Greg Hansen: Almost 90, catcher still has the gear to play ball

2010-05-13T00:00:00Z 2014-10-29T08:53:46Z Greg Hansen: Almost 90, catcher still has the gear to play ballGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 13, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Clarence Fieber is a tough guy. It took me 30 seconds to make that call. The T on his baseball cap is smudged and dirty. His shin guards are scraped up from squatting in the dirt and blocking too many pitches. He is short, sturdy and serious about the business of baseball.

"He's a player," says his teammate, Jerry Hamelin, which is baseball code for "tough guy."

When Fieber took his place in the batter's box Wednesday morning at Udall Park, he was still wearing his shin guards. Is that legal? I looked around. No one said a word.

"Clarence is kind of a legend around here," says shortstop Chico Bigham.

The former dairy farmer from Saukville, Wis., (population: 393) ripped the first pitch on a line to third base. One hop. Easy out. But Fieber didn't stop. He ran, shin guards clacking, through the bag. Isn't that what the high school coaches teach their teen-agers? Run through the bag.

"If you're competitive at 20, you're going to be competitive at 60," says lefty pitcher Ron Petersen. He nodded toward Fieber. "You can't tell me that he's 90 years old."

I cannot tell you that Clarence Fieber is 90 because that would be wrong. He is 89. He won't turn 90 until Saturday.

If ever there was an Iron Man, it is Clarence Fieber, who in 1983 answered a newspaper ad seeking ballplayers for the Tucson Old-Timers League. That's "TOTS" to those who play. Fieber was 63, having retired from a long career at the UA's dairy farm.

"I got up early on a Monday morning and went to Himmel Park; I was the first one there," he remembers. "I told them I wanted to play baseball. The man asked how old I was. I was 63. He said, 'You're just a kid.'"

Fieber doesn't keep track of any consecutive game streak, nothing to match Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken, but on almost all Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings for the last 27 years, he has played baseball.

He's 89 but approaches the game as if he's 29. "I'll never get tired of playing baseball," he says.

"It's not like we're just a bunch of old guys going through the motions, playing softball or slow-pitch," says 71-year-old Bob Katz, who is retired from the U.S. Marines. "In fact, some guys probably take it far too seriously."

Fieber and Katz weren't pros or college stars, but the TOTS have many of those. Former UA pitcher Brad Tolson, who won 16 consecutive games for the Wildcats in 1949-50, now plays first base. He's 80. Jerry Hamelin, 69, who played in the New York Yankees' farm system before a career at IBM, once shared locker room space with Mickey Mantle.

"Most of us are suffering from something," Bigham says with a laugh. "But I've never heard a word out of Clarence. If he's hurting, squatting back there behind home plate for seven innings, he doesn't let on."

Fieber began playing baseball as a 16-year-old high school junior. His school didn't have an organized baseball team, so he played for the town team, matched against other small-town Wisconsin town teams on summer weekends in the late 1930s.

After serving in the South Pacific in World War II, after almost dying from malaria, he worked the farm, got married and ultimately moved to Tucson in the early '60s to help ease the asthma of his wife, Adaline, and his three children.

He has never been a gym rat, never bought a membership to a fancy fitness center and didn't adhere to expensive training procedures or medical treatments.

"I do take glucosamine," he says. "A friend of mine who was active into his 80s told me that's what he took, so I did the same."

Glucosamine is said to help prevent cartilage degeneration and treat arthritis. Maybe it's working. How else can an 89-year-old man pull on his catcher's gear three times a week, seven innings at a time, and not creak loudly?

Injuries? He had some fluid drained from his left knee a few years ago, and he no longer pitches for the TOTS, a 60-and-older group who are governed by a 12-page list of bylaws and policies, and whose active roster includes former judges, teachers, policemen, truckers, attorneys and dentists.

"I got a kink in my arm two years ago, so now I just limit myself to catching," Fieber says. "I don't have much of a wing. People say the legs are the first thing to go, but for me it was my wing."

In his second at-bat Wednesday, Fieber hit a grounder up the middle and beat the shortstop's throw to first. It was an infield hit. Is that a record? An 89-year-old catcher legs out a single.

"I don't think he realizes how special he is," says Petersen, the pitcher. "It's one in a million, don't you think?"

On StarNet: Keep up to date on Greg Hansen's columns online at azstarnet.com/sports/ columnists/Hansen

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