Play ball! ‘Energetic grandpas’ have a reason to get up every morning

Florida softball league is 87 _ many players are even older

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Irwin Ableson runs to catch a softball and puts on his glasses before throwing the ball to second base. Abelson’s arm is strong, and the man in his 80s on the opposing team is out.

“My doctor said recently, ‘I’d never guess that you were 91 years old,’” shrugs Ableson, a former life insurance salesman and a player for the Kids & Kubs senior league in St. Petersburg. To be eligible, players must be at least 75 — so it’s often called the “three-quarters league.”

Ableson is one of five active players over 90, and in the scheme of things, he’s something of a youngster. One player is 97.

Kids & Kubs is a Depression-era creation. It began in 1930 and quickly drew crowds. In the 1940s, some 5,000 people packed the bleachers. Black-and-white newsreels highlighted the “energetic grandpas.” (The 70-member league is now co-ed; a few women play).

The 97-year-old player, Winchell Smith, says: “The place was mobbed then. They didn’t have anything else to do.”

Today, only a handful of people watch. St. Petersburg was once known as the mecca of “the newly wed and the nearly dead,” but now that hipsters have moved in with their craft beer, kombucha and indie markets, few relics of the past survive. Kids & Kubs still has an office next door to the city’s shuffleboard club, but young people have claimed that, too.

Kids & Kubs is a holdout of old Florida. Players arrive before 9 to stretch and practice in the warm winter sun. Most are veterans, with many having served in combat in World War II. Dugout talk often consists of hospital visits and arthritis. Some topics are more serious: One longtime player lost his wife recently. Each year, two or three teammates die.

But they don’t dwell on the inevitable. While they’ve updated their dress white uniforms — they wear shorts and polo shirts and no longer are required to don bow ties — they still play robust doubleheaders three days a week.

“Play ball,” calls out Don Osborn, the 90-year-old announcer. He’s the league’s scorekeeper, announcer and website manager. He’s also the only one who still wears a bowtie when the Kids & Kubs play.

The origin of the league name is unclear. Player Clarence Faucett, 89, thinks it has something to do with when the team used to fundraise for a local children’s hospital, decades ago. The players were the kids; the children in the hospital were the “kubs.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Faucette said. “That mystery will probably never be solved.”

Smith, a team captain who played second base when he was younger, is now a Kids & Kubs catcher. He credits his longevity to healthy eating and playing ball.

And while exercise and clean eating clearly help people stay healthy, longevity experts say friends and camaraderie are important, too.

Relying on others, and knowing others rely on you, gives life meaning, said Nick Buettner, who works for the Blue Zone Project in Minneapolis and who has studied longevity and aging.

“A reason to get up in the morning,” he said. “I’m guessing for a lot of these people, the softball team gives a strong sense of purpose.”

Smith said the league “keeps me going, the only thing really,” he said. “If I didn’t have this, I’d be sitting in a rocking chair ready to die.”

Wayne Hill, a 75-year-old who splits his year between Michigan and Florida, said he’d been waiting 30 years to join the league. He’s had a triple-bypass, aortic valve surgery and a hip replacement but says playing ball is the best thing he can do for his body — and mind.

“The challenge of still playing. The challenge of going after a ball, throwing a ball, hitting a ball. It’s unbelievably great,” he said, grinning. “It’s just the thrill of the game. I’m not in it to win or lose, I’m in it to play.”

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