. Through all of this, I managed to get one run, and suddenly in the 9th inning, the score had become 9 to 9.
At that point, I remember telling myself, “this had to stop: I refuse to give up any more runs to him.” It was grit determination that kept me in there. The score remained tied through twelve innings when pretty much everyone had left the playground and the twilight began to fade. Although we agreed to finish the game at some later time, we never did. Summer suddenly ended and my daily stickball routine was coming to an abrupt end.
Really the game had three acts: The first act I was in charge of right up to the rain delay; the second act through the 9th inning Billy had taken the reins; the third act was the extra innings where the two of us went scoreless. Because I knew that it had not been a fluke, I felt most proud of that last act in which I had managed to tie one of the best stickball players ever to come out of School #21.