Joe Nelson arrived Tuesday morning with aged newspaper clippings and a yellowed contract offer that outlined an old but familiar tale, one in which an ex-ballplayer, way back when, could have played in the big leagues. Instead, he left professional baseball for a reason kids today couldn't comprehend.
He landed a better job.
Nelson was sitting next to a deck of cards in the lobby of Canterbury Woods, a retirement community in Amherst where he and his wife of 69 years, Delores, have lived independently in an apartment for the past year. He's 91 years old, but his steely blue eyes, sharp mind and handshake of a bricklayer suggest he's 30 years younger.
He's an engaging man who explained boyhood in the 1920s, idolizing Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, playing high school ball in Buffalo against the great Warren Spahn, earning a scholarship to Michigan State, being summoned for World War II, his career in sales, his five holes-in-one. Suddenly, it was evident he was pressed for time.
It was 9:50 a.m. What could be so important to an elderly man on a Tuesday morning in September?
"Ten-thirty tee time," he said. "I appreciate you coming. I've got to get going."
And he was gone.
Not until that moment did he inadvertently reveal his simple secret to living a long and productive life: cramming as much productivity into life for as long as possible. A police barricade couldn't have blocked Nelson from rushing out the door Tuesday and meeting a dozen or so golf partners at Country Club of Buffalo.
For years, every Tuesday and Thursday, weather permitting, he and his buddies have played four-man matches for $10 apiece. They conduct a blind draw because giving Nelson the same partner equates to a weekly donation. He's a nice guy . until you get him on the course. And then he turns into an assassin.
"Besides my married life and children, golf is my biggest thing to do," he said. "It keeps you active. It keeps your mind going. Golf grabs a hold of you, you know?"
And to think this wise man had it all backward. Golf didn't grab him. He grabbed a hold of golf and refused to let go.
Last month, he won the Super Senior tournament for players 80 and older by two strokes after shooting 89. He was still peeved Tuesday over six three-putts that stained his scorecard. At an age in which some would consider green bananas a wishful proposal, his response was purchasing a new putter and getting back to work.
A few days later, he shot 81. Tuesday, he carded a 79 that included a 38 over the final nine holes. He walked away a few bucks richer, of course.
"If you know Mr. Nelson, it's not surprising, but it is amazing, how competitive he is," CCB club professional Jay Sutherland said. "He wants to shoot a good score, but he also wants to beat the guy next to him. He still has a ton of energy. "
Nelson's wife and her twin sister, Dorothy Batt, who also lives in Canterbury Woods with her husband, Jerry, are 90 years old. His brother, Jack Nelson, is another resident there. He's 94. It just so happens - wink, wink - that the Country Club of Buffalo is only five minutes away. What a coincidence.
Right about now seems like the right time to remind you that Nelson was born Nov. 5, 1920, when Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States. Nelson didn't start playing golf until 1956, in the middle of the Eisenhower Administration. You get the sense he'll shoot 110 someday and still beat his age.
According to Golfsmith, about 25 percent of golfers at any age break 85. Studies suggest less than 1 percent can shoot their age on a course of 6,000 yards or longer. The best known score for an amateur beating his age was recorded four years ago in Florida, where 93-year-old Ed Ervasti fired a 72 on a regulation course.
Nelson broke par only once, so far, firing a 71 in 1968, but he has been shooting his age more often than not for 15 years. In his earlier days, his friends called him "5 o'clock shadow" because that's when he could be found alone on the driving range. He still works on his game several days a week.
"If he doesn't play every day, he's up there to hit balls," his wife said Tuesday. "If there's a Type A personality, he's triple-A."
Nelson has won the senior division, for players 65 and older, eight times at CCB. In 2002, he won by a stroke after carding his fourth hole-in-one. Six years later, when he was 88, he recorded his fifth ace while on vacation in Orlando, Fla. He still hits the ball about 200 yards off the tee and is deadly around the greens.
Spend a little time with Nelson, and it's easy to understand why he's revered at CCB. He has been a member there since 1972, when gasoline was 36 cents per gallon and the initiation fee was $3,000. By then, his business had blossomed and four children had grown enough for him to work on his game.
He took the same approach to golf that he took to baseball in the mid-1930s, when he was in high school. He was a star first baseman for St. Joe's when the campus was on Main Street. He took a post-graduate course at Bennett High and batted .667 during his final season. Spahn, who won 363 games in his Hall of Fame career, played for South Park.
The Red Sox offered Nelson $75 per month after high school, but he accepted a baseball scholarship to Michigan State. He played with another Bennett star, Eugene "Bucky'' Walsh. In 1943, Nelson was summoned by the military and assigned to play baseball as entertainment for the troops.
"My granddaughter likes to say, 'My one grandfather carried a gun in the war,' " Nelson said with a laugh, "'and my other grandfather carried a baseball bat.'"
In 1946, he was named All-American by the National Baseball Congress as a player and manager. The Red Sox offered him $300 per month, but he refused to sign because Boston refused to give him a $1,000 bonus. He accepted the following year and batted .241 in 21 games with Oneonta Red Sox of the Canadian-American League. It was enough to convince him to start a career in sales, making $375 per month.
"I was 28 years old," he said. "I was married and had a family. I had to make some money."
The sales job later led him to Dulane Fryryte, which made the first home deep fryer. His $21,000 salary in 1950, worth about $200,000 today, helped him start his own company, Nelson, Heintz and Shookus, in Williamsville. His granddaughter, Lindsay Shookus, is a co-producer for "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock."
Then again, who knew about the great Joe Nelson? He has slipped through the cracks of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. His baseball career fell short, but his story has changed. In fact, it continues to evolve even though he's 91 years old, still playing, still winning and still looking for more out of life.
"My goal?" he said. "My goal is to keep on living."