By Palmer Hasty
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Most of the Brooklyn natives I have interviewed for this “Brooklynites in Florida” series, especially those who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, played stickball in the streets of Brooklyn at some time in their childhood. In fact, one recent interview subject (Charles Randolph) was playing stickball in the street with a group of friends in 1955 when a car full of boisterous Brooklyn Dodger fans celebrating the 1955 World Series win, drove through and interrupted the game, and to the surprise of the kids, the jubilant fans in the car started throwing money out the windows at all the young stickball players.
Stickball is still played in the streets of New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Orlando, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Another place where stickball is still played on a regular basis is on "Stickball Boulevard" in Wellington's Village Park, Florida, in Palm Beach County.
The "Wycliffe Stiffs," the official league name, consists of New Yorkers originally from Manhattan, the Bronx and, of course, numerous Brooklynites. All of these guys, most of whom are retired, used to play the famous sport in the streets of New York when they were kids decades ago .
The field they play on is a narrow cement parking lot officially designated with a city street sign "Stickball Boulevard," which also shares a street sign pointing the other way that reads "Brooklyn, New York, 1,221 Miles." They even use replicas of the New York manhole covers for batting demarcations, designating singles, doubles and triples.
One of the founders and tireless spokesman for the popular stickball league in Wellington's Village Park is former New Yorker Marty Ross. Ross (AKA the "Commish") is an official member of the World Series Stickball Hall of Fame. And although Ross is not a Brooklyn native, co-founder Harry Klaff, the man who helped Ross start the 15-year old league back in 2002 and became the Director of Operations, is a Brooklynite who grew up in Bensonhurst.
The Brooklyn Eagle will be doing a series of interviews with some of the Brooklyn natives who are players in the league, including Harry Klaff, who graduated from Brooklyn College, and who taught history at Tilden High School for 34 years before retiring to Florida.
Ross also received an official Proclamation from former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz in March of 2012. Stating in part: "On Behalf of Brooklyn I salute the Commish on his devotion and dedication in keeping the Wycliffe Stiffs always ready for a home run in the game of life in the hearts and minds of the team, the enthusiasts, Florida and, of course, Brooklyn."
As Ross likes to retell how he got the league started; It all began when one of his friends back in New York, Allen Halpern, went into a hardware store in Harlem and saw one of the little rubber "spaldeen" balls next to an old battered up broom handle, which was used for stickball bats.
Halpern told Ross that seeing the two pieces of original equipment on display in a modern hardware store caused a flood of memories. He hadn't played stickball in 50 years. He purchased the ball and bat and sent them to Ross.
Ross put them in his golf bag and started showing them to his golf buddies at Wycliffe Golf and Country Club to see if anyone recognized what they were.
As Ross recalled, "Every time I asked them about their memory of the ‘spaldeen’ their eyes would light up and all these stories came out of the woodwork. It's like I made them relive something fantastic.”
That's when Ross decided he wanted to start a regular activity with all these people who had played stickball during their childhood, but he didn't have a place they could play. "I was trying to find a spot, the playing field, that would be at least 50 feet wide and 250 feet long. And it had to be concrete because we were using a rubber ball...not easy to find that kind of space...but I got lucky."
As destiny would have it, Ross called the Wellington Village Parks and Recreation Department and at first it sounded like a dead end: "I spoke to the person in charge of the park and I told her I was looking for a stickball field, a place to play stickball. She talked to me like I was crazy...she didn't even know what stickball is...but after I explained the game to her she thought for a moment and then told me they were about to line a parking lot that the park was going to use only on the weekends, and would I like to come and see it...I told her I'd be right over." The rest became local history.
The Wycliffe Stiffs stickball league that Ross and Klaff run 15 years ago consists of five teams with anywhere from 15-18 players per team. The men who play range in age from 50 to players who are even in their 80s. One player, and one of the original Brooklynites in the league, Norm Graff, is 90 years old and rarely misses a game.
The league plays once a week on Tuesdays from November through April (two teams play while one team takes a bye week). Each team plays 15 regular season games and they have playoffs and a Championship game. As Harry Klaff pointed out; "We also keep stats for anyone who has played, even in just one game, and we've kept the stats faithfully since the first game 15 years ago. We insist on doing it like a major league." There is one exception though, the league have any umpires. Ross pointed out: "We didn't have any umpires when we played as kids, so we don't have any now.”
Of course, the Village Park stickball league is about so much more than just a popular sport. "The mission was to keep Stickball a tradition, not just a game," Ross said, adding, "We've been able to generate something very special here. The people who associate with us don't do it for money, they do it because it excites them, and they love the friendships and socializing. I like to call it a blast from the past and a shot into the future because it's more than just a bunch of old guys indulging lifelong memories, the league has built a vibrant life of its own in the community."