When former minor-league baseball player Phil Rose decided to leave his job as a New York policeman and detective in 1995, Wilmington seemed like the perfect place to retire. The only problem? It didn’t have a senior softball league. Rose had played in similar leagues on Long Island for years, so he began posting flyers, and asking friends and neighbors if they wanted to play. Soon, he had the makings of a nascent softball league—11 guys who threw the ball around and occasionally played games against a team from Brunswick County.
Twenty-five years later the Wilmington Senior Softball Association (WSSA) is one of the largest slow-pitch leagues in the North Carolina, with more than 175 players, ages 55 and up, and its own 27-person Hall of Fame. Its 12 teams are divided by ability level into three divisions: Atlantic, Coastal and Legacy. Spring training for new players begins Thursday afternoon at Ogden Park and is open to the public.
At first glance the league looks like any other: Games are played on lined fields, with professional umpires and team uniforms with sponsors’ names splashed across their chests. A closer look, however, reveals a few signs of the players’ advanced ages. Tuesday and Thursday double headers start as early as 9 in the morning, to avoid the summer heat. Players spend extra time warming up, as a pulled hamstring or quad can mean the end of the season. Pitchers must wear protective masks, lest they sign a waiver. There are two home plates—spaced 8 feet apart—to avoid collisions. Three of the league’s 12 teams are sponsored by local retirement communities.
The Legacy Division, generally reserved for the league’s oldest players, includes even more accommodations. In addition to the liberal use of pinch runners (for players who have trouble getting around the bases), its games are played on smaller fields, with fences at 250 feet compared to the Atlantic and Coastal divisions’ 320 feet—though that didn’t stop one Legacy player from slugging 25 home runs last year.
“It’s amazing that people our age are still doing this,” says Atlantic Division president Mike Gallagher, a five-year WSSA veteran.
At 67, Gallagher is no longer one of the league’s youngest players but is far from its oldest. (That honor goes to 85-year-old Bob Perry.) Like Phil Rose, who died in 2015, he moved to North Carolina from further up the East Coast, and was impressed immediately by the scope of Wilmington’s senior league.
“I played in some over-40 leagues in Baltimore, and [WSSA] is by far the most intense league I’ve ever heard of,” he says. He points to the league’s 60-game schedule—which can be grueling for players of any age—as well as its value: The $100 annual membership covers a full season of games (including playoffs), and field rental, umpire fees, insurance and other administrative costs. “I played senior ball in Charlotte, and it would cost $100 to play 12 games there,” Gallagher says.
Former WSSA commissioner Mike Abernathy has seen the increase in value firsthand. When the Carolina Beach native joined the league at age 56 in 1998, there were only four teams and one division. Now 77 and one of WSSA’s longest tenured players, he attributes the league’s growth to its widespread appeal (“We had a bunch of tennis players who came over and played, which was really good”), as well as its accessibility. “Most of the players are retirees, and we swing our schedules and doctors’ appointments around so we don’t have any conflicts on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he says.
WSSA’s 25th season officially kicked off Tuesday with its annual new player orientation at the NHC Northeast Library. The seven spring training sessions, taking place Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next four weeks, will allow league managers to assess incoming talent. A trio of divisional drafts will follow in late March and early April, aimed at creating competitive balance throughout the divisions.
Plans are underway to make this year’s opening day extra special, with former players and WSSA Hall of Fame stars on hand, as well as appearances by Mayor Bill Saffo and NHC Commissioner Rob Zapple; lunch will be provided by the Trolly Stop food truck. Players will wear special 25th anniversary commemorative silver WSSA caps throughout the season. It’s all aimed at creating a family atmosphere and celebrating the league’s growth since 1995, when it was just a handful of guys playing pickup games.
The WSSA motto: “You don’t stop playing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop playing.” It’s a saying the players take to heart. Or, as Gallagher puts it: “It’s something to do. I’ve got golf clubs, but I hack ‘em up pretty terribly. I’d rather play softball.”