Hamilton·Heroes of the Hammer

Meet 'Doc' Greenlee, the heart of McMaster G.S.A. softball for 52 seasons

James Greenlee has been playing softball at McMaster every summer for more than five decades. In that time the league has changed and the fields too, but one thing has stayed the same: Summer means Doc is always on the diamond.

This story is the 1st in a series profiling people who help bring communities together

James 'Doc' Greenlee has been playing G.S.A. softball at McMaster University for the past 52 seasons. In that time he's come to embody the special spirit that keeps the league going. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

It's clear, even when he's on the sidelines, that James "Doc" Greenlee is the heart of the team.

With one foot up on the bench and a weather eye scanning the infield, he calls out encouragement, ribs his teammates and makes sure they stay focused on the task at hand.

This is, after all, G.S.A. softball, a McMaster tradition, and nobody knows it better than Greenlee.

For the past 52 seasons he's been the core of the co-ed three-pitch league where each team claims some connection to the university. He's also the embodiment of the unique spirit that's kept this special part of Hamilton going strong for generations.

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In all that time Greenlee figures he's only missed about half a season or so — sometimes playing pitcher or second base for two teams or even three at a time.

'Doc' Greenlee: Hero of the Hammer

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For the past 52 seasons James Greenlee has traveled thousands of kilometers to play three-pitch softball at McMaster University. 1:16

At 74, he can still run the bases and he got out there for a few games this year. But for the first time he sat out during the recent Phoenix Cup, the annual competition for the league's highest honour, choosing instead to lend his expertise as a coach to a team called Semper Fly.

It was a tough call for a competitor like Doc. When asked if he still wants to win after all these years, the response from his teammates was a quick laugh and a confident "Oh yeah!"

Still, what might seem like a simple game, summer tradition or desire to compete, is much more than that for Greenlee.

Greenlee shakes hands with another team captain ahead of a game during the Phoenix Cup at McMaster on August 24. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Curt Heckaman, one of the league's commissioners and Semper Fly teammate who has known Doc going on 20 years, described softball as his "first love."

Greenlee gently corrects the record.

"My first love died in 1998," he says, speaking about his first wife, Joanne. "But this is what kept me sane when she did, looking forward to this, coming back."

Greenlee reacts to a play as a teammate looks on. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

And come back he has. For over five decades the unique spirit of the G.S.A. league has pulled the retired history professor halfway across the country, from his home in Corner Brook, N.L. back to Hamilton, Ont., where he earned his degrees and first gave softball a swing.

It's a journey of about 3,000 kilometres.

"What's ... brought me back and what I enjoy the most is the culture of the league," he explained. "I like the ragging that goes on between teams, which is almost always good natured, you very seldom see a serious argument. You play hard and play to win, but nobody wishes anybody ill."

What Doc might not realize is that for many he's the personification of that special spirit.

Nick Latham barrels home during the Phoenix Cup. He says Greenlee has taught him a lot about aging gracefully. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Nick Latham is another Semper Fly player. He said the team is tight and one of the things that keeps them connected is their fearless captain.

"Every year this group gets together and part of the reason we get together and keep together is because we're close," he explained. "Jim is a very big part of that."

Greenlee has passed on plenty of lessons and inspiration, too, says Latham.

"He runs, he dives, he stops balls, slides into the bag, he's doing it all, at his age," he said before heading up to bat. "The things he has taught me about aging with grace are impressive."

Members of Semper Fly watch their team take on the competition during the tournament. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Semper Fly was sporting several different versions of their jerseys during the tournament. The colours and lettering on some were bright and new, others faded and worn. But every jersey was worn proudly.

Team members on Semper Fly wear something else proudly, a nickname carefully selected for them by Doc. You're not really a member of the team until you've got a handle.

There's Bubbles, Xena and Dusty, whose name was inspired by his tendency to slide, as well as Gandalf, so named for his white beard.

Semper Fly has picked up plenty of traditions as well as nicknames over the years, including this voodoo doll they keep by the bats that was inspired by Jobu, a figurine from the movie Major League. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Heckaman goes by Pollux — his fellow league commissioner Andy Duncan is Castor.

The 68-year-old said the most remarkable thing about Doc is his devotion.

"It's quite inspiring," Heckaman said. "The fact this guy who graduated from Mac returns every year kind of underscores the fact that a lot of people feel that way about the league, that it's a special thing."

The league has seen players fall in love, get married and have kids who play in it. There's legacy there, says Heckaman, continuity, and the thread running through it all is Doc.

Greenlee shakes hands with teammates after squeaking out a 5-6 win during the Phoenix Cup. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Greenlee, who credits the support of the university and the dedication of his fellow players with the league's longevity, says things have changed "enormously" over the decades.

Teams have come and gone and the rock-strewn outfields of the early days where players had to watch for vicious bounces and step carefully or risk their ankles, have been replaced with rolling grass and neat, chalk lines.

But one thing has stayed the same. Summer at McMaster means Doc on the diamond.

Then there's the mark he's left off the field.

The Phoenix Cup B-flight trophy bears his name, as does one of the diamonds. Below it, on a battered rusty sign, are the words ​​​​​​Semper Fidelis — always faithful.

Like Greenlee the sign hanging from one of the McMaster backstops bearing his name is a little battered. The motto Semper Fidelis means always faithful. (Dan Taekema/CBC)