Interviewee: Emilio Straface (ES), with his sister Sandy Straface (SS) Interviewers: Steve Fillmore (SF) and Carolyn Sullivan (CS) Place: Home of Emilio and Sandy Straface (3600 block of Fisk Ave) Date: Feb. 22, 2012
Emilio explains how to play halfball (a modified baseball street game) and talks about an upcoming local tournament. He also talks about the origins of his store – Frank’s Pizza on Fisk Street.
ES: Where do you want to start?
SF: We can talk about the tournament first, since that’s the focus of the article.
ES: Sandy, would you get the pictures? She’s got pictures of the tournament – about 50
SS: It’s 85, and I have them on Facebook.
SF: Is that how you met the guys to bring them together for the tournament?
ES: I sort of got a hold of a couple people and they got a hold of a couple people.
(looking at photos on Sandy’s computer) There we are, getting ready.
SF: So this is what? October? (2011)
ES: Yeah, I think it was the 15th?
SF: And is that the second time you’ve done this?
ES: This is the first time.
CS: And your family came here to East Falls?
ES: Actually we came; we lived in Nutley, N.J. for about 8 or 9 months. We lived with
my grandparents. And then we moved down here. My uncle lived here. And then we took over the store. (Frank’s Pizza, 3600 Fisk Avenue, East Falls)
CS: Is it an interesting place to live here, East Falls, as opposed to all the Italian
families, where’d they go? South Philly, places like that. how’d that happen?
SS: My uncle. Well, we had other relatives that were living in the area. That’s why.
SS: No, not Charlie. Kowalski.
ES: Oh, the Kowlaskis. Yeah.
SS: Virginia. She was here first.
ES: Yeah. They lived on Calumet Street.
ES: Yeah; they were cousins of ours.
ES: Yeah, Polish. Right.
SS: Actually Grandpop went to Niagara Falls first, that’s where they lived.
SF: How long were they up there?
SS: I’d say maybe 10 years.
CS: But all your memories were from here?
ES: Oh yeah.
CS: You went to school at St. Bridget’s?
SS: We ended up here because my uncle came to visit his cousin here and he met his
wife here. So that’s how he ended up here – and my uncle had the store, the grocery
store, for a number of years.
SF: So it was a grocery store and you turned it into a pizza place?
SF: And how long ago did you turn it into a pizza place?
ES: About 24, 25 years ago – so we moved here in ’54 or ’55. 55?
SS: It would be 55 because 54 is when we came over from Italy.
CS: That’s kind of late, 55. So halfball was already here?
ES: Oh sure. We picked it up because everyone else was doing it.
SS: And they broke lots of windows too! MY house. The grocery store was small. It
was just a front room and behind the store we had a living room, kitchen, and
bedrooms upstairs. So we lived behind the grocery store.
CS: But in front of the grocery store is where the games went down?
ES: We played right here in the street. When the batter was up and he let go of the
bat. There was about 5 windows there, they were broken many a time.
SF: So the tournament will be in October again? It’s always going to be the same
ES: We’re going to try and have it during the summer this time.
(Looking at photos on the computer)
ES: There are some of the guys.
SS: These two used to live in the neighborhood. That’s one of my cousins. She still
ES: Yeah. That guy, he was a principal down at St. Bridget’s and Mifflin.
SS: St Bridget’s?
ES: Yeah. He was principal. Ritchie. Yeah both. He was there when Jackmon (sp?)
SF: So you haven’t seen some of these guys in a while?
ES: Yeah. Some I haven’t seen in 40 years. (back to pictures) – that guy there. He was an accountant for the city and we have another guy—he’s a sportswriter for the Inquirer. Yeah, we had a pretty good turnout.
SF: Looked like a good day for it.
SS: Yeah; it was a perfect day.
ES: It was in the 70s or 80s….we’re going to have a meeting pretty soon to get ready
for the next one.
CS: Was it a thrill seeing so many people?
SS: I haven’t seen some of them for 30 or 40 years.
CS: You were able to get a good turnout without too much advertising. Some
SS: Some from Facebook.
CS: And there’s a halfball league around. Right?
ES: Right. Most of it was people telling people.
SS: I went onto the internet to find some of their info and when they heard from me
they called their friends.
SF: So this year, you’ll plan it a little more?
ES: Yeah. This year we expect to have more.
SS: There were a lot of people who found out about it too late last year and they had
already made plans.
SF: Was it an all-day thing? You started in the morning and went the whole day?
SS: It was pretty much all day.
ES: And all night too.
SS: Oh, they had a blast.
ES: It was so good. Nobody got out of hand. Nobody got drunk or did anything crazy.
CS: The pictures just look like community and family.
CS: And there’s a lot of exercise.
ES: A lot of us were very sore the next day. That’s when you realize you aren’t 18
years old anymore!
SF: The pictures are great. Call we copy them somehow?
CS: Well we can just friend you on Facebook, right?
SF: Yeah, those pictures would be a great way to tie in the half ball angle and the
history of the neighborhood. Because the rules varied from neighborhood to
ES: Yeah, from block to block there were different rules. Everybody around here
played, but we had our own rules.
SF: So how did you play your version? Did you use a broomstick?
ES: Yeah, we had broomsticks but most other places they played halfball, they threw
it underhand, but we threw sidearm. And sidearm is so much harder to hit.
SF: And you can really make it move right?
ES: You can make it do all kinds of things.
CS: (motions to photo of “Pretzel Man”)
ES: Oh yeah, that guy. It was like the 60s or 70s. He’s the pretzel guy. He used to
walk all the way from Roxborough – all the way down here pushing that cart of
pretzels. And he had a jar of mustard.
SF: How much did they cost?
ES: They were about a dime. Three for a quarter. Something like that. He walked up
and down those hills from Roxborough to here. (Loaf of bread was 26 cents, sardines
CS: Amazing that that could be a job.
ES: He must’ve made a good living from it because that’s all he did.
SF: So you said you could make the ball do all sorts of thing?
ES: Yeah, like you could throw it so that the ball’s a little bit off the ground and all of a sudden it comes up. Just sails up.
SF: So did you have an umpire?
ES: No. You only got one swing, if you missed, you were out. Unless you fouled it.
Of course if you had a catcher and he caught it, you were out too. Most of the time we
did have a catcher so if you tipped a ball, you were going to be out usually.
SF: And what about hits?
ES: You had to hit it past the pitcher’s mound. Past the mound was a single. And then
we had boundaries, like the curb was a double. The fireplug was a triple. Past a pole was a home run.
SF: And you used the pimple ball.
ES: Yeah we cut them in half.
SF: Where did you get them?
ES: We went to a place in Allentown. They had a ball that was similar to the pimple
ball. It was rubber. Same kind. The only thing missing, was the pimples. You were
able to do the same things as with a pimple ball. We’d go up there and get about 3
dozen. And the place, they sold bats and they had a field. A halfball field. No bases.
No running bases. You just hit it.
SF: So when a guy gets a hit that’s a single, you just say there’s someone on first
base but no one is there?
ES: Right. If the next guy gets a hit you move him up the number of bases. You score
him if it’s a triple, like that. No running. And I’m more than sixty years old. No
running. But ifs really hard to hit that ball. It looks easy but it’s not. My neighbor
Jimmy Thomas – we were friends all our lives – he could hit that ball. Some of the
young kids out here think they can beat us but once we start playing our way, they
couldn’t hit us. So then we had to change the game. We had to change to underhand. I
said, this is minor league now.
SF: You always played on this corner here, right? You never played anywhere
ES: No, we played here. Everybody else in the Falls had their own place. Years ago
there used to be a store called Carmela’s. They had their own rules. It was between
Calumet Street and the entrance to the Falls, the projects. They knocked about 3 or 4
houses down. So that was their field, where they’d taken out those houses. And they
used levels on the wall to determine hits. Then there were places like the other side,
that’s what we called it, over by Indian Queen Lane, they played against a warehouse.
SF: So this field in Allentown?
ES: It was like the field of dreams, like in the movie. They had a pitcher’s mound. A
batter’s box. And we played on it. The guys who worked there came out to watch us
because they’d never seen halfball played that way. We were saying this is the way
you should play. We were throwing the ball hard. They loved it.
SF: How about the players? You have a pitcher. You have a batter. Fielders?
ES: You could have as many guys as you want, but it’s usually 2 or 3 other guys. But
we used to play for hours out here – till it got dark. We did that all of our lives. We
used to track how many wins pitchers had. How many homers hitters had. Batting
average? Forget about it, because if you hit .100 you were lucky. You strike out most
of the time. Yeah, the ball came in fast and it moved. I told you about the curves. You
get fooled cause you’re sure it’s going one way and it goes another. You could throw
a slider. That was the best pitch. It comes right at you and dives down and away.
SF: Did you have a bunch of pitches? Were you considered a pitcher?
ES: Yeah, I was a pitcher. I could throw lefty and righty. It was so hard. I was able to
pitch to a right-handed batter, most everybody was right-handed. If a lefty came up. I
couldn’t pitch to him – I’d hit him if I did, All my pitches broke in relation to righties.
But I haven’t thrown lefty in years. Sort of gave up on it. And l’m right handed. But
we had a great time. We’d pick 4 or 5 different teams and we’d play till somebody
SF: So the pitchers were the most valuable players?
ES: Yeah. You wanted somebody with control. Makes the game drag on too long if
you’re throwing the ball in the ground. You want somebody who can get it over the
plate with some stuff on it.
SF: And did you play 9 innings?
ES: Most of the time, but it could go fast. You get three swing you get three outs.
SF: So this is going to be the second tournament and you’re looking to do it in
the summer. Later in the summer?
ES: We’d like to have it maybe in July. Anybody who wants to play, just call Frank’s.
We want to get as many people as possible. Last year we did everything in a hurry.
Even though, it was good. We could’ve had more things for the kids. And I didn’t
charge anything. I paid for it myself but almost everybody wanted to give me money
for it. I told them next year we’ll all throw in for it. And it’s good. The whole
neighborhood gets involved. Young kids, old people, and the street is open here. If
there aren’t cars, it’s beautiful. That was the biggest thing when we were growing up
was the cars around. Even though there weren’t that many cars then. We used to play
football too and we used to run into cars all the time. We’d put out signs the day
before a game not to park there the next day. But we had somebody parked in the
middle of the field and we couldn’t find out who it was. But that’s the way it was.
Wouldn’t be halfball if you didn’t have a car in the way!
SF: Less damaging than football though.
ES: Yeah, except when you let the bat go. My father used to scream “Get out of the
street!” all the time. “Get out of the street, you’re going to break my window!” and
that’s a part of the game. You have to have somebody screaming.
SF: And you used broomsticks and just cut them?
ES: Yeah, everybody had their own broomstick. Anyone looking for a broomstick, we
had ’em. There used to be about 10 broomsticks in the corner of the store. But we had
fun. Kids today don’t get it. They wonder about a halfball. They say ‘Why half? Can’t
you get a whole one?” But halfball probably started out in cities like Philadelphia and
Boston and New York because you can’t play baseball in the street. The cars. The
Houses. You couldn’t do it, so halfball was an ideal game.
SF: And what’s the difference between halfball and a game like stickball?
ES: I think stickball is played with a round ball. You don’t cut it in half. We used to
play that up in the schoolyard. There you could play stickball because you could
throw harder and you weren’t going to break anything.
SF: Any buzz yet about the next one?
ES: We’ve had lots of calls about it. A lot of them heard about it from people who
were here the last time.
SF: To get back to your family history, you arrived in the 50s?
ES: About 1955.
SF: And Frank’s opened?
ES: About 24 years ago. When my parents retired. My brother actually started the
pizza shop. We talked about it when we were kids.
SF: Is that where the name comes from?
ES: Yeah, my brother’s named Frank. He owned it about 2 or 3 years and then I
bought it off him.
SF: And you’d talked about it since you were kids?
ES: Yeah, when we were kids, we had no place to go to buy a steak or a hoagie. You
either had to go to Roxborough or to Allegheny, when it was a nice place.
SF: And there was no other place in this area for that? Frank’s was the first?
ES: No. Apollo’s was here before us. Maybe 7 or 8 years before us. I’m trying to
think if there was another pizza shop. Now, store like ours, there were a lot of those.
SF: The storefront?
SF: They were more like delis?
ES: Right. Lunchmeat, bread, canned stuff. You had one of those stores on almost
every corner before the big supermarkets moved in and put them out of business. You
could pay almost half at those markets than you would at corner stores. And bigger
selection. Storeowners would be making pennies if they tried to keep up.
SF: So when you opened Frank’s did either or both of you have cooking
experience? Or experience with a pizza shop?
ES: I worked for Apollos for several years.
SS: I worked there too for a short time. Delivery person.
ES: When I started at Apollos I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t even boil water. But
then I learned. At Frank’s I got to do everything. You learned because you had to.
Learned to make steaks. Learned to do everything.
SF: Does your family work with you?
ES: I got two sons there. One delivers the other one works in the store. He’s got
another job so he helps me out when he can. We make our own pizzas. Make fresh
dough every day. We used to buy the dough but as we grew I started investing more
in it, so we got the doughmaker…..
(Removed – brief discussion about St Bridget’s protest).
ES: We’ve had family members in St. Bridget’s for 70 years. And it’s still going. My
one son has 3 kids there.
(Removed – further discussion about St Bridget’s protest).
SS: My parents built this house in 1980 and before that it was just a hill with huge
rocks jutting out of the ground. After the kids finished their sodas, they would throw
the bottle on this hill, aiming for the rocks. And I’m still finding glass in the soil.
(Sandy shows a black & white photo of Eugene “Gene” Straface – Emilio and Sandy’s father. Sandy took the photo in the early 70s)
ES: That’s my father in the store.
SF: What’s his name?
ES: Gene. Short for Eugenio.
CS: (To Emilio) Are you named after anyone?
SS: You’re the only one who isn’t named after somebody.
ES: I’m an oddball.
SS: He’s the middle child.
ES: Yeah, not named after anyone but Emilio is a popular name over there (Italy).
You hated saying it here cause nobody got it.
SS: My real name is Santa. So you can imagine how hard that was growing up. Santa
ES: When we went to school we had to learn everything ourselves. We picked up
English pretty quickly. I remember speaking English in first grade.
SS: When you’re young it’s so much easier to pick up language.
ES: We didn’t have anybody to correct us. We learned it by making mistakes, that’s
SS: When our family first moved here, when they had the grocery store, they couldn’t
speak any English. Thank goodness the neighbors were honest enough. When they
came in to buy something, they would give our parents what is cost. But my parents
had to learn fast too.
(Discussion – about learning language (my brother in Germany)
SF: So when did Gene open the store?
ES: 1955. We lived with my uncle for three months while my dad negotiated to buy
the store. Wish I still had the picture the people who owned the store before gave my
dad. It was a picture of what the place looked like when they bought it. There were
dirt streets and a horse and buggy out front. But, once my dad bought the place, we
moved into the back of it. And we’ve been there ever since. After him, then my
brother had it. Now I have it. When he had it there were numbers on the shelves.
(Sandy points to a picture of “the Hill” that their current house was built on)
SS: That’s where we are now.
CS: On soda pop rock.
SS: They used to burn Christmas trees on the hill too.
ES: We used to gather all the Christmas trees in the neighborhood and light ‘em up.
SS: And we think the kids are bad today.
SF: And your father built this house?
ES: Yes, he did in 1980. And my brother Frank and his crew helped.
SS: Yeah, he was in construction. Actually we all had our hand in building the house.
SF: Has the street changed since you’ve been here?
ES: The only new house is this one. Everything else is pretty much the same.
SF: How about at the top of the street. Was that always PhiIly University or
ES: That was a private school, Ravenhill Academy, where Grace Kelly went.
SF: That stone structure up there near the soccer field – that was the only
building there, right?
ES: Right. They used to have mothers teaching there. Like in a religious order?
Mother Superior, like that.
SF: And that soccer field was open then?
ES: Right. We used to play ball there.
SF: And then Textile (Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science) bought it?
ES: Yeah, much later. In the ’80s.
SF: Did you play stickball up there?
ES: We played baseball up there. And softball, football. At one time, every year in the
50s and 60s, we used to have what we called the married men’s game. It was a
softball tournament, the married men against the single guys. We used to go up to that
field. Got a big turnout too.
SF: Kind of like the halfball tournament.
ES: Yeah, after the game. People around here would have an open house and have
things to eat and drink. And if you won the game you’d have bragging rights.
SF: Would it involve people from the immediate area or all around?
ES: No just the immediate area.
SF: And how often was it?
ES: Once a year. But there was always lots of things like that going on. But I
remember every year there was the trash talking before it. “We’re gonna beat your
asses”, stuff like that.
SF: And what about the football?
ES: We played that every Sunday. We used to pick teams and play other parts of the
city. We used to go up to the northeast a lot to play.
SF: How’d you find other teams?
ES: People knew. Guys we played with used to tell other guys who lived around
SF: Was that tackle?
ES: No. That was touch.
(Sandy refers back to the photo of Gene sweeping the store)
SS: Took that photo in the early 70s because I was in photography school.
SF: Where’d you take the classes?
SF: Is that a local school?
SS: Used to be. Now they’re in Glenside but they used to be in center city on Broad
SF: How’d you get into that?
SS: All through high school I used to take photographs. And then I found the school.
ES: I wish I had kept the photos I took in 7th grade of our classrooms. I was 12. Don’t
know what happened to them, whether we threw them out or whatever.
SS: I have some of my classrooms.
CS: You should see the demolition photos.
SF: And what’s that building?
SS: The old hi-rise projects. There was a party in the neighborhood when it came
down… I’ve got photos of the dust even as it came up the street. That was 1996.
ES: I’ve got a big piece of rock from it. Flew all the way up to my yard when I lived
SS: Windows were broken all around too.
SF: What was the name of the projects?
SS: East Falls projects. (note: Schuylkill Falls)
ES: They’d been there since the time we moved in.
SF: Must’ve been great to see the city.
ES: The projects blocked so much.
SS: One night I saw these lights and I wasn’t sure what they were. Turns out they
were the headlights on the Schuylkill Expressway.
CS: I bet the property values shot up after they demolition.
SS: I wish we’d bought more property.
(Sandy offers dried figs from fig trees in the Straface’s back yard)
ES: So you live over in the condos?
SF: Yeah, we’re looking to move somewhere in East Falls.
ES: There used to be nothing but woods over there at one time. I used to play in those
SF: And they were built in the 70s; right?
ES: I think so. I lived over on Merrick at one time. My brother Frank built that
house and three others there. He and my cousin went into construction. My brother
was a good bricklayer. They did good for themselves. But Frank moved out to the
Northeast, Cottman Avenue I think, to find something else and he did. He makes
SF: That’s not the ones up at Brothers Deli? The gaeta’s pies?
ES: That’s the one. Yeah, Brothers Deli. Frank’s son’s wife owns that. And Frank
makes the tomato pies for there.
CS: They love those pies on Yelp. Frank’s is not on Yelp though. You should get on there.
ES: People can find us on Google. We get some pretty good writeups.
SF: We’re glad we found you. Another reason I like East Falls so much.
ES: It’s a good community. It’s close. That’s why everybody’s so heartbroken about
SF: So you say the condos were just woods at one time?
SS: Yeah, from Merrick all the way over to the condos was open land at one time.
We were happy that Textile bought the land around Ravenhill and not a developer.
ES: It’s a great neighborhood. I’m not going anywhere.
3/4/12 – Second Interview
Locations: 1. Street corner of Fisk and Dobson 2. Frank’s Pizza
ES: Emilio Straface
SF: Steve Fillmore
Interview begins at street corner outside Frank’s – the “halfball field. ES and SF
are standing in the middle of Fisk street where “pitcher’s mound will be. As
recording starts, ES has just identified “batter’s box” approximately 15′ feet
away (toward Calumet). The spot is marked by its proximity to a telephone pole.
SF: So past the pitcher’s mound is a single?
ES: Right. And there’s a sewer over here (about 10 feet away – toward Merrick – right where the car is—that’s a double. And the curb there (about 10 feet further toward Merrick) is a triple. And the fire plug (another 10 feet) is a home run.
SF: And you said no base runners.
(Steve Fillmore takes photos of Emilio Straface demonstrating various halfball grips and pitching motions).
ES: Here’s a straight ball. And then if want to throw a curve, you just put a lot
of English on it.
SF: And they’re all thrown sidearm?
ES: Al! sidearm. And then if you want to throw that submarine pitch, you come up
from the side like this.
SF: That’s that pitch that rises?
SF: Like Kent Tekulve (former Phillies pitcher) used to throw.
SF: I have one or two more questions about our previous interview.
ES: Sure. Come on inside (Frank’s) – I’ll give you a slice of pizza.
They enter Frank’s.
SF: You mentioned that you were planning more kids’ activities for this year’s
tournament? Will the kids actually play? Will they have their own teams?
ES: Yeah, we pick teams when we play. 3 or 4 people to a team.
SF: So you can include different ages on teams? They’re not age specific?
ES: Right now anyone can play. You can have any aged person on your team.
SF: Any uniforms or shirts?
ES: Yeah we did have shirts printed up last year. We’re going to get different ones
this year. We had a halfball and crossed halfball bats on it last year but we’re going to
design it better this year.
SF: Do you use a local printer for that?
ES: Yeah, we use Mix Sports in Roxborough.
Steve Fillmore takes photos of halfball.
ES: I’ve got the bats downstairs. You want me to get those?
Emilio Straface returns with 2 bats – one made from a broomstick. The other is an “official” halfball bat from the same store in Allentown where Emilio Straface gets the halfballs (see interview part 1). Emilio Straface steps outside to position bats and halfball against red pole at entrance to store.
ES: This is the pole Grace Kelly used to run around when she was a kid. She used to
live up on Henry Avenue. If you go up Calumet Street to the light, she used to live on
the left-hand side. Right by McMichael Park.
SF: So she played out here?
ES: Yeah she used to play with the girls she went to school with. They used to play
around that pole.
SF: How old were they?
ES: About 5 or 6.
SF: That’s amazing. Did she go to St. Bridget’s?
SF: She went to Ravenhill.
ES: Well, later, she went to Ravenhill when she was older but she might’ve started at St. Bridget’s. She did get married there.
Unidentified customer: St. Bridget claims her.
ES: I got the story from people who owned the store before us (in the ‘40’s) and they knew her really well. Grace used to hang around with their kids. They’d play on the corner there. They (former owners) couldn’t believe that pole was still there.