After a career spanning 66 years, Bill Blakemore, 86, of Mineola decided this year that the time had come to hang up his cleats.
But before putting away his softball glove, Blakemore played with some of the finest teams in America, won multiple national championships and earned induction into the Texas Senior Softball Hall of Fame.
To him, however, competing on the softball circuit entailed more than running, catching, hitting and throwing. When asked what he found most enjoyable about his softball experience, he was quick with a reply: “Without question the camaraderie. The fellowship, the people. Every team, if you stay on it very long, becomes your family.”
A native of Kingston, Okla., Blakemore took up fast-pitch softball 1951 while serving in the U.S. Air Force. After his discharge, Blakemore kept playing fast-pitch while working for Southwestern Bell. He competed in places like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, St. Louis, Topeka and Wichita.
“Everywhere I’ve moved, I found a ball team to play on,” he said.
After being transferred to Houston in 1968, he made the transition from fast-pitch to slow-pitch softball. “I thought, man, this’ll extend my career another 20 years.”
At age 61, while competing with men less than half his age, he was introduced to the senior game.
With a laugh, he remembered telling himself: “This’ll extend my career another 20 years.”
Make that 25.
Blakemore counts his blessings that his body has held up to the rigors of the sport.
“The only thing I can attribute it to is the grace of God. I’ve been rather injury free – always in good health and trying to stay in good health,” he said. “I’m just blessed; that’s all you can say.”
He estimates that during his time in senior softball, his teams racked up close to 10 championships in tournaments that drew the top teams from around the country. His exploits in the game were recognized by his peers who nominated him for enshrinement into the Texas Senior Softball Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2011 while living in Plano. The Texas Senior Softball Hall of Fame was established in 2001 to recognize and honor those who have made outstanding contributions to the success of senior softball in Texas.
If Mineola had a senior softball league, Blakemore said, he’d still be playing. He compared the motives of older ballplayers to those of kids. “They just love to get out there and have fun,” he explained.
But the closest senior league is in Tyler, and the teams play under the lights, something Blakemore, an outfielder by trade, has not done for a number of years. The nighttime drive twice a week also was a drawback. But the decision to retire was probably cemented by an omen – a bad one. It occurred earlier this year during a batting practice session with his son Brad, also a Mineola resident.
“He leveled a pitch to me, and I hit it real hard right back at him on a hard line. He jumped back and his feet went out from under him. He hit the ground and I knew he’d broken something,” Blakemore recalled. He was right; Brad had fractured his leg.
For now, Blakemore will make do with the treasure chest of memories he’s collected over the years – memories of all the wonderful friends and teammates who grew to become like family as they traveled the country to compete against the best ballplayers in their class. And maybe it’s time he try his hand at another sport.
“My philosophy through the years is that I’m going to take up golf after I’m too old to do anything else,” he said with a laugh. “Well maybe it’s time to take up golf.”