The Over the Hill Gang's old ball game
Stepping up to the plate at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow is Jerry Mangino. A softball veteran, Mangino is waiting for the perfect pitch, and when it finally comes, he connects with his bat and runs to first base the way he has hundreds of times before.
At 91, Mangino, who lives in East Meadow, is the oldest player in the Over the Hill Gang, a softball league for guys 60 and older who play together three times a week, weather permitting, from about April 20 to Oct. 20. Even his teammates who regularly see Mangino in action are in awe at how he can still make his way around the diamond with the speed of a man half his age.
"He's amazing," says Mark Brier, 66, a Gang member who hosts stand-up shows at libraries across Long Island. And while Mangino inspires awe from Brier, a semiretired accountant from East Meadow, some of the other players provide comic material for his act. "You see Stan?" he asks, setting up a joke about another player. "When he runs, he's like a glacier."
Over the Hill Gang manager Bill Mastro hears the punchline and has a comeback aimed at Brier: "If you really want to make somebody laugh," he says, "watch him play."
No one takes the jibes personally. In fact, the zingers fly faster than the pitches and are part of the easygoing vibe that takes place when the Gang gets together for their doubleheaders on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 8 to about noon at Eisenhower's field 8.
"This is not about winning, it's about having a good time," says Phil Shumer, 73, of North Bellmore, the team's assistant manager, who worked as a printing production manager. "Do we get upset when we make a mistake? Of course we do. But no one is going to get angry with you if you do."
It's the emphasis on camaraderie over competition that has attracted the 54 members who make up the roster of the Over the Hill Gang. "I couldn't play softball with the kids anymore, so I took up golf. Then I turned 60 and somebody told me about this and it was softball heaven," says Joe Pirozzi, 62 of Roslyn Harbor. Pirozzi was a distributor of trading cards and sports memorabilia before retiring last year.
A typical morning in softball heaven starts with batting practice at 8 and picking teams between 8:15 and 8:30. By 8:40, the first of two, seven-inning games, each of which lasts about 90 minutes, gets underway. After a 10-minute break, it's time for game No. 2.
Not everyone is required to play every game, which the group considers a huge advantage over other leagues. "We split it into three teams," says Mastro, 66, a retired tractor trailer driver from Westbury. "For instance, team 1 and team 2 will play on Monday, but other guys come down in case we can't fill the teams. We don't let anybody sit on the bench. No matter how good or bad, we're all together."
There are also rotating captains on the three teams who pick the players for each game so they're not always the same. And what's a softball league without rules? "You can overrun the bases, but there's no sliding," says Mastro. "You don't have to go to the base. You can go to the right or the left depending on where the ball is." That flexibility is designed to avoid injuries, he says.
Another perk, especially for some of the older members, is that a younger player can run the bases for them if they have trouble getting around the field.
Though none of the original members is still around, the Over the Hill Gang first began to play ball between 20 and 25 years ago. "It was developed as an alternative for people who didn't want to play in a traditional league," says Gig Properzio, 72, a former Gang manager who's been with the group for 13 years. Properzio is a retired importer/exporter who lives in Syosset.
New members have been recruited in various ways. "When I retired [about six years ago], my wife said, 'You're not gonna sit around the house,' " says Mastro. "She found an ad in Newsday, and that's how I joined."
Pirozzi, on the other hand, got recruited by some golf buddies who were Gang members.
Membership has also been very diverse, ranging from Marino Pelaez, 72, a retired business consultant and Cuban immigrant from Merrick who jokes that the team went to Havana to recruit him, to Paul Livass, 84, of Mineola who, many years ago, had a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but didn't make the cut. Before retiring, Livass ran a dental lab.
New members are always welcome, but they're usually the most prone to injuries. "They want to impress and don't realize they're 60-something," says Mastro. "They start running and then they're out because they usually end up pulling a muscle."
Luckily, there have been no major medical problems. "We have no doctors here. The one thing we need and we have no doctors," Mastro says lightly. "I've been here six years and nothing critical has ever happened."
Off the field
Friendships often linger off the field after the games. Members pay $30 annual dues, which covers their uniforms and an annual picnic.
But socializing isn't confined to the league. After playing two games on Wednesday, several Over the Hill members get together for an afternoon of cards, and each July they have a fishing trip. And when softball season ends in the fall, a number of players do six months of volleyball at a school in Levittown.
For many of the guys in the group, all of that togetherness stirs up memories of childhood and playing stickball on the street, says Jim Handlin, 70, of Floral Park. Handlin, who was a deputy superintendent of security in the New York State Office of Corrections before retiring, says, "The friendship and the fun -- it's like your old neighborhood where most of us came from."
And that's exactly what Mastro and every other Gang manager has ever wanted. "I played competitively all my life and I found this to be a godsend," he says. "There's no traveling; we keep score, but at the end of the day, it's over. It's a lot more fun and enjoyable. It's more like sandlot baseball; pick a team and start playing. It's a rewarding experience."
How to join
Think you'd like to be part of the Over the Hill Gang? The group is always open to new members. Teams can be found at field 8 in Eisenhower Park on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings between 8 and noon.
You can either come down and take the field or just watch the guys in action, says team manager Bill Mastro.
If you'd like more information, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.