Since 1945, the men’s softball team has been an institution at the Mayerson JCC for the community. When Karty Mailender was approached by the J to start a softball league, he only had two conditions: make it fast pitch and make him the commissioner for life.
“They wanted to get the Jewish Center up and running, and they wanted to start the softball league,” Ken Mailender, Karty’s son, said. “My dad had about 40 guys in his league, and when he said they were moving to play at the Jewish Center, they listened to him.”
The history of the softball league was made up mostly of men, who served in WWII, looking for a place to get together with others and have fun. It also helped immigrants feel like they were more a part of American culture, as baseball is known as America’s pastime. Decades later, as Jewish Americans have become assimilated into American culture, it has actually served the opposite purpose—to generate a sense of Jewish identity and community among the players.
“While other sports have been popular, the longevity and tradition of the Jewish men’s modified fast-pitch softball league, which has been in existence for over 70 years, is a remarkable example of passion, community, and the importance of the sport,” Mayerson JCC Director of Cultural Arts & Engagement Frances Kahan said as part of the 2017 Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American exhibit at the Cincinnati Skirball Museum. “Often handed down from father to son or even grandson, to those who play, it is more than just a game.”
The softball league has grown and continued to be a favorite among the J community. Past JCC president Scott Wolf has been playing since the 80s.
After losing his father in a plane crash, that his mother survived, he found refuge at the J. Through the Big Brother program at the time, he started finding his place here. While he did everything at the J, the Men’s Softball League continues to hold a special place in his heart.
He has made several friends and works out with some of them every Saturday.
“I have played with my brothers, my sons, my nephews,” Wolf said. “It’s a whole family affair for the Wolf family.”
The softball league at the J is unique because there is a snake-style draft used every year. With nine captains, each one picks from the roster to build out their team, so there are teammates ranging from age 17 to in their 70s. Any adult man can join as long as there is a spot available.
Mayerson JCC Director of Development Rick Lefton has been a part of the softball league for nearly 40 years. Lefton has seen the league grow, including a move from the old Jewish Community Center in Roselawn to playing at Triple Creek Park.
“The old field was great, and we had lights for nighttime, but we only had one field, so you’d miss some people playing the earlier games or vice versa,” Lefton said. “Once we moved to Triple Creek, we had multiple fields and now we can see everyone together on the same day.”
The sense of camaraderie doesn’t just end at the final pitch. After the games, some players break off and grab some snacks at the park, or dinner at a local restaurant. Lefton says he always looks forward to seeing everyone after the games.
“It really dovetails into our mission at the J,” Lefton said. “Connecting people, building a vibrant Jewish community. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Wolf notes that it’s great having such a diverse team. The older players help influence the younger players and it creates a friendship across the generation gap.
“We have some people who have been playing even since the 1970s,” Wolf said. “But I still hold the title of most stolen bases!”
The Men’s Softball League is the most continuously operating program at the J. No other program has lasted this long and it’s a true testament to the critical role the league plays in the community. Lefton notes that COVID couldn’t even stop the league from continuing.
“As baseball, softball, and the JCC continue to evolve, it is clear that the sport and the institution are intrinsic to the Jewish American story in Cincinnati,” Kahan said.