‘Oldtimers’ return to nabe for 49th year to play ‘king of street games’

The nabe’s new and old: Current and former Ridgites of all ages posed for a photo at the end of Saturday’s 80th Street stickball game and reuinon.
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

Call it an old ballgame with some new players.

Ridgites of the past and present headed to 80th Street between Third and Fourth avenues on Oct. 14 to partake in an ancient tradition — a game of stickball. The 49th-annual “Stickball Oldtimers” game, which attracted between 60–70 players and spectators this year, has also served as a reunion for the neighborhood, attracting the older residents who played the game as children for hours on end, according to the lifelong Ridgite who organizes it.

“My friends and I come back from no matter where we are,” said Pete Syrdahl, who grew up on 79th Street. “We grew up playing all kinds of street games, but we consider stickball the king of street games.”

Syrdahl said that for about a decade of his childhood, from the end of the 50s into the 60s, he and his friends hit the streets every day to play a few rounds of the simple game, which differs from baseball in two ways: players use a broom handle as a bat, and they only get two swings when they’re up.

Syrdahl said that when the group was younger, they would meet up on 80th Street because there were few cars and trees on the block, which made it easier and safer to play, he said.

“We’d be playing street games from sun up to sun down, hitting stickballs with our broomsticks,” he said. “It was a pretty clear block to play stickball on, so we played there.”

Nowadays, Syrdahl organizes the reunion game on the same weekend as the annual Ragamuffin parade, ensuring that they’ll have the barricaded block to themselves.

Syrdahl got the idea for the annual game and reunion when he graduated from college in 1968 and realized that many of his childhood friends and neighbors were dispersing to start their lives in different places. And although only about five of this year’s players were among Syrdahl’s original childhood neighbors, getting the gang back together is rewarding.

“It’s nice to see my old friends, and it’s even nicer to see my old friends see my old friends,” he said.

Thanks to the annual “Oldtimers” gatherings, Syrdahl has managed to recruit some newcomers to the king of street games. The neighborhood’s newer residents make up the team of “Young Oldtimers,” who play against the “Old Oldtimers.” And this year, the players ranged in age from 21–71 — an intergenerational span that Syrdahl is proud of and tries to encourage.

“I reach out to anyone who comes down the block,” he said.

This year, the teams played three games — two seven-inning games and a three-inning one — with the Young Oldtimers ultimately clinching the overall win, but that didn’t bother Syrdahl.

“I don’t care who wins,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Another member of the original stickball crew who also played this year said that the annual game is aboutpreserving a tradition of the past.

“We grew up playing that game and we want to keep it going,” said Ronnie Smith, who grew up on 78th Street and has been coming back to the annual game for the past 40 years. “Every block had a stickball team back then.”

The group headed to JJ Bubbles Bar for an awards ceremony after the game. Next year, Syrdahl is planning a dinner and dance to commemorate the 50th-annual event.

Smith said he wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“I look forward to it every year,” he said.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.

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