By LISA REED, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
“Sidney White sticks” – It’s a term synonymous with perfection to most who play stickball.
Born in 1889, Sidney White lived a long and active life and is well-known for his expertise in many things, but especially for the strong, distinctive sticks he made for stickball players. There aren’t many of Sidney’s sticks around any more. Those in possession of them know what a treasure they have.
A pair of Sidney’s sticks hangs in the Choctaw Nation Capitol Museum.
“Daddy never made a pair of sticks he didn’t intend to be played with,” said Folsom White of Clayton, remembering the care his father put into creating each one. Folsom and his mother, Mary, recently sat in the living room of her home in Tuskahoma and shared memories of working alongside Sidney. Their main contribution was to cut hickory trees and split the wood.
“We didn’t have chainsaws,” Folsom explained about this time as a young boy in the ’60s and ’70s. “We used crosscut saws, wedges, sledge hammers. Me and Mama would use the crosscut saws to cut down the trees.”
Mary chimed in with a laugh and said she was always scared of the falling trees. Folsom and Mary did what they could to help, though.
Once the tree had been split and Sidney had rasped a piece down to the thickness he wanted, he would rub used motor oil on the wood.
After building a fire, Sidney would heat the stick then rub the motor oil deep into the grain, heat then rub. He would start bending one end a little at a time to form the cup, adding just the right bit of flare to make the stick better at handling the ball.
“The prettiest sticks Daddy made were when he used heat and oil,” Folsom described. The oil would seep deep into the wood and as the sticks aged, the oil would become dark-ribboned patterns.
“He would go to boot shops and different places to get good scrap leather,” Folsom said. “He had a little knife about that long,” his fingers drawing a 3- to 4-inch half-of-a-heart-shaped blade in the air. “Daddy would tie the leather around a tree or something stationary, hold that knife straight out in front of him and walk backwards – 100 to 200 feet if he had room. That’s how he cut the strips of leather.”
The leather is used to make a lacing inside the cup and for holding down the end of the stick as it loops around.
Every one of Sidney’s sticks took on a unique shape. He didn’t make them in pairs. He would finish one and set it aside. When he was ready – sometimes two, three or four weeks later – he would make a stick to pair with another.
“When he made sticks that were a good pair, you could set your hand down on that thumb,” Folsom’s left hand met his right thumb as he held two sticks up, “and the cups would fit together, with one about 3/4 inch longer.”
Sidney’s knowledge of the game was ingrained in his very being as deeply as the texture weaving through the hickory he used. He wrote two publications about the game, “Stickball” and “Tolih.”
A descriptive excerpt from “Stickball” reads:
“In my time an Indian ball game was equal to a county picnic. A lemonade stand or two were set up. A watermelon farmer would bring a wagonload of melons and sell out during the game. A hard-fought or well-matched game would often last a whole afternoon.
“The people would travel in wagons, buggies and on horseback and pitch two separate campgrounds near springs or on the banks of two clear water streams in order to have good camp water.
“Small personal articles were bet on a game of tolih. A man rode at high speed on a good horse from camp to camp to collect the bets. Horses were bet and guns of all styles and calibers. Then all articles were put in a bounty wagon near the middle ground. …”
Folsom said there wasn’t a lot of interest in playing stickball when he was young, but his dad would gather up some of the boys and try to get them to play. Sidney would have been about 80 years old at that time.
It was a team sport, but more about one-on-one competition back then, utilizing each player’s individual skills. Sidney would line the kids up and let them know who was responsible for defending another player.
Sidney taught them how to throw, how to pick up the ball with the sticks while on the run. He taught them to play hard but wouldn’t tolerate intentionally hurting other players.
“When (David) Gardner was elected chief, Cleland Billy and a teacher from Jones also got involved,” Folsom said. “Once other adults were involved, a stickball team was put together. During warm months we would meet at the Council House.”
Folsom was among a small group invited to play stickball during the United States’ Bicentennial Celebration on July 4, 1976, in Washington, D.C.
“For a young country kid, it was something else,” Folsom said, still feeling the excitement of being a 17-year-old on a trip across the country to the nation’s capitol. “It was a good experience. All of the Civilized Tribes had a team there.”
The stickball teams took turns in round-robin play where each team competed against each other once, demonstrating the game of their ancestors beside the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall.
“We had some good games,” Folsom remembered, “and the Creek team gave us some competition,” he added with a laugh.
“We started showing off a bit and would get set up with someone on the other team. We would knock each other into the pool. We also broke the goal down once. We had a great time!”
A difference noted in the game then compared to today’s way of playing is that no one blocked the goal. It remained open. Sidney would tell the players that hitting the goal was part of the skill they wanted to show each other and the public. To make a score or “kill the ball” it should strike the pole on the facing side and fall to the ground in the inner court. Teams now have goalies.
Also in Sidney’s time, players could throw the sticks and the ball up against the goal to score which isn’t allowed today.
Choctaw historian Olin Williams said change comes with every generation.
“Anything that’s alive grows and changes,” Williams explained. “After stickball became looked at more as a sport, changes began taking place. Each generation adds something they see of value.”
Sidney White added more than his share to stickball during his lifetime. He contributed to the history of the tribe’s ancestral game both in the ways he taught and in the beautifully crafted sticks, testament to his deep understanding of what it means to play.