Friday, November 16, 2007

Lower East Side brushback pitch

Look closely for the blur of the white stickball. See it? It's almost behind the ear of the batter, who is leaning creatively away so as to avoid being beaned. See it? Who threw that pitch? Did he mean harm? The catcher might provide evidence for answering this question. He's prepared to catch the ball way inside, almost as if he knew it was coming there.

This well-known photograph is one of Arthur Leipzig's documentary shots: a stickball game on a Lower East Side street, 1950. You've got old LES: the Jewish butcher, leaning on his store, watching the intense integrated street game, little to nothing in his shop window. Then too you have the two skippy fifties-style howdy-doody kids, presumably brother and sister, carefully crossing the street. And then that fabulously serious-cool game, a stickball contest: presumably two white guys vs. two black guys (so integrated but also not integrated), and the pitch coming in is so high and tight that one believes it is a brushback pitch (a "purpose pitch," aimed at the head) and thus one feels that the four players are cool-loose and happy with each other but also that there's a lot of nascent tension. "Cool-loose": check out the flexibility in the knees of the batter.

I happen to own the original print of this wonderful photo - and thus have the pleasure of seeing it every day. It always makes me think of one of those crucial transitional moments. There are three cultures here, all in one unstaged shot. I think we all see such scenes every day, but few of us can capture it.

For a little more about New York in the Fifties, go here.