Referred to as the “hippie league” by softball players who played in the polyester-clad softball world governed by recreation and parks departments, the Fan District Softball League had its own style, which leaned toward cotton, silk-screened T-shirts. Its games were played on “open fields,” rather than in softball complexes with fences. Among other things that meant the Fan League featured a style that put more emphasis on defensive play, rather than simply a home-run derby, with big-bellied Bubbas trotting around the bases.
It also meant the league’s activities received less scrutiny by authorities outside of itself, which was viewed then as a good thing.
The somewhat unorthodox Fan League bubbled up out of the pop culture ooze of the summer of 1973, which was the heyday of WGOE, the daytime AM radio station that then dominated the Fan District in a way that's never been equaled. Its sound could be heard in the shops and on the sidewalks of the bohemian commercial strip of West Grace Street, adjacent to Virginia Commonwealth University. Anyway, it was WGOE that set what eventually became the Fan League in motion, when its promotional softball team of deejays and a few ringers -- the ‘Nads -- played a few games against impromptu squads representing a few regular advertisers on the station, mostly bars.
By the next summer teams began to jell into rosters, but there was no formal schedule. Fields were still being commandeered, rather than secured by arrangement with any proper authority.
By 1975 the name Fan District Softball League had come into use and the six-team organization had its first commissioner — Van “Hook” Shepherd. Cassell’s Upholstery beat the Bamboo Cafe in a one-game playoff for the first season’s championship finale. The four other teams in the league that inaugural season were the Back Door, Sea Dream Leather, Uptop Sub Shop and WGOE.
In 1976, in addition to the regular season the league staged two tournaments. Teams representing the Biograph Theatre, Hababas, J.W. Rayle, deTreville, the Pinheads (the VCU sculpture department and friends) and the Rainbow Inn were formed in 1976.
As the years wore on more bars, and whatnot, came and went. During the first decade of summers of the league’s existence, next to the music and bar scene, softball-related activities were at the heart of the Baby Boomer-driven culture in the Fan District.
Unlike most softball leagues in those days, the FDSL usually had lots of fans at its games. Of course, the kegs of beer that were around — which meant free beer — probably had something to do with that. The freewheeling FDSL was also the only organized-yet-independent softball league in the Richmond area.
Thus, the Fan League governed itself, made its own schedule, cut its own deal with the umpires, etc. It remained so through its last season in 1994.
On the first Saturday of May, every year since 1980, a softball reunion is held. Anyone who ever played on one of the Biograph softball teams from any year has been welcome, along with their families, friends, etc.
Serendipitously, that first reunion/old timers game was staged on the afternoon in which the Kentucky Derby would be run. The game was played at Thomas Jefferson HS. Afterward, most of us went to the Track Restaurant to join a Derby-watching party already underway.
The reunion subsequently became an institution and it’s been Derby Day ever since. Over the years, the game has moved around to various locations. Several of the guys at the most recent gathering were teammates of mine in 1976, the first summer of organized softball at the Biograph.
We called our team the Swordfish, after a joke in a Marx Brothers movie. That first year the Swordfish played a schedule that was not set in advance. Instead, our practice was to challenge established teams to play us for a keg of beer.
The lucky Swordfish won 15 games of the 17 we played that initial season. In spite of having few experienced softball players on a roster made up of employees, old friends and a few film buffs -- including two French guys who'd never seen a baseball game -- we probably won half of those keg games by coming from behind in late innings.
Typically, our opponents saw themselves as more experienced/athletically superior, which only made it more fun when they bumbled their way into handing us the victory. That first year, it was uncanny how often those supposedly better teams seemed willing to overplay their hands.
Now, having played and observed a lot of organized softball, I know that virgin Swordfish squad was absolutely charmed. In any sport, it was the loosest team with which I’ve ever been associated.
Both of the Swordfish’s losses came in extreme situations. The first was the championship game of one of the two tournaments we entered. Yes, we won the other one.
The second was played inside the walls of the old state penitentiary. Located at Belvidere and Spring Streets, the fortress prison loomed over the rocky falls of the James River for nearly 200 years (it was demolished in the early-1990s).
As it happened the guy in charge of recreation at the pen frequented J.W. Rayle, a popular bar of the era, located at Pine and Cary. During a conversation there he asked me if the Biograph team — I played outfield and served as the coach — would consider taking on the prison’s softball team on a Saturday afternoon. Chuck Wrenn, the bar manager at Rayle, had already told the guy the restaurant's team would do it. So I went along with it, too.
As it turned out the first date the prison guy set up was canceled, due to something about a small riot.
A couple of weeks later the Swordfish entered the Big House. To get into the prison yard we had to go through a process, which included a cursory search. We had been told to bring nothing in our pockets.
As we worked our way through the ancient passageways, sets of bars were unlocked and then locked behind us. Each of us got a stamp on our hands that could only be seen under a special light. Someone asked what would happen if the ink got wiped off, inadvertently, during the game. He was told that was not a good idea.
The umpire for the games — Rayle played the prison team first, then the Biograph -- was Dennis “Dr. Death” Johnson, a rather high-profile Fan District character, at the time, who played on yet another team. Among other things, Johnson did some professional wrestling, so he was good as hamming up the umpire's role.
The fence in left field was the same high brick wall that ran along Belvidere Street. It was only about 230 to 240 feet from home plate. Yet, because of its height, maybe 30 feet, a lot of hard-hit balls caromed off of it. What would have been a routine fly ball on most fields was a home run there. It was a red brick version of Boston’s Green Monster.
The prison team, known as the Raiders, was quite good at launching softballs over that towering brick wall. They seemed to have an unlimited budget for softballs, too. Under the supervision of watchful guards, about a hundred other prisoners seated in stands cheered for the home team. Actually, they cheered the loudest for good plays in the field and sliding collisions on the base paths.
During a conversation with a couple of my teammates behind the backstop, I referred to the home team as “the prisoners.” Our opponents’ coach, who was within earshot, immediately stepped toward me. Like his teammates, he was wearing a typical softball uniform of that era with “Raiders” printed across the chest in a script and a number on the back.
“Call us the Raiders,” he advised, somewhat sternly, as he pointed to an awkward-looking mural on the prison wall that said, “Home of the Raiders.” It looked like a jailhouse tattoo, blown up large.
OK ... it was obvious, I had made a faux pas.
“While we are on this ball-field, we’re not The Prisoners,” he said with, ahem, conviction. “We’re the Raiders.”
“Raiders,” I said. “Right.”
“And, all our games ... are home games,” he deadpanned.
We all laughed, grateful the tension had been broken. The Raiders coach patted me on the back and thanked us for being there, for agreeing to play them.
In a tight, high-scoring affair the Raiders prevailed. Johnson knew how to play to the crowd with his calls, too. Afterward, I was glad the Swordfish had met the Raiders. And, I was glad to leave them, too. Located smack dab in the middle of Richmond that prison was a perpetual nightmare in our midst.
In terms of winning and losing, the Biograph teams that played on in the FDSL through 1994 never found anything close to the success that first year's team knew. Still, popups and bad hops aside, I'll wager most of the guys from the 1976 team remember more details about their meeting with the Raiders than many of the games we won playing at Chandler Ballfield, the home of the "hippie league" for 18 years.
The method for selecting the all-stars varied with the year. Occasionally there were votes held, more times there were caucuses of the bossiest guys; the best teams always put more men on those squads. Other times, each manger just named three players from his team. No matter how it was done, popularity, or the lack of it, always influenced the results.
In 1980, blonde bombshell Donna Parker and the aforementioned Dennis Johnson made a memorable appearance at one of the All-Star Games at Chandler Ballfield. The ever-outrageous Johnson was dressed in his Dr. Death mask and wrestling costume. His date was outfitted in a black leather bikini. Space limitations don't allow for elaboration at this time, but Johnson left town soon afterward.
In 1982, the Bamboo Cafe went through the regular season undefeated, 33-0, but lost to its bitter rival, Hababas, in the finals of the playoffs. Throughout the decade of the '80s one of those two outfits won the playoffs every time.
For several years during the ‘80s the all-star exhibition/party was staged at the Colombian Center in Henrico County. That era had the largest turnouts for the annual event, as between 200 and 300 people paid five bucks each to attend. Once admitted the beer was free and the food was plentiful.
One particularly hot day for the party, according to the Budweiser truck guy, the attendees went through 22 kegs of beer. Figuring 200 beer drinkers, do the math.
For music, a couple of years Chuck Wrenn deejayed the parties. In 1986 the Motovators played live. The softball games were played on what was a field always in poor shape -- rocks in the infield and overgrown clumps of weeds in the outfield. We played with a rule against sliding on the base paths, to prevent injuries. The late Pudy Stallard was once called out, when, out of habit, he slid into second to beat a throw from the outfield.
In 1987 and ’88 the food contest was at the center of festivities. Each team put out a spread to share and the consumers voted for the best of them. Some teams went to great lengths to coordinate their overall entry, others simply had people bring out covered dishes and whatnot.
The most talked about of all the efforts was the 3rd Street Diner’s 100 pound hamburger in ‘88. The beef was packed into a giant patty at the Diner. It was hauled around with great care, so as not to break it apart. The huge bun was put together at the Tobacco Company and baked in one of its large ovens.
Cooking the burger on an open grill at the picnic site turned out to be the best part of the ordeal. There must have been 25 experts and assistant experts standing around that grill, opining on how to go about doing the the job. The burger itself was a good six inches thick. The flipping of the thing, to cook it all the way through -- without having it fall apart -- turned out to be an engineering task.
After all the kibitzing, it was done without mishap, much to the delight of one and all. A spontaneous celebration ensued ... smoke-um-if-ya-got-um.
The FDSL also established its Hall of Fame in 1986. The first class was elected by the 12-team outfit’s designated franchise representatives. To be eligible then one had to have retired from play and considered to be among the founders. Ten names were selected as the first class of Hall-of-Famers.
The same rule held true in 1987, when six new names were put on the plaque. However, by 1988, a few of those who had been inducted into the Hall had un-retired.
So, in 1988, eligibility to the Hall was opened up to anyone who seemed deserving. Those already in got to vote, as well. Nine new members were selected. The meetings to select new inductees were always quite lively, as were most FDSL meetings, the voting process was probably no more twisted than any hall of fame’s way of choosing new names.
For 1989 six additional names were added. The class of ‘90 included seven names, and in ‘92 the last five names were tacked on. In all, 41 players and two umpires were tapped. The list leans heavily toward those who made significant contributions to the league's lore in its early years.
Those men who were inducted into the FDSL’s Hall between 1986 and 1992 are as follows: Ricardo Adams, Herbie Atkinson, Howard Awad, Boogie Bailey, Yogi Bair, Jay Barrows, Otto Brauer, Ernie Brooks, Hank Brown, Bobby Cassell, Jack Colan, Willie Collins, Dickie deTreville, Jack deTreville, Henry Ford, Danny Gammon, Donald Greshham, James Jackson, Dennis Johnson, Mike Kittle, Leo Koury, Jim Letizia, Junie Loving, Tony Martin, Kenny Meyer, Cliff Mowells, Buddy Noble, Randy Noble, Henry Pollard, Artie Probst, Terry Rea, John Richardson, Jerry Robinson, Larry Rohr, Billy Snead, Jim Story, Hook Shepherd, Pudy Stallard, Durwood Usry, Jumpy White, Barry Winn, Chuck Wrenn.
At this writing, by my count, nine guys one the list above have died, with Henry Ford being the most recent to pass away.
As an organization, the Fan District Softball League lasted 20 years, which was a wonder in itself. There are plenty of true stories from those years that are almost unbelievable.