By Alan Resnick / Detroit
In 1972, Roger Kahn wrote The Boys of Summer, considered by many to be one of the greatest baseball books of all time. The book is about young men learning to play baseball in the 1930s and 1940s, going on to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and their lives after baseball.
Well, my friends and I were boys of summer, too, albeit from a different generation and not professional ballplayers. But we did share the love of the game and the camaraderie it provided.
We spent our summers together as kids and as teens playing pickup baseball games, typically twice a day, separated only by a break for lunch. I played so much baseball in the summer as a youth that I had two separate wardrobes, one for my svelter frame during summer and husky-sized pants for my sedentary fall and winter months.
On Sunday, August 28, some 40 guys left their AARP cards at home and got together at a ballfield in Farmington Hills, Mich., to become the boys of summer again. The event was the Oak Park, Mich. Old-Timers’ Softball Tournament XI.
Joel Noble and Sheldon Rosenberg, two of my classmates from the Oak Park High School class of 1969, came up with the idea for this tournament back in spring, 2010. Joel suggested to Sheldon that they try to scrounge up maybe 10 former classmates for a pick-up ballgame, just to have some fun and relive old times. Joel proposed that the game be hardball (baseball), but Sheldon’s response was, “Do you want to get someone killed?” So they decided on softball and posted their idea on Facebook.
They were overwhelmed by the response. I was one of 42 players who signed up, the majority from our graduating class, with the rest mainly from the two classes adjacent to ours. Players were split into three teams and play was based on a round robin format.
Joel and Sheldon did not expect that there would be much interest in the game beyond the players. But, boy, were they wrong. As word got out, they were flooded with requests for the date, time, and location of the game. When game day finally arrived, there was a DJ spinning oldies, a photographer, and free ice cream. The game has since become a local staple of summer, with hiatuses in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid.
It quickly became clear to me that out inaugural game was not simply a chance for old friends to renew acquaintances and toss the ball around. Instead, 40 years of pent-up competitive juices began to flow. Guys who could still fit into their old uniforms showed up in them, wearing metal spikes. There was aggressive base running and hard slides.
But some things also happened during the inaugural game that clearly demonstrated we were no longer teenagers, but rather sixtysomethings. One friend ruptured his Achilles tendon pushing out of the batter’s box. Another tripped over first base attempting to beat out an infield grounder and ended up requiring shoulder surgery. And then there were the assorted guys who pulled up lame attempting to stretch a single into a double. They limped off the field supported on their kids’ shoulders. These sort of things did not happen “back in the day.”
With each passing year, more and more guys signed up to play, reaching a high of 65 at one point. But many of the new players were much younger than the core group. For the inaugural game the age difference between the youngest and oldest player was perhaps three or four years, but over time it ballooned up to close to fifteen years. That’s pretty significant when you’re on the higher end of the age range like I was.
I played for the first five years before a couple of rotator cuff surgeries put me on the Injured Reserve list. Some friends stopped playing due to hip and knee replacements, while others moved out of state after retiring from their work careers. And some passed away, most notably Joel Noble, in June 2017.
Coming to accept that you cannot do something as well as you once did is never easy. In the inaugural game, my head was filled with pipe dreams of jacking one over the fence for a home run. By 2015, however, my thinking had become much more pragmatic–don’t get hurt and don’t embarrass yourself.
I started out willing to play any infield position, just as I had when I was younger. But by 2015, I listed catcher as my preferred position. It wasn’t as glamorous or exciting as playing third base, but it required less running and less chance of injury.
And I started out sitting in the dugout kibitzing with longtime friends, but now sat in lawn chairs with other former players, classmates, and the spouses, kids, and grandkids of the current players.
I attempted a comeback in 2019, as the game was being played on the same weekend as our 50th class reunion. A practice was scheduled one week before the game at the Oak Park Park, where many of us had our greatest glory days as players. I made it through practice, but arrived at two realizations walking back to my car. First, my shoulder hurt like hell from all the throwing I did. Second, the ground balls launched off composite bats were whizzing by me before I could bend down to catch them. I emailed Sheldon and placed myself on the retirement list.
So I went this year as a spectator, enjoying the competition and camaraderie vicariously from the stands. Remarkably, about half of this year’s players were in the 2010 game. The youngest player was 57 while the oldest was 76.
The ground rules had been adjusted to reflect the realities of aging. Metal cleats or spikes were not allowed. Courtesy runners were permitted if a batter was so fortunate as to reach first base. To protect the catcher from collision, a runner coming home had to run to the right of home plate. And no sliding was permitted.
There were plenty of surgical scars, knee braces, and compression bandages on display, and not just on the players. Sheldon has announced that he is giving up his role as Old-Timers Commissioner, which is why many of this year’s emails about the game referred to it as “the last hurrah.” But it would be a sad day if this annual celebration of baseball, friendship, and growing up and old together comes to an end.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.