I have had a mortifying sin ulcerating on my soul since 1969, and I believe the time has come to clean the bases, so to speak, and to deglorify the only athletic trophy in the Press Club in Houston.
I refer to the time that the Press Club Spikes won the Commercial Division of the Fast Pitch League of Greater Houston. It all began innocently enough when the entire Press Club was invited to a picnic at the ranch of Frank Horlock, a local beer distributor. We played your average picnic softball game. Now I'm not trying to puff myself up, but I had played semi-pro ball and I even had a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals, so I was a slight cut above the other members of the Press Club. I hit a couple of home runs and pitched, striking out the side a few times, and my team won by about 16 runs.
I thought no more about it, other than it having been a good time, until about a week later. I was sitting in the Press Club, quietly sipping a lemonade when Sam Caldwell came in. Sam had been the organizer of the softball game.
Sam is an extremely fine illustrator, but the fire of a competitive athlete burns in his nonathletic body. He walked over and sat down in a chair at my table and said, "Well, I've entered us in the league."
I said, mildly, "What league?", thinking he meant the Art League or something like that.
But Sam said, "Commercial Division, fast pitch."
I just looked at him, not quite certain what I was hearing. I said, "You've entered who?"
He said, "The Press Club Spikes. Like the name?"
Lemonade wasn't strong enough for what I was hearing. So I turned around to the bartender and signaled him to bring me a cola.
Sam said, "I know you're a good hitter and a pretty good chunker so I figure we have a chance. I talked to the board and they agreed to put up the entry fee, so I went ahead and entered us."
I almost choked. I said, "Sam, you ain't including me in this, are you? I mean, not based on that pickup game? I was pitching and hitting against 40-year-old nonathletes and 12-year-old girls."
But Sam was getting up. He said, "Hell, you can do it."
I said, "Sit down, Sam! Do what?"
Sam said, "Why, you're the manager and the pitcher."
I leaned forward and said, "In the Commercial Division? Fast pitch? Have you lost what little is left of your mind? You're talking Xerox, Conoco, IBM, Phillips Petroleum. They've got thousands of employees to pick from, many of whom have been athletes. We're talking about the Press Club members, half of whom are women. With me as the pitcher? I can't throw the ball underhand much more than 20 miles an hour. I'm an infielder! A good team will have a wind-miller who can bring it up there at 70 miles an hour and make it rise or sink or curve. Get serious!"
Sam just put both his hands on his knees and said, "We've got to do it. I've already ordered caps for the team."
Then he got up and left.
Most of these teams were dressed by the same companies who provided uniforms for major league clubs. I had tried out a couple of years before for one of these teams and didn't make it. Now I was to play and manage against them? And Sam's talking to me about caps?
I slumped back in my chair and hoped the elevators wouldn't work so I would never be able to get out of that place and face what I knew was coming.
I vividly remember the cold, windy March day I held the tryout for the actual members of the Press Club (Sam had put a notice on the bulletin board in Gothic lettering). I'm not saying they were bad, but I had some "players" out there who didn't know if they needed a lefthanded or righthanded glove because they didn't know which arm they threw with. The sportswriters were the worst. I am convinced, though I have no documentation, that within every sportswriter lurks a frustrated athlete. Well, these guys were simply frustrating.
Watching them, I understood what Casey Stengel, managing the Mets in their first season, meant when he said of his outfield, "I got two guys out there who can't play, and the other one can't catch the ball."
I stuck with an old baseball axiom and looked for strength up the middle. So I kept trying guys at second base to see if they could take a throw with a runner barreling in on them from first base. I was the runner. Most times there was no point in sliding high because the ball had either already sailed into centerfield or the second baseman had dropped it by the time I got there. But, finally, one feisty little guy from the entertainment section of the Chronicle had the ball waiting for me. I hit him in the chest, and he went one way and the ball went the other. I got up and was dusting myself off when he came at me, flailing his arms and saying words I wouldn't want your children to hear. I didn't pay much attention to it, but, when I got back over to the sidelines, Sam said, "Why didn't you hit him back?"
"Hit him back?" I said. "Why, did he hit me?"
That convinced me. I could picture both benches emptying during a brawl. I would be getting the living daylights beat out of me while my guys would be out there interviewing the other team as to just how many and what kind of punches they had hit me with.
For the sake of form, we played a couple of practice games against church-league teams (about four notches below the Commercial level), and they beat us so bad the 10-run rule went into effect in the second inning in both games.
After that, I had a quiet talk with Horlock, whose company was furnishing us with uniforms and equipment and handling the other expenses. Horlock agreed with my plan, and the next day new faces started showing up at our practices.
I brought in Phil Gray, a former college track star, as my catcher. I brought in Billy Paul as my rightfielder and cleanup hitter; he had played at Texas A & M. I brought in Jim Hughey, who had played at Texas. My pitcher was an unlikely find, in the form of a preacher from a small church outside of Houston. I don't know how he performed in the pulpit, but he could make that softball do everything but take up the collection. For my reliever and starter against the weaker teams (when the reverend was otherwise occupied with good works), I tapped no less than the Texas legislature for Russell Cummings, a very cute rocker-armer.
But my big find was Larry Prevatt, a cat-quick shortstop who could hit and run and field with anyone. How he had been overlooked by the Major City League, I could never imagine.
By the time I had finished recruiting and had filed my roster with the City Parks and Recreation Department, I was the only member of the starting team who was an actual member of the Press Club. Of course, I kept some Press Club members in uniform, fully intending to let them play if we ever got way ahead or hopelessly behind. But you know fast-pitch softball. Most games are one-or two-run affairs. So they didn't get in there very often. I still feel kind of bad about that, but as Walter Matthau said to Tatum O'Neal, "That's baseball."
Still, they made their contributions. We had the best cheering section in the league. And one sportswriter, who I know ached to get into the game, was a genius at charting the other teams' tendencies against our starting pitcher. Sam even sketched a series of cartoons illustrating our signs. I never did get around to telling him that we changed them every game. It was a good bench. In fact, the only problem I had with them, ringers and nonringers alike, was keeping their language cleaned up around the preacher.
Of course, I'm not going to tell you what the ringers got paid. Let's just say they got more "gas money" than anyone else, as well as an almost unlimited supply of Horlock's product.
Well, the season rocked along, and it quickly became obvious it was between us and Xerox. We were in first place going into our final game with Conoco, but we lost it on a throwing error by our playing manager/third baseman. That led to a playoff with Xerox.
It figured to be a tight one because we played hit and run. By that I mean a hit batsman, take your base, steal second, steal third and come in on anything. Prevatt had standing orders to run anytime he could. Gray had been an intercollegiate broad jumper, and he could sprint. My second baseman could run and I had once run a pretty good 100 in college. So our game plan was to turn a walk, or anything, into a triple.
But Xerox had a new face at shortstop, a guy we had never seen before. He was listed on the lineup card as George West. We had always been able to steal on their catcher, but we couldn't steal on George. It didn't matter if the ball was high or wide, he would catch it, do a flip in the air and tag you out. And if the throw was on the money, you were not going to dislodge George, no matter how hard you slid.
So they took our entire game away from us. And forget about getting the ball to the left side. George would cut in front of the third baseman, do a pirouette and throw you out.
I'm talking swift and strong. The final score was 2-1, in Xerox's favor. George scored both of their runs. Prevatt hit an inside-the-park home run for our only score. But it was I who won the championship and claimed the trophy that still resides inside a glass case at the Houston Press Club. And I did it without getting a hit.
The next day I went down to the League office and filed a protest that Xerox had run in a ringer on us in order to win the championship. The director looked over their roster, which had been filed at the beginning of the season, and George West was not listed. My protest was upheld, and we were declared the winner.
That sounds pretty chicken, doesn't it? And my soul still burns about what I did. But in my defense, I already knew that George was a "loaner" from a Major City League team, and I ask you to judge me with that in mind.
The next day the manager of the Xerox club called and asked me to meet him for coffee. We sat there in the restaurant of a Holiday Inn, not saying much until he finally blurted out, "How could you do that? File that protest? You hypocrite, you had a field full of ringers. Hell, half your team couldn't read, much less write! Explain that!"
I said, "Because your ringer was so much better than mine."
It took him so off-guard he just sat there for a minute, fiddling with his cup. Then he sighed and got up. "I guess you're right," he said. "No hard feelings. At the beginning of the season we had a good laugh about playing the Press Club. I just didn't know you'd have enough gall to call my hand." I rest my case. And maybe my soul.
Giles Tippette, a lifelong resident of Texas, is the author of 15 novels and two books of nonfiction. His first SI story appeared in 1970.