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The Spectacular Rise and Sudden Fall of Print Media ... on the Softball Field

For so many in the media space, the ball fields at Central Park were where writers and editors, New York Posters and Daily Newsers, ringers and the occasional singer all fought across decades for softball supremacy. This is the story of how the Press League—and with it, a huge chunk of the press itself—withered and died.

“Standing on the mound, about to throw the game’s first pitch, I’d take a moment. I’d look up at the blue sky, at the trees all around me, at the skyscrapers looming behind them. Central Park. New York. And I’d remind myself: Look at this. Look where you are.”
—Fred Lief

Don’t those guys have jobs?

It happened every spring. Blacktop refugees feeling the sylvan pull of Central Park. They’d wander in—suits and sailors, daytrippers and druggies, stroller moms and straphangers, tourists and triathletes—all hoping to escape the cacophony and chaos of midtown Manhattan. To sunbathe or smoke a joint. Ride a carousel or a Cannondale. Read a book. Unwind. Then they’d hear it.

“Play ball! … He’s tagging up! … Goddamn motherf------ a------! … You’re gone—here’s a token, take the train!”

If it was a Wednesday afternoon in the park’s southwest corner, their afternoon delight was inevitably interrupted by the rancor of the New York Press League—by employees of the city’s top media outlets, many of whom covered baseball for a living, playing softball with the same ardor as the pros they chronicled. Often more.

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“I’d hear it every year,” says Ben Walker of the Associated Press. “Don’t those guys have jobs?”

Yes. But they never let those jobs impose on their softball careers. Fred Lief, who pitched wire-to-wire in the Press League—which is to say that he played every season between 1976 and 2018 for one of the two wire services, the AP or UPI—says, “There is no other institution in my life, not a job, not my marriage, that endured as long.”

Lief underwent four knee surgeries in his softballing days and, unofficially, was Charlie Browned more times than any hurler in Press League history. He took the mound late into his 60s.

Murray Chass, enshrined in the writers’ wing at Cooperstown, played softball in Central Park from the mid-’60s into his own mid-60s. “The Press League became the highlight of my week,” says Chass, who pitched first for the AP and later for The New York Times. “I did not let anything interfere with a game.”

Not anything. In 2003, Chass had surgery to remove a brain tumor. He was 64. The following spring he returned to the mound sporting a batting helmet.

What follows is an elegy. To a softball league. An industry. A generation.

***

When Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in the 1850s, ballplaying was considered too niche an interest to deserve its own space. Nevertheless, they eventually reserved an area—five diamonds, with a communal outfield in the middle—for lads to play ball. A 19th-century skateboard park, of sorts. Later, a proviso was added: Only well-behaved school boys, armed with a note from their principal, were granted access to the Heckscher Fields.

Boys from the St. Thomas school, just across 59th Street, reap the rewards of Olmsted and Vaux's civic gift in 1934.

Boys from the St. Thomas school, just across 59th Street, reap the rewards of Olmsted and Vaux's civic gift in 1934.

During the Prohibition era, adults took over. In 1955 came the Broadway Show League, with teams representing theatrical productions, media outlets and restaurants. Our story begins 10 years later, in March 1965, with Ray Corio, a senior at City College of New York who was balancing his studies, a potential spot on his school’s baseball team and his job as sports editor at the school newspaper. When The New York Times phoned, offering Corio a gig as an overnight copy boy, he says he “wondered if my playing days were over.”

They were just beginning. That spring, Corio, 21, took part in the Show League’s opening day festivities, in which all the teams took breakfast at Sardi’s, followed by a parade of convertibles up a closed-off Fifth Avenue, into Central Park. There a throng gathered to watch film legend Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard) throw out the ceremonial first pitch. “I thought it was quite a fuss,” says Corio. “I also thought: Why would I ever work anywhere else?”

And so Corio spent the next 40 years of his life working at the Times. And even more years playing softball in Central Park.

The Show League provided New Yorkers the most spectacular blend of the national pastime and the dramatic arts since Damn Yankees—which also debuted in 1955. It also supplied many a future Press Leaguer with a taste of the intensity and absurdity of softball at the Heckscher Fields. Chass, for instance, recalls witnessing Oscar winner George C. Scott going full Patton on an umpire, striking the official with his own mask. Doug Goodman, a stagehand and future Press League regular with Sports Illustrated’s team, remembers gaping as Al Pacino played in an Armani suit and Gucci loafers. (“He’d cheat up in the batter’s box and take these little steps forward during the pitcher’s windup. But who’s going to call out Don Corleone?”) He also remembers winning the league in 1982, when he was the stage manager for Torch Song Trilogy. “[Writer and star] Harvey Fierstein called the team on stage after a performance to take a curtain call,” says Goodman. “Harvey was tickled that the gayest show on Broadway won the softball title.”

Jimmy Colton, who was an 18-year-old AP photo editor when his Show League career began in 1972, remembers one of the most feared boxers on the planet appearing at Heckscher with not two gloves but one. "Roberto Duran would show up with his mitt asking to play," Colton recalls of the former light heavyweight champion of the world. "And no one was going to tell him no, because he was Roberto f-----' Duran."

***

If the late Bobby Henn, a writer at the Daily News, had not cooked up the idea of the New York Press League in 1976, someone else would have. The previous summer this publication had run a cover story headlined THE BASEBALL BOOM. The national pastime—and, by extension, softball—was part of the zeitgeist. Editors waiting for writers to file late-night game stories were playing catch or Wiffle ball in newsrooms. Softball was, to paraphrase a line from Annie Hall, which was filming in Manhattan that summer, “the most fun you can have without laughing.”

So, yes, someone would have thought of it, but give the byline to Henn. “So many of us in the business were playing in more than one Central Park softball league,” says former UPI editor Fred McMane. “Why not have a league for ourselves?”

McMane (right) and UPI teammate Joel Sherman celebrate winning the 1984 title over the Post (for whom Sherman is now a baseball columnist) at the league's alternate field on 54th St. and 11th Ave.

McMane (right) and UPI teammate Joel Sherman celebrate winning the 1984 title over the Post (for whom Sherman is now a baseball columnist) at the league's alternate field on 54th St. and 11th Ave.

Six teams—a number that would never change in 43 seasons—played that inaugural year: the AP, UPI, the Daily News, the New York Post and two squads from The New York Times. (The Gray Lady dubbed its squads Times A and Times B, squandering a shot at literary whimsy: Best of Times and Worst of Times.) And the new league had a few wrinkles. Modified fast-pitch (no windmill wind-ups) games went nine innings, not seven. Bases were 65 feet apart, not 60. A 15-game season would be played on Wednesdays at 1 p.m., when the fields were vacant due to Broadway matinees.

That inaugural season, Times A won it all behind a fleet, 32-year-old centerfielder named Ray Corio. The league’s MVP would never again play that well, but he would become the only person to take one at-bat in every season of the league’s existence.

The AP's John Kekis crosses the plate in a 1985 semifinal win over McMane's (left) UPI.

The AP's John Kekis crosses the plate in a 1985 semifinal win over McMane's (left) UPI.

***

“I took over as commissioner in 1978 with the idea that we’d serve two-year terms,” says Fred McMane. “But no one else wanted the job, so I kept it for 15.”

McMane nurtured the fledgling league as if it were his front lawn. A Tuesday-night downpour would incite the Brooklyner to catch an early-morning subway to the Central Park maintenance shed, where he’d gather a broom and rake, grooming the infields himself. Says McMane: “I understood how badly these guys wanted to play.”

And they did. The rivalries in print—between the wire services (AP versus UPI) and the tabloids (the Post versus the Daily News)—reverberated at Heckscher. Press box, batter’s box. “It mattered a lot because we all knew each other,” says Walker, the league’s all-time hits leader. “We wanted to beat each other in the headlines, in our stories and on the field.”

Early Press League action at Heckscher, circa 1983.

Early Press League action at Heckscher, circa 1983.

The talent level was uneven—SI reporter Armen Keteyian had played at San Diego State; others had covered the San Diego Padres—but the chatter was consistently redolent of a scene from His Girl Friday. These were print guys, after all, cracking wise. “One year our Times A team had Chuck Fein, Larry Fine and Steve Fine,” Corio says. “I used to say we led the league in fines.”

There were characters aplenty. Eddie Lavin, a lovable lush who pitched for the Post, needed not 12 pitches to loosen up but six Budweisers. And a chaser. “Eddie could barely keep his balance on the rubber,” says umpire Charles Krichman, whom Press Leaguers knew fondly as Butch. “But he absolutely could not pitch sober.”

Bill (Billy Bob) Barnard, a pitcher with a push-broom mustache, typified the passion Press Leaguers brought. In 1992 he flew back from a family vacation in Texas on the morning of the championship game to take the hill, with plans to return the same day. “I feel sorry for whoever sits next to you on that flight,” Walker, his AP teammate, said after Barnard got the W.

“Because I stink?” asked Billy Bob, doused in champagne.

“No, because they’ll have to listen to you talk about the game for three hours.”

The AP's 1992 title-winning team, including Barnard (back row, far left), Walker (front, far right) and Jimmy Colton (back, second from left).

The AP's 1992 title-winning team, including Barnard (back row, far left), Walker (front, far right) and Jimmy Colton (back, second from left).

The Press League was a release, a place to get yer ya-ya’s out. Walker and UPI’s Mike Tully, writers who competed against each other on the Yankees beat, could gab about last night’s game or take each other out with a hard slide. Or both. Ambitious SI staffers could, as Keteyian puts it, “forget about climbing over one another up the masthead for a few hours.”

Given that on/off-field interplay, careers could hinge on softball prowess. Jimmy Colton went on to be the photo director at Newsweek into the late ’90s, and he played a flawless left field for the AP. Steve (Down the Line) Fine, who held the same job at SI, was a dead pull hitter. After more than a decade of frustration, Fine hired Colton in ’98 as his deputy chief. “Half the reason Steve hired me,” says Colton, “was to lift his batting average.”

Back in those days, print media, like the national pastime, held a position of primacy. Between the foul lines were familiar bylines: Chass, the Daily News’s Frank Isola, Keteyian at SI. . . . Rosters, like magazines and newspapers themselves, were overstuffed. Ringers—freelancers, as it were—were superfluous. And not welcome. “Absolutely no ringers,” says McMane. “I enforced it.”

With exceptions. Colton, after all, played for the AP while working at Newsweek—“but I had worked for the AP before that, so I was grandfathered in,” he says. His AP teammate Bill Scheft was the emcee at Catch a Rising Star, a comedy club on First and 78th, where he introduced the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser—but Scheft would find just enough work as an AP stringer to justify a spot in the lineup.

“In the ’80s you could bring in a guy who wasn’t full-time staff,” says Scheft, “but he wasn’t a guy who batted third in seven other leagues.”

That would change.

***

The first thing to know about Charles Francis (Butch) Krichman is that he was kicked out of the Show League for being “too bombastic.” The second thing to know is that he is an umpire. Butch, 70, is likely the most prolific arbiter of balls and strikes in the history of New York City. Only the jewelers on 47th Street have trained eyes on as many diamonds. “I’ve umpired more than 15,000 games in 40 years all over the city,” he says. “In my prime, I’d call six games in one day.”

His renown, though, extends far beyond the Press League. Major league umpires have often been spotted watching—and occasionally playing in—Butch’s Central Park games. A few years ago at spring training in Lakeland, Fla., Joe West, the longest-tenured ump in MLB, spotted the AP’s Walker and asked, “Hey, Ben: How many more games do I need to catch Butch?”

With a thick blond mane—hair “more meticulous than his strike zone,” says longtime SI baseball writer Ben Reiter—and tight blue shorts, Butch was the league’s most arresting sight. One always knew it was him behind the mask because, well, he rarely wore one. “I found that I focused more,” he says.

Even blind people, whom Butch was often accused of being among, could recognize him. Because he was always on blast. “That voice!” laments one former player. “They should put Butch on buoys in New York Harbor. You could never find another voice like that—even if you went to New Jersey.”

Butch (wearing his trademark short shorts) and SI's Steve Fine, in 1998.

Butch (wearing his trademark short shorts) and SI's Steve Fine, in 1998.

The scouting report on Butch (who was raised on the Jersey shore, by the way): He wasn’t always right, but he was always sure. “Butch wasn’t the most accurate umpire,” says Goodman. “But he was always in control of the game”—and, with another game or two on a given day’s schedule, in control of its pace.