Years of working construction busted his muscles and relentless gunfire aboard the USS Boston during World War II cost him his hearing. Still, at 97 years old Tony Snetro doesn’t need much medication.
“My arm is all torn up and I can’t throw,” Snetro said. “But I enjoy it. It’s my therapy.”
Every Tuesday and Thursday Snetro takes the field with 39 of his best friends as part of the “Young Viejos,” a slow-pitch softball team with an average age of 78. The “Young Old Men” play on the ball fields at the Coral Gables Youth Center.
Snetro is unofficially the oldest active athlete in organized sports. On Dec. 18, he celebrated his birthday with teammates, friends, and three generations of family members.
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“It’s my Zen moment to be inspired,” said Gail Snetro-Plewman, Snetro’s daughter. “They cross cultures and cross ages. If one gets ill, they all support them. They have their bouts with cancer or prostate cancer and then they come back to the ball field and get better. He comes out here because it makes him happy.”
“My favorite part about watching him is that he is forever young.”
Smiles and silence swept over the dusty dugout as Snetro stepped into the batter’s box for his first at-bat. All eyes focused on the 5-foot-5 Snetro, until he made contact with a sudden swing and sent his longstanding limbs into action. Snowy white pants pulled high and tight tussled toward first base amid applause, but Snetro’s ball was caught in the infield.
Nobody asks Snetro, who has been on the team for more than 20 years, if he needs a pinch-runner. But everybody wants to know his secret.
“Everybody says to me, ‘Tony, what’s your secret?’ I say eat hot peppers. I’ve been eating hot peppers almost every day.
“I grew them in the garden. I eat the crushed red peppers. I feel pretty good.”
Snetro was born in New Britain, Connecticut, and enlisted in the Navy in 1942. After serving as a machinist in the South Pacific during World War II, Snetro moved to Miami in 1957 to begin working construction and has since lived in Coral Gables and Kendall. He has three children. His wife of 65 years died last year.
“I want to play for as long as I can walk and breathe,” Snetro said. “I change my mind, but it keeps me going. I’m always busy.”
Snetro started playing baseball at 10 years old, mostly at shortstop. The self-taught trumpet player has a lot of fans, but still takes his share of ribbing from teammates.
“Sometimes I make the lineup and once I had Tony and Augustine on the same team,” said teammate Walter Harris, vice mayor of South Miami. “Augustine is 92 and in the hospital today. I had Tony pinch-run for Augustine to make it about 190 years between the two of them.”
The 65-and-older team plays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. twice a week. Howard Roxborough started the team in 1994. Snetro joined the club a year later.
“Now I’m the only original one left,” Snetro said. “They are all nice guys. There are still some good ballplayers. When I get a hit, both teams celebrate. It’s nice. I don’t mind it.”
Harris, 71, once used Snetro as a base runner after a foot surgery.
“He gets around better than any other 97-year-old person on the planet,” Harris said. “I’ve been here for six years and he hasn’t aged any. He does everything on his own. He hits … doesn’t take a pinch-runner.
“He keeps everyone here. He is our inspiration. No question. He inspires all of us. Nobody can complain about being old when you have a 97-year-old still playing — and we hope he will keep playing for another three years.”
If you go
What: Young Viejos Softball League, slow pitch softball for players 65 and older
When: 9:30-11:30 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday, mid-October through mid-May
Where: Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center Fields, 405 University Dr., Coral Gables