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Love of the game

Howard Rollin (l) poses with Jerry Chambers, ex-NBA playerHOWARD Rollin’s moment in the sun happened on a summer’s day in 1990, on a local baseball diamond, facing down an unknown pitcher, the reassuring feel of a wooden bat gripped tightly in his hands.

He was on a team called the Mets, an over-40 amateur squad that was part of what was called the Men’s Senior Baseball League. He was batting last.

“Of course I was,” he jokes today. “I was the oldest guy on the team!”

The pitcher on the opposing team – whoever he was – was really burning the cowhide.

“He’s throwing bullets,” Rollin says. “We hadn’t seen anybody throw that hard. The guys were saying that he must be throwing close to 80. I come up to bat.

I hadn’t seen a hard thrower like this, I don’t think, ever. I’m standing there and whoosh! Strike one. Whoosh! Strike two. With two strikes, and just guessing, I swung. I dribbled the ball back up to the mound — I was thrown out easily.”

But Rollin would have the chance to face the pitcher once more before the game was over.

“On my second at-bat, I realized that I had to swing at his first pitch. This guy had such control, I knew he was going to burn it right down the middle. So I decided to go for his first pitch.” 12 more articles in Generations – order your copy! (303) 861-2234 or email@ijn.com

He believes he was already swinging his bat when the ball left the pitcher’s hand.

“And I hit the longest shot of my life,” he says of the glorious cracking sound when the bat hit the ball. “I could hear my coach calling ‘Get out of here!’ It didn’t. I hit the fence on the fly in left centerfield and wound up with a ground rule double. But I had never even hit the fence before.”

It was only after the game was over, and the opposing players were shaking hands, that Rollin discovered who the pitcher was. After congratulating Rollin on the hit, he announced himself as Steve Ratzer, who had once played for the Denver Bears minor league club and later put in several fine major league seasons with the Montreal Expos.

Retired from the major leagues and living in Denver, Ratzer was having himself a little fun competing in amateur ball.

It was only later, when Rollin purchased a full deck of baseball cards featuring Jewish major leaguers, that he discovered that Ratzer, like Rollin himself, is Jewish – one of those mystical and serendipitous moments seemingly unique to baseball.

In retrospect, Rollin says, he’s glad that he had no idea who he was hitting against.

“If I had known that,” he says, “my feet would have been stuck in cement.”

He looks to the heavens as he savors the moment one more time, the memory of a baseball fanatic who not only had a chance to face a real-life major league pitcher, but managed to hit the ball all the way to the fence.

“All that speed,” he says, and the awe is still evident in his voice.

THAT 19-year-old moment might have been the apex of Rollin’s long fascination with amateur senior baseball, but it is far from the only highlight. He has bucketfuls of baseball memories, collected from all the teams he’s played for, all the leagues he’s participated in.

Not to mention the leagues that he founded and led. Rollin is one of those rare individuals who have managed to turn an avocation – something done for fun – into a vocation – something done for a living.

The Denver Jewish community might remember Rollin best for the years he spent owning and operating the New York Kosher Dog in the late 70s and early 80s, but the hundreds of men who compete in over-50 and over-60 baseball leagues across the country know Rollin best as a visionary and leader of their esoteric passion.

In Rollin’s case, the passion started early.

A native of Yonkers, NY, Rollin, 62, came from a very musical family, in which several uncles were cantors and Metropolitan Opera stars. One of his aunts was the sister of the famed cantor Moshe Oysher. His cousin is Marilyn Michaels, who was a Borscht Belt star and occasional performer on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Rollin studied music too, and wasn’t too bad at it himself, “but I’m not a performance type guy,” he says modestly.

In fact, he was the jock of the family, fascinated with sports and athletics from an early age, even though his parents sometimes leaned in the over-protective direction, prohibiting him from playing Little League baseball.

“Uncle Joe,” however, helped in that department.

Joe Reichler was actually the brother of Rollin’s aunt by marriage, so he was not technically related. However, he played the role of uncle and Rollin was only too happy to go along.

In the late 1950s, Reichler was in charge of Associated Press sports. He would later become a consultant and go-to man in the higher echelons of major league baseball, his accomplishments sufficiently notable to get him admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a non-player.

Uncle Joe gave the young Howard his first ball and mitt and introduced him to the splendors of baseball.

“I could catch and I could throw and I thought, oh boy, this is fun,” Rollin says.

He would later learn the fine points from the head counselor at a summer camp in New Hampshire, Murray Sklar, a Jewish guy who had been a scout for the Kansas City Athletics.  Rollin became a crack centerfielder for the camp team.

Uncle Joe also gave him a few tickets to Yankee Stadium.

“I had four tickets. This is 57-58 – the great years of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Don Larson Yogi Berra.”

The tickets were hard to decipher, Rollin recalls, without the usual row and seat numbers. When he and his guests got into the stadium, they asked the ushers to help find the right location.

“First we went upstairs and I’m thinking, man we’re going to be all the way in the upper deck,” he recalls. “But we come out on the mezzanine level. We’re directly behind home plate. The guy takes us down, down, down, to the very first row, directly behind home plate. We’re sitting in a special box that says ‘Associated Press.’ I go, wow! I look over the edge and the press box is right there. And who’s down below us?  Mel Allen and Phil Rizzuto. They’re on the air. Mel Allen looks up at me and says, ‘Hiya, kid!’

Rollin was hooked.

STILL, it would take decades for Rollin’s love of baseball to fully manifest itself.

First came college and a stint in the US Army, which brought him to Colorado’s Ft.Carson, where Rollin – saved from service as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam by an illness – served as the assistant to the Jewish chaplain. He later performed the same role at Fitzsimons.

Then came football, which fascinated him almost as much as baseball. After his military service, Rollin played a season as a place kicker for the semi-pro Yonkers Packers football team. When he returned to Colorado to finish his education at DU (which led to his becoming a permanent Denverite) he spent several years as an unofficial trainer for aspiring football kickers.

In the midst of his professional obligations — which included working as a recreational director for the Federal Youth Center correctional facility in Englewood and his stint as a kosher hot dog restaurateur – he taught kids how to kick footballs.

A number of his youthful students landed positions with college football teams, where some of them set records that stood for years.


Howard Rollin (l) with Jack Wilheit, the oldest player active in Denver's over-60 league.Fans of the Denver Broncos might recall the name of another Rollin protégé – Rich Karlis – who had a long and successful career in the NFL. He was introduced to the Broncos by Rollin.

Rollin originally intended to make this his full-time career, but the intense politics in professional football eventually closed that door to him. 

Disappointed but not defeated, he returned to his true love – baseball.

ROLLIN is a man of considerable energy, as evidenced by his engagement with such things as kashrus, biblical archaeology, Christian-Jewish relations and freelance journalism with a gambling expertise.

He brought the same enthusiasm to amateur baseball in Denver. He began as a player – on teams of the aforementioned MSBL – but soon expanded into the formation of new teams, and then leagues, composed of older men who want to play the game.

He founded, and still operates, two such leagues in Denver – Over 50 Baseball and Denver Over 60 Baseball – both governed by his motto: “You’re never too old to play the real game.”

Although amateur baseball has existed nationally for quite some time, most of it was geared to players 40 years old or younger. Rollin’s focus on older age groups was at first resisted by the movement, later accepted, then embraced.

Older players in other cities and regions were impressed with what Rollin had accomplished in Colorado. The movement began to grow, steadily and exponentially.

“It was spread,” Rollin says, “mostly word of mouth, on the Internet.”

In 1999, Rollin organized the first annual tournament of over-50 baseball teams. There were only two of them that first year – the Colorado Purples and a Baltimore area team called, naturally, the Orioles.

In short order, the Las Vegas-hosted tournament had 24 teams from many areas in the country. Cruises to Mexico were organized, in which American players competed against their graying counterparts from Mexican teams.

Eventually, the Denver-area leagues and those from other regions merged into the huge amateur baseball network of the National Adult Baseball Association (NABA), composed of some 50,000 ballplayers from leagues around the nation, representing various age groups of amateur players.

Today, in addition to managing his local leagues, Rollin also works for NABA, organizing tournaments and trips and helping start leagues in the Midwest and West.

It’s become a full-time job for Rollin. He also handles the huge insurance responsibilities for NABA. He has become a professional baseball organizer and administrator, but not surprisingly, still insists on playing himself, as a catcher and sometimes outfielder, for the Denver-based Shredders team.

He speaks calmly and professionally when he discusses the challenges of running and organizing leagues for NABA, but with considerably more passion when his conversation reverts to the actual diamond.

He recalls one championship game in which, as a catcher for the Colorado Fossils, he dashed all the way to the pitcher’s mound just barely to catch the final out of the game against the South Dakota Rushmores.

Another moment in the sun.

“Boy,” he says with an enthusiasm that is indeed boyish, “did we celebrate!”

THE idea of guys over 50 –some of them, amazingly enough, over 80 — playing baseball is based on a very straightforward premise, Rollin says.

It’s fun.

“That’s it,” he says. “It’s a return to your youth. It’s an opportunity. It’s like turning back the clock.”

He agrees that some players are attracted to the game because it provides social contact. Lots of teams have a tradition of going out for beer and pizza after games, and lots of friendships are formed among teammates.

Others use baseball as a form of relatively easy exercise, he adds, although most players don’t worry too much about strenuous pre-game warm-ups or comprehensive training programs.

Such advantages aside, it always seems to come back to the sheer fun and love of the game. The approach is laid-back and easy, not unlike the pick-up games that kids used to organize spontaneously on sandlots.

“The rules are so casual. It’s really recreational baseball, but it’s still competitive.

“Yet some of the players take it too seriously,” Rollin laments. “They want to play as if they’re in their late teens when they were at their peak of ability.

They take the game so seriously that they take the fun out of it.”

All players, regardless of ability, are guaranteed field time and a slot in the batting order. In adult baseball, Rollin says, the more skilled players happily make room for the less athletically gifted.

He speaks of one player, in the over-60 league in which he plays himself, who is over 70 years old.

“He’s maybe 125 pounds soaking wet,” Rollin says. “He’s a right fielder and once in awhile he makes the catch. He doesn’t hit the ball very far. He just doesn’t have the wherewithal to be a really good player. But he really loves the game.”

But even fun – the prime motivating factor – doesn’t tell the whole story.

The legendary association of baseball with mystical, perhaps even magical influences – the sort of thing which made “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams” such great movies – is just as accessible to these aging players as to the baseball legends of the major leagues.

He thinks of the way some games are won, and others are lost. Of those strange baseball coincidences.

He thinks of 1988, the year in which his Uncle Joe died, the same year that Rollin took up the bat as a player, as if the baseball torch were being passed on.

He thinks of that once-in-a-lifetime face-off with Steve Ratzer, a Jewish amateur getting a solid hit against a Jewish professional.

As in, what are the odds?

“You feel it,” Rollin says, “no matter at what level of baseball you play – if you’re willing to recognize that there’s something crazy going on here. There are things that have happened that are inexplicable. You sense those unseen things.”

He looks off into the distance, as if gazing into the centerfield bleachers on a hazy and timeless summer afternoon.

“It’s an incredibly special game. Some guys talk about it and say, ‘This is G-d’s game.’”

12 more articles in Generations – order your copy! (303) 861-2234 or email@ijn.com



Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com


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