Years ago stickball disputes were settled by arguing. There were no umpires. There were small, medium and big arguments, with the big ones being the best. Anyone who has not seen an old time, big stickball argument, doesn’t know what they have missed. All stickball players cursed, but the guys from Harlem were the best with the guys from the South Bronx a close second. The guys arguing were excitable, theatrical and used some of the most colorful language imaginable. It wasn’t personal or aimed at anyone, it was just each side explaining why they saw the play correctly and the other side saw it wrong. The strangest thing was that anyone could get into the argument, players or non-players. It was common for more than one argument to be going on at the same time on the same play. Anyone not familiar with a stickball argument would have thought both sides were about to kill each other any second. The big arguments were as good as watching the game itself. When the argument was settled, the game continued as if nothing had happened.
Arguments were usually settled by flipping a coin, doing the play over, or by the team that was ahead giving the play. All stickball teams cheated, but as long as it was within acceptable limits, it was OK. If a runner was across first base by five feet and was called out, this was outside the acceptable limits. If it was a close play and the runner was safe or out by half a step, arguing the play was within acceptable limits. If the argument couldn’t be settled, the game broke up. Most players didn’t want this to happen. Even though the games were played for money, first and foremost, the players wanted to play stickball. Any team that had a reputation for breaking up games, would have a hard time getting other teams to play them. The above sounds like stickball games were very chaotic, but they weren’t. Everyone knew the rules, what was acceptable, and that arguments could be part of the game. You could almost say that cheating within acceptable limits wasn’t cheating at all. Of course, there were legitimate arguments where neither team was cheating.
Over the past year I have written a number of stories on stickball of fifty to sixty years ago. I don’t know if I can make further contributions to the history of stickball without the stories sounding redundant or trivial. Most stories were written from a perspective of South Bronx stickball, but they also included an overview of good stickball teams in other parts of the City. The old South Bronx players were a major factor in making stickball what it is today and I am glad I had the chance to tell their story. We were good, real good and held our own against the best teams in the Bronx and Manhattan. Take care.