The Old Men of Summer still play baseball into their 70s

From left, Abner Sokol, 77; John DeBenedictis, 74; William D. Curzie Jr., 77; H. James Burgwyn, 76; and Lou Dunkle, 71.
From left, Abner Sokol, 77; John DeBenedictis, 74; William D. Curzie Jr., 77; H. James Burgwyn, 76; and Lou Dunkle, 71. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 14, 2012

There will be no mistaking them for the Phillies, but one local group of baseball players is headed to the World Series, and these guys are happy just to step onto the field.

They are not your typical team - all over 70, their lineup features a judge and a retired history professor.

Not many of the players in the Tri-State 48+/55+ Senior Baseball League are over 70, but six who are will head to national 70+ tournaments: the Men's Senior Baseball League (MSBL) World Series in Arizona and the Roy Hobbs World Series in Florida.

Call them the Grandfathers of Summer.

"I like to say it's like watching the ESPN highlights when they play it in slow motion," said John DeBenedictis, the 74-year-old patriarch of the highly organized league.

Their motto? "Don't go soft, play hardball."

"This is baseball," DeBenedictis said. "Not softball or not some other game similar to baseball."

Five players will go to Arizona for the MSBL tournament beginning Monday, joining players from other leagues to complete a team: retired salesman Abner "Red" Sokol, 77; history professor emeritus H. James "Burgie" Burgwyn, 76; practicing minister Lou Dunkle, 71; Judge Benjamin Lerner, 71; and DeBenedictis, a retired biomedical engineer.

Dunkle and Sokol will also play in next month's Roy Hobbs tournament, joining 77-year-old William D. Curzie Jr., a retired educator.

The gray warriors recognize how unlikely it is to find a 77-year-old rounding the bases.

"This is now a lifetime sport. It used to be tennis, swimming, things like that. Never before was baseball considered a lifetime sport," Curzie said.

Burgwyn, an author and retired West Chester University history professor, said his experience was common. By age 21, he was out of baseball, and he didn't return until he was 66. "It's amazing," Burgwyn said. "I never expected to be able to play again."

All the players have a lifelong love of baseball, having played it as children, and are loyal followers of Major League teams.

Lerner and his brother Alan organized their own team as children and played in a league at the Feltonville Recreation Center on Wyoming Avenue. They followed the Phillies on radio and attended games at Connie Mack Stadium, where they would wait by the clubhouse door for autographs.

But Lerner, a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge, said the dream of playing was always out of reach. His brother had the talent, playing in high school, college, and even semiprofessionally after graduating.

"I guess, next to my family and my work, baseball comes third. But I'm not very good. And I've never been a very good player," Lerner said.

He was out of his league by high school, not good enough to make the freshman team. The closest he got to baseball after that was "some lawyer league softball while I was at the Defender's Association."

But today, the judge, a contact-hitting first baseman, is a proud member of the Delaware Diamondbacks and is looking forward to the tournament in Arizona. After his brother died in October 2010, Lerner said, he plays out of two loves.

"One is that I just love to do it . . . and the other reason is frankly because that's what [my brother] would want me to do," he said.

"I was not good enough to play competitive baseball with those guys, or somebody like my brother," Lerner said. "So for me, this is really a first chance that I never expected to have. And if it wasn't for him, if it wasn't for my brother, I probably wouldn't have taken this first chance."

The other players had similar stories: They stopped playing hardball as they reached adulthood but found softball and other sports poor substitutes for the sport Dunkle called "the real thing."

"We're very snobbish about this," Burgwyn said. "We just think there's something quite quintessential about baseball."

The tri-state league walks a fine line between competition and participation, members said, and the players disagreed as to how well that balance is maintained.

DeBenedictis said most teams let all members play; Sokol disagreed, arguing that they bench players in order to play the best. Decisions as to roster and batting order are ultimately left to the discretion of the team manager. There is also, Burgwyn said, a judgment call each player must make.

"We have to look at ourselves in the mirror. Are we still able to play this game, or are we a burden? Are we just hangers-on?" he said. "That's brutally difficult for each one of us, because none of us want to admit that we're done."

The league plays with modified rules, and the two coming tournaments feature additional modifications, including restrictions on stealing bases, allowing free substitution on defense, and allowing a designated runner to replace any player who has mobility issues after he gets to first base.

The changes are designed to accommodate players with age-related issues, DeBenedictis said, but he tends to be a purist.

"I don't mind a change of the rules to maximize participation, but when you change the game -.

"These rules have evolved for 200 years, and you get all the bugs out of them, and here we come in, trying to change the rules thinking we'll have no problems," DeBenedictis said. And the new rules, he said, do create problems.

"But we have an age problem, John!" Curzie retorted.

For Lerner, time has been a "the great equalizer" when it comes to baseball.

"You can get out on a field and compete with people your age at 70," he said, "that you would not have been able to compete with 40 or 50 years before."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 215-854-2771, jlai@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @elaijuh.

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