Sportsmen beat the aging odds

As everybody knows, youth must be served. Even so, there are exceptions. Such as Al Balding, an all-time pro golfer up there with Canadian hall of famers George Knudson and Stan Leonard.

Now 78 and still firing, Al shot 66 in the first round of the Canadian Seniors tournament last July. A month later, a 68 in the Ontario Seniors. Talk about shooting your age.

Red Horner, the bad man of hockey on defence for the first Maple Leaf Stanley Cup team back in 1932, is 93. Andra Kelly, the wife of another former Leaf redhead, Red Kelly, notes of Horner, “Say, he’s some dancer!”

Milt Dunnell was a money-making blackjack player in Las Vegas when, as the revered sports editor of the Toronto Star, he covered all the big fights in Vegas. Closing on his 97th birthday this Christmas, Milt was still travelling twice a week to play blackjack in one of Ontario’s legal gambling hells, the Blue Heron Casino, an hour’s drive east of Toronto. Still winning, too.

Defying clichés
A while back, the postman dropped a note from a 50Plus reader, Peter Ferguson of London, Ont., wondering if I knew that his friend Ray Scott of Toronto is 98 and plays go “nearly every day.” No, I didn’t. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that people such as Milt Dunnell and Al Balding and Red Horner and Ray Scott defy the cliché. So I talked to them.

Right away, Scott said he wasn’t 98.

“I’m 97,” Ray said, a trifle testily, “but, yes, I play golf most days. I do stretches in the morning to keep flexible, and there’s a gym in my apartment building where I hit plastic balls to keep my swing fluid. Some winters, I go to Florida and play. The secret? Keep flexible.”

Scott was a phys. ed. teacher whose wife died four years ago, so he finds golf gives him “something to do.” In summer, he belongs to a seniors group of nearly 90 members who meet twice a month for a round at public courses in Toronto.

Red Horner was at home where he and his wife, Helen, live in a large condo in mid-Toronto. Red played golf regularly at the exclusive Rosedale club until a stroke slowed him down three years ago.

“But you dance,” I reminded him, smiling (I wanted to avoid a hip check).

Red was on the ice the night in 1933 when Ace Bailey was blindsided by Boston’s great Eddie Shore, his career ended and his life almost so. Red chased after Shore and knocked him unconscious with a right-handed punch as Bailey lay on the ice convulsing.

“I wasn’t going to let him get away with that,” said the man who led the NHL in penalty minutes through eight straight  punishing seasons.

One day, a newspaper pal, Joey Slinger of the Toronto Star, and I caught a bus north to a casino and wandered through the vast humming rows of spinning slot machines and blackjack tables where people sat hunched in front of the clattering slots and impassive card dealers. 

Next page: Keep on winning

Keep on winning
Unexpectedly, we spotted a familiar figure playing blackjack – Milt Dunnell. Lean as always and sporting a baseball cap and a handful of round plastic chips, he rose from his chair and joined us.

We shook hands, chatted a few moments and he returned to his chair.

“Hey, did you catch the denomination of his pile of chips?” Slinger said, eyes wide.

“No, but he had at least a dozen.”

“Right,” Slinger said. “And at a hundred bucks apiece.”

So, nudging 97, Milt had lost none of the acumen he’d shown in those trips to the fights in Las Vegas.

Did you say slow down?
Next, I called Al Balding, four-time winner on the PGA Tour, who in 1968 teamed with George Knudson in Rome to win the World Team championship. Lean and lanky, Al also was the low individual winner.

So I asked him how often he plays.

“Aw, hell, I’ve slowed down,” Al said.

“I still enjoy it but I only play a round maybe twice a week.” Al is normally an ebullient fellow but he sounded glum.

“Only a couple times a week, eh?” I said.

“Yeah.” Still gloomy. “So other days all I do is chip and putt.”

Youth must be served? Okay – but with exceptions.