By Palmer Hasty
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn native Harry Klaff is a player in the popular Wycliffe Stiffs stickball league in Wellington, Florida. Klaff was instrumental in helping his good friend Marty Ross get the league started back in 2002. Klaff, who had experience in sports management, quickly became the chief of operations for the league.
Born in 1947 in Bensonhurst at Maimonides Hospital in Borough Park, his family lived in a six-story apartment building at 8747 Bay Parkway. After graduating from Lafayette High School Klaff went to Brooklyn College where he received a Masters Degree in History. Klaff went on to teach American history at Brooklyn's well known Tilden High School for 34 years. In 1995 Klaff received the NYC Social Studies Teacher of the Year award.
In our on-going Interview Series with some of the Brooklyn natives who retired to Florida and currently play in the Wycliffe Stiffs stickball league in Wellington Park, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle recently interviewed Harry Klaff about his teaching career, his role in the popular stickball league and, of course, his unique Brooklyn background.
BE: Everyone I've interviewed for our Brooklynites in Florida series over the past several years has said that it was unique growing up in Brooklyn. Do you agree?
HK: "Yes. I grew up in Bensonhurst, which was basically half Jewish and half Italian. It was a great place to grow up. I lived on Bay Parkway, it was all apartment buildings. We used to play basketball and stickball at the Cropsey Avenue Park. We also played stickball in the schoolyard at PS 101. I went to Lafayette High School. Sandy Koufax went there, way before me of course. PS 101 and Jr. High 128 also had some famous graduates. Two of The Three Stooges went there...Moe Howard and Curley...they were from Bensonhurst. When we were just 12 years old we'd take the subway to Madison Square Garden for the Knicks and Rangers games, even at that age we never thought twice about travelling alone on the subway. It's certainly not like that today."
BE: Any particularly special memories?
HK: "My number one memory includes every time I went to Ebbets Field. That was always something very special. I went to at least 10 games a year. When I was nine I was there on opening day in 1956, when they raised the Dodgers only World Championship banner.
I'll tell you a story. My son was at one time the On-the-Field Master of Ceremonies for the Brooklyn Cyclones. That's the minor league baseball team in Brooklyn. One night my wife and I happened to be up in New York and the Cyclones had a Brooklyn Dodger Night with the former pitcher Carl Erskine. Meeting Erskine was a thrill, he was one of my boyhood idols, and I got to meet him some 50 years later. I thanked him for helping make Brooklyn such a great place to grow up in during the 1950s. He said they loved every minute of it. The players loved living in Brooklyn too.
You gotta remember, in those days the average ball player made about three or four times what the average working stiff made, which was not a real lot of money, at least not like today. They were regular people, and in the off season they had real jobs. The Dodgers were part of the community."
BE: You're an alumni of Brooklyn College, right?
HK: "Yes. I went to Brooklyn College. I never left the Borough. Between undergrad, graduate, and post-graduate studies I spent eight years at Brooklyn College. Then I taught American History at Tilden High School in East Flatbush from 1968 until I retired in 2002.
BE: Life was different back then, but what about teaching? Do you see any differences from then and today related to education?
HK: "In my opinion, today they don't teach students history, it's all individualized concepts like globalization, whatever. (Laughing) There's no more history, it's gone."
BE: What made you want to retire to Florida?
HK: "It was the weather. I retired in 2002, and immediately came to Florida. My wife and I are golfers, and we wanted to play golf year round and Florida was the place to go. We sold our house on Long Island and we came down here to Wellington Village. We were living in Nassau County when I retired."
BE: You said you did other things in addition to teaching. What else were you involved in?
HK: "I also had a part-time job. I worked for the New York Islanders hockey team for about 26 years. I programmed the scoreboard, did some writing for them, a bunch of things."
BE: What kind of writing do you do?
HK: I was a hockey writer for the Hockey News. For many years I was a stringer for the Associated Press and UPI, so I did a lot of writing in my day. My son and I have also co-authored a bunch of books."
BE: Tell us about the books.
HK: One is a series of books sold on Amazon called "Toiletrivia." We have 10 different volumes, like history, sports, general trivia. My son is also a history teacher on Long Island in Port Washington. He and I have written a series of Advanced Placement History Review books. They sell on Amazon and they do very well. So I've been a writer my entire life.
BE: What role did you play in getting the stickball league started?
HK: "Like I said, we moved directly to Wellington and into Wycliffe Golf and Country Club. That's where I met Marty Ross. Just a couple of months after I got there we happened to be paired together in a golf cart and he's talking about this stickball league. He asked me what my background was and I told him I had been involved in sports administration . I helped run the Metropolitan Jr. Hockey Association. I was on the board of the Plainview Little League...I mean, I have been involved in sports for thousands of years so I offered to do the stats for the stickball league. That was 15 years ago when we began to form the league together."
BE: Marty Ross pointed out that the league has a life of its' own now. Your role as Director of Operations has contributed greatly to that, has it not?
HK: I guess. I like to operate like it's a major league. The players, including me, don't always play like major leaguers, but we manage it like major league. We have first rate uniforms and I do a newsletter every week. I compile the stats, I write the stories. We have an encyclopedia and subsequent year books that includes the full records of everybody who has played even just one game. So we have the entire history of the league."
BE: The stickball field looks a lot like an empty parking lot.
HK: (Laughing) "Yea, it is a parking lot. It's a long narrow parking lot. It's about 85 feet wide and 400 feet long...it's perfect for stickball. That's the whole point of stickball. There was no room to play baseball so the game evolved. It was born in the tenements on the lower east side in the 1900s.
BE: How did you find so many players?
HK: "Finding the players was easy. Before the league officially started we began fooling around on an undeveloped street in Wycliffe. When they started building we had to find a place to go and we were very fortunate. Marty spoke to the Wellington Parks people and they said...Yea, you can play on this parking lot... and that's where we are today."