With the score 13-12 and a runner in scoring position with two out, the Black Magic softball team was down to its last batter. One more out, and the defending champs would be eliminated from the Chicagoland Legends Softball League playoffs.
For Ken Black of Prospect Heights, it would be the last at-bat in more ways than one.
Black is not just any softball player. At age 82, he has played organized baseball for 72 years. He is the oldest player in the Palatine Park District 50-and-over league.
"He lives, drinks, sleeps baseball," said son Thom Black of Arlington Heights, his teammate on the Black Magic and the commissioner of the league. "We may be the only father and son team in an over-50 league."
While there can't be many who like Black have played the game for more than seven decades, older players are more common than you might expect, as could be seen at the Aug. 1 playoff game at Osage Park, where some of Black's teammates were in their late 70s.
"Softball is the number one sport in America for men over 50," Thom Black said.
"What's really interesting is the level of skill despite the age of these guys," said Chuck Freeman, himself 74 and playing for the Grey Wolves against the Black Magic in the playoff game. "Some of them absolutely still have cannons for throwing arms."
Black has consistently hit over .500, but this year age has started to catch up with him. Looking at his dad and some of the other elderly players, Thom Black, 57, decided the league needed to make the hard decision to impose an age limit, allowing only players under 80, with rare exceptions.
"We would allow those guys 79 going on 80 who want to play another year to try out with everybody else in the draft next year. If your skills are good enough, a team will pick you," Thom Black said.
"You've got guys who are very, very old playing against guys who are still in their 50s. And it's an injury issue," he said. "We had a guy who is in his late 70s who pulled a hamstring running to first base a couple games ago. And he fell because of his hamstring. And the real injury was he broke his shoulder because his bones were too brittle."
A soft-spoken Ken Black talked about how hard he works at conditioning and how hard he tries to contribute, but he didn't talk much about saying farewell to the sport he loves.
Building a career
Ken Black hails from East St. Louis, where he grew up listening to Harry Caray announcing St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on KMOX. As a teenager, he played semipro baseball and eventually received a minor league tryout as a shortstop.
During his career as a lawyer with the International Association of Machinists, he continued to nurture his passion for baseball. When he moved to the Chicago area, softball became a way of life.
Ken's wife, Teresa, who sat on the grass nearby while her husband played, said the two met when she was a secretary in the union office where Ken's father was a union representative.
"Someone told Ken that a new girl had come into the office. And so Ken came in. He was in ROTC at the time. He came in during a lunch break and asked me out for lunch. And he looked so handsome in that uniform.
"I'd go out and watch him play baseball on our dates," she said. "It was hardball in those days. That's how long it's been."
She liked Ken, but it turns out, she didn't like baseball.
"No, I never liked it," she said. "I still don't like it, but that's 10,000 games ago."
After taking early retirement at age 58, Black began playing almost five days a week.
"These guys have developed really long-term relationships," Thom Black says of the players in the Chicago Legends league. "There is something kind of cool being in a place with guys that are older playing with guys who are still younger."
Teresa Black said she thought the end of Ken Black's career would come when he had triple bypass surgery about 20 years ago.
"I thought our life was over as we know it -- no more baseball, finally. This was going to be a new chapter. But in a few weeks he was swinging a bat in the garage against the doctor's orders, and by spring he was back out there on the field just like nothing had happened."
During the summer, in addition to playing in the Palatine league, Ken plays softball at Melas Park in Mount Prospect. In the winter, he plays indoors in Schaumburg. Since January, he has played in more than 70 games.
He has consistently been the best player in the many leagues he has played, a powerhouse, playing all the outfield positions and shortstop.
"I have never ever seen anyone hit a ball like that man," Thom Black said. "And he was as fast as a cheetah."
Now though, his skills, diminished with age, have limited him mostly to catching.
The playoff game
He's still impresses, though, dressed in his black uniform, with black pants with white pinstripes that match his white hair. Black, who stands around 5-foot-3, has a strong arm when throwing the ball around the infield. At the plate, he makes good contact. On the base paths, he runs hard. Just not as quickly.
"I like competing," he said. "Even when I'm on a team that can't win anything, I still like to play. I like to win."
When he is not playing ball, he said, he works out. "I lift weights. I can still bench press 130 pounds."
Chuck Freeman, the player with the Grey Wolves, confirms that at 82, Black can still run, field ground balls and make throws in the infield. "He has lost some pop in his bat. He still hits the ball well. It just doesn't go as far."
"He was really good," said his manager, Denis Feeney. "He's not as agile as he used to be."
Throughout the playoff game, Ken Black displays his enthusiasm and does his best to help his team win. When he is off the field, he also indulges in a little bench jockeying.
For one at-bat, he puts on his batting glove and, as he approaches home plate, swings his bat in a circle. Clearly he is ready to hit.
And he makes good contact, running hard to first base, but the third baseman fields his grounder, steps on third to get the lead runner and barely beats the hard-charging Black with his throw to first base for an inning-ending double play.
As the game progresses, the Grey Wolves take a commanding lead, but the defending champs battle back. Finally, it is down to Ken Black, the last batter, with two out, down by a run and the tying run in scoring position.
The pitch arrives. Black takes a lusty swing and hits a solid line drive that leaves his bat in a hurry. It seems this may not be his last game after all.
But in a flash, the third baseman catches it.
As Black leaves the field, he is obviously disappointed, the competitive fires still raging within his 82-year-old heart.
"I was hoping I would get a hit to drive in the winning run," he says.
Thus ends a remarkable 72-year career on the field. But with Ken Black, well, you know what they say. Old ballplayers never die.
They just fade away.