Above: Baseball practice at Clarkdale Park in Austell; photo by Phil Mosier
One chilly mid-week morning in March, eight men gathered at a ballfield in a Cobb County park. They drove from towns scattered across north Georgia, from as far afield as Blue Ridge and Dallas and Sugar Hill. Most were in their mid-60s to mid-70s.
They met at Clarkdale Park to toss around baseballs, shag a few flies, get in a little batting practice and generally loosen up their bodies after the inactivity of winter. To these men, March meant Spring Training. It was time for the Midweek Men’s Senior Baseball League to open a new season.
“This day has such meaning,” said Frank Jones, the 67-year-old vice-president of the league who jokingly calls himself its resident “zookeeper” who organizes practices and communicates with the about 60 players on the league mailing list. “If you’re here, it means you’ve lived through the winter.”
And the mid-week players aren’t the only seniors returning to ballfields around metro Atlanta this spring. The 65-plus league is one of several leagues organized by age that are part of the Atlanta Area Men’s Senior Baseball League. There also are organized softball leagues for players in their 50s or 65 or older.
Think of these players not so much the Boys of Summer as the Men and Women Who Still Can Play. These ballplayers may be years removed from Little League, traveling teams or high school ball, but they have what it takes to keep on playing decades after most players yield.
“They say when you’re thinking of things to do, think of things you did when you were a kid,” said Tom Bailey, who’s 67 and said he’s played baseball with one senior baseball team or another for 15 years. “I was about 50 or 51 and I got bored and thought, ‘What did I do when I was a kid?’ I played a lot of ball. I loved it.”
He still does. He enjoys the game and the camaraderie he finds with the other players. They mostly know one another from years of playing baseball together. “It’s like a brotherhood,” he said. “It is a brotherhood.”
Second baseman Billy Viger grew up playing baseball in Long Island, N.Y. His father introduced him to the game and to his favorite team, the New York Yankees. Viger still recalls his first Yankees game, at age 6, with wide-eyed wonder. He’s such a fan that he has the Yankees’ logo tattooed on his arm.
Viger said he switched to soccer in college, played soccer for years and now helps coach the soccer team at Cartersville High School. At age 67, he’s back playing baseball. “I love this game,” he said. “It was the first sport I was introduced to.”
Dewey Hom, commissioner of the Cherokee Senior Softball Association and who turns 58 this year, said the 23-year-old league, comprised of players older than 50, groups players into teams based on skill level. About 350 players compete on 30 teams, he said.
“Some of these guys, that’s all they live for,” Hom said. “It keeps you going. It keeps you young.”
Doris Warpole started playing softball in high school. Her family moved around and she played all over, in Ohio, Florida and elsewhere. She started playing softball again with the Gwinnett Senior Softball league about two decades ago. She’s been the league’s secretary “going on 17 years,” she said.
She’s 73 now, but hasn’t slowed down. The Gwinnett league schedules games twice a week during a 12-week season and she plays on a women’s tournament team, too. “I just like it,” she said. “I’ve always been competitive in sports, even through high school. You name the sport, I’d try it.”
Warpole, who counts herself one of a handful of women among the 80-or-so players in the league, is far from the oldest on the softball field. Emmett Vollenweider, for instance, is 84.
He’s a member of the Senior Softball Hall of Fame. He was at Best Friend Park near Norcross one recent rainy evening to take his place on the field once again. “It’s fun,” he said.
Bob Burns played softball much of his life. He switched to baseball about two decades ago, after Jones, his friend and fellow electrician, convinced him he ought to try playing hardball. “I was 48 before I was officially on a baseball team,” he said.
He has no plans to slow down. “I’m 68 and I can still run and throw and hit,” Burns said during a break from batting practice at Clarkdale Park. “I keep saying every year I’m going to quit, but I figure it’s kept me in pretty good health.”
Jones plans to keep at it, too. Every spring brings back baseball, after all, and ballplayers, even ones who have been playing for decades, hear the call to return to the field. “It’s a wonderful thing,” Jones said that cool March morning. “[People with] different ages and backgrounds out here just for the love of the game.”
If you’d like to take part in baseball or softball for senior players, here are some ways to get in touch with local leagues.
- Atlanta Area Men’s Senior Baseball League
- Gwinnett Senior Softball
- Cherokee Senior Softball Association