Hollywood could not have asked for a more perfect setting. Blue-painted skies, a crisp 82 degrees and a baseball stadium hugging the beach. MCU Park is home to the New York Cosmos, the Brooklyn Bolts and most importantly the Brooklyn Cyclones. But just for one day, Coney Island’s stadium welcomed a sport unknown or forgotten by many in the neighborhoods of New York: stickball.
On Sunday, July 9, the second annual Stickball Hall of Fame Day was held in MCU Park. Stickball legends once again graced Brooklyn when the likes of Vincent Cusato and Stevie Basso stepped up to bat this time in a genuine baseball ballparka��rather than between sewer caps. They, along with fellow players Jeff O’Brien, Scott Nawrocki and Booby Kearns, were able to relive their younger days when they would dash out of school to start a pickup stickball game on the streets in front of their home stoops. Whether they popped a ball into the blinding beams of the sun or roped a tough groundball to the shortstop, nothing could erase the smiles on their faces. Even when they didn’t know who was up next to bat, an episode that occurred a handful of times.
Dressed in his team’s light blue shirt and a thick Brooklyn-Italian accent, filmmaker and Park Slope native Jason Cusato, son of Vincent Cusato, organized the annual event in the hopes of promoting a sport he and his community loved to play since they were kids. a�?It is important sport to Brooklyn itself and to New York,a�? said Cusato, whose stickball documentary When Broomsticks Were King screened during the game. a�?It is not in its heyday anymore, but it’s definitely still alive.a�?
On the eve of the Major League Baseball All-Star Week, about 200 people looking to recreate their past days attended a game of a�?poor-man’s baseball.a�? Instead of being armed with a baseball and a bat, players like Cusato and Basso equipped themselves with a broomstick. And, a small pink rubber ball called a spaldeen. Those are the only tools necessary to play stickball.
a�?It is the poor man’s baseball,a�? said Cusato. a�?It doesn’t play in the way it did back in the 40s, 50s, where kids couldn’t afford to buy a baseball, to buy a glove and a baseball bat, so they took their mom’s broomsticks. They all pitched in a penny each to buy a five-cent spaldeen.a�?
While there are three variations to the rules, those in attendance on Sunday play by the fungo rules. That means the batter toss the ball in the air and wait for it to bounce before taking a swing. Two swings and a miss equate in a strikeout. The younger players are allowed to run for their teammates. The remaining rules follow the rules of baseball. Generally on the streets, players have to avoid cars or angry neighbors whose window was just shattered by stickball artillery. With MCU Park as the setting, players could focus on hitting, fielding and enjoying the moment instead of potential danger.
Among those in attendance to see a classic street game played between Brooklyn and Staten Island’s finest within a baseball stadium was a�?Stickball Petea�? Surdel.
Known also as the a�?Commissionera�? by his stickball comrades for his collection of nearly 100 broomsticks and mop handles in his basement ready to be used for any game, the 71-year old brought 31 of his friends to watch Sunday’s event after being invited by the younger Cusato to join the festivities. While he missed Sunday’s matchup, he is hoping to join on August 13th when another matchup is being prepared to be played at Luna Park’s Deno’s Wonderwheel. a�?Stickball is very important. We call it the king of street games,a�? said Stickball Pete. a�?Even if you’re aged and infirmed, as some of us are, you can still play. And that’s the beauty of it.a�?
Rising traffic congestion and the development of hyper-stimulating technology are the main culprits behind the fall of the sport. Especially with the younger demographic, according to those in attendance. Hope remains, nevertheless. The New York Emperors Stickball League (NYESL) is among a few stickball leagues in the tri-state area that have stepped up to the plate of keeping the game active. Following a childhood of pickup games in the Bronx streets, David Hernandez is in his first year as the NYESL Vice President. And, his 17th year playing in the league. Today, he plays organized games in Soundview with his son and namesake on the Silver Bullets.
Last year, the father-son duo won the league’s Memorial Day tournament as the sixth seed. A moment the two will not forget any time soon. a�?My son winning that chip alongside of me last year was one of my greatest memories,a�? said Hernandez Sr. a�?That was a sport I loved, and he was raised on that field. Just to see him celebrate was great!a�?
a�?That was probably the best feeling I ever had in stickball,a�? said Hernandez Jr. a�?The whole boulevard was cheering at the end.a�?
Stickball is ruled by the older generation, which made the Silver Bullets’ triumph all the more special. Three of the players are younger than 20-years old, making them the league’s underdogs. Instead, the kids of the NYESL came out on top.
Back in Brooklyn, people from both teams began to pack up their broomsticks and spaldeens around 2:30 p.m. Then, there were the obligatory pictures. Following multiple interviews with News 12 and NY1, the Brooklyn side took their seats in section 6 behind the right field side of home plate. This after grabbing a beer and a bite to eat, of course. Part of the package of the Stickball Hall of Fame Day was the chance to also catch the hometown Cyclones.
The stickballers from Park Slope enjoyed a 6-4 Cyclone victory. But, not as much as the 7-1 Brooklyn victory in the match earlier in the day.
a�?They should make stickball a sport in the next Olympics,a�? said Stickball Pete.
Watch out, Tokyo. Brooklyn is coming, and they’re bringing their broomsticks and spaldeens.