You Should Stream: ‘Bragging Rights’ Doc Chronicles How Stickball Healed NYC’s Racial Tensions

Lead Photo: Photo: Joyce Dopkeen for The New York Times
Photo: Joyce Dopkeen for The New York Times
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New York often feels like a city where nothing is permanent – where every few years the cultural landscape devours itself and paves the way for something entirely different. But it is also a place of proud traditions passed on through neighborhoods from generation to generation; picking up new interpretations with each wave of migration and cultural exchange. And perhaps no tradition is as quintessentially “New York” as stickball – that low-budget riff on baseball born in the narrow residential streets of the five boroughs.

Sure, these days you won’t see many “spauldeens” bouncing down the car-choked blocks of the new New York, but the informal ballgame so tied to the city’s neighborhood culture has been preserved by OGs and newbies alike in the city’s recreational leagues. And it was precisely this spirit of local tradition that inspired filmmaker Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez to make her hour-long documentary Bragging Rights: Stickball Stories for public television back in 2006.

Kicking off with a stickball showcase held at the annual Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian, Gonzalez-Martinez introduces us to some of the major figures in New York’s recreational stickball scene before digging back into the historical development of the game. Focusing primarily on Harlem and the Bronx, the players interviewed in Bragging Rights break down the rules of the game and share anecdotes while reflecting on stickball’s cultural significance in a city where different ethnic groups shared a tense coexistence.

Indeed, throughout the 1940s and 50s, stickball games were a place where Puerto Ricans, Italians, and African-Americans could come together – briefly – in healthy competition (and scramble away before they got beat up,) and even where unspoken racial lines were transgressed in pioneering integrated teams. Admittedly, Bragging Rights’ throwback public television style may seem a little dated for some, but overall Gonzalez-Martinez spins an engrossing tale of tradition and continuity in a city in constant flux.

Watch Bragging Rights: Stickball Stories in its entirety below.