The "Stickball Originals" Series – Part 1

The Stickball Originals series will focus on how the game was originally played before The New York Emperors Stickball League was born in 1985. Few of us realize the level of competition needed to keep Stickball alive to this day and that these highly intense match ups were played mostly in the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem and Little Italy. Kenneth (Kenny) Lowman will introduce us to Push-Push (Papo in Spanish Harlem) whom he considers "the best Stickball hitter" he ever knew.

Old Time Stickball Players And The Best Hitter I knew.

During the 1940’s, 50’s and early 60’s there were some very good athletes playing stickball. On the top tier teams some of the guys had played minor league baseball and others could have if they wanted to. Back then in baseball there was no free agency or large signing bonuses and the living conditions and pay in the minor leagues was bad. Guys wouldn’t do it. As a result there was some excellent players in their late teens, 20’s and early 30’s playing stickball. Games between the top teams always drew large crowds. This was not the kind of stickball kids play, but more on a professional level and a lot of money was bet. At any time there probably were only about eight or ten top teams in the City and if there were ten men per team, then we are talking about the best one hundred or so stickball players.

The real good teams came from the South Bronx, East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, West Harlem, 66th Street on the West Side and Little Italy. These teams knew how to win close games, especially low scoring close games. When you played them, you had to play your best for all nine innings since they were not going to lose the game on a bad error or dumb play. These were tough games.
The best stickball hitter I knew was Push-Push (Papo in Spanish Harlem) who played mainly for the Young Devils at 115th Street and Madison Avenue.  He hit the ball equally well in Hitting-By-Yourself or On-A-Pitch. It was common for him to get three hits a game and sometimes four or five. He hit the hall hard and could place it anywhere on the field he wanted. Also, he could hit those long one story high line drives that went deep into the outfield , hit a wall and bounce around out there.
The best job of hitting I saw Push-Push do was not in a game, but joking around in PS51 school yard in the mid 1950’s He was standing in the infield, just short of second base and said he was going to hit the ball straight up in the air. He threw the ball up higher than usual and on the first bounce it came up about head high. He swung up and hit the ball straight up, way up there and did this a couple of times. Next he said he was going to hit the ball up in the air and it would come down back by home plate. He did this a few times and the game ended when he hit the ball up the roof of the five story building behind home plate. To do something like this requires exceptional eyesight and coordination since the ball has to be hit slightly off center, on the outfield side of the ball while swinging almost straight up. You have to be one hell of a hitter to hit balls like that. This was no fluke. Push called it out and did it.
Anyone starting to play stickball should take a good look at the picture of Push-Push (below) hitting in 1964 in the game on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. The ball is at the right height so the bat is level when the ball is about to be hit. Keeping the bat level will cut down on the number of pop ups, ground balls and strikeouts.
I wish I had that picture when I was playing. I would have been a better hitter. – Kenneth Lowman