They take a very long time warming up before a game. Very long. Oh so long. The game could be over before they even take the field. But they have to be careful: These legs slathered with liniment have been running bases since F.D.R. was President--or maybe a bit before that.
When play does begin, the competitors use special rules that allow them to overrun bases and avoid sliding. When trying to score, they must cross a line 15 feet from home plate rather than touch the base itself, the better to avoid collisions with a catcher.
But for all that, they are still competitive, playing softball at least twice a week and sometimes more, these one-time boys of summer who are now in the winter of their lives, all on the far side of 55.
Take Bill Manginelli.
It has been 44 years since that August day when Manginelli pitched a two-hitter and belted a home run in one of the most sacred shrines in baseball’s pantheon, Ebbets Field. It was in the borough of Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Flatbush, and it was where the Dodgers played before they switched coasts and traveled West on a road littered with the broken hearts of their fans.
These days Manginelli is 62, working as a loan collector for a bank, and playing and practicing on fields in Fullerton or Placentia or Huntington Beach, about as far from Brooklyn as you can get. It is softball that he plays now, and it is slow pitch. But he can still hit and chase down a fly ball. And he plays on a team with a lot of other guys who can play the game, too.
For instance, Warren Moore. No. 28, playing second base, oldest man on this team called the Fullerton Blues, 67 years old.
In college, Moore played shortstop and considered sticking with it if he could get to the big leagues. But when a scout told him he would probably never make it higher than Double A ball, two rungs from the top of the ladder, Moore decided to get his degree and find some other line of work. Still, he never did give up his love of the game.
Charlie Motsko is 61, looks 20 years younger and is equally at home on a ball field or in a classroom. A priest and former principal of Servite High School in Anaheim, Motsko says he didn’t play much ball before joining the Blues. But these days he plays in two leagues, getting in night games in Norwalk during the week and day games in the Huntington Beach league on Sundays.
Motsko, Moore and Manginelli are part of a rapidly growing movement in California and across the country: senior softball.
Played by men 50 and over--sometimes very over, like 70 years old or more--senior softball has an estimated 2,000 teams across the country, each with about 15 men, according to Bob L. Mitchell, who runs a Sacramento company that puts on tournaments for seniors.
“The thing I can’t stress enough is how big it’s getting and how fast it’s growing,” said Mitchell, a retired California Highway Patrolman who calculated that a new team is formed about every two weeks.
The explosive growth in softball played by the not-quite-over-the-hill gang is mirrored in Orange County. Huntington Beach decided to start offering senior softball about three years ago, according to Bob Thrall, the city’s senior recreation supervisor. Now there are 30 teams in the senior league, which is limited to those 55 and older.
One of those teams is the Fullerton Blues, whose members are bound for New Zealand this month to play against six other U.S. teams, including one from Lawndale, and some New Zealand squads.
Nearly all the Blues played some sort of organized ball in the past--high school, college, semi-pro, industrial league. They may have lost a step or two going to their left over the years, but they are softball-savvy. Outfielders hit the cutoff man. Infielders get to the base for putouts. Batters hit behind a baserunner to advance him.
The Blues sometimes make plays so slick they surprise themselves. When they do, glee lights their faces.
“I love playing ball,” said Manginelli. “It’s just in my blood. I just love playing softball or anything connected with baseball.”
Still, the road to second base is not always smooth.
“I hadn’t played in years,” said Moore. But he read about the team, asked manager Sam Sackman if he could join, and was told to “go ahead and work out, have some fun.”
“Well, all I did was fall down,” Moore remembered. “My legs wouldn’t keep up. I couldn’t throw. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t field. I couldn’t do anything. So (Sackman) asked me after a while, ‘How are you doing?’ So I said, ‘Can’t hit, can’t field, can’t throw, can’t run, but I’m having a helluva lot of fun.’
” . . . Little by little I began to get legs back and I worked out and I kept at it . . . working out a couple of times a week, three times a week, four times a week. Rest a day, work out. Rest a day. Then (play on) Saturday and Sunday. It was slow. But it came back. And pretty soon I was the second base. Playing on the Fullerton Blues at second base.” He says that last phrase with wonder in his voice.
His teammates call Moore “Hollywood,” say he can “talk your ear off,” and accuse him of “showboating” (a charge he vigorously denies). But they say it with gentle smiles and they marvel at his persistence in working himself into good enough shape to play the game.
Moore “does a hell of a job,” says Frank Feldhaus, 60 years old (on Sept. 30), one-time Marine, former Anaheim policeman, current Anaheim planning commissioner, owner of a telecommunications company, and Fullerton Blues shortstop.
Feldhaus calls Moore “steady” and adds: “He’s like an old golfer, right? They hit right down the fairway and keep pretty low scores, as opposed to the big blustery guys who come out and try to kill the ball. He’s consistent and tries to get those little singles here and there that make a lot of difference to the team.”
Feldhaus himself can still hit for power, chasing outfielders back toward the fence. He played Double A ball in Seattle before World War II and knows what he’s up to on the field. Why does he keep playing?
“Did you ever see the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz?’ Did you see the Tin Man and how he stiffened up when he didn’t have the oil? That’s part of it, keep the old body active. And the competitive spirit, and the game that I love, playing ball. And I’m just grateful there is such a thing for seniors, to keep doing that.”
Senior softball traces its history back to 1931, when two teams in St. Petersburg, Fla., Kids and Kubs, started competing with players 75 and older. The league is still going, with some players in their 80s, and one or two in their 90s.
Mitchell, in Sacramento, said that he and Ken Maas, the founder of the Clinton, Mich.-based National Assn. of Senior Citizens Softball, are trying to organize a senior softball world series next year.
Mitchell himself is 58, plays on three Sacramento teams and estimates that one of those teams, the Braves, averages 200 games per year. “On Thursdays we play a double-header,” he explained. “When we go to tournaments, we may play seven, eight games on a weekend. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but that shows you the seriousness of this.”
Inevitably, given their age, some players strike out in more than a ball game. In St. Petersburg, they remember Lee Morrison, an 81-year-old first baseman who in a 1969 game went up for a high throw and came down dead.
In Huntington Beach, they remember Gail Goodrich, 69, who nearly two years ago swung at a pitch, missed and died of a heart attack at home plate.
Goodrich’s son, also named Gail and a one-time UCLA and Los Angeles Lakers basketball star, said his father enjoyed senior softball “very much.”
“It gave him a great deal of pleasure to play,” Goodrich said. “He was always very active in sports and loved sports a great deal.”
But for the Blues on a Saturday morning practice, thoughts of aches, pains, injury, death are far away. Instead the crisp air is filled with chatter, exhortations, shouts of encouragement: “Nice catch!” and “Good throw!” and “Attaboy, Warren!”
Sackman, the manager, marvels that scores of teams filled with players near or past retirement age journey to Las Vegas to play “a tremendously competitive level of ball.”
Sackman, a U.S. government mediator who calls himself “65 going on 34,” says that one of his favorite lines is: “We’re not sitting around waiting for death to touch us.”
“We respect anyone else who wants to meet the senior years in any way they want to,” he says. “We want to meet them in a way that to us is productive, meaningful and a lot of fun.”