Not long ago, we learned that one of our softball buddies had died. By ``we,’’ I mean the Chicago Sun-Times softball world, which was a 16-inch-softball version of the British Empire.
As in, ``The sun never sets on. . . ’’
The official office team played on Wednesday night in Grant Park. But it seemed like there were teams playing almost every other night. Beyond Grant Park, I played at Lake Shore Park, in the shadow of the Water Tower and Rush Street, and at Athletic Field, conveniently located on Addison Street near a German beer garden. I did not make the cut for more advanced leagues in Clarendon, Portage and many other parks. Which was fine with me.
Actually, one of my favorites was the Saloon League, played on Sunday mornings. This wasn’t really a Sun-Times team. But it was sponsored by the Four Farthings Pub, and Dean Karouzas, one of the pub’s bartenders, was a regular on Sun-Times teams.
The allure of the Saloon League was two-fold: Your opponents (and some of your teammates) had been drinking all night. And best of all, the league was co-ed.
But we’re here to talk about Davey Sortal. And sportsmanship.
Davey was 65. He was a hard-throwing, hard-hitting shortstop.
But the truth is, Davey was Forever Young.
Everyone who played softball with him will be remembering him when they gather for their Thanksgiving feasts this week.
One of the other guys, sweet Tommy Bonen, recently sent out a lovely video from our halcyon days, circa 1979. Half of it was a long clip of a doubleheader we played in southern Wisconsin, where our fearless leader, Mike Royko, had a summer home.
While quenching his thirst in a tavern near his vacation place, Mike had encountered some softball players who had just won a championship in their glove-wearing rural-Wisconsin 12-inch world.
Ever confident, Mike had wagered that his softball team could beat them at their own game, and at our 16-inch gloveless game.
So we played a doubleheader. And beat them twice. And then, everybody went to Mike’s house for a giant cookout.
What stands out in the video at this melancholy time are the heart rending snippets of Davey, who was the younger brother of Paul, a hard-hitting, hard-throwing third baseman.
Davey just looked like a ballplayer.
Square-shouldered, square-jawed, he would tilt his head jauntily to throw his long dark hair out of his eyes.
When the Sun-Times was inducted into the Sixteen Inch Softball Hall of Fame, I wrote a piece where I mentioned ``the Sortal brothers, Paul and Dave, a hard-throwing third baseman-shortstop combination who tenderized my first baseman's hands during the warmup. There's nothing soft about a softball when it comes out of a Clincher box.’’
It was true. At the beginning of the game, a softball was just an over-sized hardball.
Even on Tommy Bonen’s grainy 43-year-old video, we looked pretty good. Clark Bell, high-waisted financial writer and center fielder extraordinaire, noted in a recent online thread that was the best memorial we ever could have given Davey: ``We looked like real ball players out there. These were some of the best summers ever...with a bunch of great guys. Timmy, Sammy and now Dave Sortal [gone]. Damn.’’
When you include Mike Royko, Davey is the fourth Sun-Times softball hero to leave us. They all have been gut punches—in different ways.
We all knew Mike—``Mr. Rikkio’’ as Hollis the waiter at Billy Goat Tavern used to call him—was burning the candle at both ends. Didn’t make it any easier. But it wasn’t a shock.
Tim Weigel, the sportswriter who became a beloved Chicago sportscaster, was a joy who was taken far too early by a brutal cancer. Still makes me angry.
Tim was so fun to cruise with after softball games. Even though he was a big shot in the broadcast world, he was just Tim around us. He’d lead us to jazz clubs. Comedy clubs. Dive bars.
There was one place that was kind of a Karaoke comedy club. They would pass the mike around and people would tell jokes. I remember going there one night with Tim and Davey. Tim was very funny. I mumbled something or other. Davey’s stuff was a little edgy. Who knew?
Tim got us out of there ahead of the mob.
Actually, Davey was a great joke-teller. Telling jokes was almost as important as beer during post-game gatherings at the Billy Goat Tavern.
Then there was Sammy Gendusa. Gentle little first baseman with soft hands and a laser-like hit-em-where-they-ain’t bat.
Sammy would always lecture us about going to White Castle at the end of the night. ``You know how bad those sliders are for you? Those onions aren’t even real onions.’’
Sammy was a terrific wood-worker by trade. When I bought an old coach house, I had this brilliant idea to strip the painted stairs. Got nowhere. After two weeks, I called Sammy. He bailed me out.
We did not like having to hold a memorial for Sammy a few years ago. Some other cruel disease. But it was good to see the guys and have a few beers—although not nearly as many as we had in the old days.
But Davey? Davey was one of our young stars. Young stars shouldn’t go first.
I was talking to his brother Paul the other day. Paul, who played football at Yale, mentioned that he was never a fraternity guy. I wasn’t either. In a way, he said, the Sun-Times softball team was his fraternity.
I sort of feel the same way. And I imagine a lot of the guys do.
We had truck drivers, stock brokers, school teachers, bartenders, ne’er do wells who seemingly who went from one softball game to another. And of course, a lot of earnest actual newspapermen.
Don DeBat, who was the newspaper’s real-estate editor when he wasn’t figuring out the calculus of a softball empire, was the glue.
And Mike Royko was the. . . crazy. He brought us all together into a world where anything was possible. Officially, it was softball. But really, it was so much more.
I liked the softball. But hanging out with the guys—that was special. A treasure. . .
And that is why we all are welling up this Thanksgiving week that Dave Sortal is gone too soon. But we are also remembering a special time in our lives—with a special place in our hearts for all of our softball friends.