Old Timers take back Brooklyn’s streets

Norwegian-American Peter Syrdahl reminisces about playing stickball

Photo courtesy of Peter Syrdahl The Stickball Old Timers at their big weekend in 1995. You don’t have to be old to be an Old Timer, just come out on October 3 and join in.

Photo courtesy of Peter Syrdahl
The Stickball Old Timers at their big weekend in 1995. You don’t have to be old to be an Old Timer, just come out on October 3 and join in.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

On the streets of Brooklyn, stickball was the thing. The only equipment required was a bat—the handle of your mom’s broom would suffice—and a Spalding Spaldeen, the ultimate high bouncing rubber ball. The city street served as a field. The biggest obstacle was navigating the game around traffic.

The game is almost extinct today. However, its nostalgic reverberations can still be heard. Brooklyn filmmaker Jason Cusato made a short film about the sport, When Broom Sticks were King, which played at many film festivals and has won many awards.

The game is still being played on one Brooklyn street. Peter Syrdahl and friends have been holding a stickball game for 46 years on 79th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues, and this year will be no different. It is always held on the same weekend as Bay Ridge’s Third Avenue Festival, Brooklyn’s oldest street fair. This year the reunion takes place on Oct. 3, starting around 1:00 p.m.

This annual event is very informal and filled with humor. For one, it’s called “Brooklyn Stickball Old Timers Games.” The invite suggests: “Start Practicing… We need it.” The celebrations last for three days, beginning with a party at Skinflints, a local pub, on Friday evening, followed by the stickball games the next day, and ending with post-game refreshments on Sunday at another local pub, J.J. Bubbles.

Victoria Hofmo: Peter, can you speak a little about your Norwegian background?

Peter Syrdahl: Both of my parents were Norwegian and met on a dance pier they called “Coney Island” in my Mom’s hometown of Grimstad. Pop was born in Trondheim and sailed in the Norwegian Merchant Marine as a Chief Engineer. I spent parts of most summers of my youth at my Grandfather Salve’s farm near Grimstad… helping in the hay fields, picking potatoes and cherries, and feeding the animals. It was heaven. They came to Brooklyn after WWII, and I was born on Oct. 9 (Leif Erikson day), 1946. I was one of the many happy Norwegian-American children growing up in Bay Ridge.

VH: When did you begin playing stickball?

PS: Every block in Brooklyn had lots of Baby Boomer kids. About a dozen of us on 79th Street started playing every kind of street game you could imagine when we were about seven or eight years old. We played stickball, punchball, slap ball, off-the-point, roller hockey, box-ball, Kings, Buck-Buck, Ring-o-Levio, marbles, and any other kind of game you could think of—from sunup to after sundown, every day.

VH: How did the annual 79th Street stickball tournament begin?

PS: The Brooklyn Stickball Old Timers annual reunion and games refers to mostly different players and friends than my 79th Street buddies. I played with my streetmates until about the beginning of high school. Some of us had a connection with Our Saviour’s Church and along with other new friends, many of whom were Roman Catholic and lived around the block on 80th Street, we also played on that street through college years and early work years. In 1968 I graduated from Wagner College and like others, I was waiting to be sent to Vietnam. Old Timers co-founder Pete “Best” Perlett and I agreed that we should not let go of this part of our youth and looked forward to having at least one annual game of stickball to look forward to when we got back from war and were moving on in our lives.

VH: Can you explain about the Old Timers?

PS: The term Old Timers refers to every player/participant of the games/reunions. We all meet to play stickball and, most importantly, reconnect with our “old” times. Lots and lots of old stories of escapades and disasters are heard throughout the day. Much laughter and good feelings.

VH: What are the younger participants called?

PS: Also Old Timers. Usually denoted as simply Old Timers vs. the OLDER Old Timers.

VH: Why do you love stickball?

PS: We call it the King of Street Games. It has everything an active boy could want: you play with a team of friends, against other friends, and you try to excel as an individual on your team. Not much compares to the “whack” of a Spaldeen ball being hit by your mother’s discarded broomstick made into a bat as it travels two to three sewers up the block for a good hit, or, when we were younger, hit up on the roof of the apartment houses on far-away 4th Avenue for an amazing Home Run.

VH: Do your kids play?

PS: Our kids and grandkids look forward to watching and then playing with their parents. My 37-year-old daughter Kristi looks forward all year to playing with us all. No sex or age discrimination here. If you are big enough to play with the big guys (and some of us are really big—in the wrong places) then you can play.

VH: Is there anything you’d like to add?

PS: Awards are given after the games, like Big Broomstick—best all around player, Junior Broomstick—best young or new player, Aging Athlete—best effort and sportsmanship, Home Plate—to the person who traveled the farthest to attend the games (Mike from Seattle or Les from North Carolina are known contenders this year), and Stoop-Sitter—the best sidelines supporter.

New neighborhood residents are always welcome to join in.

Syrdal is so fond of stickball that he uses the signature “Stickball Pete.” If you’re in the Brooklyn area during the first weekend of October, why not stop by and watch the 47th Annual Brooklyn Stickball Old Timer Games? Or even better, why not put away your cell phone cameras and join in!

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.