For the Love of the Game
Ethel Lehmann, 84, Largo, Florida
Baseball was love at first sight from the time Ethel Lehmann was a little girl in New York sitting on her father's shoulders, watching and cheering along as the hometown hero hit a home run. As a teen that memory resonated when she set softball records and was named team MVP as her proud father and uncles cheered her on. But times were different and her mother made her promise to quit sports at 21 because others thought "it was not feminine" for adult women to follow that path.
Keeping the promise was not difficult while raising five children, but the fire inside smoldered until the family moved to Florida and she found a ladies’ softball league in Clearwater. There were no senior women’s teams in Florida at the time but that didn't stop Ethel. At 47, she was more than double the age of any of the other girls, but despite the challenge it gave her the chance to play her beloved game. She then joined a men’s senior softball club in Clearwater, breaking barriers again as the only woman on a roster.
When she was 75, she tagged along with her husband to try out for the famed Kids N’ Kubs Senior Softball Club in St. Petersburg. They became the first husband and wife player in the league's eight decade history, which caught the attention of the NBC Today Show. But she still yearned to be part of "a league of her own." When Ethel ran track in the 1993 National Senior Games she was excited to see women's senior softball competition and resolved to form a team back home in Florida. In 1995, the Freedom Spirit made its national debut in The Games and 10 medals would follow. The team continues to roll.
Ethel's example of passion, perseverance and commitment to keep fit has not escaped the attention of others. In 2008 she was the first of six teammates to be inducted into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame, and last year she was selected to be a "Humana Game Changer" for the 2013 National Senior Games Presented by Humana (story and video here.) But Ethel Lehmann values the chance to travel to tournaments, stay in shape and enjoy the company of others sharing the same interests as greater benefits than any medal or recognition. She's had her share of life challenges, but it's clear from our chat that Ethel will never stop pursuing her Personal Best.
Glad we finally caught up. You are one busy 84 year old.
I've been very busy this week. My husband has dementia now so that takes a good bit of my time. And I've been helping my friend Shirley Smith move into an assisted living facility. Shirley and I co-founded the first senior women's softball team in Florida together. She's also in the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame, along with five others on my team. That's a record. And I was the first one.
You are recognized as a pioneer in senior women's softball. Have you played all of your life?
I always loved baseball. I grew up in New York so I was a big Yankees fan. I'd listen on the radio and let out a yell when Joe DiMaggio would knock a homer. My Mom would tell me to quiet down, that I was bothering the neighbors. And you know, I went to the movies where they used to show those short news films before the feature and I saw girls playing in a pro baseball league. I hoped somebody would tap me on the shoulder and say "Come on out and try out." But I came from a poor family so we didn't have the money for me to try out until I got older.
When I got my chance I played from age 16 to 21. I played shortstop in fast pitch for two years and then three years in a modified baseball league called the American Girls Baseball Conference - you know, like they did in "League of Their Own" with the pitcher throwing overhand.
But my Mom made me promise I would stop at 21. Years ago, that wasn't very acceptable for a girl to be playing sports. I guess she was getting pressure from other people that it wasn't very feminine. And we were looked down upon.
Attitudes were quite different then, before the women's rights movement and Title IX.
When I played basketball in high school I asked why we couldn't play the full court. I was a guard and all I ever did was jump up and get the ball and just pass it to the ones who could shoot for the basket. I was told that women's lungs couldn't handle running the full court, that we were built differently. After high school, I joined the Hicksville Dodgerettes basketball team of the Long Island Womens Basketball League where we played the correct way on a full court. I was on the All Star team for two years.
There were no athletic scholarships for girls, or almost none. I was told about a very small scholarship I might have gotten back then but it wouldn't have been enough for me to go to college. I'm just so happy to see that that has all changed in my lifetime. My granddaughter Lindsay won a scholarship in soccer. She likes to run. It's so nice to hear about girls getting that opportunity now.
So you kept your promise to stop sports at 21? When did you start playing softball again?
Yes, I stopped at 21 and didn't do anything until after I got married and had five children in five years. When they were all little and had me running around there were days I felt like I had played a double header (laughs). So that was the end of that until I was older and we moved down to Florida.
I saw an ad in the paper from a man who was forming a softball team in the Clearwater recreation league, and noticed it said that age didn't matter. It took me a while to get up enough nerve to call him. I told him I was 47 and old enough to be his mother. I played with girls much younger than me until I was 53. There was one who would always say " I want to be just like Ethel when I grow up!" and I thought that was so funny. But when I told my family doctor that I slide into base and all that he warned me that I could break my back or break my leg. It did a job on me mentally so I gave up playing with the young gals.
But I just couldn't resist the itch to go back. I guess I was a re-recycled athlete at around 61. I had the urge to play again but I found there were no senior women playing. So I became the only woman playing with the Three Score Men's Slow Pitch Softball League for about five years - until I got a concussion. There was a pop fly and I ran up trying to do one of my 16 year old catches and boom! This big heavy guy crashed into me. Then a week later another guy ran into me from behind. Between those two things I wound up in the hospital for three days. That ended me playing with the men until I joined Kids 'N Kubs with my husband at 75.
Wow. So when did you finally put together the Freedom Spirit senior women's team?
The whole object was to form the team to get into the National Senior Games. I was training to run in the 5K Turkey Trot here in Clearwater in 1991 and a friend started talking about the National Senior Games and she convinced me to go qualify in the track and field events, which I did. When I was at Nationals I heard about the softball games and took a bus to watch. I couldn't believe that there wasn't a women's team from Florida. From then on every time I went to a track event or went bowling I asked the more athletic looking ones if they also played softball. Some would say no, not since high school or college. I made them write their numbers down and soon we got enough and started to practice.
We organized as the Freedom Spirit in 1993, and 1995 was our first Nationals. We started as a 55 plus team, went to 65, then to 70 and now we are a 75 plus women's senior softball team. My teammates are exceptional. They are all great players. From 1995 when we started until 2013 we have had 3 Gold, 5 Silver and 2 Bronze. Not bad for one softball team.
It must be a good feeling to know you played a role in getting others together that share your love of the sport. I never thought that I would have so many friends and meet so many nice people. Our team always has a quick prayer before every game that no one gets hurt, and we always include the opposing team. The camaraderie among us is just exceptional. We all just get along so well.
Beyond the playing experience, what else do you like about going to the National Senior Games?
I tell you, there were ten of us in my family and we didn't have much money to go anywhere. I never dreamed that I would get to see the United States in my senior years, and the National Senior Games has allowed me to do that. We've gone to so many different states and we're still going to new places. We always try to visit some of the important places in those cities.
Fitness is also very important part, and it's also good mentally - I'm always looking ahead to two years from now and it just keeps me aware. It helps me watch my weight and to exercise to try to be in the best physical shape I can get and to do the best that I can.
You must have friends and neighbors who are not very active. How do you try to motivate them?
I know people that don't do anything and are putting on weight, and I try to tell them to just get up and do it. But I also tell them to first go and get checked out by your doctor. That's what I did. When I was 50 and just after menopause, I weighed the most I ever had and felt very sluggish and tired.
I tell them my story of deciding that I just have to start walking and exercising more. The first day I started to jog and was huffing and puffing after just going three houses down the street. But the next day I went past four houses. And the next day I made it to the corner. And before I knew it, I was jogging to the park a few blocks away. It might take you three or four months before you start feeling good about it. But now I try to jog two or three times a week and I can usually go three miles all the way through the park and back again. On rainy or cold days I can go to a Silver Sneakers location nearby and do some upper body exercise and the treadmill. But if I don't feel like I can do it I don't push it. You have to listen to your body.
So, when you look back at it all, what would you say was your inspiration to keep going?
I talked about that in my Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Reflecting on my softball career and wondering when it all began, I realized how impressed I was as a small child sitting on the shoulders of my Dad to see what all the cheering and happy faces was about. The baseball player had just hit a home run to win the town game, and it was implanted in my mind. Then as a teenager I remember my Dad along with two uncles were in the crowd watching as I set a home run record in fast pitch softball. Three happy faces said it all and my love of softball grew greater.
I also have to say that I never thought it would be possible to still be playing softball in my senior years. I couldn't do it all without God giving me the ability to be healthy and do well all of these years. So I try to give back and do the best I can. I always tell people my love of sports and good health are gifts from God, and what I do with them is my gift to God.