Sticking Together Over the Years : Tradition: Stickball is more than a game for transplanted New Yorkers. It's a way to relive their youth.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From a distance, they looked like kids choosing sides for a pickup game. They wore high-topped sneakers and stretched T-shirts, smiled at their girls and blew bubblegum, spit at insects and even let out an, "Ah, shoot," every once in a while.

Up close, however, their graying beards and receding hairlines betrayed them.

In a nostalgic return to friendships shared in an era of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Mickey Mantle, a group of ex-New Yorkers who now live in California uphold a Brooklyn sporting tradition every Fourth of July called stickball, in an annual Brooklyn-West "Stickball Classic."

The group, which plays the game on Drexel Street in Los Angeles, is a settled mix of successful entrepreneurs and family men, returning to childhood one day a year in remembrance of how it once was, and in celebration of what they have become.

"Sometimes, it's as though those childhood days were yesterday," said Sy Zagha, one of the game's longtime supporters. "You don't see some of these people for five, 10 or 15 years. But you're still old friends. There's a certain feeling that you don't lose."

After high school, most went their own way--some into business, others to the military--and most of them are married. But each, for various reasons left Brooklyn and moved to California.

Having kept in touch by telephone or at holiday gatherings, 25 years ago they decided to organize their first Fourth of July picnic and stickball game to get together.

Like kids playing on a warm summer afternoon, there was no homework, no stock analysis, no late shipments, just a game . . . like in the old days.

That afternoon was the beginning of an annual event that has been bringing the group together for more than two decades, and attracting some ex-New Yorkers from as far away as San Francisco to take part in the event.

In 1978, the group began handing out an award to the player voted "most improved performer." The award, a tattered pair of 1978 Dodgers vs. Reds tickets, went to Bill Marin this year.

"It's like an honor winning this award," Marin said. "It's like entering the Hall of Fame. I am now a part of the history of this event, which will continue for years."

The game also serves as a gathering for friends and family, but eventually evolves into a melange of story-telling and joke-swapping.

Irving Eskenazi, host of the event, said: "We see each other at other times during the year. But this event is a chance to get together and just have fun. Now that the kids are getting older, we're starting to pass the tradition to them. That makes it kind of special."

The tradition has been passed to people outside the original group, as well.

Marin, who was born in Ecuador, said: "I was raised in L.A. and worked for Irv (Eskenazi) in the record business. Every night I would work late with him, and he would tell stories about what it was like in New York when he was growing up.

"He'd explain the game of stickball and tell me how many manholes you had to hit for a home run and about the pitching and how they'd get their bats and about Coney Island hot dogs. And as the story went, everything seemed so exciting about growing up then, especially the stickball games.

"So my first time here, I felt like I had just broken into the minors. It's really an event."

Despite the kind words and inviting smiles, the game takes on a character of its own. Whether a ball is ruled fair or foul is of paramount importance, often bringing about vociferous protests and a reclarification of the rules.

If you didn't know better, you'd think they were kids.

"You're trying to grow at work and advance in your (professional) field all the time," Marin said. "But for that one day, I can be competitive athletically and I want to win desperately, even if it's just a game.

"We'll argue over a ball being foul or fair, but not for the money or fame. We do it purely for the sake of winning. In that sense, it's like being a kid again."

The time was the early 1950s. The location, 67th Street and 20th Avenue in Brooklyn.

It was a place where kids named Blackie and Chickie and Natie walked the streets swapping stories about baseball idols.

Every morning, you could hear the familiar "whack" of the screen door as kids streamed into the streets to organize the day's games.

A ratty-looking group in white T-shirts and long pants, they'd scour the neighborhood, stopping at each porch stoop to swipe a neighbor's mop or broom.

Quickly stripped of its brush end, the broom became a stickball bat that might last several days.

"We were pretty quick then," Lenny Pinto said. "Then some old lady would figure it out and scream, 'They've got my broom.'

"Once we got a bat, we'd need some money for a ball. So, we'd look around for Pepsi-Cola bottles and cash them for two cents and the large bottles for a nickel."

Often, they could play six or more games a day. And by supper, it became a community event.

"When our fathers would come home, they'd sit on the stoop and watch the game. . . . The wives would call out, 'Tom, Harry, John, ya coming for dinner?' They'd say, 'We're watching the kids, we'll eat later.' And then the whole neighborhood would come out to watch the game," Pinto said.

"The sewer was home plate, and since there were four sewers on a block, you could have four games going at one time."

Joseph Shaber, one of the game's organizers, said that without TV or video games, large families improvised their entertainment.

"There might be 20 families in a building, each with six kids, which was normal then," he said. "It was different, everybody knew everybody, and neighbors were tighter. When everyone came out, you'd start playing the games, and you could fill the streets with people."

But as this day in 1990 came to an end, the "kids" reluctantly returned to their duties as fathers and grandfathers and businessmen. And with their day of remembrance finally over, their bodies tired and stiff, they left the streets once again, still muttering about a solid hit or a tough pitch.

Those were the days . . .

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°