Pete Hamill on Stickball in New York

A Scrapbook of Styles

Pete Hamill
Pete Hamill, American journalist, essayist, novelist, editor, and educator. (Rob Loud/Getty Images)

Although he has published ten popular novels and two collections of short stories, Pete Hamill is probably best known as one of the great New York City newspaper columnists. He has served as editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the Daily News, and has written columns for almost every major newspaper and magazine in the city.

In his memoir A Drinking Life (1994), Hamill re-creates everyday life in Brooklyn and Manhattan during the 1940s and '50s. This passage, set in the days immediately following the end of World War II, describes the rules and rituals of a once popular New York City street game.

Stickball in New York

from A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill*

1 In the streets, we still played the now forgotten games of the New York summers. Stickball was the supreme game, a kind of tabloid version of baseball, played with a broom handle as a bat and a pink rubber ball manufactured by the A. G. Spalding Co. In every street in New York, this ball was called a spaldeen. The spaldeens had vanished during the war and the game was played for awhile with hairy tennis balls, until even they had disappeared. But coming home from Fox Lair Camp, I felt a special excitement spreading through the neighborhood: Spaldeens are back! . . .

2 Stickball ruled us. On Saturday mornings, the older guys played big games against visitors from other neighborhoods or went off themselves to play beyond our frontiers. Money game! someone would shout, and suddenly we were all moving to the appointed court and the great noisy fiesta of the stickball morning.

The players drank beer from cardboard containers on the sidelines and ate hero sandwiches and smoked cigarettes. They were cheered by neighbors, girlfriends, wives, and kids. And standing on the sidelines during those first games were the veterans, holding the spaldeens, bouncing them, smelling them in an almost sacramental way.

3 The men played on summer weekends; we kids played every day. There were still very few cars on the streets in that year after the war, so the "court" was always perfectly drawn, with sewer plates marking home and second base, while first and third were chalked against the curbs. The rules were settled before each game: one strike and you were out; off the factory wall or off a passing trolley car was a "hindoo"--which meant the play didn't count. The great hitters could hit the ball at least "three sewers," and it was said of Paulie McAleer of the Shamrock Boys that he once hit a ball an incredible five sewers. In memory, the games seem continuous and the days longer, richer, denser, and emptier than any others in my life. We did nothing and we did everything. You would wake, the radio playing, the rooms thick with the closed heat (and sometimes the sour smell of drink), grab something to eat--bread and butter covered with sugar, a piece of toast--and then race down the stairs, to burst into the streets. On a perfect Saturday in August, Twelfth Street would be wet from the water wagon, the air fresh, nobody else around, the tenements brooding in Edward Hopper light, and then a door would open and Billy Rossiter would appear with the bat and the spaldeen, and that was all we needed.

We'd play off the factory walls until the others came down; we'd play ten hits a piece until there were enough players to choose up sides. And then we'd play until dark.

Selected Works of Nonfiction by Pete Hamill

  • Irrational Ravings (Putnam, 1971)
  • A Drinking Life: A Memoir (Little, Brown and Co., 1994)
  • Piecework: Writings On Men and Women, Fools and Heroes, Lost Cities, Vanished Calamities and How the Weather Was (Little, Brown and Co., 1996)
  • News Is a Verb (Ballantine Books, 1998)
  • Why Sinatra Matters (Little, Brown and Co., 1998)
  • Downtown: My Manhattan (Little, Brown and Co., 2004)

 

* Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life was published in 1994 by Little, Brown and Company.