Taking part Is Everything
They are not ordinary men, the members of St. Petersburg's Three-Quarter Century Softball Club, Inc. One of them—a star outfielder, an all-out hustler, a line-drive hitter—is 88 years old. Another has a pacemaker in his heart, but no one is supposed to know. "The hell with it," he says. "If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die. Just have 'em stop the game and haul me away." A 91-year-old catcher, a wit, plays with a bad back, but he won't take a warm bath. "I took a bath before I left home in September," he growls. "Besides, I got guts. It don't hurt so bad I can't play." That is how it goes.
Seventy-five is a rare age for a rookie anywhere, in anything. But at St. Petersburg's North Shore Park it is hardly more than postadolescence. There is a lot of experience on the Three-Quarter Century Club and a certain suspicion of youth, which is why Frank Martin and Irving Dinneen, each a callow 75, are anxious to please.
Martin, still wiry and muscular, is always crouched and ready in short field. He grins as he runs out an extra-base hit. He screams in disbelief at umpires. He says, "If I couldn't play, I don't know what I'd do."
First Baseman Dinneen was a dentist for 50 years until he retired last June—and promptly broke his leg, playing soft-ball. He is a proud man. Recently, after being knocked to the ground during a close play, he snapped, "Yes, I'm all right. Now come on, play!" But later, relaxed, he said, "I'm having trouble at first. My feet are too big." And that is how it is at North Shore Park, too. A sensible perspective is maintained; playing is everything, not winning. At 75 or 85 a base hit is something to be savored.
The Three-Quarter Century Club is composed of two teams, the Kids and the Kubs, who play each other in three seven-inning games each week from November through March. But team identities and loyalties are not strong. Players speak of how many years they have been with "the Kids and the Kubs," and a Keynesian sort of competition exists. If one team gets three games behind, the captain gets to choose any player from the opposition. Lately that player has been Ed Stauffer, 76, who once pitched a season for the St. Louis Browns and is the only former major-leaguer in the club.
But Stauffer can do more than throw, and he has to. They have not let him go to the mound since he pitched shutout ball in a game last season. In 36 games last year he batted .835 and hit 30 home runs. Both figures broke club records, but none of the homers cleared the 250-foot fence. The pitching is slow, so batters must supply their own power. But, then, the fielding is not airtight. Balls hit over the infield fall to the grass like rain, and Stauffer has the North Shore Park stroke; he hits to right center, where the ball rolls and rolls.
Left field is no place for extra-base hits at the park. Out there the Kubs have 80-year-old Harry Legate, a man with the legs and arms of a 40-year-old. The Kids have 88-year-old Jim Waldie, who may possess more ability for his age than anyone on the field. He throws out runners, he bats .300 to .400, he puffs out his chest and says, "At 88 I can run the bases like a 75-year-old."
But the wonder of wonders is Bill Davis, the bathless one, who plays four innings a game as pitcher, second baseman or catcher, and who says resoundingly, "I never drank, I never smoked, I never swore, I'm 91 years old and I can do anything."
Like so many of the Kids and the Kubs, Bill Davis is unmistakably himself. Perhaps that is part of the secret; their individuality is a source, and symptom, of character and strength. Frank Martin, for example, has that restless air of youth about him; Irving Dinneen, a quiet intensity, very dentistlike; Ed Stauffer, bigger, more powerful than his teammates, an in-charge attitude.
Each player adds a colorful piece to the picture puzzle that is the Kids and the Kubs. John Daley, 85 and married 58 years, wears his hat askew, and his teeth sometimes not at all. Chet Bresnan is the terror of the first-base coaches, a left-handed pull hitter at 77, but the fielders know where to play him and he bats under .200. If only his wrists were a little slower; maybe when his reflexes start to go.... Jack Casselberry, 77, a Navy man, stepped on a land mine near Toulon in '44, taking shrapnel in his knees and kidneys. They call him Scrapiron. Hugo Unger, an 80-year-old Kids pitcher, looks like Honus Wagner at the plate, with his Dutch face, big hands, long arms and wide stance, and he hits home runs. But Unger's pitches are very slow. Sixty years ago he hurt his arm playing sand-lot ball by pitching too often. He says, "As a kid I didn't know enough to quit." And he never learned.
None of the Kids and the Kubs ever learned. Most have played ball all their lives, and as Jim Waldie says, "You lay down, you die. I believe a lot of us wouldn't be living if we weren't playing ball down here."