A league to remember
The warm July wind blows across what was once a thriving ball field now overrun by bahia grass.
One of the dugout fences and one foul pole have been overtaken by ivy, but the impression of the field itself can still be seen.
This field is nestled right at the city limit sign of Atlanta/Queen City and whether the bases that are still present are from the original field is up in the air.
From player recollection, the field mentioned witnessed some of the greatest highlight games of the Cass County Men’s Softball League.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, several men’s professional slow-pitch softball leagues were formed in the United States.
It was a nation-wide phenomenon and here in northeast Texas was no different. The teams ranged from names like the Streakers, the Guard-Line Blazers, Watson-Wood and Vette Shop.
Even the Atlanta Citizens Journal Ink Spots and the Bootleggers had a spot among company teams and church group teams.
The Vette Shop and Blazers even took part in the Texarkana Independent Softball League in 1978.
Teams were formed in every town even Avinger and Maud boasted teams.
Nationally the fad lasted only five years but here in the sticks it lasted nearly a decade before fading out.
I remember my dad taking me to games with him when he played for the fire department. The players played hard and were very competitive.
One of those moments I truly remember was when the Atlanta Fire Department battled the National Guard team out at the armory.
It was intense from beginning to end. The National Guard took a huge lead but the fire department stormed back and won the game, 22-21. It was normal for a game to be high scoring and very competitive.
Guaranty Bank President Kenny Hamilton played for both the Guard-Line Blazers and Watson-Wood and talked about the way the game was played.
“The league was full of tough teams like the Blazers and the Vette Shop and very good players turned up to play,” Hamilton said. “Many teams were made up of older players looking to stay active and most were made up of guys who loved to play the game. I was thankful for not ending up in the hospital after the games when it was all said and done but I enjoyed the chance to play.”
The Cass County League was formed by a group of guys from International Paper and it took off according to Vette Shop owner Louis Westbrook.
“Sometimes people from all over would come in droves and watch the games,” Westbrook said. “You may have had near 100 people attend. During its heyday, it was very popular and competitive.”
Westbrook who served as league president a few years, team manager, player and umpire remembers some of the better years for his team and the league.
“For a few years the top two or three teams were very good year-in and year-out,” Westbrook recalled. “Along with the Vette Shop, the Blazers and later Hamm Butane would battle for the league championship. Most times the better record holder at the end of the season lost to the second-place team in the league tournament.”
“We usually stayed atop the standings and had a great group of players,” Westbrook continued. “The Vette Shop players once hit 150 homeruns as a team in one season. The guys who played from all over our area were just really good players who enjoyed playing softball.”
Players from that time will remember names like R.D. Stiger, Charles King, Danny and Donny Simmons, Ronnie Hamm, Kenneth Pate and Rhodney Russell.
Even former player John Birmingham agreed that the league was competitive and good for the men in the area.
“So many men came out to play and when we weren’t having fun we were playing hard to win,” Birmingham said. “I played for the Vette Shop and although I have many fond memories one that sticks out is that so many of the teams feared playing us because we were so good. It was a big accomplishment to a group of gritty players to win the championship.”
The league was followed by the Atlanta Citizens Journal and most of the articles were of games that were close.
In 1979 the Vette Shop defeated Guard-Line, 13-12, for the league title, but a few months later the Blazers topped the Vette Shop in a controversial game.
Although it was just a softball game to some, to the players it was about being the best team when the season wrapped up.
In 1981 Hamm Butane won the league title over the Vette Shop in a game that lasted until 1 a.m.
J.D. Simmons hit five homeruns in that contest. The competition was fierce and long-lasting to play a game which lasted a few hours and ended with the score of, 8-6.
With the 80s came new teams like the Stingrays, Vivian Stars, Gusto Gang and the Rejects.
Teams were awarded trophies for winning games and players were awarded for various individual titles.
Charles King from the Vette Shop team was the homerun champion three years in a row, and S.W. Jones received a trophy for having the best batting average. Jones batted .696 with 39 hits and 17 homeruns in 56 plate appearances.
For most of those years the Vette Shop and Blazers dominated the landscape and eventually gave way to the Drillers, Jayson’s Rebels, Stingrays and Woods Home Center.
With most trends like the men’s softball league one thing or another bring it to an end.
“What ultimately killed the league and era was lack of interest from the younger generation and the economy dealt most of the players more of a workload,” Westbrook said. “It was fun while it lasted and I can safely say many witnessed the competitive spirit of a league to remember.”