In over-75 league, never too old to play

May 05, 1991|By George Diaz | George Diaz,Orlando Sentinel

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The crack of a bat, the pop of a mitt -- the eternal sounds of boyhood echo every week on a diamond in St. Petersburg. The Kids and Kubs prove you're never too old to play ball.

Ed Morrison died in the third inning. The throw to first was a bit high, forcing Morrison to move off the bag to make the catch. Morrison hung onto the ball, then jerked backward into George Bakewell's arms.

Heart attack. Bakewell, coaching first, made the requisite call to the rescue squad, even though he knew that no one was going to bring Ed Morrison back. The ambulance took Morrison away. Their mood subdued, the boys hung around the ballpark for a while, mourning the loss of their friend and teammate. Six innings remained. Plenty of daylight left. Nothing else to do.

They finished the game.

"Had another fellow, too," Bakewell says. "Casselberry, a Navy man. He used to catch. In between innings, he said, 'I don't feel too good.' He went on the bench. They carried him out."

Bakewell smiles, his eyes reflecting a certain dignity in the way each man refused to die as a prisoner of age. They were alive when they died. What a wonderful contradiction.

"Nice way to go. Nice way to go," Bakewell says. "I hope to die with my spikes on reaching for a ball."

Every year at St. Petersburg's Northshore Park, 34 men gather to pull on their spikes once more, spit defiantly on the calendar and relieve the bludgeoning pangs of growing old.

Their birth certificates insist they must have taken a wrong turn somewhere on the way to a proctologist's appointment. Certainly there is a good game of pinochle back at the nursing home.

But softball?

The Kids and Kubs, as the name suggests, don't much care for stereotypes, even if they do reside in a city of proverbial punch lines for the geriatric generation. ("I don't like St. Petersburg, too many old people." Response: "Old people don't live in St. Petersburg. They live in Tampa . . . Their parents live in St. Petersburg.")

While many of their contemporaries struggle daily under supervised care, the Kids and Kubs have found that old age doesn't condemn them to an agonizing death sentence. The magical elixir exists in their aluminum bats, leather gloves and softballs they keep stowed in their closets or their car trunks.

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoon from Oct. 27 through April 11, they come here to celebrate the childhood innocence of sports.

To get in, you must be 75.

Or older.

Bakewell is the oldest, born April 27, 1892. He plans to celebrate his 99th birthday on the field with an extensive guest list that includes six children, 20 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren.

"If Babe Ruth were alive today, he'd be two years younger than me," Bakewell says as he swings a bat, ready for his turn at the plate.

After grounding out to the second baseman, Bakewell will scratch himself out of the lineup and sell souvenir hats and pins for $5 to help support the team's infrequent travels and charity games.

A handful of fans, mostly retirees, friends and relatives, watch as the men in their traditional uniforms of white shirts, white pants, black belts and black bow ties scatter the sea gulls in the outfield.

As the sea gulls fly away toward a picturesque backdrop of palm trees and clear blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Kids (blue caps) and Kubs (red caps) form two lines at second base. One line extends toward third, the other toward first.

Bakewell asks the crowd to join him in singing the national anthem. He estimates that he has sung the anthem 700 times over 14 years.

"That may be one for the books," Bakewell says.

Two by two, the players march toward home plate and salute the flag. Thus continues a tradition established in 1930, when Evelyn Barton Rottenhouse, a New York actress who came to St. Petersburg for health reasons, formed the Three Quarter Century Softball Club.

The contradictory sequences that follow resemble an out-take of the film "Cocoon": Smooth line drives into the outfield. Ground balls crisply fielded by shortstops.

John Veleber, 77, sends a line drive between fielders that rolls to the fence for a two-run homer. Veleber's speed around the bases would allow him to score in any age-group game.

John Elias, 77, is equally gifted in the outfield. He moves quickly to his left to snag a sinking fly ball, never losing his stride as he throws the ball back into the infield.

Those wonderful scenes are punctuated with fly balls dropping between fielders, a catcher misjudging a throw from the infield that allows two unearned runs to score, and weary legs trying mightily to beat throws to first base.

As a runner misses the coach's sign at third and continues home, a bench jockey laughs: "He ain't got his hearing aid on."

Robert Gosford, indeed, has no hearing in his right ear. So he asks a reporter to pronounce words clearly.

Reporter: "ARE YOU IN GOOD PHYSICAL CONDITION?"

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