The game of slow-pitch softball seems to fit Donna Hackney, well, like a leather glove. But it’s the bat in her hands that is most helpful when the octogenarian Tennessee Senior Stars win national championships.
Folks in Mt. Juliet call Hackney a legend, and a framed picture of her in uniform hangs on the wall of the Zaxby’s restaurant at Providence.
Hackney, inducted into the Senior Softball Hall of Fame in 2009, typically leads her team in runs batted in and batting average, which hovers above .800 (which means she gets a hit more than eight out of every 10 at-bats).
Oh, by the way, she will turn 85 on Oct. 5.
All 15 players on the Tennessee Senior Stars are 80 years old or older but for two. Rules allow for each 80-and-older team to have one player age 79 and one player age 78 on their roster.
These athletes playing slow-pitch senior softball will compete in five or six tournaments a year, averaging 30 games a season.
“Everybody thinks it’s remarkable that 80-year-olds play ball,” said Hackney, a 5-foot-3 bundle of energy. “Like Hank Snow, we’ve been everywhere. It’s just so much fun, kind of like a second family. We’ve been together all these years. It keeps us young.”
Indeed, the Stars have played the game over the past two decades in California, Arizona, Texas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Georgia. Their next tournament is scheduled to begin Sept. 16 in Dalton, Ga., at the Softball Players Association’s Women’s Master National. Then they will head to Myrtle Beach, S.C., in October for the International Senior Softball Association’s U.S. Open National Championship.
And every other year they compete in the National Senior Olympics, which they have won six times.
Beside Hackney, this year’s team includes Helen Armstrong and Becky Troyani of Joelton; Shirley Grizzle of Gallatin; Lois Harlow of Cottontown; Gale Harris and Wanda Sweeton of Portland; Georgia Jenkins of Westmoreland; Peggy Lewis of Hermitage; Billie Dempsey, Sylvia Lewis, Mildred Lovelace of Chattanooga; Rita Gawarecki of Kentucky; and Charlotte Miller and Lucy Swaim of North Carolina.
As for Hackney’s reputation in the game, Wilson Post sports editor Tommy Bryan said, “She has been one of the driving forces behind slow-pitch softball in Mt. Juliet and Middle Tennessee for decades. She has played and coached at a high level. She loves the game and has been a really good teacher of the game.
“My wife, Bobbie Kay, played on a couple of teams that Donna helped coach, and she has always been uplifting. She’s hard-nosed. She wants to win. She is still competitive and is still is a great line-drive hitter. Everybody who’s been around her and who knows her loves her.”
That includes Hackney protégé and close friend, Renee Page, about whom Hackney says, “I coached Renee when she was a little girl and she coached me for 13 years.”
Page, who also has played alongside Hackney, said about the Tennessee Stars, “These ladies practice hard and have won six national championships at the Senior Olympics, five of them in a row.”
The team practices Tuesdays in Gallatin and Fridays in Hendersonville at 9 in the morning to beat the heat. This year’s coaches are Gail Harris and Hackney, while Kim Kendrick, formerly the girls’ basketball coach at Gallatin High, assists with practices.
Page praised Hackney’s skills noting, “She drives in a lot of the runs and usually bats in the top five positions. She hit for a .900 average in one tournament. She’s consistent as a hitter and just a good team player.”
She said the best tip Hackney shared with her about playing the game was “give a hundred percent and be the best you can.
“Donna is a very good listener and teacher and one of most Christian ladies I ever knew. She’s fair in everything she does and always puts other people first,” Page said.
Gallatin’s Shirley Grizzle, a pitcher and at 85 the oldest member of the team, has played ball with Hackney for more than 20 years.
“I ride with her to games. She’s my driver,” said Grizzle. “She’s one of the best teammates I ever played with and one of our best hitters on the team. I cannot say enough about her compassion for each and every ballplayer. I don’t know what keeps us going. I guess for the love of the game. I don’t think that will ever die, but we may have to give it up one day.”
Peggy Lewis, 84, of Hermitage, has played on teams with Hackney for 20 years as a pitcher, a catcher, a first baseman and a second baseman.
Lewis said she plays, “Because it’s just fun when you’re out there. You don’t think about anything else. You concentrate on that. It gets in your skin and you want to do the best you can. It’s kind of living our childhood over.”
She said that Hackney is “amazing. She is so uplifting and so positive. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. She’ll come back in the dugout and say, ‘That’s OK. You’ll do better next time.’ ”
‘Play as long as it’s fun’
Hackney began playing softball as a youngster at Major School near Cedars of Lebanon State Park.
“In the sixth or seventh grade, me and Robbie Lea would take on a whole bunch of girls. The two of us against three or four others and usually beat them,” she recalled.
She was born in Wilson County’s Vine community, where her father was a farmer, and grew up with three sisters and two brothers. They spent part of their childhood in Peoria, Ill., but Hackney returned to Lebanon to live with her grandmother and attended Lebanon High her junior year before marrying at 16.
“I had a wonderful husband, Charles Hackney,” she said of her late husband. “We lived on Alsup Mill Road for several years and then moved to Mt. Juliet in 1962 and had a son, Wayne. He started at quarterback for Mt. Juliet High School and then our grandson, Aaron, also started at quarterback at Mt. Juliet. Both wore jersey number 14.
“I started playing women’s softball when I was 20 in the early 1960s with Haynes Hardware in Murfreesboro. We played mostly in Leanna and I played against Nera White (Lafayette’s legendary softball and basketball player, who is in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame). Next I played with Murfreesboro Ready Mix. Then we moved to Mt. Juliet, and I thought my softball days were over.”
Then in 1991, about 27 years after she last played, she got a call from a team in Gallatin asking her if she wanted to play with them.
“I thought, ‘That sounds like fun. I think I’ll try it,’ and I got back in it.”
She was not totally out of the game in those in-between years as she coached 13-to-15-year-old girls in Mt. Juliet for about seven years. One of those teams won the state tournament in 1970.
Hackney’s work career was split by 23 years with Aladdin Industries and 15 years at Nissan, which included a six-week training adventure in Japan in 1982.
“We had a softball game there in Japan against a mixed (co-ed) team. They couldn’t believe women could play that good. We beat them,” said Hackney, who has three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
She confessed that she has slowed a bit. “I played left center but don’t play defense any more. I’ve not been in the field for 15 years.
“What’s important to me is my church, my family and my team,” said the slugger, who added that the Softball Players Association’s motto is “To God be the glory.”
“Everybody asks me, ‘Are you gonna play till you’re a hundred?’ I tell ’em, ‘I’ll play as long as it’s fun. Then I’ll hang it up.’ ”