Could everyone write one simple essay about something that once happened in Saltaire…that they saw or were a part of…and put it on one big website? Somebody should collect a lot of stories before we all forget. Otherwise it is like a line in “On The Beach” : The history of the war that now would never be written.” -(JO'H)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Distant Mirror: Frank Connolly looks back at the tumultuous summer that he was Saltaire's Softball Commissioner


                 by Frank Connolly

Jimmy O’Hare talked me into it.

As many of you know, that boy could talk a dog off a meat-wagon. He could talk the Pope into doing shots at Hooters. He could -- well, maybe – talk Putin into putting his shirt back on. He talked me into becoming commissioner of the Saltaire Softball League, and thereby hangs a tale.

It was the summer of 1974: Richard Nixon was president, at least at the start of the summer, and a gallon of gas cost 53 cents. Eggs went for 78 cents a dozen on the mainland, though the Saltaire Market may well have charged three bucks. The Yacht Club served only two brands of beer, in bottles – Schaefer was 60 cents, Heineken 75 cents – and the only food you could order in the bar was a bowl of Goldfish. That first week in July, the number-one song in the country was The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” a proto-disco masterpiece that has inexplicably been forgotten by time.

I was 17 then, working as a bay lifeguard during the day and as junior commodore of the Yacht Club at night, running the Big Room and the teen dances. (That last clause, I’m well aware, means nothing to anyone born after 1980. Too bad.) On weekends I moonlighted as commissioner of the Saltaire Softball League, a position of immense power and influence that I had come to occupy because – well, because Jimmy O’Hare talked me into it.

Jim was the Founding Commissioner of the league, but by the spring of ’74 he was looking to relinquish the reins of power. For reasons known only to him and his God, he thought I’d be a good replacement.

Piece of cake,” he assured me. “You schedule the games, keep the stats, and make sure there’s a trophy at the end of the season. That’s all.” I demurred, because there was at least some vestige of sanity still at work in my brain; I knew that Saltaire softball has always been serious business, and I didn’t want to wind up in the middle of a season full of arguments and ill will. Thanks but no thanks, I tried to say. But Jimmy kept talking. And talking. He was relentless; I was 17. I gave in.

The season started off well enough, but Jim had forgotten to mention one little detail: the deadline for roster changes. Although exhibition play began in late June, teams had until July 1 to submit their final rosters. Just a bureaucratic detail, I thought, but of course I thought wrong.

There were six teams in the league that season: The Men, with Mel Beckel and Kevin Braddish. The Oedipus Wrecks, with Ron Metzler and Hal Seltzer and Jim Sconzo Sr. The Teens, with Mark and Jeff Heller (my former team, though a bad knee kept me out of action that season). The Streakers, a new entry with John Bartow and Joe Bukowski. And then – well, that’s where things got complicated.

Before July 1, the remaining two entries were the A Team, with Danny Weinlandt, Jon Lyon and many others; and the Z Team, with Noel Feustel, Bobby Cerveny, and an uncountable multitude of Cunninghams. But on the first of July, Billy Cunningham – like Jim O’Hare, a future All-World lawyer and a persuasive talker – showed up with a “revised roster” for the Z Team, though that term was not exactly accurate. It was, rather, the roster for a completely new team, including the biggest-name stars on both the A and Z Teams, merged into one new super-team.

I didn’t know what to do. (Did I mention that I was 17?) I knew that the other teams would object – which they surely did, strenuously and at high volume and with many a vivid (if anatomically improbable) turn of phrase. But I also knew that, according to the league rules, there was nothing to prevent such a last-minute merger.

After first telling Billy that no, you guys can’t do this, I realized that yes, yes they could. And so I accepted the roster for the new, merged team – which would be known, go figure, as The Mergers – and immediately kicked off an exciting season of superheated arguments and rollicking ill will on the softball diamond.

Noel quickly gathered the discarded A and Z Teamers into a new squad, The Castaways, which would later evolve into The Dogfish. Play resumed in the newly configured league. The Mergers drubbed their opponents with metronomic regularity. And their opponents got angry with metronomic regularity – partly at the Mergers but mostly, it seemed, at me. A good time was had by all.

Fast-forward to Labor Day weekend. Jerry Ford was president by then, and the number-one song in the country was Paul Anka’s odious “(You’re) Having My Baby,” but otherwise things were the same: The Mergers were undefeated, and everybody was mad at me.

The league championship game, considered by most of us a mere formality, featured The Mergers against the upstart Streakers. But the weather didn’t want to cooperate. Days of rain soaked the field, forcing me to postpone the championship until the last possible day – the Sunday before Labor Day. Even then, there were puddles all over the field, and I thought seriously about calling the game.

The captains of the two teams talked me into allowing the game to start, and when it did a most curious thing happened: the Streakers went ahead early and, behind the steady pitching of the crafty John Bartow, they stayed ahead into the third inning.

That’s when things got ugly. In the bottom of the third one of the Mergers blind-sided a Streaker who was camped under a pop-up, hurting him badly; I tossed the offending Merger out of the game. In the top of the fourth, one of the Streakers tried to slide into second but slipped on the muddy field and broke his kneecap. While we were waiting for the Coast Guard to take the injured player off the island (Saltaire had no ambulance back then), I decided to call the game because of unsafe conditions – a decision that I should have made before the first pitch was ever thrown.

At that point The Streakers were still ahead, but the game hadn’t lasted long enough to be considered official. And the rules of the U.S. Softball Association were painfully clear: if a league championship game could not be played for any reason, then the team with the best regular-season record had to be declared champion.

I trotted out the trophies. First I handed the batting-championship trophy to Billy Cunningham, who’d hit somewhere in the neighborhood of .480 that season. Then I presented the league championship trophy – unwillingly, mind you, because I didn’t think they deserved it – to The Mergers.

“I hope you’re satisfied,” I told one of them. (Did I mention that I was 17?) This, as it turned out, was not the most politic thing to say. The offended Merger player made his displeasure known, strenuously and at high volume and with even more discussion of anatomical improbabilities. I considered, for a moment, what it would feel like to have my spine broken in three places, because that seemed to be the likely upshot of this conversation. But then it started raining again, and we all went home.

Great, I remember thinking as I headed back toward Marine Walk – even the winners hate me. But hey, what did I expect? Saltaire softball has always been serious business.


It took us forty years to get  Frank "Kennesaw Mountain" Connolly to write his memoir of 1974's summer of stress. 
No other Commissioner paid such a price, bore such a burden, met so many hardships, opposed so many foes, in order to assure the survival and the success of the Saltaire Softball league as Frank did in 1974.

But that was the year that really got the league rolling, and it has rolled every summer since.  And Frank's efforts made it happen.

For this, forty years later, we thank, you, Frank.  
(Or should we just apologize?)

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