New York Emperors Memorial Day Stickball Classic 2008 – The Bronx, NY
The Bronx. Growing up, just the name brought to mind images of urban rot and street crime. To me, it was the kind of place you didn’t go unless you lived there (or were going to a Yankees game). Dangerous, decaying – The Bronx had an outsized reputation in my mind, and in all my visits to New York, I had never even thought to go there. One call to Richard Marrero, president of the New York Emperors Stickball League, changed all that.
“It’s all about family.” He reassured me, describing the annual Memorial Day Classic, “Everybody’s included. Come on up. You’ll have a good time.”
So, on a perfect early summer morning, I hop the 6 train to New York’s most northern borough, leaving behind the more familiar confines of Manhattan. I get off at Parkchester & 177th St. and after a short walk through a neighbourhood of tidy row houses, mom & pop shops, and mammoth project buildings, I am greeted by the festive proceedings on Stickball Blvd. A two block stretch renamed by the city in the 80s after the league had made it their regular venue, on this weekend (and each Sunday from April to October) it is closed to traffic, and a block party royale is in full swing.
True to Marrero’s word, “everyone” seemed to be there. Young and old, men and women, whole families crowded the scene. Salsa and hip hop boomed from a DJ’s speakers while the crowd watched the games already in progress, eating, laughing, catching up with friends old and new.
Approaching an older gentleman who looked to be in the know, I asked “Excuse me, do you know where I can find Richard?”
He sized me up, then shouted down the block “Hey, Richie! Come over here! Someone wants to talk to you!”
Richard walked over, and I shook his hand. “Mr Marrero. Nice to meet you. I’m Jason, we spoke on the phone earlier about coming up to cover the tournament.”
“What? No, I’m Richie Mojico. But if you wanna know about stickball, you talk to me.”
Minutes later, I am welcomed into Mojico’s modest townhouse a couple blocks away. We sit in his rec room, listening to old salsa records and sipping ice tea as he flipped through old scrapbooks and photo albums, telling me the story of the game’s origins and what it means to the neighbourhood and it’s largely Puerto Rican residents.
Stickball is a street game, a “poor man’s game”, that is basically a rudimentary form of baseball that you play on the block. Starting in the early part of the 20th century, New York City kids with no access to parks and real equipment improvised their own version of America’s pastime.
“We would sneak a onto neighbour’s fire escape and steal a broom handle or a mop handle,” explained Mojico, “but it was too long, so we would stick it part way down a hole in the sewer cover and break it off so it was the right size.”
As for the ball, “there was a sporting goods store around the corner that would sell us reject tennis balls for cheap, and then we were ready to play.”
The layout of the playing surface was simple – the sewer cover at one end of the block was home plate, the one in the middle of the block was 2nd base, and a car or a fire hydrant on either side of the street stood in as 1st and 3rd. From this set up came the term for a homerun length hit, known as a “3 sewer shot.”
The rules were similar to baseball, if a bit less forgiving. The hitter bounced the ball in front of him and hit it, a style known as “self-pitch”. If the ball was caught you were out. If you swung and missed, you were out. And if the cops came by, Mojico confesses, “you chucked your stick down the sewer or under a car and ran before they nabbed you.”
Back on Stickball Boulevard, the sun is high in the cloudless sky and the carnival is in full swing. The tournament is clearly a beloved event, and while it has brought everyone here, it seems to be just one element of what is a certifiable community party.
Getting into the spirit, I head to the food tent, where another insanely friendly local resident, Millie Guzman (“What can I get you, baby?”), is serving up bacalaitos, a deep-fried codfish flatcake that is the perfect compliment to my ice-cold beer.
One hour into my day, I already feel like part of the family, with everyone I meet genuinely pleased to have an outsider in their midst who is interested in their tradition and more than happy to tutor me on the finer points of the game.
I wander around the scene, munching away and watching the kids league players taking lessons from the old guard. The older folks see it as their job to make sure these kids play the game “the right way” and stay out of trouble.
Flanked by a school on one side, a park and tennis courts on the other, and surrounded by a giant apartment complexes, the tree-lined Stickball Blvd. is an oasis in the midst of this dense urban setting.
Finally meeting my intended target, Richard Marrero, who is also the captain of the defending champs ‘The Gold’, I get more history.
“Most of the fellas you see here have been playing since they were 4, 5 years old. And their fathers before them played stickball. And their father’s father played. That’s how we keep the game alive. It’s all family.”
And so the game has survived, with generation after generation of New Yorkers making something out of nothing and then passing it along. That was the genesis of the Emperor’s League.
Marrero is called away to play the next game, but summons another league elder, Frank Sanchez Jr. (“Hey Frank-ay!”) to explain further.
“Well, it was my father, Frank Sanchez Sr., and his friend Frank Calderon who started it. They played stickball all their lives and in the 1980s they organized the Emperor’s League.”
He points to the middle of the street and I see that stenciled on the asphalt behind the home base of each of the 2 “fields” on Stickball Blvd. are the names “Sanchez” and “Calderon”, a tribute to the men who made it all happen.
Over the course of the weekend, teams from The Bronx, Manhattan, and out of town squads (led by old neighbourhood residents who moved away and took the game with them) from Florida, California, and Puerto Rico will battle it out in hotly contested games for the coveted Memorial Day championship. It’s a veritable World Series of stickball, and a great excuse for a party.
As dusk falls on first day of games, a 10-piece band has assembled on the sidewalk in front of the adjacent P.S. 182. We are to be treated to a free concert by a true legend – Orlando Marin, the 70-something “Last of the Mambo Kings”.
But first, Richard Mojico takes the mic, toasts Marin and presents him with a beautifully decorated, handmade stickball bat.
The spry Marin, clearly touched, offers a playful boast “I just want you all to know….I’m still the best hitter on Stickball Blvd.!” and with that the band flies into a blistering set of mambo and salsa that keeps the people dancing into the night.
The next day, I am back for more. Watching two Bronx sides (the Royals and Stem) face off, I see the game’s humble roots are kept alive in many ways. I get the low-down from the lone woman in the league, Stem team founder Jennifer Lippold, who is (very vocally) coaching rather than playing this year due to being 8 months pregnant.
“Yeah, we still keep score in chalk on the asphalt. And you can see that everybody makes their own bat out of a broom handle.” She explains.
Indeed, each player’s stick is personalized with colourful grip tape, painted designs, and even nicknames (“El Diablo”).
Jennifer continues, “I’ve been doing this since I was 3 years old, that’s over 30 years! I give birth next month, so I’m coaching this time around, but I’ll be back next year!”
Our conversation is halted periodically by passers-by saying hello and inquiring about the impending birth.
“It really is all about family.” Says Lippold. “Every year, we get to have a weekend with people we haven’t seen in a long time, and teach the kids how to play. You know, I’m the only woman playing right now, but my (13 year-old) daughter is coming up, and I like to say that I’m giving birth to new stickball player!” she says as she pats her belly.
Just then, an argument erupts at first base over a safe/out call. It’s heated, but tempers are kept in check and it’s resolved pretty quickly. That’s the thing that I notice again and again about stickball culture – it’s very competitive, and the players and spectators alike give their all, but in the end it’s rooted in mutual respect and a deep camaraderie they all share and instill in the next generation.
Nas, a local I met the day before who is here to watch and never misses a Memorial Day Classic, saunters up and hands me a small paper cup filled with what looks to be a white shaved ice.
“Here, man. It’s a cocito.”
I take a bite off the top, and it tastes even better than it looks. It’s a delicious, thick slush mixed with coconut milk and sugar and the combination of mid-afternoon heat and baking blacktop makes this feel like the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. I am beginning to feel guilty that I ever thought of The Bronx as uninviting. Can these people be any friendlier?
The day continues with the knock-out stage of the tournament, and the tension on the field has risen noticeably. The Bronx Ravens, featuring the father/son duo of Angel Quinones Jr. & Sr., can’t hold off borough rivals The Gold in the semi-finals. It’s another year without any hardware for the Ravens and you can see that Angel Jr., one of the ‘stars’ of the league, is taking it hard.
Angel Sr., a NYPD detective who has the look and voice of someone you don’t want to mess with, has clearly passed on the true spirit of the game to his son. Angel Jr. exhibits a competitive fire (sliding into the home base asphalt in shorts!) and a sense of heritage and responsibility, as he spends a lot of time mentoring the kids who look up to him.
Fresh from the loss, he is still gracious. “You know, it’s tough. No one likes to lose, so I’m disappointed. But the weekend is about more than that. Keeping the game alive, teaching the little kids. Everybody coming together, you know?”
With the late afternoon sun setting, the overflow crowd gathers for the championship finale. In a bit of anti-climax, the game is a rout, with The Gold winning an unprecedented 3rd straight title in a 19-2 win over the San Diego Whompers. As after every game, the teams shake hands and there are smiles all around.
The crowd spills onto the street and all the teams gather for the extended prize ceremony/photo opp/playful ribbing that goes on overlong without anyone seeming to mind.
As the weekend wraps up, people slowly say their goodbyes and begin to head off. I shake hands and trade farewells with what seem like a hundred Richies and Frankies, getting one last dose of their generosity and warmth. Tomorrow, we all head back to the ‘real world’ of jobs, responsibilities, and pressures, but for this weekend – it was all about family.