But the game has lost popularity with time, said Diaz. Players moved away, first to fight in wars overseas and later as the ravages of drugs and crime stripped city neighborhoods of their safety, their populations and their sense of community. A small group of followers including George Vega, who was being inducted Friday, kept the game alive by playing in the late 1970s, '80s and '90s.
"I'm getting inducted because of the way I used to play, not the way I play now," said Vega, now 58, who grew up playing stickball on 104th Street in East Harlem but now resides in Bayonne, N.J. "The cataracts are getting in there. I'm a little slower, but I still run and I still hit."
Diaz estimates there are probably around 2,000 active competitive stickball players, playing in leagues in the Bronx and Manhattan; Miami; Tampa, Fla.; San Diego; Puerto Rico; the Dominican Republic and Panama.
At a game prior to Friday's induction ceremony, a dozen old-timers gathered in a weed-choked, concrete schoolyard in Spanish Harlem. They jovially talked trash in a mix of Spanish ("Ay! Que macho!"), Brooklynese ("Fugghedaboutit!") and general profanity-laced New York City English. Their laughter was often sealed with a hacking cough.
At 76, Osorio was still one of the fastest guys out there.
"It's not like any other sport," he said. You don't really have fans and reporters and announcers. What you have is a small community. We don't forget. We have our memories that keep us going."