A hit for Hanratty
I have often wondered why stickball was never considered a sport with Olympic possibilities. In spite of the variety of organized sports my brothers, friends, and l were involved with, stickball was really the great neighborhood pastime, open to all.
Perhaps what forever barred stickball from recognition as one of the great sporting events of all time was the complete informality of the game. There were no real teams and, unlike most other sports we played, the competition remained in the neighborhood. We didn’t go around playing other neighborhoods and we could care less about who did what over on Coleman Street. The only thing that was important to us was what went on with the Maxwell Street kids; that was it.
Virtually every kid I knew played stickball. Girls played alongside the boys; in fact, many of the neighborhood girls were as good — or better — than some of the boys who played. The season began as soon as the snow was gone and the streets dry enough to play on. Kevin would run up the stairs of our decaying tenement hollering that the game was on, and down we would go into the street to play, cheering each other on and moaning over the missed hit or the fact that Bloke’s run to home plate was hampered by Mr. Donovan’s Studebaker.
Virtually every kid I knew played stickball.
There were no real rules for stickball, no set number of innings or complicated procedures. The game started when we began and ended when it was too dark to see the ball or when we had to go do something else. Equipment was simple: a 3-foot length of broomstick, some friction tape to put on the end of the stick so it would be easier to hold, a handful of dirt to rub on the friction tape so it wouldn’t be sticky, and a tennis ball. Bases were either utility poles or parked cars. We used the metal cover of the storm drain for home plate. The only other requirement was that someone watch the street and yell, “Car!” when he or she saw one coming.
Stickball was part of the everyday ebb and flow of the neighborhood. Men walking home from a day at the roundhouse, swinging their lunch pails, would holler out, “Who’s winning?”
“Dunno, Mr. O’Toole!” one of the kids would holler back.
It wasn’t really important who was winning because we were playing the same game we had begun a month before. We may have changed teams a dozen times (in fact, some of us had trouble remembering who was on what team on any given day). But that was unimportant, too.
Stickball was part of who we were and where we lived, a part of growing up on city streets. It was a means of relaxation and fun without the barriers of formality, a game that everyone — even grownups and important people like Msgr. Hanratty — could get involved with.
Stickball was part of who we were and where we lived, a part of growing up on city streets.
“You know,” Monsignor once said during a sermon on a warm, summer Sunday, “heaven is probably something like a great neighborhood of familiar friends. A place where we gather on a beautiful day like this and watch our children at their stickball games without worrying about cars. A place where our loving Father watches over us to satisfy our needs and allows us to enjoy the pleasures he has prepared for us.”
It may not have been great theology, but it made sense to us. The neighborhood was our world and everything that made up that neighborhood was important to each of us in some way or other.
In many ways our stickball games reflected our ecumenical outlook on life. Just as we lived and interacted with each other without giving a thought to race or religion, we played the game without any regard for who you were or how well you played. No one had any particular position to play because you played whatever position needed to be filled. Sides were chosen simply by kids gathering on one part of the sidewalk or another.
It was not uncommon for Mr. Munstein to send one of his helpers out during the heat of the game with a pitcher of lemonade made fresh in the back room of the grocery store. When business was slow, the various merchants along the street would stand outside to watch the game. Even Mama realized the importance of stickball and often stopped to watch a game in progress along with Mrs. O’Malley or Mrs. Saperstein.
Even Mama realized the importance of stickball and often stopped to watch a game.
As fall descended and the leaves swirled around in the gutters and down onto the sidewalks, we began to play in earnest because we knew our stickball days were limited and that snow would soon blanket the pavement and cover home plate. Then, sometimes only a handful of kids would play because the rest of us were at football practice or doing homework.
One crisp fall day, Msgr. Hanratty stopped by on his neighborhood rounds to watch the game in progress.
“Hi, Monsignor!” Charlie Carroll yelled as he took his place at bat.
“Hi, yourselves!” the powerful pastor called, smiling at our hodge-podge group of players.
Charlie concentrated on making a hit while Maura Skully leaned into her pitch, putting a fast strike across the plate.
Monsignor nodded appreciatively.
“Good throw, Maura!” he complimented.
That was the end of Maura’s good throws, for the moment. Charlie sent the next pitch over Bloke’s head and rounded the bases while Bloke ran furiously down the street after the well-hit ball.
Monsignor was rubbing his hands together and seemed to want to say something.
“Did you ever play stickball, Monsignor?” Victor asked boldly. Monsignor became animated.
“Grew up on it, I did!” he said enthusiastically. “Not many could out hit old Slugger Hanratty in my time. My sister was even better than I was!”
“Want to hit one, Monsignor?” Kevin hollered from first base, which was an Oldsmobile with Hydramatic drive that was blocking the utility pole we normally used.
Monsignor looked around and hesitated. Then Maura called that she would take it easy on him if he wanted.
“Pitch as you will!” Monsignor grinned. He pulled off his heavy overcoat and handed it to Regan O’Farrell. Then, he gave his suit coat to Irene O’Donnell. His black shirtfront contrasted with the crisp starchiness of the long-sleeved white shirt he wore. Monsignor flexed his arms a couple of times and reached for the broomstick bat Danny held out to him.
“It’s been a long time,” the priest muttered as he took a couple of practice swings. Then, stepping up to the plate, Slugger Hanratty leaned over the manhole cover and glared professionally at Maura Skully as she prepared to pitch.
“Strike!” Danny hollered as the tennis ball whizzed past Monsignor like a spring breeze.
Danny tossed the ball back to Maura.
Monsignor leaned over the plate again.
This time we heard the familiar “thud” as the rubber tennis ball met the slim broomstick bat. Monsignor hit the ball as square as any hit could be! The ball stayed in line with the street instead of rising up and shot in a beeline over toward the Oldsmobile where Kevin stood.
Monsignor hit the ball as square as any hit could be!
“Yikes!” Kevin yelled and jumped up to catch the speeding ball.
A resounding crash, followed by the melodic tinkling of broken glass shattered the afternoon quiet. Monsignor’s hit had gone straight past Kevin, over the Oldsmobile, and directly into the living room window of the Kirschenbaum apartment!
Not only that, when a stunned Mrs. Kirschenbaum came out to see what had caused the damage to her front window, she also informed us that the ball had hit a framed picture of her native Russia and broken that glass, too, as well as knocking a vase off her mantel, breaking it into a thousand pieces!
Monsignor apologized profusely to Mrs. Kirschenbaum, promising to send Finneran over in a matter of minutes to repair the window. He also promised to have a new glass put into her picture frame and to try to replace her vase, as well.
That was the last time Monsignor ever played stickball.
“I didn’t know a tennis ball could ever do all that!” Mrs. Kirschenbaum said pleasantly, after the shock had worn off. “I often watch the children at their game, and sometimes they even hit my window. But the ball just never did anything like that.”
After serving the early Mass the next morning, Danny and I joked with Fr. O’Phelan and Sr. St. Patrick about Monsignor’s big hit. Father said it didn’t surprise him that Monsignor could hit so well. After all, he mused, didn’t everyone play stickball as a child?
Danny and I joked with Fr. O’Phelan and Sr. St. Patrick about Monsignor’s big hit.
I glanced over at Sr. St. Patrick, who was busy folding surplices. She looked back and winked. Then she motioned to Danny, who was holding the candle snuffer in his hand, to give her the instrument. Sister stood away from the table, held the snuffer like a stickball bat, and gave it a couple of swings.
“Enough said,” she laughed, and gave Danny his snuffer.
“Slugger Hanratty, indeed!” she said softly as she went back to her folding. “Cleveland isn’t the only place where one plays stickball!”