VERONA — Long past their days as being “The Boys of Summer” and playing baseball, the men of the Greater Madison Senior Softball League still find a way to get out and play the game they love.
Players that range in age from 55 and above from all over southern Wisconsin — from the Madison and Milwaukee suburbs to Monroe, New Glarus, Darlington and Blanchardville — come together each week to play slowpitch softball in Verona.
They travel to keep in shape, play the game they love — and to keep friendships alive.
“The friendships, to be able to come out and have a little fun, but not get hurt; we can still make some plays and hit the ball. But once you quit, you quit for a long time,” said Tom Kammerude, 69 of Blanchardville.
The league was started in 2008 by Ray Blum and Bob Ruhland. The pair has since relinquished command of the league, though Ruhland still plays and is the captain of his team, the Braves.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” Ruhland said.
Ruhland and Blum weren’t sure how much excitement there would be for the newfound league and were hoping for about three teams. Instead they got eight. In that first year of the league, many of the players didn’t know each other, so Ruhland and Blum had each player fill out a mini-profile so they could gage talent level. From there the captains held a draft to divvy up the teams, with a few exceptions.
The league currently sits at 21 teams and games are held Wednesday and Thursday mornings at either Verona’s Stampfl Field or Veterans Park. There are more than 200 players in the league, with the average age for a player at 68, and there is no longer a need for a draft.
I laughingly said that I ‘can’t play baseball anymore, but maybe I’ll have to come out of retirement and play softball with you.’ He said, ‘Ok, see you next year.’ I wasn’t really serious, but I’ve been playing now seven years.Tom Kammerude, Blanchardville
“It’s a fun group of guys and great friendships,” Kammerude said. “Jim Syse, Jim Strommen, Duane Schober, Chuck Chandler, Mark Hardyman — those guys all played Home Talent for me in Blanchardville. I started bringing those guys in. Jimmy Syse and Jimmy Strommen, we’ve played on-and-off together since ’74.”
Kammerude played Home Talent until 1985. After having his knee replaced, he saw Ruhland several years ago and joked that he’d have to come play in his league now.
“I laughingly said that I ‘can’t play baseball anymore, but maybe I’ll have to come out of retirement and play softball with you.’ He said, ‘Ok, see you next year.’ I wasn’t really serious, but I’ve been playing now seven years,” Kammerude said.
Shortly after he started playing, he began bringing former teammates and pupils along.
“Some guys when they get older stop playing, and they were looking for new guys and Tom said, ‘I’ve got some guys that used to play baseball.’ So, coach (Jim) Strommen and I, and Duane Schober and a few others started playing. It’s a good time,” said Syse. “I played baseball and softball my whole life. I like the game. This league is fun. We’ve got a good group of guys, and we like to win; but it’s pretty laid back.”
One of the youngest players in the league is Chandler, 55 of Blanchardville. Chandler plays left-centerfield for the Braves and hits leadoff. The Braves are chalk full of former Pecatonica Vikings, Blanchardville Bullets and Hollandale-area coaches, players and umpires.
“Some of these guys are former coaches of mine from grade school and high school. I thought it would be an opportunity to rekindle some friendships and coach-player relationships,” Chandler said. “It’s pretty fun, and still pretty competitive. Even though it’s 55-and-over, everybody knows what the score is.”
Many of the players played Home Talent baseball and have kept the rivalries alive. Others have joined forces with former rivals.
“Blanchardville has traditionally had a pretty strong Home Talent baseball team. Greg DiPiazza, we played against him in Cross Plains. He was a pretty good rival of ours, and now we’re on the same team here. It’s fun because you get to meet some new guys and you still get to play,” Chandler said. “I’m 55-years-old; I can’t play football anymore; I can’t really play basketball competitively anymore; but I can still play softball a little bit.”
Larry Richardson is 83 years old and plays first base.
“I’m 55-years-old; I can’t play football anymore; I can’t really play basketball competitively anymore; but I can still play softball a little bit.Chuck Chandler, Blanchardville
“Larry, whose 83, he’s unbelievable. He hits the ball, runs well — hell, he’s faster than me. I’ve got nothing to complain about when he’s 20 years older than me and doing those things,” Strommen said.
Kammerude added that Richardson “does yoga, runs, hits the ball — he’s my hero. He’s 13 years older than me and plays great, but that’s part of the fun of it.”
Many of the players in the league are retired or semi-retired. The rest are nearing retirement. With that in mind, the league put in many adaptive measures to minimize the risk of injury as well as to speed up the games. Players can “run through” second and third base, much like first base to avoid sliding. There is a second home plate to avoid collisions. Courtesy runners can be used once an inning, and typically are used to help an ailing player from running around the bases. The league also allows for an extra infielder.
“I always have two rules: don’t embarrass myself and don’t get hurt,” said Strommen. It’s hard for some players to tame down the natural aggressiveness.
“It’s always kind of in your blood and never leaves,” Strommen said.
Strommen said he tries to stay busy in the summer months. Between his role with the Bullets in the Home Talent League, coaching Babe Ruth baseball, canoeing and playing pickleball, he wants to stay as active and fit as he can.
“The old saying is ‘You don’t quit playing because you get old, you get old because you quit playing,’” Strommen said.
After games, teams will sometimes have a small cookout or picnic at the park, with wives making the food and friends sharing laughs. Other times they might play a quick round of golf. After all, building and maintaining relationships plays a big part in driving the league.
Former Monroe teacher Brian Saugstad plays on the Navy Blue team with several other Monroe-area players. Saugstad, 77, has been around the league for a while and gets to share the field with his brother, Kent, 62 of Juneau.
My grandkids have been bat boys. They get to watch grandpa play. That’s special.Brian Saugstad, Monroe
“We had a team in Orfordville in a 50-plus league that folded and we wanted to keep playing,” Brian Saugstad said. “It’s fun being competitive. We have a fantastic team and it’s a great league. The wives take care of eating afterwards and sometimes we have a golf outing. And we’re done by noon, and that makes it more fun.”
A couple of Saugstad’s former teammates have either retired from playing or have moved onto other teams. Reid Stangel played with Saugstad until hanging up the cleats a couple of seasons ago, and Greg “Duck” Wuetrich left to join his brother, Steve.
“Some of us have played together since 1980,” Saugstad said. “For some of us the fire is still burning. But it’s more fellowship than competition.”
Saugstad said that one of the neat things about still playing is that his grandchildren can come and spectate.
“My grandkids have been bat boys. They get to watch grandpa play. That’s special,” Saugstad said.