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Stickball team finally gets fame

A stickball team that was top dog in 1972 is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Members of the team have been inducted into the Stickball Hall of Fame, thanks to help from a local attorney and baseball aficionado.

The team known as the “Villa Avenue Boys,” made up of men who grew up around Villa Avenue in Bedford Park, was not the favorite going into the 1972 New York City Street Games, a stickball competition held around the boroughs and presently on Sullivan Street in Manhattan. In fact the team was the underdog, but ended up winning every game, including a dramatic final against a powerhouse Manhattan team they defeated 8 to 1.

The Villa Avenue Boys, a group of six guys who grew up with the game and came from four different stickball teams, faded into obscurity after capturing the attention of the city in a year that neither the Yankees or the Mets made the World Series.

The team comprised the best stickball players from the area, and was made up of players in their twenties, thirties, and forties. Villa Avenue, a small street, just three blocks long running parallel to Jerome Avenue in Bedford Park, produced a city championship team thatwas seen as something of a miracle.

“It was the summer of 1972 and the Yankees were not going into the series when we saw an ad in the paper for the New York City Street Games,” said team organizer Jack Lim. “I tried to pick players who were not my friends, but those who I knew could do the best job. We started playing and winning handily. After we won about 10 games, we went up against the Bronx Old Timers. We knew they were going to be tough.”

After blanking the Old Timers 1 to 0, the team headed downtown to face teams from Staten Island and Manhattan for the championship. The team was comprised of second baseman Lim, first baseman Dominick Lignore, third baseman Billy Oriti, and outfielders Frank Esposito, Robert Pietrangolare, and Dominick Vitolo. After capturing the championship, the team was written up in daily papers and covered on the evening news.

Eliezer Rodriguez, the founder of the non-profit Project Club Clemente, petitioned the Stickball Hall of Fame chair Carlos Diaz to enshrine the team in the hall of fame, which is housed in the Museum of the City of New York on Fifth Avenue. In July they were inducted.

It was an effort that took several years because in stickball, statistics are not kept and word of mouth makes a team great. Two of the original six members have passed away. For Rodriguez, the year the team won the championship holds special significance.

“The Villa Avenue Boys are celebrating their 38th anniversary and it’s been 38 years since Roberto Clemente passed away in a plane crash while delivering aid to Nicaragua,” Rodriguez said. “At the 2009 Stickball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I asked Carlos Diaz to honor the Villa Avenue Boys. Seeing the Villa Avenue Boys inducted, and their tears and the joy of their 50 family members, was a major feeling for me. They were virtually forgotten after accomplishing the greatest feat in their sport.”

Hall of Fame chairman Carlos Diaz said, “We presented four awards to players from the team and a fifth to the wife of a deceased player.”

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