While Some Sports Wait to Take the Field, Senior Softball is Going Strong
29 Mar, 2021By: Michael Popke
While much of the debate surrounding the pandemic and organized sports has focused on the professional, college and youth levels, another demographic group has carried on with little fanfare: senior softball players.
“We played ball safely in 2020, and we will do it again in 2021,” Walker Royce, commissioner of Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball (EMASS), said in a statement announcing the league will begin accepting player registrations this month. “Our players do whatever it takes to get out on the field with their teammates, and we will adjust the COVID protocols we used successfully last year to ensure the safety of our members in the 2021 season.”
The league typically attracts more than 400 seniors from across the region, ranging in age from 50 to 90. The season opens in May, with 18 weeks of regular-season games played on fields located in four municipalities, followed by playoffs that will wrap up in early October.
After COVID-19 delayed last year’s season opening until July, EMASS salvaged a half-season in its Saturday divisions and completed a full season in the weekday divisions by playing twice a week. With facial coverings, social distancing and other guidelines in place, EMASS reported that no player tested positive for the virus throughout the summer and fall.
“The 2020 EMASS season was a healthy escape and a lot of fun with a new twist,” Royce said. “With masks concealing the identity of every batter, it was hard to tell whether the player at-bat was a rookie power hitter or an old veteran place-hitter.”
As The New York Times reports, “[t]he virus may rage, but in senior leagues across the country, softball is an essential lifeline.” The paper notes that about 1,800 of the 5,000 softball teams comprised of players 50 and older compete in tournaments — including more than 170 that traveled to Tampa in January for the World Baseball Softball Confederation/International Senior Softball Association World Tournament of Champions. (Robinson’s Furniture, a 65-and-older tournament team from Dagsboro, Del., and a member of the Olde Tymers Softball League took home the title by winning five of six games.)
“The virus stuff is out there, and we still managed to get it up to 172 [teams],” RB Thomas Jr., the 79-year-old executive director of the ISSA, told theTimes.
Players take the field at their own risk. The Golden Years Senior Softball League in Boca Raton, Fla., has shut down multiple times after players tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Times, which added that — unlike EMASS players — many players in Florida do not wear face coverings.
The decreasing use of face masks is likely to continue in the coming months, and not just in Florida.
“I think the [participation] numbers will increase dramatically when everybody starts getting their [vaccine] shots,” Greg Thomas, ISSA’s deputy executive director, told WHNT.com in Huntsville, Ala., which hosted the association’s Rocket City Spring National in early March. “We’re providing recreation and they’re outside, it’s safe and they don’t feel threatened.”
ISSA has eliminated the sharing of water in the dugout, handshakes and group check-ins, but that hasn’t dimmed players’ enthusiasm.
“We’re able to get out and get the exercise and all the camaraderie we miss,” one player who participated in the Rocket City Spring National said. “It’s just like the school kids, they’re missing their schoolmates, and we’re missing our teammates and our oppositions.”
“Playing EMASS senior softball during the pandemic was the highlight of 2020,” Greg French, a 10-year EMASS veteran added.
Organized senior softball dates back to the 1930s, according to Senior Softball-USA, which sanctions tournaments and championships, as well as hosts international softball tours. It was then that retired New York City actress Evelyn Brown Rittenhouse moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., to manage a retirement community.
“She was asked to recommend a way to keep older people active. Her idea: Softball. In those days, the players walked the bases,” the organization’s website notes.
“This is a sport that doesn’t discriminate,” says Bob Mitchell, founder of Senior Softball-USA, which boasts a membership of 1,500 teams throughout the United States and Canada. “Not by age, not by sex, not by race and not by religion. Our goal to provide the opportunity for any senior to play softball.”
“I’m not as good as I used to be, but I’m alive,” Sy Ellin told The New York Times. He also is the journalist’s father, and he’s been playing ball for 60 years — 25 of them in senior leagues.
“When you get old, if you just lay around and watch TV you’ll go to hell, in plain English,” added Neil Lewis, 87, who is a commissioner of the Golden Years Senior Softball League in Boca Raton. “You’ve got to keep your mind going.”