Fleischmanns' Ethel Lehmann stars in 70+ softball league
By John Bernhardt
All summer long the baseball story around the metropolitan New York area has been the tale of two shortstops. New York baseball fans, and to some degree baseball fans around America, have been caught up in a firestorm of day-to-day drama and excitement generated by Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and Met shortstop Jose Reyes. Jeter had the baseball world counting hits as he worked to put an exclamation point on a legendary major league career.
On the other side of the city, Reyes, playing in the last year of his contract and unsigned to play as a Met next year, was putting together an MVP kind of year, a campaign where, for a huge chunk of the summer, he led the National League in batting average, hits, triples, and multiple hits.
A tale of passion
Unknown to many, here in Delaware County, we have a shortstop tale of our own. It’s a tale of passion for the sport of softball, a tale of persistence and longevity, a tale of grit and glory and a pioneer like spirit that has resulted in some unprecedented firsts.
Ethel Lehmann, a spunky starting shortstop of the Freedom Spirit, a 70-year-and-older women’s softball team from Clearwater, Florida, has summered at her home on the Red Kill Road in Fleischmanns for 50 years. This is a tale about Ethel and her incredible softball odyssey.
For as long as she can remember, Ethel Lehmann has loved sports. Ethel grew up in Hicksville, one of 12 children, where she often found herself running at the front of her sibling horde. Ethel loved to run. She loved to compete in games and sporting activities and loved playing softball.
High school provided Ethel with an outlet for her sports passions. A four-sport athlete, Ethel played field hockey, volleyball, basketball and softball. Although Ethel found great satisfaction in every sporting pursuit, she developed an unbreakable bond with softball.
Looking back, Ethel can appreciate the tremendous progress and opportunities now available to young girls hoping to play sports.
During Lehmann’s high school years, belief systems long proven outdated, were the norm. As a basketball player early in her high school career, Ethel wondered why girls were not allowed to play the game from baseline to baseline like the boys. When she asked her coach “why,” Ethel was told that a girl’s lungs could not take the stress involved in playing the game the way the boys did.
So, Ethel, a guard limited to playing only on the defensive side of the floor, worked hard on her shooting so she could play as a shooting forward during her final two years of high school.
It was at 16, during her high school years, that Ethel first pursed playing softball in a women’s league. The league was a fast-pitch league with games played under the lights watched by paying customers. As she has into her eighth decade, Ethel was her team’s shortstop. In her first season of fast pitch, Ethel led the league in hitting and was the league MVP.
After two seasons, the league moved away from fast pitch, becoming a women’s baseball league much like the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that began during World War II. Once again, Ethel’s daring playing style as a fleet-footed, base-stealing, shortstop made her a fan favorite.
But, Ethel’s mother was worried. Succumbing to the common thinking of the time, Ethel’s mom was worried that playing softball was not something ‘nice girls’ did. She made Ethel promise that when she turned 21 she would give up the sport. Ethel was true to her word and walked away from the sport she loved.
This is not to say that Ethel wasn’t busy. She married George Lehmann, and she and George had five children in five years including one set of twins. George and Ethel are now the proud grandparents of nine teenage grandchildren.
As she raised her family, Ethel never lost her passion for playing sports. Following a job change, George relocated the family to Clearwater, Florida, and it was there that the idea of playing softball again resurfaced. Reading an ad in the newspaper, Ethel learned of a women’s softball team seeking potential players of any age. Ethel answered the ad only to learn that in her mid 40s she was much older than the average age of most of the young girls in the league. Even so, she decided to give it a try.
Lehman not only made the team but ended playing for two different teams in two different leagues. Ethel laughs now remembering the days when she would play one game in the late morning, speed off in her car stopping to change uniforms in the rest room at a gas station before racing off to play in her second softball game that day.
It was Ethel’s doctor who put a temporary kibosh on her softball playing days. At her annual exam, Ethel inquired about continuing to play. Her doctor was concerned to learn she was still playing into her 50s and horrified to learn she was sliding into bases. Her doctor painted such a grim health portrait Ethel gave up playing softball again.
The doom and gloomy doctor’s outlook might have stopped Ethel from playing softball but it couldn’t stop her from thinking about it. As the years passed, Ethel’s urge to get back on the field grew stronger. In her 60s, Ethel called an area recreational director inquiring about the possibility of playing in a women’s senior softball league. She was disappointed to learn that none existed.
Never one to quit, Ethel inquired about men’s leagues. There was a league, the 3-Score Men’s 60 Plus League. The director reported that the league had no woman players but did not discriminate. If Ethel wanted to play she could. Ethel did want to play so for the next five years she was the only woman to play in the men’s slow pitch league.
At the same time, Ethel and a lifetime best friend got the idea of starting a senior level women’s team. That idea turned into Florida first senior women’s softball team, a team that began as a 55-and older squad, later evolved into a 65-an-older gang, and competes in 70-year-an-older play today.
Ethel’s pioneer spirit hadn’t waned. In 2004, her husband George was invited to try out for the 75-year-and-older- Kids and Kubs Softball Club. The Kids and Kubs was an all-male club with a rich history that now surpasses 80 years. In the early years, Kids and Kubs games were played in front of large crowds. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig both umpired games for the league.
As you might suspect, Ethel tagged along when George tried out for the softball team. It didn’t take long before Ethel, too, was itching for a tryout. Her opportunity arose and she earned her way on the team. Once again, Ethel broke the gender barrier and this time George and she became the first ever husband and wife to play for the softball club.
This time, the national press caught wind of Ethel’s feat. An NBC “Today” film production team spent three days in Saint Petersburg, the home base of the Kids and Kubs Club documenting Ethel’s play. Ethel and George were the focus of a special segment on the “Today Show.”
Ethel’s athletic pursuits are not limited to softball. Until last year, the Freedom Spirit shortstop was still running 5K marathons and competing in several track and field events at the National and World Senior Games. Ethel concentrated on short distance running races competing in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter sprints. She also took part in field events like the shot put, discuss, and javelin throws, and the triple and long jumps.
An ankle injury training on Red Kill Road last summer ended Ethel’s track and field career. Lehmann reminds that you’re not supposed to text and drive and says you really shouldn’t text and run either. As she was running, Ethel thought her cell phone was ringing. She checked to see who was calling as she ran, lost track of the road, stumbled and broke her ankle.
The injury has not stopped Ethel from playing softball. Although George has recently given up the game, Ethel is still taking the field as the starting shortstop of both the Freedom Spirit and the Kids and Kubs.
Every other year, Lehman’s Freedom Spirit team takes part in the National Senior Softball Tournament. She has already penciled in the dates to head for Cleveland, Ohio, in 2013 and Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2015. “That’s the magic of the senior games,” instructed Lehmann, “that’s what keeps us going. The girls and I are always thinking forward looking ahead.”
Lehmann was inducted into the National Senior Softball “Women’s Hall of Fame” in 2008.