THE MAJESTY OF STICKBALL
When I think of Stickball the music in my head automatically shifts to Bernard Herrmann’s score from the technicolor motion picture "Jason and the Argonauts" with its booming percussion and brassy fanfares. For there is a majesty to Stickball, a fantasy component without which we would merely be a pack of sweaty schlemiels slicing the air with broomsticks in the afternoon sun. I also think back on an article I wrote for AGENDA years ago, wherein the ghost of Bix Beiderbecke helped me to illustrate how the geometry of Baseball could be conflated with that of Stonehenge. This is all part of the same equation: humans are peculiarly well-equipped to recognize what Andre Breton, poet and theoretician of Surrealism, referred to as The Marvelous.
I marveled at Stickball the very first time I participated in its rituals. Even though fate robbed me of the opportunity to be in on the game while it was still being locally presided over by the late Norman Epstein, I was able to sense his presence in the very preparation of the Stickball Site. Norman’s brother Jason arrives in his automobile, carefully eyeing the parameters of the available portion of whichever parking lot we’ve chosen for our game. It is a partly cloudy Sunday afternoon and the asphalt is almost entirely devoid of vehicles. Easing open the trunk of his car, Jason rummages within and produces a small stack of little orange plastic cones, each one about eighteen inches high. Now the squinting begins.
There are specific delineations which must be sighted and marked with the cones. Here is the infield, there is the outfield. Now, a line for singles and for doubles. The pitcher will stand behind a blue line chalked into the pavement. The batters [perhaps we should call them "sticklers"] will place themselves in front of a carefully inscribed blue rectangle marked either onto a wooden backstop or a concrete wall. [The sausage-like stick of chalk itself is enormous and very blue]. Jason sets all of this up with terrific concentration, frowning at the back lot as it gradually becomes the Stickball Playing Field. There are no visible bases. The only people who will run are the outfielders. Most of the action occurs in the imagination. I like this.
The first thing I noticed about Stickball, aside from the interesting vocational cross-section of humanity who chose to participate, was the narrow circumference of even the stoutest Stickball bat. It takes awhile to accustom one’s body to the challenge. When the wood actually connects with the tennis ball (or else with the pink rubber Spalding handball), there is a sensation of having achieved something extraordinarily wonderful. Baseball bats from here on out seem to be comically plump, almost obscenely swollen by comparison. Anybody who hits a ball with a broomstick has certainly developed one hell of an eye for the exact kinesis of the hurtling sphere, and for the specific coordination required to swing a stick in a precise and timely manner.
Most of my time at bat is spent bifurcating the airspace without satisfaction, and cussing under my breath as the ball bounces off the wall and curls its way aimlessly out into the foul zone. If the ball touched the wall within the prescribed rectangle of blue chalk, I have suffered a strike, even if I didn’t swing at the pesky little orb. We all take the game seriously. I of course take it far too personally, and as the sun raises the temperature of my brain by baking the vault of my skull with ultraviolet rays, I might begin to growl.
Jason is calm and very deliberate. Glancing at him I remind myself, as he would remind me: to drink enough water, and to be conscious of my skeleton when I make sudden movements. This is in keeping with Jason’s profession, as both Epstein Brothers quickly became famous in this part of the world for their exceptionally developed Chiropractic skills. Jason wryly observes: "Everybody I ask to play ball—I run into them at work—they all have bad backs! I ask somebody to play racquetball—he’s got a herniated disc! It’s really touch and go." Yet the compulsion to play ball persists, for Jason has been doing this since he was a kid.
"I grew up in Brooklyn. My neighborhood was mostly Jewish, with Greeks, Italians, Irish...there was one guy who was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and he was in the minority. I nicknamed him "God" because he had Paul Harvey, Charlton Heston, Pat Robertson-type looks; eyes deep in his head! And he was always the Umpire. Anyone who had any beefs, any questions about baseball or sports, I’d tell ‘em go ask God. So one day, God was pitching in a certain way to this other legendary neighborhood guy called Thames. That’s right: God was pitching to Thames, who was holding a stickball bat. So I called my brother over and said: look what they’re doing!! I guess I was seven, and Norman was five. That was the first time we ever saw that type of game.
"So it started out, for us, in the schoolyard. It evolved from a street game—the older kids played it in the street—and with us it moved to the lots. ‘Cause the street was wild. You’re out there in the wilds. There were a lotta street games in New York. There was the Fox and the Hens, and everybody played Ring-A-Lee-Vee-Oh. That’s where you had two opposing teams and a Free Zone and a Jail. You just ran all over the alleys and the basements and you had to catch the other members and throw ‘em all in your Jail. But then the other ones who were free could make a run on the Jail and liberate ‘em! It was fun. But we liked Stickball best of all.
"At one point in New York, Stickball was banned because somebody used a Stickball bat as a weapon." Imagine! A person got injured and the blame fell not exclusively on the perpetrator but, by association, upon the slender Stick itself. "So the police said: You can’t play Stickball. Not with that kind of a bat. There was a hiatus from like 1960-62 where the bat was banned and you couldn’t really play! You need a bat." Interestingly, there was no ban on Baseball bats, which are potentially even deadlier. "There really is an official bat for this game. During the late ‘50s, some company started selling ‘Official’ Stickball bats, and they’re still at it." The original Stickball bat was a broomstick.
"We had a league...it wasn’t really a league...we kept records of our own batting averages, home runs...but it was never really very organized. In fact when I first came here I said to Norman: why don’t you organize this thing? Start charging dues, have a real league with an entry fee...Norman said ‘Nah! Stickball’s totally unorganized, spontaneous and loose!’ That would have made it too serious. And yet—we always pretended that it was serious. Norman had a ceremony every year, where he would give out awards. But it was more of a roast, really. Having a real, legit ceremony would have been a pretense of something serious. This was more of a joke.
"I used to think that Stickball was intrinsic to New York. But then one time Norman and I actually saw a Stickball box, chalked onto a wall right in the shadow of Wrigley Field in Chicago. And we played!" Jason blushes a little as he chuckles, and tugs at his little goatee. "We just happened to have the Stick and the ball with us." We pause to reflect for a moment upon the symbolism of this brotherly memory. Stickball exists forever in the shadow of Baseball, even as the Epstein Brothers did conduct the Stickball Ritual literally in the shadows cast by one of the great existing structures in all of Baseball.
Now, it’s nice to run. So help me Norman, it’s nice to run. Yet it is in the Hyperspace of the Imagination that we really get to work out in Stickball, for the runners are all imaginary. Jason recalls the famous announcement of his brother: "Well it’s bases loaded, two outs, score’s tied and it’s the bottom of the seventh: this is what Ann Arbor Stickball is all about!" But all of it exists in the imagination of everyone who is playing, says Jason. There’s nobody visibly on base. There’s no scoreboard. It’s all in peoples’ heads.
Jason ruminates on Baseball itself: "It’s more Eastern than other sports. There’s no clock! It could go on indefinitely." [Arwulf’s opinion is that sporting events with clocks are the truly interminable ones] Jason concentrates momentarily upon the land, softly murmuring: "Baseball...the grass...it’s pastoral..." And yet: "The big problem with Ann Arbor Stickball is, we’ve never found our Field of Dreams. Norman looked everywhere! All over this town, he kept getting chased out of parking lots. We’ve been notorious for that forever, you know, right from the time we got banned in Brooklyn, we’ve been getting kicked out of places.
"Me and my brother, we had some other sports, like one-on-one football. We’d go out to Michigan Stadium to play and get driven out of there, all the time! We’d sneak into places—we’d crawl through groundhog spaces under the fence. It was great to sneak into the big stadiums. We’ve been kicked out of pretty much everywhere, and we always got a laugh out of that. I guess that was always an essential part of the experience. One time we had lots of media coverage for our Stickball game: the Ann Arbor News came out to this parking lot with cameras and reporters. Everything was set, Norman’s ready to throw the first pitch and suddenly: Hey! Get outta here! You can’t play ball here!"
Last year’s Stickball season consisted of weekly attempts to rally enough participants for a genuine game of Stickball. Most of the time we had maybe six people, and Norman’s dream of an ongoing, slightly underground Stickball Team seemed to be gradually ebbing away. Most of the players are over forty. And most of the pitchers are worried about their arms. What will be needed for a resurgence is a new influx of interested individuals, and a realistic schedule of games. The first game of the season is tentatively slated for Sunday April 22nd. Arwulf will be there with a tape recorder, gathering material for a follow-up treatise on Stickball, relying heavily upon the testimony of the amazing Elmo Morales, whose exacting energies make every game he joins an unforgettable experience.f Stickball is to continue in Ann Arbor, we must have a
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