Fast Pitch Softball -When It Was A Game.... For Men
The King and his Court
UPDATE March 6, 2013
I made inquiries yesterday to the State ASA Commissioner as to how many men's leagues there were in the state of Missouri. The facts disheartened me, to say the least. In both St. Joseph and Springfield, last year saw a total of 14 men's teams registered to play fast pitch softball, 6 or 7 in each town total. I remember when I played, we had 6 or 7 teams playing each night of the week, making a total of between 30 and 35 teams in just our town alone. How the times have changed.
When I was young, I played baseball. After all, it was America's game, and that's what boys did: they played baseball. Oh, football and basketball were there, too; but baseball was THE game. At the park, there was always a pick up game going on, and of course there was the league to play in, no matter your age. Back then, there was no Tee ball, those were only used in practice where I grew up. Pitchers pitched, catchers caught, fielders fielded, and batters batted. From age 5 on up, we played. Then, I became aware that my dad played a different game. It was called Fast Pitch Softball, and all the men in town played it. There were different levels of play, from Single A to Double A to Triple A to Open League. Then, there was the Church League teams, made up of members of the congregation. Oh, Slow Pitch was there, but real men wanted to play Fast Pitch if they could. I mean, after all, there were t-shirts that said "Slow Pitch is for everyone, but Fast Pitch is for ATHLETES!"
So, at age 12, I broke my father's heart. I quit playing baseball. I decided I wanted to play Fast Pitch Softball. Not just play, I wanted to pitch. Get this picture: I was 12 years old, stood 4' 8" tall, and weighed a solid 80 pounds. Ferocious, huh. But I wanted it bad. I began to practice by throwing to my dad; by throwing against any rock or stone wall I could find; or by hounding my friends to play catch with me. For two years, I worked. As we spent the summers working in the concession stand at a local ball park that hosted the Fast Pitch Leagues, from Church League up to the Open League, I had ample opportunity to watch the various pitchers work, and to see how they pitched. In addition, this field hosted tournaments at several times during the year, so I would get to watch men from outside of my town pitch. There were also tournaments in other towns that my dad's team went to, so for two years, I watched and practiced and watched and practiced. I would set behind the catcher in the bleachers to see how the ball moved; I would pester the pitchers to show me how they made the ball move; I was obsessed.
My dad would introduce me to pitchers from out of town. Left handed Charley Mowrey, who had a knuckle ball that couldn't be caught; Roy Burlison, who's in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame; Ed Nealy of Tulsa, who just looked like an athlete should look: 6'4" 200 pounds of sculpted athlete with an iron jaw; 6'7" Travis Wrapper of Topeka, who was the tallest player I ever saw, but combined with his height was his figure 8 delivery, and his size 15 cleats striding towards a batter in the windup and the ball appearing suddenly from behind it; Danny Murtaugh, who had as nasty a drop ball as I ever saw; and Phil Wilkerson, who would spend any time I needed to show me his pitches; these were the names of the great pitchers in our four state area, and all of them took the time to teach this skinny young kid how they threw their rise balls, drop balls, curve balls, knuckle balls, or change ups. In addition, I was blessed to see not once, but twice Eddie Feigner and his traveling barnstorming team, The King and His Court. A pitcher (Eddie), catcher, first baseman and a shortstop. Four men who would take on all comers. Eddie could pitch behind his back, between his legs, blindfolded, and from second base, and still strike men out! I was amazed! Legend has it that he was clocked once at over 104 miles per hour. Burlison was clocked twice at 105 mph. Now, let me put this into perspective for you. Fast Pitch pitchers throw from 46 feet away from the batter; a baseball pitcher throws from 60' 6" away. So, if you want to compare, oh let's say a Nolan Ryan fastball, thrown at 100 mph, you would find Ryan's fastball was actually SLOWER (.411 seconds for a 100 mph fastball in baseball versus .298 seconds for a 105 mph riseball in softball) to the plate than a Roy Burlison or Eddie Feigner Rise ball, and it traveled basically straight when compared to that riseball! A rise ball left the pitcher's hand at hip high, and would move up and in to a left handed hitter, often moving in a full foot, and up close to three feet. I don't care if the ball is larger, that is borderline unhittable. I always enjoyed playing against baseball players who were making their debut in fast pitch, because I knew that all I had to do was throw my rise ball, and they were dead meat. Simple as that.
In my town, the pitching studs were Gary Cox, Leonard Doss, Ed Zengel, Mitch Stephens, Paul Welton and Mike Johnson. Cox desired to be the best in town, and he became just that. Working every day, and evenings too, outside if the weather permitted, or inside a warehouse (where many a light builb turned to dust) he threw and threw until his right bicep and forearm were Popeyish compared to his left arm. Over time, mine became noticeably larger in that manner, but nothing compared to Gary's. He would receive a call from the local sporting goods shop about a shipment of softballs, and he would go down. Carrying his postal scales, he would first weigh each and every ball, separating the ones which were the lightest. Then he would hold each one of those and look and feel the stitching. The tighter the stitching, the more raised and puckered it was, and the more raised it was, the more it would move. He had it down to a science!
I would sit for whole games behind the plate and watch Doss pitch. His rocking motion, so smooth and sure, would place the batter into a state of calm, then came the storm. His rise ball would jump twice on the way to the plate. Once halfway there, and again as it crossed the plate. I think I patterned my motion after his, because it felt so good to rock back and forth a couple of times, then let it fly!
Mike Johnson was special to me. One, because he wasn't one of those who just has the talent; he worked at it to become good. Two, because he was one who I got to actually play with on the same team, and he took me under his wing and taught me what it meant to be a pitcher, rather than just a thrower. To think what the batter was thinking, and use that against them. For that, I thank you, Big Mike (I was little Mike on the team).
Paul was another one who was special. I never got the chance to play with him, partly because his life was tragically cut short. No, he was special because he was built shorter and slimmer than the other pitchers. But he was a smart pitcher, crafty they call them in the pros; one who would get you chasing his pitches, and lead you out of the strike zone before you knew it. As I was built along those lines, I tried to follow his example and be a smart pitcher.
My chance came in the summer of my 14th year. It was near the end of the season, and I was out throwing against the wall as per normal, when a man hollered at me. "Hey, kid! You play for anybody, or do you just throw against the wall?" I answered that no, I was not on a team yet, but would like to be. He told me to go buy my player's card ($5 in those days) and come on, that I might get to play with them. I was ecstatic! I ran up to the concession stand and excitedly told my dad that I needed $5, that I was going to play! He was not so sure, but ponied up my needed funds. Away I went, and sat on the bench until late in the game. My team was losing, and the pitcher, Delmar Haase I think, said for them to take him out and put me in to start the next inning. Here I go!! I thought.
I warmed up, and told the catcher my signs: 1 finger meant rise ball, 2 meant drop ball, 3 meant knuckle ball. Those were to be my signs from then on. One's up, two's down, three's a change. My first inning of work, a 14 year old kid playing against grown men was as follows: first up, walk (nerves); second batter fly ball; third batter strike out; fourth batter ground out. Inning over. Wow!
That was to be my only game that year, as the season ended the next week. But I was known now. I was no more the kid who scares the crap out of the women by throwing against the bathroom wall; I was the kid who pitched in the men's league. The next year, Mike Johnson's team took me on, and I became backup to him. I learned a lot in his shadow, and have never forgotten him.
I threw for years, until one day there were no more men to throw against. They all wanted to play that slow pitch stuff; stuff everyone could hit. Fast Pitch was too difficult, and in what may have been a precursor to today, everyone who was borderline fell to the easy stuff, leaving fewer and fewer of us who would strive to excel to play. The better, older players fell to age and injury, and soon I was the only one left in town. The last year I pitched was around 1992 or so, and we had the only team from our town of 50,000, and virtually all of those on our team had never played fast pitch. There were a couple of teams from surrounding towns, and they drove the half to one hour drive to play us one night a week. Then that too died.
One summer after I graduated high school, my family moved to Arkansas. There was no fast pitch there at the time, so I would make the 175 mile one way drive every week back to Joplin, where I would pitch a game and a half, then drive back to Flippin. I would leave work at 3:30 PM, arrive around 7:00 PM, play, then leave. I would get home around 2:00 AM and be back at work at 7:00 AM. I was young, not too bright, and I wanted to play. The next year, they started a league about 40 miles away in Harrison. That might have been my best year of pitching. I pitched every home game, going 7 and 0 that summer. I struck out 2 out of every 3 men who made outs that summer. They were 7 inning games, so that makes 21 outs per game times 7 games for 147 possible outs. I struck out 114. Not too bad. But the next year, nobody wanted to drive the one to two hours to play from Fayetteville and Little Rock, so the league died.
Women began to take control of what was once a male dominated sport. Now, you see them in the Olympics, on ESPN, in every high school and college around the nation. And they are good. Some have been compared to Randy Johnston in the reaction time there is for a fast ball. But always I wonder: where are the men? Are none of us left to play this wonderful game?
In 2001 I think it was, I heard that The King and His Court were coming to town for a benefit game. I called the local's putting it on and found it was true. I told, not asked, the person putting it on that I wanted to play. My dad had played against him twice when I was a kid, and I wanted to take the field against the old warrior. I was welcomed, then was asked to pitch. Eddie could no longer pitch by the time he arrived, having just survived a triple bypass; but Rich Hoppe threw against us, and I had a blast. In that game, which they naturally won, I was playing with my father, and my eldest son. Three generations playing the field together at the same time. My dad, at age 64 got a hit off Hoppe. Unreal. He ended his career batting .500 against them, being 3 for 6 in 3 games spanning nearly 30 years. My son got hit in the fanny on a rise ball gone astray, and had the seam imprints on his left butt cheek for days. Rich called me out to hit near the end of the game. I said no. He said yes. Oh well, humiliation, here I come.
The first pitch was a curve, and I made a weak attempt at it. I knew I could do better, and was lucky in that Rich missed with a couple of drop balls to put it at 2 balls, 1 strike. I knew, as a pitcher, that he would not go to 3 balls against me, and would probably throw a rise ball to me, so I opened my stance and choked up on the bat a bit. Ready or not, here it came. A rise ball, heart of the plate, chest high. Just like I'd guessed. I turned on it and swung hard. A rifle shot line drive down the left field line, curving just foul. There went my chance.
Then, the show began. Eddie was in a wheelchair, still carrying on from the sidelines as though he was pitching. Jawing and talking with the players, just having a good time.
Rich says "Hey Eddie! I heard about this guy!"
Eddie replies, "Oh yeah? What have you heard about him?"
Rich: "He is a tremendous athlete; pillar of the community; looked up to by everybody!" (Boy, was he laying it on thick! All I could do was to stand in the batter's box and wait for the punch line I knew was coming.) "He promised two people he was going to get a hit off of me today!"
Eddie: "Yeah? Who'd he promise?"
Rich: (Pointing into the stands) "He promised his wife right there!" (Points down the third baseline stands) "And he promised his girlfriend over there!" Ha ha, very funny! Everybody was laughing now.
Eddie: "So what are you going to do?"
Rich: "I'm going to help him get his hit. (Looks at me and says) Hold your bat out like you're going to bunt. Hold it tight; hold it still. I will throw the ball; it will hit the bat; it will go down the third base line, and you will have your hit. Understand?"
Inside, I was giddy. He wasn't going to make me look like a fool! He was offering me a way out! I held my bat firmly out over the plate. Rich took aim; rocked and fired and hit my bat squarely and the ball trickled down the third base line. I looked at him, and he said "There's your hit. Get down to first base!"
Those days have gone now. There are not even any men to go and watch play. I think even the field where I grew up is abandoned; no one plays there at all. It's nice to watch the girls on TV play; to watch the hard rise balls, and nasty drop balls; to watch the slap hits and occasional home runs; but still I wonder: where have all the male athletes gone? Are there no men left to play this wonderful game? I have seen online a few places where it is still played, but have also seen leagues full of old men like myself, still trying to play the game. They advertise for pitchers; any pitchers. Even in leagues for those of us over 50 years of age. But I fear this tough game has proven too hard for the men, and only women and girls are tough enough to play it anymore. I feel as the poet who wrote "Casey at the Bat" those many years ago must have felt, when he said:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.
Have all the Men playing Fast Pitch Softball struck out?