By Tony Hooker
For the better part of five decades, softball, specifically fastpitch softball, was king in Villa Grove and the surrounding area.
How good was the competition in the area? In 1978, the Villa Grove State Bank team won the regional tournament, defeating Sadorus in the championship game. but couldn’t advance out of the state tournament. Arcola won the state title by defeating Sadorus, the team that VG had beaten in the regional. Sadorus would go on to finish third in the national invitational tourney, and Arcola would win the Midwest regional in Terre Haute to qualify for the national tourney in Las Vegas, and they rode their hot streak to a national title.
I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the history of the sport of men’s fastpitch in VG through the decades.
In the fifties and sixties, luminaries such as Corky Waters and Billy Jones got the ball rolling, to pen a really bad pun. I sat down with VG legend Frank Thomas to discuss the era.
Tell me about how you got your start in fastpitch?
Corky Waters recruited me to play on the first team I was on. Corky wasn’t a very good baseball player, but he was a helluva pitcher in softball. He was just a good athlete. In his time, he was the number one basketball player in the area, also.
How good were the teams you played on?
We got second in the state, and we lost on a bad call that they wouldn’t let us appeal. The next year, they knew that we had gotten a bad deal, so they asked us to come up and play at the Ambucs park to dedicate the new field opening, and we beat them pretty bad.
How many teams were there back then?
Now this was back in the late fifties and early sixties, and “everybody” had a team.
Who was the best player you ever saw?
That would be very difficult for me to answer. I could probably do better telling you position by position. In 1962, I was playing for Decatur and we went to nationals. Our pitcher was from St. Paul MN. I liked him as a pitcher because of the way he set up hitters. He was smart enough to be thinking about how he was going to pitch to hitters who would be coming up two or three batters later.
Who was the best hitter you ever saw?
Wickersham, from Aurora was awfully good. He was huge.
How about from around here?
Jack Christman was as good as anyone around here. He was an outstanding long ball hitter. The Decatur team I played for picked him up to go to nationals. Ironically, I couldn’t go because the plant would let me off work, but he got to go! <laughs>
Greg Schweighart was another who could have been one of the best if he had continued playing. He was fast and he was a hard worker. There are so many that stand out to me. Roger (Schweighart) and I started a team and we put together a schedule of a lot of games. We would go to Aurora and play Friday night and Saturday.
That year. 1962, when I couldn’t go to nationals. I had a three-year-old daughter, so I started to play golf down the street, instead.
What was the best team you ever saw?
That Arcola team that won the state was really good. Every team we played had at least one or two guys who were really good. Cerro Gordo used to be good. Pesotum was pretty good when John Schweighart pitched for them.
How hard was the transition from baseball to fastpitch?
<laughs> I went 0 for my first 16! We were playing a tournament in Tuscola, and it was my turn to hit and the manager was going to pinch hit for me, and Corky said “Let him hit,” and I ended up getting the game winning hit, and after that it was “Katie bar the Door!” I was in on it from then on. A softball can go down, fast. From forty feet away, some of the pitchers were throwing the equivalent of a 95 mile per hour fastball. I always learned from watching the other team. I figured if I saw a guy do something good, I would try to do it too.
Do you think that Fastpitch will ever make a comeback?
I don’t know. There are so many new games out there that don’t have the same time and money commitment.
To many, the late seventies and early eighties were the golden age of fastpitch softball in Villa Grove, and Roger Schweighart was in the middle of most of the action. Here are some of his thoughts on those days.
When did you start playing fastpitch?
I first started playing the summer after my freshman year of college, for the First National Bank team. Frank Thomas was the manager. We played a year or two, and they decided to break up. My dad and I decided that we needed to have a team, so we went to Max Harbaugh at the Villa Grove State Bank and he agreed to sponsor our team. I went and got together some of the guys that I had played high school baseball with, my brother, (Kenny) Rick Carr, Larry Ring and Jim Umbarger and we got a team together. I played three or four years with that team. The last year I played was 1978, but most of those guys just kept playing for years after that. They played for a long time.
Who was the best player you played with?
I would say Rick Carr and Larry Ring were both very good. Those two guys were as good as anyone around.
Did you ever play against any of the more famous players, like Ty Stofflet or any of those guys?
No. I saw them pitch, but I never faced them. Butch Clark, for Sadorus was probably the best pitcher I faced. He was probably the best pitcher in the area at the time. John Marker was really good for the team, as well.
What are some of your favorite memories of those days?
Just the guys, I think. We were playing four double headers a week, and of course we never went straight home after the game, so we got to be very close. Those are the kind of things you remember.
Why do you think the popularity of fastpitch has waned over the years?
For me, it goes back to when my dad was playing. He played here in Villa Grove, but he was a good pitcher, so he played for a lot of teams in the area, and we’d just load the family up in the car and take off and go watch him play. I think every town had a team, and you would just play and play and play. Villa Grove always had a lot of guys who wanted to play. We often had three teams here in town, it was just always kind of a hot spot. Back then, there were pitchers around, but now there aren’t.
To be continued next week.