Vinnie Head played for Mott Street. He was a big guy and swung a long bat. Most stickball players used a broom handle for a bat, but Mott Street used longer bats. They got them in a store in Little Italy and were essentially a custom bat. Vinnie used a bat about a foot longer than a broom handle and when he got all of the ball it went like it was fired out of a cannon. It was common for Vinnie to strike out once in a game and sometimes twice, but the games against Mott Street were usually close, so he always was a threat whenever he came up. Over the years he beat us more than a few times with the long ball in the late innings of a game.
It was 1961 and we were playing Mott Street at PS 51. Vinnie hit one of the hardest line drives I have seen straight at me in right field. When the ball left the bat it seemed to hang in the air for an instant and then I realized how fast it was going. The ball went through the infield about eight feet high and when it got about two thirds through the schoolyard it started to slowly rise. It was still rising when it hit the first floor of the building and bounced back into the schoolyard. I had never seen a ball hit that low on the wall and go into the schoolyard without bouncing in the street first. If Vinnie had hit that ball on Mulberry Street, it would have landed on the right field sidewalk way out there by East Houston Street. Outfielders played Vinnie deep, but no one could have caught up to that ball it was moving so fast. In my mind, I have seen that line drive hundreds of times since Vinnie hit it. Did he smoke that ball.
There were a number of players who hit the ball hard, but the three guys in the stories hit the ball just a little harder than the rest. The three hardest hit balls I have seen hit were the low line drive Lilo hit in PS 51, the ball Biggie chopped over the water tank on Mulberry Street and the line drive Vinnie Head hit off the first floor of the building at PS 51. It was something to see a one story high line drive go deep into the outfield, hit a wall and bounce around out there. I loved to see them just as long as they were not hit against my team. Only the hard hitters could hit them and you didn’t see it often even though we played a lot of stickball, much more than guys play today. The next time you see a one story high line drive go deep into the outfield and past the deep fielder, keep it in mind. You may not see another ball hit that hard for a long time.
The stories I have been writing deal mainly with hitting, but there were great fielding plays also. The problem in writing about them is that it’s too hard to do them justice with words. You have to see them, so I don’t mention them much. However, there is one part of the game I would like to mention and that is hustle.
Years ago, the top teams played hard, especially some of the teams from Manhattan. They ran hard, slid into bases and would take you out if you were in the way. At the end of the day you would see asphalt slide marks on their clothes like you see dirt marks on a baseball player’s uniform. Teams that played on concrete like PS 51 and PS 60 didn’t slide much unless it was a big game. You just got tore up too much, but we slid when we had to. There were some tough dudes playing stickball back then. When I see pictures of the clean pretty jerseys and short pants players wear today, I wonder if running hard and sliding is still part of the game. If it isn’t, it’s understandable. If it is, then there are still some tough dudes playing stickball. Maybe a little crazy also.