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ONE GOOD SPORT

So many of The Boys are gone now, and there's nothing George or anybody else can do about it.

There was Whiskers Lebengood, King Tut Tuthill, O.K. Miller and little Freddy Broadwell, who could fire a shot of tobacco juice through a knothole at 15 feet. Every time. Guaranteed.

They were wonderful characters and good, decent men, each of them.

But they've all passed away.

All except George.

Sure, new faces arrive each fall to fill the void on the Kids & Kubs three-quarter century softball team. And the new Boys, well, they're good lads, too.

But it's not quite the same.

They'll be sitting in the dugout and George will bring up a name or an event from a season long gone, and they'll give him a puzzled look. Then they'll politely nod their heads and say, "Sure, George."

He is the oldest survivor, the last good comrade, and no one would blame him if he felt lonely and detached and even a little bitter.

But he could never look at it that way.

"Let me tell you a story," George says as he leans forward in his chair. He is in the living room of his apartment at the Princess Martha retirement center in downtown St. Petersburg.

"I remember a fella named Morrison. Forget his first name. A tall man. Usually played third. He came in one day and said he wasn't feeling too good. Asked if he could play first base so he wouldn't have to move around so much.

"The game started, and I was coaching first base. Between innings, he was throwing the ball around the infield. He reached high for a ball and that was it. He fell into my arms. Dead."

George doesn't say anything for a moment, and then his face brightens.

"Come to find out he and his wife had talked about it, and he told her that when his time came, he wanted to go out there. On the field. Playing ball.

"Now that's a nice way to go, ain't it?

"Spikes on."

So much happened so fast. A job, a marriage, a family. Along the way, the world changed like it never changed before. Radio came into use. Then talking motion pictures. Then television. And then the unthinkable _ a man walked on the moon.

But there was one thing in George's life that stayed exactly the same, even though he was away from it most of his life.

Playing ball was something he did a long time ago, when the most important thing in his life was squeezing in one more inning before the street lights came on.

Now, all these years later, it's important again. He's come full circle.

On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons from November until April, George and a few lucky boys like him get to go home again. They get to stand in the sunshine at North Shore Park, toss the pill around the infield, laugh and run and maybe jump on that high inside pitch and pull the ball down the left field line for a double.

Very soon, Kids & Kubs director emeritus/catcher/cap salesman extraordinaire George "Buck" Bakewell will be 100 years old.

If Babe Ruth were alive today, he would be two years younger than George.

He is George Burns without the cigar. Ask him exactly when he was born, and he'll smile and recite a little rhyme:

April 27,

1892.

That's quite a ways back.

So I'll leave the arithmetic to you.

George is the oldest active softball player in the world, a man who has voted in every presidential election since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson narrowly defeated Charles E. Hughes. George was 24 that year.

He remembers so many little things. Like washing clothes on a scrub board, closing deals with just a handshake and giving horses the right of way on the street.

And the night his father came home drunk. A powerful man, his father could unload a railroad car filled with 40 tons of coal in a day. Using only a shovel. For 10 cents a ton.

On this night, however, his father couldn't get out of the buggy after the horse brought him home from town, and George had to struggle to carry him into the house.

"He didn't know anything or anybody," George says. "That made a lasting impression on me. As I looked at my dad, I made a vow that if I ever became a dad, none of my children would ever see me in such a condition."

True to his word, he never touched a drink.

George also remembered paying 25 cents for a bleacher seat at Detroit's Navin Field (now Tiger Stadium) and watching Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Heinie Manush in their prime.

"And that's when baseball got in my blood," he says.

George played baseball for the Plymouth, Mich., town team from 1913-15. The following year, the grandstand burned down and the team disbanded. George didn't play again for 53 years.

He went to work for Ford Motor Co. and helped on the family farm. It was on a trip to a produce market in Detroit that he met Ann Ashton. She wouldn't tell him where she lived, so he followed her home in his buggy. He stayed a safe distance behind so she wouldn't see him. Over the next few weeks, he made it a point to stop and water his horse at her house each day, until she finally asked him to sit on the porch. They were married a few months later.

George and Ann were together for 65 years. During that time, they raised four boys and two girls.

In 1950, George and Ann moved from Michigan to a house at the corner of 28th Avenue N and 15th Street in St. Petersburg, but it was another 17 years before George even saw the Kids & Kubs play. At the urging of a friend, he went to a game and decided immediately to become one of The Boys. But that year, 1967, the team accepted only two new members, and George wasn't one of them. So he signed on as a bat boy. The next year, he was voted in as a regular.

For Ann and George, softball became entwined in their lives. They went to every game, every club picnic or formal dinner. They celebrated their 65th anniversary at home plate at North Shore. That was April 8, 1981. Seven months later, Ann died of a stroke.

"I was holding her hand when I put her wedding ring on," George says. "I was holding her hand when each of our six youngsters were born. And I was holding her hand when the Lord called her home."

George played in a game the day after she died. It was his way of dealing with the tragedy. And he wrapped himself in the team for the next seven years. Until the day a friend asked if George could drive her mother home.

When George saw Bonnie Ketchersid, who was visiting from South Carolina, he knew there was something special about her. So George said he'd take her home.

"But not straight home," he says with a wink.

They took a walk in a park near the field, and later, George made several trips to South Carolina.

They were married in 1988. He was 95. She was 78.

Their apartment at the Princess Martha is full of things, but it's not cluttered. There are silk flowers, antique glassware, figurines and lots of photographs _ mostly of children. At last count, they have 20 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.

"I didn't know much about softball," Bonnie says. "But after I met him I wanted to go to all his games. Whenever he hits the ball, I'd holler, "Run, George! Run!' "

She looks at the man sitting across the room and she smiles.

"He's just a good ol' fella."

White shirts and trousers, black bow ties and baseball caps. Organized in 1930, the Kids & Kubs are a St. Petersburg institution _ one of the few things in town that has endured. And as George proudly points out, "Nobody alive knows more about the Kids & Kubs like I do."

He was secretary of the team for 20 years, he's still the club's historian and he's 12 years older than the next oldest player.

And this is his 24th season.

"He practically ran the organization for years," said Paul Good, president of the Kids & Kubs. "I think the club itself would have folded if it hadn't been for George's efforts."

Still, there's not much George or anyone else can do about sagging attendance. In the 1940s and '50s, when the team played at the old Waterfront Park, which is now the Bayfront Center, it wasn't unusual to have crowds of more than 5,000. Now, they're lucky to draw a few hundred.

George still plays catcher, but only for an inning or two. Then he goes into the stands and sells caps to help pay team expenses. Last year, he brought in more than $600, partly because of his reputation as the Kissing Bandit. He kisses any woman who's willing. And a lot are.

"I get a lot of kisses and make a lot of friends," he says. "I get as much fun out of that as playing."

He eats four small meals a day, gets regular exercise and looks 20 years younger than he is. Until a few months ago, he swung a six-pound metal pipe 100 times a day.

His last game was Christmas Eve. He got a hit in his only at-bat. A few days later he had minor surgery, and had to miss several weeks. But he's a patient man. He'll wait until he's ready. No sense coming back too soon and risking an injury that could keep him out next year.

Because he's got to play next year.

"My plan is to take care of myself and play at least one more year so I'll be active for 25 years," George says. "Nobody has ever done that. Only one man besides me played 20. His name was John Maloney, and he was a pitcher.

"He came back for his 21st year and he couldn't see the ball, so, with tears running down his face, he quit."

They're planning a big birthday party for George at Orange Blossom Catering's banquet hall in downtown St. Petersburg. They'll have baseball decorations and a cake with balls and bats on it. They're expecting more than 100 friends and relatives, some from as far away as Germany.

"I can't wait to see them all," George says.

And then George and Bonnie will go to Blind Pass and find the man who made them the offer last year.

"He owns a parasail ride and said we could have a free ride when I hit my 100th birthday," George says. "He might be surprised when we show up, but I've got his signature on the ticket."

He looks around, as if to make sure nobody else is listening.

"My doctor told me no," he says.

"But I'm going."

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