In April 1988, Dick Martens began looking around for people his age who would play softball with him.
A World War II veteran, he was 65 years old, had just retired from Uniroyal and finally had time to do whatever he wanted. Dick had played and coached in local leagues when he was younger and decided to start a slow-pitch league here for folks his age.
His dream had a slow start. Early on, senior softball was a program, just like art and cooking classes, offered through Mishawaka’s Battell Senior Center. Players would gather to practice and maybe have pickup games at Merrifield Park.
For some, the exercise was nice, but so are wheelchair races. Some of these 65-year-olds were expecting to actually compete.
That first group of players recruited friends, some of whom hadn’t thrown a ball since Eisenhower was president. Finally, in 1990, the league had enough healthy candidates to field three teams.
A South Bend Tribune story from that season reported that players often brought along children and grandchildren to serve as base-runners.
A lot has changed since then. The Michiana Senior Softball League, as we’re now called, plays real games, with real equipment and we don’t need any kids to do our running for us.
Much of this progress is because of people like Bob Torok. He and others in his age group realized there wasn’t much of a future for a league that was limited to players in their mid-60s. Unless they added younger players, it would be an annual challenge to find new players to replace those whose aches and pains were forcing them to quit.
The obvious answer was to lower the age limit. But the question was, how much lower? If we let 55-year-olds play, would the 70-year-olds still be able to compete and have fun?
This question has been debated, in different forms, ever since. The league’s leaders have found themselves bumping the eligibility ages lower to attract more players. And to keep things fair and safe, they divided the league into two divisions.
Currently, the junior division’s rules allow players who will celebrate their 53rd birthday within that calendar year. In reality, though, teams have been able to add soon-to-be-52 players nearly every year. The senior division age minimum is 62.
Our goal is to include players, not exclude them. Both of those limits can be bent to allow players whose physical skills fit within the league’s standards. A younger person unable to run, for example, or with a disability might have fun in the senior division without upsetting the competitive balance.
Last year was our biggest and best ever. With 12 teams split among those two divisions, we kept more than 150 senior adult athletes and their families active and entertained twice a week from May through August. It also was the first season at the Byers Complex in South Bend, after three-plus decades mainly at Henry Frank and Normain parks in Mishawaka.
If you watch a senior game at 5 p.m. and a junior game at 6:30, you’ll usually see a difference in attitude as well as skill level. The juniors tend to compete more passionately, and it can be a bit intimidating for newcomers. The seniors traditionally are more forgiving or each other’s errors and weaknesses. It’s probably more like what Dick Martens envisioned in 1988.
Dick passed away in 2008, and most of us playing now never met him. His vision for a high-quality senior league has been taken up by dozens of players, coaches, umpires and sponsors.
We’re better because of the talents and ideas that come every spring from newcomers, many of whom have been looking forward to their 53rd year when they finally can join us.
Tell your friends about us. The Byers Complex has five fields, which means we can have 10 teams playing at a time. We have room to grow. We’ve come a long way since Dick had the idea. But at our core, we’re exactly the same.
We still want people who will play softball with us.