Scott Ball / Rivard Report
In the winter of life, Adolph Hoffman steps into the spring of his youth. Beneath a clear blue sky at McAllister Park, Hoffman approaches the plate and cocks a 35-ounce bat over his surgically repaired right shoulder.
A field of green stretches wide before him. A white fastball hums toward his chin. Ball one.
In the San Antonio Men’s Senior Baseball League, Hoffman stands out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the number of the back of his red jersey – 94 – and the size of his bat, three ounces heavier than the Major League standard. Miguel Cabrera, for example, became a two-time American League home run champion swinging a 32-ounce bat.
Hoffman doesn’t know much about Cabrera or his 446 career homers. What Hoffman does know is he’s swinging a lighter piece of lumber than he’s used to. In 2015, he swung a 40-ounce bat, the same size Babe Ruth used to club 60 home runs in 1927.
Dropping to a 35-ounce stick represents a concession to age. Hoffman is 94. Six years shy of 100, he’s making a comeback for the ages. Two years ago, Hoffman tore his right rotator lifting a 40-pound compressor into the back of his pickup truck. Then he bruised his ribs and chest after a couple of falls, one from a ladder while picking pears from a tree. Today, Hoffman is the oldest ballplayer in the United States, a designated hitter for the Monarchs, a silver-haired gang of mostly 65- to 70-year-olds.
Early Friday night, as the setting sun casts an orange glow between first and home, Hoffman steps into a 1-2 fastball from a pitcher young enough to be his son, 64-year-old David Hernandez of the Yankees. Wood meets cork and stitched cowhide. The ball pops in the air and Hoffman starts toward first. The ball lands 40 feet away and rolls toward third base. Easy out.
Head down, Hoffman turns and ambles back to the dugout, disappointed he didn’t get a base hit but grateful to be suiting up. While the U.S. Census Bureau reports an increase in men living beyond 90 (515,812 in 2010, up from 350,497 in 2000), only one is playing organized baseball.
Steve Sigler knows. In 1988, he founded the Men’s Senior Baseball League, also known as the MSBL, an organization that’s grown to 45,000 players in hundreds of leagues across the U.S.
“We’ve had guys in the upper 80s play,” Sigler said. “But no one 90 years old. Adolph is the oldest.”
Hoffman wears his age and reputation well. His pale blue eyes follow a fastball without corrective lenses. Broad shoulders and thick forearms enable him to load grain and bale hay on his 185-acre farm in Somerset. Once 5-foot-9, Hoffman now stands closer to 5-6, but he hasn’t lost much strength.
Joel Morley, a 64-year-old pitcher for the Texans and Lone Stars, offered a first-hand account.
“Four years ago, I threw an 80 mile-an-hour fastball to Adolph and he crushed it,” said Morley, who pitched for the University of Texas at Austin in the early ‘70s. “I was thinking, ‘I’ll just throw three strikes right down the middle.’ The first one I threw, he just smacked in the left center power alley – and I had a 20 mph wind behind me. He stretched a double into a single. Anybody else would have gotten to second.”
In 2009, Morley and Hoffman played on the Texans’ 55-and-older team. Morley recalls Hoffman, then 86, drilling a pitch 350 feet to centerfield at the University of the Incarnate Word.
“He knocked me in for the winning run and we won the league championship,” Morley said. “We beat the San Antonio Yankees, and they went on to win the World Series.”
Stories about Hoffman are legion and legendary. Hoffman offered one himself, a second-hand account from a stat keeper. “About eight or nine years ago,” he recalled, “I was battin’ around .400.”
A measure of Hoffman’s success can be attributed to the “Adolph Rule.” Senior league pitchers do not throw him curves. Only fastballs. As retired manager Bill Hoffman explained, “If he can hit their best fastball, which happens a lot, then so be it!”
There are no records to substantiate Hoffman’s claim of .400. But there are plenty that paint a portrait of a young, heroic man. Hoffman served his country in World War II as a quartermaster on the USS Alabama. He steered and helped navigate the ship through a typhoon and several battles in the Pacific. The Alabama shot down 22 enemy aircraft, led a fleet into Tokyo on V-J Day, earned nine Battle Stars, and never lost a man to enemy fire. Her nickname: “Lucky A.”
Hoffman remembers bombings and battles so fierce and close together he cannot distinguish one from the other.
“I thank the Lord every day that I came back in one piece,” he said, “and was able to play ball.”
How’s this for a war story: Hoffman sailed on the same ship as the late Bob Feller, Hall of Fame pitcher and gun captain on a 40-mm antiaircraft mount. They became friends and celebrities on the USS Alabama – Feller for leaving the Cleveland Indians to enlist, Hoffman for becoming the ship’s wrestling champion. During lulls, Feller would find a catcher and throw on the stern; Hoffman would grapple with shipmates on a mat.
A number of years ago, Feller wrote an account of his service on the Alabama for military.com: “We bombarded beaches to support amphibious assaults, served as escorts for aircraft carriers and fended off kamikaze attacks. Two enemy bombs hit the ship during the Marianas Turkey Shoot, and we survived a typhoon that pummeled us with 80-knot gusts of the Philippine coast.”
In July 1945, Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, the polar explorer, boarded the Alabama to observe an operation in Japan. “Admiral Byrd was gettin’ ready to go to the South Pole after the war was over and he invited me to go with him,” Hoffman said. “He said he would name a piece of property down there after me. I would have had to sign on for four more years. But I said, ‘When this thing is over, I’m gettin’ out.’ I was a home boy. I didn’t want to stay in the Navy any longer than I had to.”
In 1946, Byrd commenced an expedition to Antarctica; Hoffman returned to the family farm in Somerset. He brought home his war diary, which contains Byrd’s signature, and raised cattle.
At the age of 33, Adolph married Patricia Nelson, a 23-year-old sweetheart from San Antonio, and started a family. He joined two leagues and played baseball until he was 39.
Adolph and Patricia had five daughters. To support the growing family, he took a job with a company that laid foundations for bridges and buildings. He can tell you the diameter and depth of the holes he drilled for the Tower of the Americas, at 750 feet, the tallest building in San Antonio. After a full day, Adolph came home and worked the farm until it got dark.
“We would wait until he came in to eat dinner,” said Debbie McQueen, 57, Adolph’s third daughter. “Sometimes that wasn’t until 9 o’clock at night.”
Long after his girls were grown, Adolph decided to play ball again. At the age of 80, he joined the Senior League and played second base. He also decided to compete in track and field. A pole vaulter in high school, Adolph thought one event was not enough. So he competed in eight. Adolph won a slew of medals and became so dominant at 86, a documentary filmmaker noticed.
In 2011, PBS aired “The Age of Champions,” which featured Adolph and select others competing in the 2009 Senior Games.
“Most people my age are six feet in the ground,” Adolph says in the film, “and not trying to pole vault six feet in the air.”
At the 2009 and 2011 Senior Games, Adolph collected a stash of gold. But what he did in 2013, stunned everyone. At 90, Adolph won eight gold medals in eight events. In his age group, he was peerless in the pole vault, hammer, javelin, shot put, discus, high jump, long jump, and triple jump.
Adolph rises at 5 a.m. and stretches. He cooks breakfast for Sharon, his 51-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome, and serves it hot: scrambled eggs, sausage, and one slice of buttered toast. After breakfast, he pumps water from the well, makes sure the cows have hay, and checks the hog traps. The other day, two wild boar fell for the corn bait and entered the wire cage. A gate slammed down. The catch brought Adolph great joy.
But not as much as his recent purchase of a blue tractor, a machine that excites Adolph the way a toy train excites a boy. Why would a 94-year-old farmer want a new one? “It pulls everything I need pulled,” he said. Besides, “it’ll last a lifetime.”
Life in Somerset (pop. 1,631), a farming community 20 miles south of downtown San Antonio, is slow and comfortable, just the way Adolph likes it. He takes care of his land and cattle, gets his hair cut every few weeks at a salon in town, and visits the cemetery, where Patricia is buried. For fun, he’ll venture into San Antonio. Two weeks ago, he and his grandson, Reede Ayers, visited indoor batting cages.
“We set the machine at 50 miles per hour,” said Kathy Wells, 59, Adolph’s oldest daughter. Phone video she shared shows Adolph fouling some pitches and hitting others solidly.
For all his success in track and field, the ballpark is Adolph’s second home. It is his fountain of youth, the place where time stops and memories roll, like a ground ball through the infield. On March 19, the last day of winter, Adolph started his comeback from rotator surgery. In his first at-bat, he grounded out to a pitcher young enough to be his grandson, 58-year-old Glenn Lane of the Lone Stars.
Later in the dugout, Adolph tilted his head back and closed his eyes. He was 35 again, running the bases in the 1950s.
“I played in two leagues – a Highway 90 league and a San Antonio Hot Wells League,” he said. “About every third game I’d knock a home run. I’d get two home runs in games sometimes. My older brother, who passed away two years ago, said, ‘I wanna come watch you play ball.’ I said, ‘Come, come.’
“I was rounding the bases when I saw him drive up the road and come through the gate. My wife, she was still alive, jumped up and said, ‘Hey, he knocked a home run.’ Then I got up to the plate again and knocked another one.”
He wants to do it again. Sigler, the MSBL founder, says no one over 80 years old has ever hit a home run. Adolph wants to be the first. He figures it this way: Since he is forever proving he can do what others say can’t be done, why not?
About 10 years ago, Adolph deadlifted more than 300 pounds at a meet in Seguin. It was not a world record. But the lift turned heads and dropped jaws. Marvin Allen, the weight training coach at Somerset High, beamed with pride at the feat. “I was Adolph’s coach,” Allen said. “He’s pretty incredible.”
Recently, Adolph was changing tractor tires and hauling hay. He has lost some height but still has plenty of muscle. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a 76-year-old teammate, attests to that. Adolph cannot move like he used to, but he maintains a powerful swing. “He can still hit the ball well,” Wolff said.
But can Adolph homer at 94? “I’m chomping at the bit to try.”
Some might wonder why. Adolph has a house full of trophies and medals. He wears an MSBL World Series ring he won with the Rangers in 2013. He exercises on a stationary bike in his bedroom. To Adolph, that means he has something else to achieve. In his second at-bat on March 19, Adolph swung at a knee-high fastball, just outside. He grounded out to the pitcher.
The disappointment lasted momentarily. Every year, Adolph gets a new jersey with a number that corresponds to his age. He wears “94” this year; he plans to wear “95” the next. “I love it,” he said. “I just love bein’ able to come out here and play.”
How long will he continue?
“Until the good Lord says, ‘no.’”
The Monarchs fell to the Lone Stars, 16-1. Two weeks later, the Monarchs play a spirited game against the Yankees. Adolph is 0-for-2 – having ground out and struck out – when he approaches the plate in the top of the 9th. Nobody on. Two out. Score tied, 6-6. He’s no longer thinking home run and history. He just wants a base hit.
Night has fallen and so has the temperature. It’s only 70 degrees, but a brisk breeze brings a chill. Before leaving the dugout for his third at-bat, Adolph dug his hands deep in his jacket pocket for warmth. He complained of the cold. Now he’s standing at the plate, looking at a 1-2 fastball and taking another cut. He misses. The Monarchs fall in extra innings, 7-6.
The umpire asks a Rivard Report photographer for pictures of Adolph. The ump has never seen anyone like him. After the game, the Yankees shake Adolph’s hand and embrace him with admiration and awe. The man is a Senior League rock star, two games into the comeback of all comebacks.
He takes the strikeout and loss in stride. Adolph gets one day of rest and then comes Sunday: a track meet at 8 a.m., a doubleheader right after.