Bruce Meade is a living, breathing, bat-swinging, King Kong of a legend, the most feared man ever to put a 34-inch bat to a regulation Dudley softball.
For more than a decade, through small towns and large, on back-wood diamonds and dimly lit fields, Meade has carried on his shoulders the weight of his autograph model Bombat 510 and the mantle of the slow-pitch softball world, which has reserved for him a place among the revered.
He would prefer to be known as the most common of men in a common man’s game, one played nightly on the fields across America by an estimated 30 million.
But his dimensions and legend don’t allow it.
He is tall and ominous at 6-feet 6-inches, and broad at 265 pounds. But most of all, he stands alone.
A waxed handlebar mustache, only slightly smaller than a national forest, adds to the folklore of a man who has a certain black-and-white, Mathew Brady photograph look about him.
With his feet firmly planted in a batter’s box, Meade is so imposing as to scare the stitches from a softball’s cover. To play third base against him is to risk your manhood.
Meade is right fielder and kingpin for the reigning world champions of slow-pitch--the Smythe Sox, a band of traveling behemoths who are taking a few swings through the county this weekend.
Through the softball seasons, there are thousands of miles to be logged and stories told. And through the years, the Meade tales have become so many fish tales.
“I hear guys tell stories about me hitting the ball 600 feet,” Meade says. “It’s just talk. Things tend to get bigger than they really are.”
What Meade actually did was this: On an otherwise ordinary night in Amarillo, Tex., in 1978, Meade launched a regulation softball (Dudley SB12L red stitch) into the night. It landed in a field, 510 feet and a few minutes later. An American Softball Assn. official and 400 other witnesses stood in disbelief.
The ASA man pulled out his tape measure and recorded it for history.
The moment of impact is something Meade will never forget.
“I didn’t believe I hit it,” he recalled. “The crowd went completely quiet. The adrenaline in me was out of this world. The next time up, I hit a ball about nine miles straight up in the air.”
Meade’s blast was certainly no fluke. No one in softball has ever hit the ball harder or farther than the 37-year-old part-time deputy sheriff from Bradenton, Fla.
“In the field of softball, he’s the Mickey Mantle,” Smythe Sox owner Tim Smythe said.
A look at his resume will show that Meade has played on 11 world championship teams since 1974. Three times he’s been the most valuable player of the softball world series.
In 1978, his best season, Meade batted .767 and hit 230 home runs in 110 games. He is a lifetime .735 hitter. He has hit more than 2,000 home runs in his career. When asked about his number of RBIs, he merely laughed.
Meade averages a home run every 2.6 trips to the plate.
And although it’s true that most softball fences stretch only 300 feet from home plate, the boundaries rarely come into play on a Meade moon shot. You need a Land-Rover to retrieve some of his homers.
Friday night, in a Smythe Sox rout over a Marine all-star team in San Clemente, Meade sent one ball toward the shores of Tripoli as it sailed over the left-field light standard some 50 feet or so above the fence.
In some towns, Meade is hounded by autograph seekers. He is popular enough in his sport to be able to extract a living from softball endorsements alone.
The most famous bat in softball, the Bombat 510, is named after Meade and his legendary home run. Each bat also bears his signature. Meade also has a shoe contract and a deal with a softball company.
Yet he wears the crown of softball’s ambassador with great humility. He enjoys his success, but, as he says, he “doesn’t like to flaunt it none.”
Meade takes his job seriously. During the season, which lasts from March to September, he rarely drinks alcohol. He carries with him most days a plastic bag full of oranges and bananas. Meade stays away from soft drinks and candy bars and, worst of all, ballpark hot dogs.
His stomach is flat and his arms are huge, the result of a rigorous fitness program.
After all, there is a legend to live up to.
“People come to see how far I can hit it,” Meade said. “If I don’t get a home run, I get booed.”
And you thought softball was easy.
Meade had to be talked into playing for a Bradenton industrial league team back in 1974. A football player at East Tennessee State, Meade was ready to join his father in the house-moving business after college.
But after his first swing, the Sultan of Slow-Pitch was born.
“It’s like a disease,” he said of the sport, “It takes you over.”
Meade was good enough and fast enough to be recruited by a team in Jacksonville that had won the world title in 1976. He moved on to star for a paint company team in Oklahoma and later for a caterer’s squad in Miami.
The Smythe Sox, based in Houston, boast some of the finest slow-pitch players in the world. They reunite each March, leaving their homes in Kentucky and South Carolina and Georgia and Florida. All for the chance to make a run at the annual United States Slow-Pitch Softball Assn. title.
Unlike some full-time traveling squads, the Smythe Sox are basically a weekend tournament team, owned and operated by Smythe (a Texas oil man) at an annual cost of about $200,000.
Meade said at least four of his teammates can hit for a distance of 400 feet or better. Meade and teammate Rick Wheeler of Ontario, Calif. often have put on hitting exhibitions in major league ballparks.
In 1981, Meade hit a softball 20 rows deep into the center-field seats at the Astrodome. He narrowly missed the overhanging speaker that only Mike Schmidt of the Phillies has hit. Schmidt, of course, was using a hardball.
Meade, interestingly, never even played high school baseball. And he has never tried or desired to hit a hardball for distance.
In January in Miami, Meade went head-to-head in a softball home run-hitting contest with young and powerful Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics, already a heralded long-ball hitter.
Although Canseco won the contest with more home runs, his longest shot was still 100 feet less than Meade’s best.
Canseco also wondered what Meade might do with a hardball.
The world may never know. For the years are gaining on Meade, who will play on until he is embarrassed on the field.
He concedes he can’t hit ‘em like he used to. And never will there be a night like that one in Amarillo.
Still, his eyes, the vital tools of his trade, remain true. And his bat remains quick.
And the Smythe Sox travel on, meeting and clubbing Marine teams and all others who stand in their way.
Today, beginning at 9:30 a.m. at Hart Park in Orange, you can watch Meade and Co. dismantle a team of Los Angeles Rams as part of a Sunday doubleheader. Spectators will get to see a legend of his sport in his own time.
“To be ranked anywhere close to the top in a game that 30 million play has got to make you feel good,” Meade said, modestly. “But as far as being the best ever, I can’t say that.”
No, but we can.