For the third consecutive year, former Little League teammates and rivals gathered in the basketball courts behind P.S. 24 for the annual Legends of Riverdale Stickball Classic.
The players, many who played in the South Riverdale Little League and attended local schools like P.S. 24, P.S. 81, and M.S./H.S. 141, are now in their early to mid-40s, have jobs, families, and probably some aging joints.
On one bright Saturday morning in June however, these men don their green Legends shirts and baseball caps, grab their stickball sticks and a can of tennis balls, and head to park where they played some 30 years ago.
Although not as hip these days, stickball was a popular pastime in the 1970s and ‘80s. Traditionally played with a broom handle and a Spaldeen — a high bouncing rubber ball — the rules of the game vary from place to place.
In the classic, a rectangle of blue tape on the side of a wall marks the strike zone, and hits are determined on the basis of whether or not balls hit the fence on one bounce, or if they are cleanly fielded or not. The Legends play with three strikes and six balls and, due to location-related size constraints and lack of players, use ghost runners instead of actual base runners. Ghost runners are imaginary base runners that move around the bases in accordance with the type of hit (a single would put a ghost runner on first base, and then a double would move that runner to third).
After a brief warm-up for both pitchers and hitters, the teams were divided up and the rules were ironed out with only minor arguments. Just like that, the fielders took their places, and with the obligatory ‘80s music filling the crisp late spring day, the game began.
Throughout the day, the camaraderie was palpable. Players jeered, joked, and bantered with each other about their old rivalries, whether or not others had been practicing for this game, their taste in music, and how many pitches it would take before someone’s shoulder got thrown out (estimates varied between three and 10). Pictures of old teams were exchanged, wives and children were present, and parents told stories of their sons’ Little League heroics.
One father described a duel between Eddie Herman and Alden Cass in which Herman threw and Cass fouled off 13 consecutive fastballs before finally hitting a single. Harmon, described by his teammates as a Little League legend and season MVP, didn’t pitch in the classic due to an injury.
“I’ve got an important round of golf tomorrow,” he quipped.
For the first three innings it was a pitcher’s duel as starters Jon Hopkins and Dan Gati held both teams scoreless. Gati, a former hurler for Columbia University, threw a perfect game through four innings before eventual MVP Tim Ott blasted the first of his two home runs.
Not long after that, the game was blown wide open by Alexander Yulish, who hit a grand slam after starting 0-for-3. Yulish, an artist who lives in both New York City and Los Angeles, came in on a red-eye flight that morning just to be a part of the game.
Just like in Little League games, the players wore jerseys with names of local businesses on the back. Cass, the organizer of this year’s classic, said each year the players choose a store that has gone out of business as a way of paying homage. This year, the shirts featured Mother’s Bake Shop, which operated from 548 W. 235th St., but closed in February last year.
The final scored was a lopsided 13-1, yet at least according to those who gathered at P.S. 24 that weekend, the classic was once again a success. With attendance increasing each year, there is every reason to believe these men will be out once again playing the game they love, provided of course, their shoulders can handle the stress.
CORRECTION: Eddie Herman was one of the players who participated in the Riverdale Stickball Classic earlier this month. A story in the June 15 edition misspelled his name.