From Otto in Focus:
Written by Bob on December 14th, 2009
By BOB OTTO
botto3 (at) verizon.net
YUCAIPA, CA â€“ It took but one game. And Zane Smith was forever hooked on fastpitch softball.
In 1962 Smith was a young Navy Corpsman. And the Naval base he was stationed at had a fastpich team with a key position to fill. So Smith raised his hand.
â€œThe manager asked, â€˜can anybody catch?â€™â€ said Smith. â€œI said I could. I didnâ€™t know anything about the game and I used a baseball catcherâ€™s mitt.â€
Little did Smith know at the time that warming up on the other side of the diamond was one of the all-time great military and civilian pitchers, Buck Brown.
â€œI was warming our pitcher up and I heard this Pow! Pow!â€ Smith said. â€œI turned and looked and it was Buck Brown warming up. He was really bringing it.â€
Smith struggled his first year at the plate hitting .079, but he was determined to raise that anemic batting average and better his game. And over the next 28 years of his Navy career, Smith did just that.
In 1968, the right-handed power hitter was selected to the All-Marine Corps team. And he played in five All-Navy championships.
The 70-year-old Smith has long since retired from the Navy. But his memories of Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force fastpitch softball live on. Those were days when all the military branches had outstanding teams, pitchers, and players. Those were the days when the three branches battled ferociously to claim the title as the Inter-Service champion.
The heyday of military fastpitch has long since disappeared. But he cherishes those times still, and agreed to share some of his fondest memories.
Who were some of the great Navy pitchers?
Joe Lynch. He was the best Navy pitcher I ever saw. He was a big guy, about 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds and just 20-years-old in 1963 when I first faced him. The ball was a white blur. He threw harder than anybody I ever faced. When you were in the batterâ€™s box he scared you. You stayed real loose.
â€œWe played him at Camp Pendleton and he struck out all 21 of us. He got out of the service when he was 21 in 1964, and went on to play for Aurora and Clearwater (Bombers). He was the MVP pitcher and MVP player for Aurora when they won the ASA national championship.
â€œRoy Burlison was the second best in the Navy. He could bring it too. Everybody in the world wanted him when he got out. And Jim Sperry, a crow hopper, had the great rise ball and the great drop.
â€œIn about 1969, me and Darwin Tolzin were picked up for the All-Navy Tournament. Darwin started out as an outfielder. He had the good rise, good drop, and an unreadable change drop that you couldnâ€™t hit at all. (In 1976, along with Al DeWall, Tolzin pitched All American Bar of St. Paul, Minn. to the ISC World Championship held in Long Beach and Lakewood, Calif.)
What were some of the great fastpitch military bases?
â€œThe two best were Sub-Marine Atlantic near London, Connecticut, and Sub Flotilla One in San Diego. Our base team (San Diego) played in the Western Softball Congress for years.â€
What military branch played the best fastpitch?
â€œThe Air Force. They had some great pitchers. Big Bill White was 6-foot-6 and when he warmed up he started from the outfield fence and kept moving in. When he got to 46 feet, he was really bringing it. Then there was Jim Swilley, he was only about 5-foot-6, but he was really quick.
â€œThe Air Force held world wide (selection) camps to chose their team. They had all the best players and softball was their job.
Describe one of your most memorable moments?
â€œIn 1972 I hit a three-run homer to tie the game and we went on to win the championship (and qualify) for the All Navy Tournament.â€
Who was one of the best all around players?
â€œCary Weiler. He gave you everything he had as a pitcher, and he was one hell of a hitter, and a good first baseman. Heâ€™s one of the best competitors ever. I remember one tournament where he was all cramped up and he just took the ball and kept going. He was also a good basketball player and made All-Navy.â€
What about position players?
â€œGeorge Giles was the best position player ever. He could slap hit and played every infield position, and when he ran he just glided along and fielded everything. Pete Russo was a 5-foot-7 centerfielder who could go get the ball with anybody. After he left the Navy he played with the Vista Bombers.â€
You also managed. Tell us about that.
â€œI started playing and managing in 1972. I managed teams like Stanley Andrews (San Diego), Melâ€™s Car Wash in Oceanside, the Oceanside Bombers, San Bernardino Stars, and Albuquerque Roadrunners. In 1981 we won the Western Softball Congress with the Oceanside Bombers and went to the (ISC) World Tournament. We split four games with Camarillo Kings in the WSC and they won the World Tournament. They had Mark Smith, and he was a barnburner. He threw awfully hard.â€
When you retired from the Navy, you managed teams in the ASA and ISC (Western Softball Congress) and saw many great players. Name a player who really impressed you?
â€œNick Hopkins, Sr. I was in awe of him. He played shortstop for the Long Beach Nitehawks and he could hit and field with anybody. He could reach any ball and had a great arm and instincts for the game. I was a dead pull hitter and they had a shift on me, so I tried to hit to the right side and bunt.
â€œHe came up to the stands after our game and said, â€˜son, youâ€™re really messing up. Quit trying to bunt and hit the other way. Go back to hitting the way you do.â€™ It was the best advice anybody ever gave me.â€
Best rise ball pitcher?
â€œBob Todd (Long Beach Nitehawks). He started at the letters and kept walking the pitches up. He had pin point control.â€
Best drop ball?
â€œRalph Salazar of Fresno. He pitched for Winchells and RKT. He was so strong and he just rolled the ball straight down like off a table, and Ed Klecker. “Ed had one pitch, that drop ball, but it was the best. I faced him for five years, and I only got one rise ball from him in all those years in the 1974 (WSC) All-Star game. It was the fourth inning and Red Meairs (Nitehawks manager) sent me in to pinch hit. Ed threw me a rise ball and I hit it out. Ed won the ISC World Tournament for the Jets in 1973 with that one great pitch. (Klecker was named the Most Valuable Player of the ’73 World Tournament and was selected to the ISC All-World team in 1972, ’73, ’74, and he was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2006.)
Best change up?
â€œVaughn McClure (Navy). I remember a game against the Nitehawks when he gave up back-to-back doubles in the first inning and they didnâ€™t touch him the rest of the way. We ended up losing, 2-1, in 12 innings. Every team in the Congress wanted him.â€
With all those years spent playing military and civilian fastpitch, what has the game come to mean to you?
â€œIt was a love. A true love.â€
It was good to see Zane’s name in an article about fastpitch again. Kudos, Bobby Otto for the story, reminding us of a bit of history we’ve almost forgotten – the military teams. I have had the pleasure to get to know Zane around the diamond, facing his teams, and later, trying to persuade him to manage the Vista Bombers, something we almost did. Zane was one of those people you warm up to the moment you meet him, someone who just seemed to be made to manage. He had the respect of his teammates and the players he coached. I recall a tournament in San Bernardino, while playing for a local team, when he saw one of my “once-every-decade” home runs, and offered to get everyone to sign the ball, so I could take it back to my regular team, the Bombers as proof that it actually happened. It was a measure of the good natured banter you could count on Zane for.
While I never saw the change-up of Vaughn McClure that Zane mentions, I can vouch for Bob Todd‘s rise ball, and Ralph Salazar‘s drop. I adopted familiar Todd’s number 19 after watching him while growing up in Long Beach, and saw Salazar pitch in one of the last west coast ISC World Tournaments, in 1976 at Blair Field. Salazar had a huge left arm, one that looked like it belonged to someone twice as large. While probably known more for the drop that Zane described, he used the change-up to great advantage at that ’76 World Tournament. Salazar tossed two no-hitters that year in those hideous bright yellow uniforms.
Salazar was mentioned in Ike’s CCMSA website, mentioned among the Central California greats, along with the late, great Hall of Famer, Kevin Herlighy.
“Another is Ralph Salazar from Fresno who has 3 no hitters, (2 of them in 1976). Then there is Herman Dunkerkin with a no hitter in 1974. Steve Schultz (Bakersfield) with 2 no hitters. Tom Lampe (Dinuba) with 1. Kevin Herlihy from Lancaster is second in all time win in a single tournament with 7 in the 1983 tournament, and has 2 perfect games to his credit.”
Salazar big left arm carried the Fresno Winchell’s squad to a sixth place finish at the 1976 ISC World Tournament, with Salazar earning first team all world honors, with a 4-1 mark, a 0.72 ERA, striking out 58 while walking only 6.
Ed Klecker, I recall as the ace for the Lakewood Jets, arch-rivals of my hometown Nitehawks. He was at the zenith of his career when I was in high school. We did a feature on Ed at Fastpitchwest in 2006, when a dinner was held in Long Beach to honor he and Greg Sepulveda on the eve of their 2006 ISC HOF induction. Klecker’s achievments were chronicled that night by former Jet batboy (and later star of the team) Ron Rupp. Rupp — a former member of the “California Cuties” barnstorming team (that entertained fans while wearing women’s clothing) – had the best line of that night, stepping to the podium to announce that it was the largest gathering he ever spoke to without a dress on.
And of course, Cary Weiler, who Zane mentions as one of the greatest all around players of his time, I got to watch Cary play – first for the Vista Bombers, and later for the Long Beach Nitehawks, finally sharing a dugout with him for a few years on the Vista Bombers version 3.0, in the early 1990’s. Cary at Joe Rodgers field in Long Beach was like Chipper Jones at Shea. Tournament directors would buy an extra box of balls if Cary was coming to the tournament. One of my first memories of watching Cary play was walking in the outfield behind the tarped fences at Joe Rodgers and nearly getting hit in the head by one of his home runs. True story. I didn’t see him hit it, but the public address announcer’s “Home run, Cary Weiler” became one I got used to hearing. I used to remind Cary that I had watched him “when I was growing up”, though he would be quick to remind me that “you’re not that young”.
For those not familiar with the author of the article above, Bob Otto, he was a pitcher in the Riverside California, as well as sportswriter and photographer. He has penned some of the best original content stories about fastpitch that you’ll find. He was the official photographer of the ISC for a number of years, creating some of the most iconic shots of his era, including a number of Darren Zack. When Fastpitchwest was founded in 1998, it was Bobby’s photos that graced the pages, photos he graciously granted permission to post, in the interest of promoting the game. When Maddy started to shoot fastpitch, it was Bob Otto’s photos that served as the model, and goal – his photos that capture not only the action, but the emotion of the game. A favorite of mine, below, taken by Bob Otto of Glenn Davis, aka “The Rocket”, who pitched for a number of So Cal teams, including the Long Beach Painters during the mid-1990’s (about the time the team appeared in Jeremy Spear’s movie, “Fastpitch”)
(Glenn Davis, pitching for the So Cal Bombers at the 2002 Best of the West tournament)
Photo by: Bob Otto
As for Zane Smith, I remember him leading great teams, but perhaps most for the laughter you heard coming out of the dugout when he was around, sharing a story or three, or needling someone nearby, be it opponent or teammate.