It was probably the summer…
It was probably the summer of ’70, a very hot and humid Saturday afternoon. I had just finished smoking a joint and was walking up Mott Street toward Houston Street, where I intended to walk straight down to Greenwich Village and sit in Washington Square Park for a few hours. Before I reached Houston, a car loaded with a bunch of guys slowed down and one of the guys, Mike Fink, a good friend of mine, called out to me and asked me if I wanted to go up to the Bronx to play stickball.
Right behind the car was another one filled with a few more stickball players. The team from Mott Street were desperate; they were short a player, and Mike, who I had known since we were kids, was almost pleading with me to jump in and go with them.
Mike Fink was an outstanding stickball player and he knew that I had a little game in me because when we were kids we would always be playing in the streets of Little Italy together. Stoopball, punchball, kick-the-can, stickball–seems we were always rounding the bases. But, that was then, and now I was about twenty and hadn’t picked up a stick in years–smoking pot and listening to the Beatles and Stones had replaced the childhood games.
The truth of the matter was, Mike had invited me because absolutely no one else was around the neighborhood that Saturday afternoon.
I jumped into the car and the next thing that I know is that I am in the South Bronx on Fox Street. When we had gotten out of our cars, the Puerto Rican players greeted us with handshakes and smiles. I was surprised how well players from both teams knew each other. They were even calling each other by first names. Simply put, it amazed me. The Puerto Rican team was truly happy to see us and get the afternoon rolling with some exciting stickball.
Mike, our captain, knew I had always had a problem seeing and catching fly balls, so he stuck me on first base. I played a decent game, hitting the ball hard all four times and collecting two singles, but we got trounced 8-3.
Early in the game a funny thing happened to me. A left-handed hitter sent a sizzling line drive off of my forehead. Man, the ball streamed at me so quickly that I don’t even remember moving my hands an inch. The ball stung me with the force of a powerful overhand punch just above my right eye. After ricochetting off my forehead, the balled ended up near home plate. I quickly chased and retrieved it and the batter wound up on second with an easy double. When I walked back to first with the ball in my hand, our second and third basemen came over to me to see if I was okay. With an angry glare, I sent both of them back to their bases before they even got close to me.
Their were hundreds of fans lining up both sides of the streets, standing on fire-escapes, and looking out of windows. And, everyone of them knew I must have been aching from the shot I took, but I did not even go as far as touching or rubbing my forehead. I went back to first and waited for the next batter to hit as though nothing had happened.
By now, it was very humid and hot, so I took off my t-shirt and tied a red bandana around my forehead to keep the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Then, after the inning was over, and I came up to bat, so many spectators watching the game began chanting at me: “Com’on Samson, let’s see if you could hit.” I lined a wicked singled past first base, and for the remainder of the day, each time I stepped to the plate to bat, everyone watching the game would chant at me: “Samson, Samson, Com’on, Samson hit the ball.” (I had shoulder length hair at the time)
In the second game, we were leading 3-0 in the eight inning when an argument broke out and the Puerto Rican team quit. Our guys must have lost about $400 the first game and we scrapped up about $350 for the second. When the game broke up, we split up our money. I was happy to get my $10 back. That second game, I went 2 for 3 with a single and a double. My 2-game totals were 4 for 7 (3 singles and a double), hitting the ball hard six times and dribbling out once.
As we rode back to Manhattan, I learned that the Saturday before on Mulberry Street, the Italians home field, the Italian squad quit on the Puerto Rican team, which was way ahead in that contest late in the game. So, that is why the Puerto Rican team quit on us; they got even.
It turned out to be tragic because never again would these two teams play each other. True, all of these guys were stickball players, some were great ones, but even more than just ballplayers, these guys were diplomats. Those days–the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s–weren’t the best times for Puerto Ricans and Italians. But, by going into each other’s neighborhoods, which were considered hostile back then, these guys did their best to smooth the relationship between both etchnic groups. They were more than just stickball players–they were diplomats. And, it was a shame that the rivalry between some mighty big men ended on such a sour note. Anyhow, I tip my cap to you athletes and peace-makers from both neighborhoods. You truly deserve it! God bless!!