THE Streets Department in Winston-Salem takes its softball seriously. Its players are lean, strong men who spend their days filling potholes and mowing slopes along the Interstate in 90-degree heat. Streets has uniforms. And when city employees face off on the softball field Wednesday evenings, Streets plays with commitment. ``We want to win that trophy for our department,'' says third baseman Calvin Blyther, a 10-year veteran of the team.
But not everyone in the City Employees League plays hardball at the softball games. ``We used to play for blood; that's when we were younger,'' says Bill Walker, coach of the two-year champion Public Works team. ``There's no future in that, believe me. We just like to get out here and run and hit, you know.''
Softball brings people together like that. Slow-pitch, fast-pitch, intense or lackadaisical, softball is a game played for fun - for relaxation, exercise, and a chance to test one's skills on warm summer evenings. Million-dollar-a-year athletes are confined to other sports. Softball is played entirely by amateurs.
One hundred years old this year, softball is America's most popular team sport, interlacing the lives of young and old, men and women, supervisors and employees. People play in more than 60 countries. Some 40 million play in the United States alone.
In commemoration of the centennial, the Amateur Softball Association has sponsored a marathon torch run from the birthplace of softball, Chicago, to the Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Special events and celebrity games were held around the country throughout the summer. And appropriately so, because softball is a game played at the grass-roots level in communities everywhere.
In Stratford, Conn., the world champion women's fast pitch team, the Hi-Ho Brakettes, plays softball with the verve and skill that professionals bring to other sports. In Fremont, Neb., the Trinity Church men's team is a community tradition, passed down from father to son for 30 years. In Sierra Valley, Calif., Big Valley Seniors face other teams of men 50 and older, playing tournaments under the lights in Sacramento. And in Virginia Beach, Va., Fielder's Choice, composed this year of 18 members of the Emery McCoy family, is undefeated going into the playoffs in the city co-ed league.
These are only a few of the 200,000 organized teams that make the 100th year of softball special.
The Amateur Softball Association's 18 divisions of championship play include such categories as men's and women's fast and slow pitch, church slow, industrial slow, co-ed slow, men 35-and-over slow, and girls' and boys' fast and slow.
But many local leagues are organized around the get-along quality of softball rather than the characteristics of the players. The Winston-Salem City Employees League has only one restriction, that all players be drawn from the ranks of 1,949 city employees.
Even that rule can be bent. Former claims inspector Kemp Cummings, a founder of the league, has special permission to play as a retiree with Recreation. No rules govern co-ed play or interdepartmental mingling. Fire Capt. Vincent Cloud plays with Streets. Women play with Planning and Elledge Waste Disposal.
``I want you to be sure and know that No. 29 there is our regular right fielder,'' big redhaired Mike Parker, a player for Elledge Waste Disposal, says emphatically.
``We don't play her for a token player. She's a good ballplayer.''
No. 29, Terry Perryman, snaps the ball into Parker's glove for a reply. Before she was married, Perryman played women's Class A softball. This is her first year on the field since the birth of her three-year-old daughter.
``They're like a bunch of brothers, every one of them,'' she says of Elledge Waste Disposal's men. ``When I do something right, they make me feel good.''
On this August evening in Winston-Salem, a few of the faithful are gathering as spotlights brighten the summer dusk and the first cars bump down to the ballfield at Paisley Middle School. Paisley is in a lower-income neighborhood bordering old tobacco warehouses and a textile mill. The field has a single stand of bleachers. Most fans sit on the hoods of cars or picnic on the slopes, toddlers staggering across the grass. Beyond third base a family sets out lawn chairs, keeping a wary eye out for foul balls.
Tonight's games are Planning vs. Streets, Sanitation vs. Public Works, and Recreation vs. Elledge Waste Disposal. The weekly triple header is part of the tournament that leads to the 22-inch trophy on display at City Hall.
At bat is Sanitation's Danny Hooper, a solid slugger whose crouched frame sends outfielders backing toward the trees.
``C'mon, Danny. You can strike out for me,'' Bill Walker shouts from the sidelines. ``I play church ball with him,'' he adds. ``He's a good ballplayer.''
Hooper hits a long fly into an outfielder's glove, turns, and throws out his hands. ``That's as good as striking out,'' he calls with a laugh.
``We appreciate that,'' Walker gloats.
The sky is black by the time Recreation and Elledge take the field. Under the lights, pitcher Nick Jamison, head of the Recreation Department, gleams in red-and-white striped pants. The regulation-size infield, 60 by 60 feet, looks small enough to reach across.
The crowd is thinning now, parents taking young children to bed. A few drops of rain fall from the warm sky. Elledge is winning, and seems to be feeling competitive.
``Naw, ... it's just good fun, get out here and play, watch people make mistakes - like that,'' drawls Steve Hatcher, an assistant mechanic, as a pop fly drops in and then out of a fielder's glove.
It isn't long before three hours are over. Final scores: Streets towers over Planning, 19-1; Sanitation defeats Public Works, 6-4; and Elledge Waste Disposal disposes of Recreation, 20-7.
``Lights go out in five minutes,'' someone calls as the players shake hands all around. Coaches gather bats and balls, and families retreat to the parking lot, still excited and talking. Then the big spotlights dim and vanish, and in the darkness car doors slam.
``We'll get you guys next time.''
``Good game ... good night.''
They used to play it indoors; now it's played everywhere
At various times it was called ``kitten ball,'' ``army ball,'' ``mush ball,'' ``playground ball,'' and ``indoor-outdoor.'' Since 1933, the official name has been ``softball.''
That term, however, is a bit of a misnomer, because today's version of the ball - filled with fiber, wrapped in twisted yarn, slathered in latex or rubber cement, and covered with cowhide or horsehide - is nearly as hard as a baseball.
The ``soft'' in softball may have something to do with the fact that the first makeshift ball was fashioned out of a laced-up boxing glove. As the story goes, the sport, invented in 1887 by Chicagoan George Hancock, caught on as an indoor version of baseball played in gymnasiums. That's how the playing field and diamond came to be considerably smaller than in baseball (60 feet between bases compared with baseball's 90 feet).
In 1908, the National Amateur Playground Ball Association of the United States was formed to promote outdoor play, and the first softball championships were held in 1933, in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair.
Since then, the sport has made a slow assault on the national pastime, growing from the grass roots up, to cover an incredible piece of recreational territory. The popularity of softball in America as an amateur sport far exceeds that of baseball, according to a number of surveys. And the intensity level is high: One survey of softball players shows that 68 percent play five or more games a week, and that 88 percent of the men and 63 percent of the women players travel 200 miles a week to play.
The game has also become international, with rugged competition through the years from places as far-flung as Australia and Mexico.