As a Canadian who grew up…
As a Canadian who grew up in Toronto, I’ve always wondered about references to “stickball” that I’d see in stories about Brooklyn and the Bronx or mentions in stories about ballplayers, like Willie Mays, who still liked to play in the streets when they were major leaguers.
The Canadian equivalent to stickball is what we in Toronto, back in the 5O!s called ball hockey–now the kids say “road hockey” or street hockey–especially in Toronto where the winters aren’t long enough or cold enough to provide many outdoor rinks for playing “real” hockey on ice.
In ball hockey, you’d wear winter boots and hockey gloves and no other pieces of protective equipment. We’d usually have a ball glove, preferably a first baseman’s mitt, for the goalie and, around Christmas time, probably some kid would bet a proper goalie stick.
When Toronto started building “outdoor artificial” ice rinks, that is open air rinks with a concrete floor and built in ice-making equipment, that only provided more ice time for organized league hockey. Ball hockey, like stickball, is “unorganized” by adults and the kids make up the rules on their own. Just as I’ve read in the wonderful stories on this site, neighbours would often complain about the noise and swearing that went on as we played in the street with homemade goals, nailed together from wooden slats and potato sacks, or scraped up frozen snow heaped into a pile to make goalposts. Sometimes, a disgrunted neighbour would call the police, and the cry of “cops” would ring in the cold air as we hustled our goalnets into driveways between the houses and hurled our hockey sticks and gloves under parked cars. Game action was often interrupted by the call of “car” as we’d reluctantly pause and allow just enough space for motororists to make their way through, usually to the accompaniement of curses and admonitions to “Get a move on, we got a game goin’ here fer Chrissakes!”
In the summertime, we’d play softball at night in school playgrouds and touch football as the summer changed to fall, something that happens in September up here. But on hot summer afternoons, we played “wall ball” which was just like some of the games described by stickball players. We’d mark a strike zone on one side of a u-shaped section of our school where all the windows were protected by a heavy metal mesh. On the other side of the “u” there were different coloured bricks at different heights, and these would demarcate a single, at the lowest part of the wall, to home run, at the highest section under the roof. We used regular baseball or softball bats and if you knocked the tennis ball (no Spaldeens in Canada at that time) on the roof, it was an out. The school janitor would go up there about once a week and throw the balls back down to us. We also played a game called “zones,” on the regular baseball diamond in our schoolyard. If we didn’t have enough players for a full game, we’d either choose up teams of two or three, or simply rotate and keep individual scores. In zones, we’d draw an imaginary line from the plate through the pitcher’s box to a point against the chainlink fence around the outfield. Then we’d throw our jackets or anything that might be lying around on the ground along that line to mark the single, double, triple zones and over-the-fence homerun. <
I think for us though, the ball hockey games were the best equivalent of your stickball. Make up the rules as you play, usually with a “bald” tennis ball, better to stickhandle with if frozen, on a street slick with frozen snow, and no adult supervision. From time to time, we’d hook up with kids from another street for games that got so intense we’d usually end up playing home and home, best four-out-of-seven, with frequent changes of venue to other streets, dragging the goalnets behind us, to keep one step ahead of the cops. For these big games, some kid would usually show up with a pair of old goalie pads. Occasionally, in the summer time we’d play on the old-fashioned roller skates–not the in-line fancy skates of today–but the kind with rollers that had adjustable fittings to slip on over street shoes. Often, these were borrowed from girls on the street because street roller-skating was more popular with girls in those days. But these games were infrequent, because hockey is really a cold weather sport and it would become unbearably hot to play ball hockey in the summer time. We also played, girls included, a street ball game, like baseball, that we called “rounders.” The batter would bounce a tennis ball and hit it with the palm of his/her hand, and the bases were marked out as described by many of your writers about stickball.
As I watched my own fully-equipped sons playing Little League ball or “organized” hockey with coaches and parents yelling, “stay on your wing, backcheck, take the body,etc” I realized that kids now don’t get many chances to enjoy the unregulated play we did when we played ball hockey or “shinny”–on skates on outdoor rinks and ponds–and that a lot of the fun came from settling arguments among ourselves about whether a goal was scored or not, or whether the ball was fair or foul. I guess inner city schoolyard basketball is the last remnant of that kind of free play, without parents having to drive kids for 7AM practice at a rink half way across the city. Free play–ball hockey or touch football or “wall ball” or “zones”–we had it all. Although I played organized hockey and football right through my university days, my best memories and feelings about sports remain those “unorganized” games on streets and schoolyards. Long live stickball and its counterparts. (I guess in most of the world, a soccer ball is all that kids need to have similar experiences.)
Love this site–I’m finally beginning to understand what stickball is all about. Thanks.