Many fans now in their 50s remember Roger Peckinpaugh as one of the finest shortstops in the days of Sisler, Cobb and Ruth. He won the American League's Most-Valuable-Player award in 1925 and retired two years later at 36, ending an 18-year playing career. Not many fans, however, will recall Roger's father, Frank. He also was a fine shortstop and he could hit better than his boy. Frank batted over .400 a couple of seasons in the 1940s (sic) when he was at his peak. He played for 10 years and finished as an active player at 85, more than 20 years after his son was washed up.
There's a catch here, of course. Old man Peckinpaugh played for the Kids, one of the two teams (the other is the Kubs) of the Three Quarter Century Softball Club of St. Petersburg, Fla.
This remarkable ball club, which played its 31st season this year, is the only one of its kind in the world. You have to be at least 75 years old to get on it, and you have to be a good ballplayer, too. A great many more men come out for the team at tryout time in November (the season runs from December 1 to early April) than there is room for. The active players' list of 34 is always full and there are no duds on it.
This is not to say that anyone looks like Stan Musial or Ernie Banks out there. But they run. They catch flies on the run and they run the bases and sometimes forget themselves and slide into them. They are not supposed to, but no one ever gets penalized for it. At the plate they take a full cut at the ball and often go down swinging. They scoop up grounders, bring down liners with one-handed stabs, make double plays and hit inside-the-park homers.
There has never been a major league ballplayer on the club but a number have played industrial and semipro ball. All the players have athletic histories or have been active out-of-doors men, and they look it. They are slim and alert and highly competitive. Most of them are holler guys. They sass the umpire and sass each other. Sometimes they have to be pulled apart, even members of the same team.
That happened in a game this year. A grounder was hit to Kub Shortstop Walter Lebengood (80), who played for Albright College in 1908. Lebengood, who wears a full beard and the standard uniform of peaked cap, bow tie, white shirt with long sleeves, white duck pants and tennis shoes, fielded the ball perfectly. But his throw was low. It pulled First Baseman John Eichhorn (77) off the bag and the runner was safe. The enraged Eichhorn slammed the ball hard into the dirt. Lebengood didn't like the gesture and advanced toward first, shedding his glove on the way, his beard bristling. Eichhorn walked forward and the boys met behind the pitcher's mound as 3,500 people in the stands rose to their feet. The Kubs catcher and captain, Bill Davis (78), flung himself between them. The rhubarb wound up as so many do—with the antagonists mad at the peacemaker.
High spirits have characterized the club ever since it was founded in 1930 by Mrs. Evelyn B. Rittenhouse, a former actress turned social worker. She was assisted by Dr. H. M. Emory, a St. Petersburg physician. Before the first game Dr. Emory, fearing that the codgers would keel over by the dozen if they ran, instructed them to walk the base paths and never to run after a ball in the field. His warning was soon discarded. Everybody ran, the doctor held his breath and nothing happened.
Mom sits on the bench
Mrs. Rittenhouse, who still sits on the bench at every game and is Mom to all the players, was not alarmed. "Let them run," she told the horrified doctor. "If they drop dead running the bases, they'll die happy, won't they?"
Since then the Kids and the Kubs have clashed more than 800 times and there has been only one casualty on the field due to a heart attack. In the stands the toll has been much heavier, though. At least 15 people have toppled over during the games, according to Dr. Charles S. Lincoln (91) the first-aid man for both teams, who wound up his eight-year playing career in 1953.
"I don't have much to do," says Dr. Lincoln, a retired Bowdoin College physician. "The boys take good care of themselves and know their limitations. Injuries are minor—mostly jammed fingers and pulled muscles from starting for first too fast after hitting the ball."
Most spectators feel that there should be more injuries, the way the players rattle around the field. A good example is Dave Higgins (87), the oldest man in the game except for Billy Black (89), the Kids' pitcher for 15 years. Higgins is a pint-size ex-mail carrier from upstate New York with spring in his legs. He is the fastest man on the field and loves to run the bases. Whenever the Kubs need a substitute runner, Higgins is always the man.
Batting averages run sky high in the oldtimers' game. The first 10 batters are generally above .450 and the first five are always in the .500 class. One reason for this is that age is kinder to the batter than to the pitcher or fielder. Batting skill does not seem to diminish as fast as fielding skill, and the pitching is, understandably, on the slow side and without deception. Hardly anybody strikes out and a number of balls get through the infield that would probably be stopped by, say, men of 60.
In his prime at 76
The highest mark in history is the .697 made by Ed Forrest in the 1955-56 season when he was 76 and in his prime. The Kubs' outfielder, like several of his clubmates, was a bike racer in his youth. His U.S. amateur record of 1 hour 39 seconds for 25 miles, made in a race against 57 competitors in 1901, still stands. Forrest has slowed down a little and is used mainly as a pinch hitter.
Another candidate for the club's future Hall of Fame, which the members hope will soon be a reality, is the control artist John Maloney. For nine years this fine-looking, white-mustached man with the erect posture of a youthful athlete has been the most dependable pitcher on the team. Last year, at 83, he was the leader with 17 wins, 6 losses. After he pitches a seven-inning game, he goes home, takes a shower and then goes fishing for the afternoon (the thrice-weekly games start at 10:30 a.m. and are generally over at noon). Of all the players to grace South Waterfront Park (where the teams play all their games and often outdraw the Cardinals, who train alongside them in Al Lang Field) the greatest and most colorful was George Yesberger, the Babe Ruth of the ancients. Home runs were his specialty.
The club has a unique home-run rule. You may get a homer by hitting the ball under the stands. No one, not even George Yesberger, ever hit a ball into the stands. They are 282 feet from the plate in centerfield and about 240 feet along the foul lines. Driving the ball through the outfielders so that it rolls under the stands is an automatic homer. Homers are not easy to make. Any player who gets 10 during a 40-game season is certain to be the high man. Last year Bill Davis topped the list with eight.
Twice around the bases
Home run records weren't kept when George Yesberger was in his heyday (from 1932 to 1940) but those who saw him say that he used to make a homer about every other game. He would hit line drives that would keep on rolling almost into Al Lang Field. George liked to run the bases and may have been as fast as Higgins. Whenever he hit a home run he would circle the bases fast and then, just for the heck of it, he'd go around again. Rounding third the second time, he would turn cartwheels all the way home and finish with a handspring at the plate.
The most dramatic homer, however, was made some years ago by a player whose name is forgotten. The only thing remembered about him is that he lost his store teeth between third and home, dropped to his hands and knees to look for them while the ball was being relayed in from the outfield, and recovered them in time to score.
A few concessions are made to age in the Kids and Kubs game. Seven innings is the limit, tie score or not, and there is an intermission of 15 minutes at the end of 3½ innings. When the pitcher bats he may have a substitute runner (where's Higgins?) if he wishes. Base stealing and bunting are outlawed (too easy to get away with), the bases are 60 feet apart and, to prevent tripping, have no padding.
These rules help tighten up the game and keep scores down. Seven runs are generally enough to win and shutouts are rare. Errors are rather frequent in this game, due mostly to bad throws. But the general play is by no means loose. Double plays are common. On one golden day (February II, 1960) the old boys pulled four double plays and two triple plays in one game. (The National League that year had only one triple play in 618 games.) The feat was accomplished in successive innings, each team making a triple play. Statistics on the six players making the putouts show: four pairs of glasses, a hearing aid, 474 years total age.
About half of the players have come up from the Half-Century Softball Club, whose more agile members range in age from 50 to 74. This club also has two competing teams that play three games a week in the same park. Only in St. Petersburg can a 50-year-old look ahead to a possible 35 years of playing ball.
The Half-Century boys attract a capacity crowd of 3,500 on Sundays when they play a girls' team, but the oldsters are more popular and outdraw the others over the season. The Kids and Kubs have often played to 5,000, especially when the game is for charity. There is no admission charge to any of the contests, but the hat is passed around and the teams average close to $100 a game. The take for charity sometimes exceeds $500.
The club uses the money to buy equipment and uniforms. Both teams wear identical uniforms except for the color of the caps—red for the Kubs, blue for the Kids. Each player gets $5 a month laundry money to keep his uniform spic and span, and he does or he hears from his captain.
Before a game recently an ancient came up to Mrs. Rittenhouse, who was sitting on the bench, and presented his rear to her. "I think I sat in something, Mom," he said seriously. "Are my panties clean?" Mom, who is barely old enough to be eligible for the team, gave him a passing mark and he joined his clubmates at practice.
The men show up at 9 o'clock the days they play (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) and practice for an hour and a half. After the game a number of them stay on and get in another hour's drill.
Dr. Arnold Anderson of St. Petersburg once examined several players and was amazed at their physical condition. As a result his ideas on exercise for the aged were completely changed. "I used to tell the oldsters to take it easy," he said. "Now I tell them to exercise to their heart's content as long as they can do it without distress."
The players are fond of saying that the game "adds years to your life, and life to your years." There is no doubt that this is true, but more than that, perhaps, is what it does to the spectators, most of whom are beyond middle age.
"You have no idea how many old guys in the stands have told me how we've helped them," says John Maloney. "Any number of them have said to me, 'I thought I was a goner, as good as dead, until I saw you boys play. I'll never feel that way any more.' "
The players' cheer, which they give when they line up on the diamond before every game, well expresses their to-hell-with-age philosophy. It goes:
What's the matter with seventy-five?
We're the boys who're all alive;
Hi ho, let's go,
Rah, rah, rah, seventy-five.
FLASH DAVE HIGGINS, 87, WAITS FOR PITCH THAT WILL SHOW HIS STYLE AS THE FASTEST-RUNNING OCTOGENARIAN IN THE WORLD
IT'S HIGGINS AGAIN, SPRINTING INTO A TAGOUT AFTER A GALLANT TRY AT AN INSIDE-THE-PARK HOME RUN. DAVE IS ALSO USED AS A PINCH RUNNER
BEARD BRISTLING, Walter Lebengood swings fiercely, like a Currier & Ives player circa 1855.