At Northshore park in St. Petersburg, Fla., John Elias takes a bat from a stand next to the dugout, steps up to the plate and smacks the first pitch to shortstop Ed Wozniak. Wozniak fields the hard-hit grounder flawlessly and rifles the ball to first. Elias sprints toward the bag, but he's out by a stride.
A routine play at the local ballpark? Yes and no: Wozniak is 76 years old, and Elias is 79. The two belong to the Kids and Kubs softball club, whose requirements for membership are a love of the game, a distaste for inactivity and a minimum age of 75.
"I hit it too hard," says Elias, a 5'7" spark plug, as he jogs back from first. "Otherwise I would have beaten it out." Nobody argues. Teammates call Elias, a former painting contractor, a speed demon. Perhaps, if today were a Tuesday, when Wozniak, a retired steelworker from Chicago, skips the game to attend dance class with his wife, Theresa, Elias would have been safe.
Not all the players are as spry as Elias and Wozniak, but nobody complains. Especially not George Bakewell, 100, who is not only the oldest member of the Kids and Kubs but also the oldest active ballplayer in America. "When I get up to bat, that darn base seems further out in right-field every year," Bakewell says. He doesn't play much anymore, but he exercises at home every day. The former farmer and real estate agent freely offers his recipe for longevity: "I never smoked, I never drank, and the only girls I ever went with, I married." Bakewell, who introduces himself as "the kissing bandit" (and quickly proves why) was married to his first wife, Anna, for 65 years. She died in 1981. He married his second wife, Bonnie, 11 days before his 96th birthday. She is 88.
The Kids and the Kubs play each other three times a week, November to April, and the only thing that distinguishes one outfit from the other is the color of its caps: The Kids wear blue; the Kubs, red. All sport immaculate white uniforms and black bow ties, although not on Tuesdays—a compromise for those who dislike the constricting neckwear.
Each team plays with five outfielders and five infielders, plus a pitcher and a catcher. To avoid collisions at first base, two bags are placed side by side, and the runner tags the outside one. "The only problem is the number of hearing aids out in the field. That's what causes the collisions," says John Veleber, 79.
The mood is light, although some members complain that the games have gotten too competitive. To keep the games interesting, if one team loses four straight, its captain can choose any player from the other team. In his first year Pat Rylee, 81, was traded back and forth "like a yo-yo."
He's still in demand. Rylee, like a number of his teammates, plays in other soft-ball leagues, including the aptly named Liniment League. A former silk-mill worker, Rylee plays ball six days a week.
Along with their milkmanesque uniforms, many players wear Nikes, gifts from the company, which featured the team in a 1992 "Just do it" television commercial. In the ad's kicker Bakewell looks sheepishly into the camera and declares, "It's gotta be the shoes."
Bakewell is not the club's only celebrity. Jesse Martinez, 75, was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic track team and shared a room in Berlin with his idol, Jesse Owens. Others like to talk about their glimpses of greatness. Irving Jacobs, an 82-year-old former shoe store owner from Brooklyn, tells of waiting in line for hours at Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth play and vividly remembers watching Preacher Roc pitch for Brooklyn in the 1949 World Series.
On this sunny afternoon in late fall, the players arrive at the park an hour before the first pitch to take batting and fielding practice. Afterward the national anthem is sung and the club motto is shouted in unison: "What's the matter with 75? We're the boys that are all alive. Hi, ho, let's go. Rah, rah, rah! 75!" Then players march two by two toward home plate and salute the American flag. The routine never changes.
The roster, however, does. Earlier this week Pat Rylee's younger brother Bill, another member of the Kids and Kubs, passed away. That didn't stop Pat from playing in today's game. "He just lives to play this game," says Elias.
It seems they all do.