Last Sunday morning at the ball field by Peaked Hill, Bill Edison drove up in his 1990 Volvo, took out a beach chair as ancient as his car, and hobbled the few feet to his customary perch behind first base. Lighting his pipe, Mr. Edison then presided over his final game as commissioner of Chilmark softball, a self-appointed post he says he’s held “since the turn of the century.”
Mr. Edison, who came up as a Chilmark rookie player in the early 1950s, has decided to step down as commissioner because, at the age of 87, he finds it difficult to attend each contest. This is particularly so now that the game’s start time, once a civilized 10 a.m., has edged earlier each season, to a current “gloves in” at 7:30. “I don’t want to become an embarrassment to our national and Island pastime,” he said.
Between innings, Mr. Edison, a retired California school teacher and seasonal Menemsha resident, reflected on the highlights of his tenure as commissioner. When he took office, the nearly century-old game was in a troubled phase, having moved to West Tisbury and attracted serious athletes “who were too talented and competitive,” Mr. Edison said. He renewed the game’s Chilmark character by moving it to the current location, a sloping, rock-strewn pasture dubbed Flanders Field, after David Flanders, the Babe Ruth of Chilmark softball history.
Mr. Edison also oversaw improvements to the field, such as the removal (by excavator) of a massive outfield boulder covered in poison ivy. Most of all, he’s proud of the game’s emphasis on fun rather than performance. In over 15 years as commissioner, he has never levied a fine or suspended an unruly player, despite the shifting cast of wisecracking teens and seniors, children selling lemonade, and runaway canines that make the game closer to a comedy routine than a sports contest.
Also, in a game with no umpire and Byzantine local rules that are subject to constant lobbying and debate — fly balls that reach the dirt road in deep right field are automatic homers; even longer swats to the tall grass and brambles beyond center and left are generally not — Mr. Edison has stayed above the fray by ruling with an extremely light hand.
“Commissioner, does the infield fly rule apply in Chilmark?” a player shouted to him after the second baseman dropped a pop-up and then tagged out a runner last Sunday.
“Whatever the players think,” Mr. Edison replied. The teams agreed that the rule did not apply, and the game resumed.
A few innings later, the benches cleared following a close play at home plate (a rarity, since most throws home end up in the woods). It appeared that the runner reached home safely, but the catcher made such a remarkable tag that the fielding team insisted the runner be called out. The commissioner was appealed to, and again he deferred to the collective wisdom of the players. The runner was ruled out, but the run he appeared to score also counted.
“That’s why I love this game,” Mr. Edison said, refilling his pipe bowl from a pouch of Balkan Sobranie tobacco. “The players make all the tough calls, and I get to sit back and laugh.”
Mr. Edison expressed only one regret about his long career as a player and commissioner. During a game 45 years ago, he was on the mound clinging to a one-run lead with two outs in the bottom of the last inning. “All I had to do was get out the wimp coming up to bat and we’d win,” he recalled. Instead, a commanding figure he didn’t recognize stepped up to the plate. At which point Mr. Edison shouted, “No pinch hitters in Chilmark softball!” The stand-in retreated.
Mr. Edison later learned that the stranger he’d denied a turn at the plate to was Jackie Robinson, who had come to the game as a guest of Peter Simon and his family. “Robinson was a hero to me, and I’d have loved to give up a home run to him!” Mr. Edison exclaimed, adding that his own on-field career “went to hell” following the incident. “I never recovered.”
At 9 a.m. last Sunday, the game paused so the 50 or so players, spectators, and dog walkers present could honor the outgoing commish. Veteran pitcher Hans Solmssen, who began playing in Chilmark about the same time as Mr. Edison, read a history of the game and presented the commissioner with a plastic trophy. Sig Van Raan, another superannuated hurler, read a poem he’d composed, “The Boy of Summer,” which rhymed “Peaked Hill” with “softball legend Bill.” Mr. Simon, barefoot as always, fondly recalled the tutoring he received as a boy from Mr. Edison, a longtime coach at the Chilmark Community Center. And year-round resident Tony Peak, clad in a kilt, played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on his bagpipes.
Mr. Edison tearfully accepted the trophy and accolades before taking his final action as commissioner: appointing a successor. “The job has gotten so big that I have to appoint three,” he said, presenting commissioner T shirts to Mr. Solmssen, Mr. Van Raan, and Caleb Caldwell, a younger player who has served as an unofficial groundskeeper and equipment manager over the past decade.
“You’re in good hands — love you all!” Mr. Edison said, before folding up his chair and driving off to loud applause.
As play resumed, the new commissioners acknowledged the heavy load they bear in trying to live up to Mr. Edison’s legacy. “I’ve watched Bill closely and been groomed for this job for years,” Mr. Caldwell said. “So I think I’m ready.” Asked if he’d bring any changes to Mr. Edison’s style as commissioner, Mr. Caldwell — at 56, still a mid-career player in Chilmark — cited only one.
“There will be no chair for me; I’m not there yet,” he said. “For now, at least, I’m standing.”
Tony Horwitz is an author and longtime member of the Chilmark sandlot softball league.