“You know what we get to do today, Brooks? We get to play baseball.” – Dennis Quaid in the 2002 movie, The Rookie.
Jack Graef has been playing softball since the late 1950s, regardless of what it looks like on the field or what others may say, he jokes.
On a beautiful early Tuesday morning at the SaddleBrooke softball field, he manages the Barron Electric team, coaches both bases, plays third base and catcher, scores from second base on a hit to the outfield, and even delivers a base hit in his team’s 14-10 loss to Chiropractic USA.
At age 86, Graef is one of seven men in their eighties playing senior softball at SaddleBrooke during the fall season. The players might not move with the swiftness they did 50 years ago, but there are flashes of athletic prowess. They can still hit, throw, and catch and do so three to four times a week on this gorgeous field complete with dugouts, scoreboard, stadium seating, and outfield fence lined with sponsor signs.
King Mitchell, a fellow softball player not in his 80s, is impressed with his octogenarian counterparts. “We all marvel at the skills and competitiveness these ‘boys of summer’ still possess and how they’ve kept their bodies and spirits into their eighties.”
Like the other men, Graef, a retired aeronautical engineer, continues to play because he enjoys the camaraderie, competition, and exercise. Playing the game of their childhood keeps them young and happy.
The Brooklyn-born Graef has been playing SaddleBrooke softball from the late 1990s before the league was organized here. He took a break from softball for about a decade to play baseball (catcher) in the Tucson Old-Timers league. Graef also played baseball with several of his Brooklyn Dodgers boyhood heroes including Duke Snider and Ralph Branca years ago but at a fantasy camp, he stresses, not in the major leagues.
Asked why he wears number 99 on his jersey, Graef says, “my goal is to play until I reach that age.”
Jake Jacobson, 84, is another Brooklyn native who has been playing softball for as he says, “many years,” and at SaddleBrooke since Ed Robson built the field in 2005.
Like most of the guys, he started with baseball before turning to softball. In the New York City sandlot leagues, he once pitched a complete game one-hitter when he was 16 on the famous Parade Grounds field in Brooklyn where future major leaguers Sandy Koufax and Joe Torre perfected their games.
In spite of “very old knees,” Jacobson continues to pitch and plays in two different SaddleBrooke leagues during the ten-week season.
Another SaddleBrooke pitcher, Harold Norton, started playing softball here 20 years ago. He prides himself on his control. Last season, he pitched a game without walking a batter—a rarity in the league. And he recently pitched a shutout until the seventh inning when he gave up two runs, but his team still won. His teammates occasionally remind him not to forget to wear his protective face mask when he goes out to pitch. “That mask is a pain,” he says but puts it on anyway.
Norton, a former United Nations ambassador to Kenya and Sudan, played center fielder and catcher at the University of Maryland. It shows. At age 84, he takes a good swing at the plate and had two hits in a recent game, including beating out a ground ball to shortstop. He also threw out a runner at home plate but admits that he has a hard time bending on ground balls these days.
Jerry Cowartt, 80, also pitches. He didn’t start playing softball until he moved to SaddleBrooke 16 years ago. As a kid in St. Joseph, MO, he played pickup games mostly as work provided little time for sports.
A former marine, Cowartt is notorious for his lively chatter, offering advice to hitters from the bench (“get up in the batter’s box,” and “you reached for that one”) and on the pitching mound, telling his fielders where to play and questioning balls and strikes calls by the umpire.
He’s particularly proud of his game-winning hit last year in the final game of the season to help his team win the league championship.
One of the few early SaddleBrooke players active in the league today, Brad Adair plays first base and still hits line drives as well as anybody at age 82. He batted .674 with a few doubles on one of his summer league teams this year.
Adair played sandlot baseball as a kid and 16-inch softball in Chicago (the game with no gloves). He also played fast-pitch softball in the Milwaukee beer leagues in his 20s. A rules expert, he is recognized as one of the best umpires in the league.
Al Cangeme, 80, has been playing softball for the past 15 years here. He started with baseball in his teenage years in the Boston city park leagues where he says the only green he saw on the field were the weeds. Not so today on the SaddleBrooke diamond he calls his “field of dreams.”
Cangeme says he often worries about letting his teammates down, but no need as he is one of the better hitters in the league, batting .725 and .659 on two of his summer leagues teams earlier this year.
What these men have in common is a continued love for the game they played as kids. Softball connects them with their past. For two hours a day, they get to put on a team uniform, hit a ball, catch (mostly) and throw it, and run the bases. It’s summer all over again, no matter the season.
They are proof that age is just a number, and the good news is none of them have any plans to slow down.
After watching these guys for years, Mitchell is in awe. “I hope I’ll still have the heart, the spirit, and the physical skills to be able to play as well as these men when I’m that age.”