He's 95, still playing softball with no plans to quit

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Benny Catalano (right), 95, stands beside Walt Bennett, 85. They are the two oldest players in the West Chester senior softball league.

Like most of the old men the Brandywine Valley Senior Softball Association keeps tethered to their youths, Benny Catalano hates conceding anything to age.

The retired postman ran the bases until five years ago when his legs stopped cooperating. Still catching, he used to fire the ball back to the pitcher until persistent arthritis recently forced him to toss it underhanded. And if he hadn't sliced two fingers in a driveway fall, he'll tell you, many of those ground balls he still shoots between infielders would be line drives.

"See these," said Catalano, displaying the stitched-up digits on his right hand during a recent league-sponsored birthday party in his honor at St. Anthony's Hall in Downingtown, "I just can't grip the bat with them the way I like to."

Actually, when you consider that the birthday being celebrated was his 95th, the fact that Catalano's physical complaints were limited to a couple of injured fingers was remarkable.

More than 1.5 million senior citizens play organized softball in America, according to Senior Softball-USA. And while that organization couldn't say for certain, few if any of them are believed to be as old as Catalano, who wants to be playing in five years, when the total on his personal scoreboard hits 100.

Catalano, who lives with a grandson in Parkesburg, plays nine innings twice a week for most of the year - springs and summers in the Brandywine Valley league and winters in informal games at Downingtown's United Sports complex' indoor fields.

He's a catcher, and when there are plays at the plate, teammates said, he can still make them.

"If you get the ball to Benny," said Bob Muscella, who plays with him on the Rock & Rubart Realty team, "you can be sure he's going to catch it. You can't say that about everybody in this league. His head is always in the game. And so is his mouth."

Age has imposed limits, of course. Catalano returns the ball underhanded to the pitcher. And when he's at the plate, designated runners are employed. But there's nothing wrong with his bat.

"He's still a tough out," said Ralph Carrozza, a Havertown chiropractor. "He's great at placing that ball between infielders. Even now, he's a .300 hitter."

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Catalano discovered baseball growing up in the 1930s in a Brooklyn neighborhood close to that borough's border with Queens.

"I was a teenager before I ever played," he said. "But once I started, we played stickball in the streets and baseball whenever we could. I never wanted to stop."

Catalano's parents knew little about the sport. It was, he said, neighborhood kids and a Brooklyn Dodgers-loving cousin who introduced him to the game.

"He took me to Ebbets Field a few times," Catalano said. "But where I lived was closer to Queens and there were a lot of New York Giants fans there. So they were my team."

Asked what his father did for a living, Catalano hesitated.

"Well, he worked in this toy factory," he said, before lowering his New York-accented voice to a whisper that was barely audible over his party's din. "But he was in the Mafia too. He didn't kill nobody or anything, but he helped with the numbers games and things like that."

Catalano, the father of two sons and a daughter, continued with baseball, playing and coaching in various leagues, during a long career as a letter-carrier. That job, walking up stoops and tenement stairways to deliver the mail, kept his legs in shape.

"You look around here," he said, gesturing to the grey-haired partygoers, "and a lot of these guys have had operations on their legs and knees. I never did. Mine are still in good shape. That's from walking up all those stoops in Brooklyn.

"Out here, a lot of these postmen drive up to a one big box and deliver all their mail there. They don't need to walk as much. The only problem with my legs is that a few years ago they stopped doing what I want them to."

About the only thing that managed to stop his baseball-playing was World War II.

"I was with the Army's 31st Division in the Pacific," he said. "I was a machine-gunner who never got to use his machine gun."

Asked on which islands he saw action, Catalano said "all of them."

Following a second career in insurance, he moved to Downingtown in 1985 to be closer to his second wife's family. That's when he read an item in the newspaper about Brandywine Valley softball, in which players compete in 60- and 70-and-over leagues.

"Benny is an inspiration to all of us who play in this league," said Carrozza. "We see what he can still do physically at 96 and it's amazing."

Until a few years ago, Carrozza said, Catalano's catching position was a standard crouch. Now, he stands, bending slightly at the waist, to receive the ball.

Since his second wife died in 2009, softball has provided him with more than physical activity. It offers Catalano emotional comfort and companionship.

"I don't want to sit around and die," he said, as departing partyers hugged him, shook his hand and even kissed him. "This league keeps me going. These guys all love me. And I love them too."

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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