Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Fan District Softball League (1975-94)

J.W. Rayle 1976 team

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 dominated the Fan District. 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. WGOE inadvertently set what became the 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, but there was no formal schedule and 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 organization had its first commissioner — Van “Hook” Shepherd. Cassell’s Upholstery beat the Bamboo Cafe in a one-game playoff for the 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 the league’s existence, next to the music and nightlife 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 — had something to do with that. In that time the freewheeling FDSL was 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. The Fan District Softball League had lasted 20 years, which was a wonder in itself.

WGOE disc jockey Jim Letizia (left) with two Back Door stalwarts, Richard Broughton and Ray Throckmorten in 1977

The FDSL established its Hall of Fame in 1986. The first class was elected by the then-12-team outfit’s designated franchise representatives prior to the annual All-Star game/picnic. 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 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 unretired. So, in 1988 eligibility was opened up to anyone who seemed deserving. Those already in the Hall got to vote, as well; nine new members were selected. The meetings to select new inductees were always quite lively, 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 FDSL lore in the early years of its existence.

Those men who were inducted into the FDSL’s Hall 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.

By my count, seven guys one the list above have died, with Pudy Stallard being the most recent to pass away.    

Biograph Naturals team 1980

-- Photos: J.W. Rayle by Artie Probst; Back Door guys by Danny Brisbane; Naturals by Phil Trumbo.

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