An estimated 30 million Americans play softball and equipment manufacturers call it the nation’s No. 1 participant team sport.
It’s a game that draws a diverse following and often provides a boost to local economies where tournaments are played.
One of the groups that has both fed and benefited from softball’s popularity is the United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association, with headquarters in Petersburg. The estimate of 30 million participants has been made by the sport’s other national organization, the American Softball Assn., which, unlike the USSSA, also sanctions fast-pitch games.
The USSSA’s growth in recent years has been phenomenal. In its first 10 years it grew to 10,0000 teams, and five years later was up to 30,000. In the last five years it has added an average of 10,000 teams per year, reaching a total of 97,400 teams in 1987. This year, the USSSA’s 20th anniversary, it expects to surpass 100,000.
“That translates to 2 million players,” said Harry Marsh, the group’s director of communications.
The ASA, though bigger, is less competitive, Marsh noted.
“The ASA is more into local leagues in which teams play 8-10 games per year,” he said. “USSSA teams average 100 games a year. We appeal more and we cater to the very competitive softball team.”
The USSSA is most active in Michigan, where it has 8,000 teams, and in Texas and California, but is “really solid” in 45 of the 50 states,” even fielding teams in Hawaii and Alaska, said Marsh.
Detroit and Houston have 4,000 USSSA teams. In Orange County, Calif., it is estimated more than 20,000 softball teams belong to various organizations.
Though primarily a spring and summer sport, fall seasons are growing. In some states, like California and Texas, play begins in January. For them, “it’s a year-round sport,” said Marsh.
“I think it’s a game that’s not just for one particular group but for everybody,” Al Ramsey, USSSA’s executive director, said of the sport’s rise. “It’s for people from all walks of life.”
The USSSA sponsors men’s, women’s and youth teams, church and industrial squads, black teams, Hispanic teams and teams catering to all age categories.
“We even have a league in California for people who have suffered heart attacks,” said Marsh. “That’s part of the success.”
A growing segment is mixed men’s and women’s teams. In Rockville, Md., for example, the USSSA sanctions more than 375 mixed teams.
The 1988 USSSA men’s major world series is scheduled for Orange County, Calif., and will be played in a minor league baseball stadium. The organization also has contracted with a company to film four or five of the top USSSA events this year and hopes to sell them for telecast on ESPN or ABC Wide World of Sports.
One of the USSSA’s top teams is the Steele Silver Bullets of Ohio, sponsored by the makers of Coors beer, which appeared on national television four times last year.
Competitive softball means big dollars for top players, who can command six-figure incomes for product endorsements. For example, Bruce Meade, a well-known Florida player who plays for the Smythe Sox of Houston, has contracts to endorse, shoes, bats, balls and uniforms.
Local economies reap similar benefits. The USSSA figures the average team brings 25 people when it goes to a tournament, including players, spouses, children and friends. They spend an average of $75 per person per day on lodging, food, shopping, sightseeing and other entertainment.
Officials in Cobb County, Ga., site of a 102-team girls tournament sponsored by the USSSA in 1987, estimate the event brought $777,750 to the county, nearly three-quarters of it for food and lodging. In Petersburg, the USSSA’s 32 tournaments last year boosted the economy by as much as $3 million, said Marsh.
According to a report last year, officials in Hutchinson, Kan., said their Fun Valley Softball Complex drew 805 teams in 1986 and generated $4.7 million for the local economy. That includes the important “rollover” effect which provides work for local people who in turn purchase goods and services locally.
The expansion of the organization’s headquarters, which includes a USSSA Hall of Fame Museum and a small facility to test softballs, has paralleled its growth.
The USSSA bought a small building for offices and to house the museum five years ago for $750,000, uncertain whether they could pay for it. Since then, it has expanded twice and the $1.5 million facility is now paid for.
Softballs from world manufacturers are tested by firing them from a machine into a concrete wall to measure how “lively” they are and whether they meet USSSA standards.
The association has inducted 34 players, umpires and managers into the USSSA Hall of Fame. Among them are:
--James Mortl of Milwaukee, Wis., inducted 1980. Mortl was the first male player inducted. An outstanding defensive second baseman and pressure hitter, he compiled a .600 career batting average. Named the Most Valuable Player in the 1970 USSSA world series in Las Vegas.
--Jenny Johnson of Franklin, Ind., inducted 1981. The female athletic director of Franklin College, she is the first female inductee. Played shortstop and led three Cincinnati teams to world titles and also played for teams ranked in the top 10 for 12 straight years. Recently named the USSSA’s national director for women’s teams.
--Gary Vitto of Detroit, Mich., inducted 1981. Managed teams that won more than 1,000 games, compiled a 73-11 record in post-season play, and managed the 1974 winners of the world series. Now works for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, including managing the Joe Louis Arena where they play.
--Cal Carman of Detroit, Mich., inducted 1984. Led teams from both Michigan and New York to world titles. Known for his constant chatter, bird-like whistle and other on-field antics. Compiled lifetime .622 average. Hit 572 home runs in major tournaments.
--Joe Seymour of Roanoke Rapids, N.C., inducted 1986. A country boy who hit several thousand career homeruns. Won over 100 softball tournament MVP awards. Played for four different teams in world series action. Now an American Legion baseball coach in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
--Mike Cellura of Van Nuys, elected to hall last year and scheduled to be inducted in 1988. Described as an All-America player with a strong arm who hits powerful line drives. Led Florida and North Carolina teams to world titles in the early 1980s. Well-traveled and still an active player, will be part of a California team this summer.