An Old Game for New Times
The swoosh of a stickball bat and the unmistakable ping of a bouncing pink spaldeen (Spalding) ball could be heard up and down Passaic Street in Ridgewood, N.J. On a crisp fall day in late September 2012, there were good-natured shouts of, “He’s a ringer!” as well as groans and laughs as players struck out on one of the “fields” that had been drawn on the pavement.
Striking out was pretty easy to do since hitting the small ball on one bounce can be challenging — especially for those who had never played stickball before or who were picking up the skinny broomstick-like bat for the first time in 30 years. But the camaraderie and good-natured teasing made everyone feel young again, at least for the four hours when the usually busy street was blocked off to traffic and transformed into two old-time stickball fields.
“[The tournament] is growing every year, and we love it,” said Grand Knight Doug Findlay of Ridgewood Council 1736, which sponsored the third annual event. “For some, it’s a connection to old days growing up in the city, and for others it’s just a lot of fun to try a game they’ve never played. And, of course, there’s the important charity aspect of the day.”
THE NOSTALGIC AND THE NEEDY
When Council 1736 was looking for a new fundraising idea, Joe Hernandez and Rich Paliotta, brothers-in-law and Third Degree Knights who had grown up in New York City, suggested that their favorite childhood game would translate well to a suburban setting.
“It’s still played where I grew up in East Harlem,” Paliotta said. “Fathers and sons just love to play this game.”
The other Knights liked the combination of novelty, family togetherness and nostalgia, too.
“For older gentlemen, it really takes them back to when they were young,” added Paliotta, 43. “The older guys just wouldn’t go for touch football. With this sport, they can just jog slowly around the bases and feel young again.”
Another advantage, according to Hernandez, is that the day is very easy to organize. “We arrange to have the police block off the street for us, buy new spaldeens, chalk and a couple of bats, and that’s about it,” he explained. “And there is never a shortage of Knights willing to pitch in with grilling, serving refreshments and cleaning up at the end.”
Even the refreshments harkened back to the “good old days” as the smell of hot dogs sizzling on the outdoor grills drew players away from the fields for a little sustenance.
Grand Knight Findlay, who grew up in Denville, N.J., a town much like Ridgewood, was thrilled with the idea of introducing the game to the suburbs. He feels that the stickball tournament could be a good fundraiser for councils around the country since the costs are minimal and everyone has a street on which to play.
“The rules couldn’t be simpler,” said Findlay. “The field can be set up by chalk very easily and the ball must be a pink spaldeen.” Ground rules are set up to correspond with the playing field and with obstacles distinctive to the street and the surrounding area.
Teams of four pay to enter the tournament, and the low overhead ensures that the maximum amount of the proceeds can be donated to charity.
For each of the past three years, the tournament has generated money for different local charities. Last year, Knights selected the Social Service Association of Ridgewood and Vicinity Inc., which runs a food pantry and helps provide basic necessities to families in need. Representatives from the organization fielded a team with the clever name of “Food Fighters.” They were the ultimate winners, both of the first-place trophy and of a donation of $650.
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
Peter Scott, a member of Council 1736, played in the tournament with his son Joseph, 17. For Joseph, it was an opportunity to try out a sport he had always wanted to experience.
“My dad and mom both grew up in cities, and I heard about the great times they had playing stickball. But here in the suburbs, kids just don’t play in streets, so I could never try it,” Joseph said.
Joining the Scotts was fellow council member Glen Gardner, who was accompanied by his sons Eddie, 12, and John, 7. Eddie, a travel baseball player, warmed the team up with his best pitches while John, a flag football fan, recruited other Knights to throw a football with him between games.
“My wife was sick for two years before she passed away not too long ago, so you can see how important a day like this is for the boys,” said Gardner.
The tournament, though, is open to more than just Knights and their families. This past year, several teams came from local police and firefighters associations.
John Albano, 56, is a fireman in Ridgewood and a Brooklyn boy through and through. “We used to play stickball all day, every day in the summer,” he said. “It was either that or you got into a lot of trouble.” Albano was eager to play when he heard about the Knights’ tournament. “This is a great way to help them raise money for another good cause,” he added.
For Hernandez, one of the best parts of the day is how it builds fraternity, just like it did in the old days. “It was always a game that saw no discrimination, both when my father grew up in Spanish Harlem and when I was growing up,” he said. “Whether you were wealthy of not, you got to play with everybody else.”
Added Findlay: “The day was a big success, and we’re definitely looking forward to it again next year. In fact, I envision this becoming a tradition for a long time to come.”
GLORIA GEANNETTE is the managing editor of The Ridgewood News in Ridgewood, N.J.