St. Petersburg has amassed an eclectic archive of rich milestones and characters across the decades including famous visitors passing through and historical landmarks. But Destination Tampa Bay area sports fans may not realize another treasure lies in their midst, one tucked away behind the trees and the tennis courts of the illustrious Vinoy® Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club and nestled in nearby Northshore Field just north of the hotel, along the waterfront. A long-time tradition remains strong as ever– embarking on its 86th season – and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon…The St. Petersburg Half Century Softball Club.
According to local legend, the St. Petersburg Half Century Softball Club began in 1933 when a group of men gathered at an old ballpark situated where Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park now sits. There, the group decided if players pitched in their share to purchase bats and balls – 10 or 15 cents each – the group could form their own club. Fast forward to 2018, and the Half Century Softball Club not only continues meeting three times a week for games during the season – the club also plays practice games throughout the summer to stay flexible and boasts nearly 60 active players on its roster.
“I am really proud to be part of an organization that’s going on 86 years old,” says Alex Millman, current president of the softball club and a member since the 2015-2016 season. “We all remember being children and most of us playing baseball as kids. I think the sport is ingrained in American culture.”
The New York native says when he moved to St. Petersburg, he crossed paths with the Club while walking his dog at the park next to Northshore Field. He noticed that the players were close in proximity to his age, so he began a conversation about nd, the St. Petersburg Half Century Softball Clubwhich led him to join and become a part of its history, too.
“I love sports and always have been competitive. But I also really enjoy the club aspect of it,” he says. “There’s a camaraderie so even though we’re on separate teams, at the end of the day, we’re all friends. Somehow those two things blend together to make it a unique experience.”
The St. Petersburg Half Century Softball Club plays a modified (no wind-mill) fast pitch style of softball. Players on the team must be between the ages of 49 to 74 to participate in the softball which is open to both men and women. The St. Petersburg Half Century Softball Club regular season runs October through April with games typically held at 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Anyone interested in learning more about the Club is encouraged to stop by Northshore Field over the summer during practice games to see it in person and talk with other players. An application as well as general information is available on the Club’s website. The current roster includes about 60 full-time and part-time active members, including one full-time female player.
Each season, players are distributed among a minimum of four teams, sometimes five or six teams when a great number of players register. Other players including new members may be placed in a pool and not activate until another player becomes injured or leaves the club. That’s how Club participation began for long-time member Peter Golenbock, who describes the sport he loves so much as a uniquely spiritual experience. “To a certain group of people, baseball/softball is as important as religion. You go to the cathedral to play the game. Instead of a bible, there’s a rulebook. Instead of a priest or ministers, you have the umpires. And it takes on that kind of importance,” he says. “What I love about the Half Century Club is that half of these people feel as I do.”
When he’s not serving as a first baseman on one of the league’s teams, Golenbock teaches sports and its impact on American culture as an adjunct professor at USF-St. Pete. If his name sounds familiar though, it may be because most of his life has been spent serving as an acclaimed sports journalist and prolific author. He has penned ten New York Times best-selling titles among the most popular sports books of all time. Serious baseball fans especially will know Golenbock as the author of some of their favorite books including Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, Number 1 co-written with Billy Martin, and most notably, The Bronx Zoo, co-written with pitcher Sparky Lyle. But he seems just has pleased to talk about his tenure as one of the longest-playing members of the Half Century Softball Club, with his rookie season taking place in 1995. “It’s an important aspect to a lot of people’s lives,” he says. “There’s the arts, the symphony and then there’s softball.” (The former journalist is quick to point out that the Club has been popular enough over the years for its box scores to warrant a spot on the then-St. Petersburg Times sports page.)
Golenbock had played on softball teams before joining the St. Pete group, having once been a part of a celebrated local CBS newscaster’s celebrity team in NYC. When he began playing here, he was not anticipating the same level of play but found himself pleasantly surprised.
“I’ve played a lot of softball in my time, and this was tremendously competitive, a very high caliber league. Even as I start my 24th year, the quality of the league is better now than it’s ever been before,” he says. “We used to have one home run hitter in the league, who could consistently hit it over the fence, and now we’ve got six of them.”
Players can switch positions throughout the year or stay in the same role during play, according to their comfort level and skill set. When a new season begins, players are re-distributed to new teams. Golenbock says it is one more demonstration of the St. Petersburg Half Century Softball Club commitment to demonstrating fairness and good sportsmanship year-round. “In terms of what’s important, fairness is right at the top. Civility is second,” he says. “The quality of play is high but at the same time, people should realize they’re part of a club and they must be civil. There’s no sliding into someone else to hurt them or screaming epithets, that doesn’t happen. The idea is to put two teams out on the field to go at each other and just have a great game.”
This year, the author and professor served as captain of the season-winning Cranes (or Crane-in-Chief, as he quips). He and team members were honored along with the season’s top scoring players at an awards banquet following the playoffs and championship. Millman spoke at the banquet and says the connections that form are a big part of why the Club is so successful. The devoted Yankees fan laughs when describing his amazement and joy when he first learned that a member of the Club happened to be the writer of one of his favorite baseball books he read while growing up, The Bronx Zoo. He knew then this was going to be a special group of people. A quick glance at the roster of last season’s players shows a Club comprised of former educators, pilots, fire chiefs, scientists, counselors and veterans, a diverse mix of people from varied backgrounds but sharing one important bond: a love for the sport. “We’re a club with 85 years of history and 60 brothers and sisters that come together and play ball,” Millman says.
For more information about the St. Petersburg Century Softball Club, visit them online at stpetehalfcentury.com or follow them on the club’s Facebook page.
By Chris Kuhn
Photos courtesy of St. Petersburg Half Century Softball Club
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