THE HOME RUN KING OF SOFTBALL : Crusher Is an Appropriate Nickname for One Who Hit 451 Homers Last Year
Up drives the supposed Hell’s Angel: 6-5 and 300 pounds of long-haired, bearded Crusher jammed under the wheel of a little red Toyota with an infant’s safety chair in the back seat.
His interviewer waits on a sweltering Carolina afternoon on one piece of a patio set sitting outside Howard’s Furniture. This is one of the few clues that they actually sell any furniture here. Behind the store windows sit about 1,000 athletic trophies from all sorts of competition, going back to the turn of the century. The sign on the highway reads, “Howard’s, World Champions of Softball, ’73, ’74, ’78, ’81, ’83, ’84.”
Out back sits the home field. Not that it gets much use.
“Not too many teams like to come up here and play any more,” says Crusher, a.k.a. Rick Scherr, his voice rumbling like a bass guitar being played at the bottom of a well. “They don’t like getting beat, 60-5 and 40-6 and stuff like that.”
Welcome to the fast lane of the slo-pitch softball world, the other side of the tracks of the American sports biz, home to a hundred heroes you probably never heard of.
This grizzly in the “Crusher 99" T-shirt is royalty, even if he hauls furniture for a living and reports with relief that at age 35, he has a house on a lake and can finally make a go of it without his wife working.
This is the home run king of the known universe. You think Wally Joyner has a lot of homers? Try the 451 that Scherr blasted last year.
Of course he had more games. Howard’s Western Steer played 191.
Think it was just short fences? Scherr has knocked 12-inch softballs out of every major league park he’s tried it in, and he’s tried several.
“K.C. a couple of times,” he says. “Shea Stadium, Atlanta, San Diego, Oakland, Anaheim.
“The time I did it in Wrigley Field, Chicago, was pretty good. It was between games of a doubleheader with the Phillies. Pete Rose was there. I’ve met Pete a couple of times. I think he’s a real nice man. He’d even stand out there and watch and stuff. Some baseball players were a little snobby. They’d say, ‘This guy’s not going to hit no softball out of here.’
“They had 35,000 people there, and I just caught a good day, with the wind blowing out. I guess I hit six into the bleachers. The guy pitching finally threw me a real nice pitch, and I hit it onto that Waverly Avenue, or whatever.”
Waveland, but this man hadn’t come up to memorize streets.
“The first time I went to San Diego, they had just moved the fences in. The guy putting the show on came over to me and asked, ‘Do you think you’ll be able to put a ball over the first fence?’
“I said, ‘Hell, I’m going to put some up there in those seats.’ He looked at me and kinda smiled, like he’s thinking, ‘Ah, ha, ha.’ He said, ‘We don’t have baseball players hit balls up there.’ So I go up there, and out of 25 pitches, I think I hit 15-16 up in the seats. Some of them went 8-10 rows in.”
Scheer doesn’t get paid for playing softball, although part of his job, in addition to hauling furniture, is to make promotional trips for some of the sporting goods his store sells. Howard’s spends about $100,000 a year on its softball team. The players aren’t given a salary, but their transportation, lodging and meals are paid for.
So, why is our Crusher reduced to launching softballs between deliveries, when he could make a mint if he just lost 30 hardballs a season?
Lots of reasons.
One, it’s easier.
“Softball is a hitter’s game,” Scherr says. “There’s not much the pitcher can do. He throws it in underhand about a mile an hour, if that. In baseball, they throw that thing at you 100 miles an hour.”
Two, it just didn’t break that way for him.
“I never had a chance to go to college or nothing,” he says. “Coming from a small town (Slinger, Wis.) and all. My folks were divorced and stuff. I just never had a chance of going to college and playing all those sports.
“I always liked basketball but 6-4 and white and playing center, you ain’t going anywhere. I’d like to have played football. I was big. When I got out of high school, I was 270. I was probably the biggest guy in the school. They only let me play one year. I got caught drinking and smoking over summer break.”
So he went to work and played softball for fun. A couple of years later, he got invited to a home run hitting contest in Corpus Christi. He finished fifth, but the man sponsoring the tournament put him to work as a maintenance man and a first baseman on the local team.
Two years later, that team folded, and Scherr contacted Howard’s.
He had one problem. Roger Maris’ hair may have fallen out as he neared Babe Ruth’s mark. If anything, Crusher’s hair had increased with his long-ball production.
“I used to have a middle-of-the-back pony tail,” he says. “And I had a long beard and stuff. They all thought I was going to be trouble. Then a couple of the guys who’d been playing here forever talked them into taking a chance. They said, ‘If it doesn’t work out, you can always send him back.’
“Why did I have a pony tail? I guess I hate getting a haircut. Probably part of the ‘60s-early ‘70s movement. It becomes a trademark after a while. People ask, ‘What did you do with your pony tail?’ I cut it off almost three years ago.
“Every now and then, there’ll be different articles that say, ‘Oh he looks like a Hell’s Angel.’ You know, it might be so, but I’m not. I never rode a bike. I never owned one. Looks are just on the surface.”
And there’s a lot of surface there. There are a lot of other behemoths on Howard’s, three in the 300-pound range, going all the way down to the shortstop, a little feller at 6-2, 200. Two Western Steers jet in for the weekend tournament circuit from Florida, two more come in from Georgia, one from Texas.
Scherr is one of the local guys, who plays the local weeknight games, too. There’s no admission charge, but the players do get a chance to set lots of records. That 451 might last a year or two.
But it’s been a good experience. While playing a tournament back in Milwaukee, Scherr met the present Mrs. Crusher--"I was in a bar half-drunk. We were shooting pool together, I guess"--and now they and their son live in Carolinian lakeside bliss.
“It’s OK,” Scherr says. “It gets boring, but that’s country life.”
Affording him time to think of what might have been?
Maybe a little.
“You think of all the money people are making, and everybody’s got to think about it sometime,” he says. “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there that didn’t ever get a chance, like myself, that probably could play.
“So I picked up softball. I’m happy playing softball. It gets to be a little bit of a drag at times, but I’ve been playing 20 years now.”
A few minutes later, he gets back in the little red Toyota and heads home. He and the Steers just flew back from Minneapolis today and they’re playing again tomorrow.
What the heck, it’s almost a living.