Saturday, April 2, 2011

'Top o' the First'

They changed the game, quickly and dramatically.

Some local diamond products, still playing college baseball, took a family picnic game and transformed it from city-league recreation into highly competitive tournament softball. It produced state, regional and national champions, at a remarkable rate....and an eventual cost of five figures a year to select sponsors.

That's a long way from Industrial League or Church League competition. Even further from pickup games on schoolyards and playgrounds. And, beyond the best barroom teams of that era, which included Frank Banducci's outstanding Basehit team.

Many local luminaries, some enjoying post-career returns to the playing field,  were on Basehit's all-star lineup, probably featuring the first such talent upgrade in our softball circles. What prompted the completion of such a metamorphis? Two guys. Both were full-time college students, working in Richmond's Recreation Department.

What fueled it? Their former high school and junior college teammates. Their very best teammates, in fact.....and, together, they became the Yankees of our time, in our area.
Who paid for it? Originally, it was a small grocery store owner across the street from Atchison Village in central Richmond. Dick Ervin also sustained its growth after his own sponsorship by lining up further financial backing when needed.

Contra Costa College infielder Larry Sheppard and ex-Harry Ells pitcher Tom Cartwright started it in 1960, while playing together on a Rec Department softball team. Cartwright suggested Dick's Market to Sheppard as a possible sponsor for a new team and introduced him to Ervin, the store owner.

Sheppard cited several players with recognizable names for that initial roster and Ervin agreed to it. Thus began the reign of Dick's Market....cum LoRay's....cum Decorators' Studio....cum Bay Area Merchants.....cum Campbell's Carpets.

But we concern ourselves primarily with those early pioneers of the sport, the ground breakers who laid the cornerstone it was all built on.

Many of our best known baseball names were also included in slow-pitch softball's climb to the big time, mainly Oilers, Eagles and Gauchos. Sheppard recruited Comet teammates, like Richmond High's Wes Greenwood and the El Cerrito contingent of Rich Abel, Larry Quirico, Tony Santarelli and Gerry Giaramita to those early teams.

The latter were playing for Poloni's Grocery in the E.C. Rec League at the time, in a softball format known as Lob-ball....which had a circle on the ground around home plate for a strike zone and no height limit on pitches.

Rodeo's Harmon Davis, who signed a pro contract as a pitcher out of John Swett High School, also came aboard, briefly. Sheppard recalls Jack Klein having the softest hands and quickest release he ever saw. Larry even thinks Bert  Hazel was on that first Dick's Market team, but that's a baseball name we all associate with everything involving bat and ball. He knows for sure that Larry Madrid, Richmond's second baseman-quarterback, was the shortstop on that first club. Cartwright was also a player for a short time.

Then, Dick began the "player pirating patrol" he made famous, picking off the best of his competition for his own roster. First he took Mike Dolan and Miles Messinger from Basehit, away from teammates Emery Phillips, Bud McGee and Ed Menosse.....who would later become a major player on the slow-pitch circuit, as manager and co-sponsor of BAM -- the culmination of all these early efforts.

That formed the lineup this author first watched, at Nicholl Park, in a 1963 city-league game. Abel pitched and Greenwood caught, with an infield of Messinger at first, Sheppard at second, Santarelli at short and Giaramita on third. In the outfield, from left to right, were Quirico, Dolan, Homer Hearn and John Silva.

It was probably the first all-baseball player lineup to compete in softball, surely the first of that talent level. Even the reserves had organized baseball experience and it soon showed. They exceeded the limits of the established format and even caused a few rule changes while overwhelming their opposition.

At first, pitch heights and strike zones were adjusted, but eventually even the bases were moved back five feet, from 60 feet to 65 feet apart. A whole new association grew out of these developments, in fact. The American Softball Association previously served both fast and slow-pitch, until the United States Slo-pitch Softball Association formed specifically for the newly popular version of the sport.

The best slow-pitch teams then became manned by players with high school, junior college, university and minor league baseball experience.

Dick's Market showcased such a lineup, with players who excelled on baseball diamonds now handling a bigger ball, on a smaller field.....and teeing off on slow-motion pitches, minus curves and speed changes. They delighted in seizing the easier opportunities and enjoyed an even faster pace than baseball provided, with the ball being put into play on almost every pitch. Most ballplayers were then drawn to that faster pace and the game caught fire, growing in popularity. It soon replaced completely the slower fast-pitch game and even edged out amatuer baseball, or semi-pro, as it was called, as the predominant diamond game, culturally. And Dick's team was the most representative. Every player was complete and well-rounded. They all fielded well and hit for either high average or power. The long ball was mostly provided by Greenwood, Messinger and Silva.....but Dolan and Giaramita could also drive it deep. Greenwood was one of the very few who could hit a ball out of Diamond No. 1 at Nicholl Park when the wind off the Bay was blowing hard during night games. And Giaramita was a born hitter, who seemed to wake up every day smashing line drives, in baseball or softball. He had a stroke for either.

A formidable crew, indeed......which created the reaction of a new town team that became Dick's biggest, and most memorable, local rival. Gonzalez Mexican Restaurant was built around two ball-playing brothers, Roy and Bill Turley, and included the wildest contingent of athletes and tough guys ever assembled for sporting purposes.

It was a catch-up project from the start, attempting to hop aboard the fast ride Dick's Market was heading. They came close enough to gain public support as the underdogs, challenging the best. And they were colorful, to say the least.

It was a team Billy Martin would've loved. I used to joke that they drank dinner at Rudy's the night before and had breakfast at Doggie Diner on game days. Merle Hoover and Teddy Scott belonged on that roster, along with the Macho Man himself, Bob Gonzalez......affectionately known as "Bobby Gordo," the unofficial leader of "Gordo's Boys." That was a testosterone-fueled group of well-meaning youths that busted up a few joints in noteworthy fashion. Bobby was also a co-sponsor, at least as far as being a member of the ownership family.

Catcher Neal Mulkey was a barroom brawler of throwback proportions, who once was said to have knocked an opponent over the hood of a parked car. His strength delivered the long ball as well.

Another power hitter from that team was Delaney Nutt, who Dick also persuaded onto his roster. Some of those transfers were made possible because Gonzalez often won the state tournament, but never the least not during Dick's and LoRay's 13-year run, from '60 through '72. That enabled Ervin to pick up, or add, players as he moved along in qualifying. Quite often those players were ones who competed well against him for Gonzalez.

The difference in those two rosters was that there was more actual baseball-playing experience on Dick's team. Almost all the aforementioned players were coached by Gene Corr at CCC, after prep careers. Sheppard, Greenwood and Quirico played baseball for San Francisco State College. And as Ervin added more talent over the years, the gap widened. So Gonzalez would always be the Dodgers to Dick's Yankees.

But they were fun to watch. Dick's effeciency could get boring, as they routinely rolled over the opposition. At a Gonzalez game, on the other hand, you never knew when the Turley brothers might start throwing puches, at each their own dugout. Volitile siblings, true to their Irish name. Hoover and Scott were also scrappers, along with Mulkey and Gordo, whose dustups were folklore. Come to think of it, they were more like the Raiders than the Dodgers, to Dick's Yankees.
Other Gonzalez players that deserve mention were Jack Menzhuber, Garry Matthews and Hal Littlejohn. There were too many transient members to recall here, but a primary participant was ex-Oiler phenom Mike Matthews, Garry's brother. Mike also played for LoRay's and BAM. A form of that Gonzalez team lasted into the '80s, still playing good tournament ball. Excellent players like Tom Dearmon, Phil Wanlin, Tom Kinnard and Jim Reynolds wore Dick's jersey in the formative stages of that team, along with others at that same level of ability and experience.

Several others were coaxed aboard too, like Don Murray, a Little All-American at Hayward State. And a longtime mainstay that Sheppard talked into joining, Marv Van Curen of Woodland, who played baseball at the University of Nevada.

Names like these sustained a 13-year run as Regional Champions for Dick's Market/LoRay's teams, which Ervin turned into BAM in 1974.

After six years of sponsorship, Dick let LoRay's Market take over the expense while still managing the team. That arrangement lasted seven more years, completing the 13-year run of regional championships. Due to financial constraints, the team only made two or three trips to the world tournaments, in New York and Ohio, during that time span.

Ervin tried to retire in 1973, but came back as manager of a Palo Alto team, known as the Garden Club. They won the '73 Regionals, ironically, over his former club, which had reformed as Decorators' Studio in his absence. Decorators' owner Skeeter Matteri, another Basehit player, took over the helm for Ervin. The Garden Club evolved out of a better-known team called Artichoke Joe's for years.

In 1974, Dick combined his new with his old, uniting the Palo Alto players with the LoRay's/Decorators nucleus to form the first Bay Area Merchants team. Fittingly, they won the USSSA World Championship in Detroit that year.

Newcomers Ed Green and John Morris added prodigious power to Dick's lineup, along with Jimmy Heflin. Sheppard was the lone original, from Dick's first team, still in the starting lineup for the world champs. The earliest teammate still playing with him was shortstop Van Curen. So the familiar keystone combination remained at the heart of the the middle.
The legendary Charlie Pierce, athlete extraordinaire (and former Oakland Athletic League sprint champ) was BAM's MVP in the world tourney. Menosse took over BAM the following years and they often returned to world tournaments, adding players like John Teschiera, Frank Coppa, Lou Smith, Denny Jones and Monte Moore.

Again, the staggering sponsorship costs necessitated bigger backing and a Scottish businessman took over, turning BAM into Campbell's Carpets. That kept the first-name sponsor line intact, from Dick to Ray to Campbell. And the quality also continued, as Campbell's also won a world tourney.

But it all started in Richmond, across the street from Atchison Village, where many of us lived as children and played the games of our dreams. Ervin, Sheppard and Van Curren lived out those dreams. Thanks, for the hometown.

Sheppard, especially, reflected the local spirit behind the evolution of slow-pitch softball. Larry lived in Atchison as a child and played his first baseball on the rec field there. He probably even bought bubble gum in Dick's Market, for the baseball cards the packages contained. It was his vision, on and off the field that personified the progression of that team. As a founding member, Sheppard was involved in the original concept and its organization. And, on the field, nobody had a better understanding of the game. His in-game awareness and feeling for all the nuances and developments, as they occured, was uncanny. That enabled him to always be in the right place and do the right thing, at the right time.

Sounds simple, but it isn't. A player either had it or they didn't. Sheppard had it. That's what allowed him to survive the big power shift, which put longball hitters at almost every position....on every top-level team. He hit for a high enough average to stay valuable as a sure-handed, well-positioned outmaker that helped keep the defense together. Getting every out you can is important in a high-scoring game like slow-pitch, and a defense had to be strong up the middle. They, were, with Sheppard and Van Curren anchoring the infield and Pierce patrolling behind them.

Larry took the field for Dick's first game in 1960, and again, for, essentially, its last, in 1974. He was the only original, besides Ervin, to collect that World Championship trophy.....thereby completing the journey for us all, from Atchison to Detroit.
Way to represent, homeboy.....all the way to the top.

~ Conrad Strasheim

Click on pictures/clippings below to view larger.


Again in 1970, it's Dick's Bay Area Merchants defending their regional championship - just as they have every year since the first regional ctrampionship in 1962. Playing out of Richmond, the champs have played over 600 games during their nine year tenure.

This season shows Dick's with a 35-7 season record, including wins in the Santa Clara Invitational, Sacramento Invitational, and Richmond pre-season tourney. In addition, the team captured runner-up honors in the 1970 B.E. Martin and Woodland Open tournaments while winning first place in the perenially tough Richmond AAA league.

Dick Ervin's team has played twice in the National A.S.A. tournament and has boasted the MVP player from the Pacific Coast Regionals every year since 1962. Last year, outfielder John Silva captured the MVP crown.

Front from left: Gene Espinosa, Gerry Giaramita, Tom Kinnard, Phil Wanlin, Bill Torchia and Larry Sheppard. Back from left: Denny Abel, Mike Lafferty, Mike Dolan, Wes Greenwood, Rich Abel and Phil Pruski.

Front from left, Miles Messinger, Sam Ellis, Phil Pruski, Duane Franks, Larry Sheppard and Gene Espinosa. Middle from left, Larry Quirico, Gerry Giaramita, Roger Martinez, John Silva, Mgr. Dick Ervin and James Scroggins. Back from left, Don Murray, Delaney Nutt, Bob Close, Rich Abel, Wes Greenwood and Mike Dolan.

AA LEAGUE TITLISTS--Members of Poloni Grocery's championship team in the El Cerrito AA League lob ball campaign are (kneeling from left) Miles Messinger, Ron Wise, Gerry Giaramita and Larry Quirico and (standing from left) Randy Ketlinski, Steve Torrez, Gary Withers, Rich Abel, Tom Van Amburg and Howard Noble. Poloni downed Louie's Club, 7-5, in championship game.

The following are news-worthy clippings (in no particular order). Click on each clipping to view in a zoom mode:

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Oakland Oaks Ballpark, Emeryville 1948
Oaks Ballpark history