OKLAHOMA CITY. — There was once a game. It was a great game. And just like that, the game has all but disappeared. Now it is a game dominated by women, which is wonderful — but it is not the same game.
I found men’s fast-pitch softball on the road trip my son and I took along Route 66, heading from Los Angeles to Chicago. I found it in an appropriate place for a game that has become a relic — a museum, the National Softball Hall of Fame here.
Men’s fast-pitch softball is all but extinct. Slow-pitch has overtaken the men’s game, which may say something about us men. As a gender, we should be ashamed that we have opted for a glorified beer league game, while women have stepped in and made the much tougher fast-pitch softball their domain.
Bill Plummer, manager of the Hall of Fame, which has 284 members, including slow-pitch and fast-pitch players, both men and women, and coaches, umpires and officials, chalks it up to failure to cultivate young men to play the game — particularly pitchers.
“Players have gotten older and haven’t been replaced, especially pitchers,” he said. “And we are living in a different society today. People don’t want to make the commitment it takes to be a pitcher. Some of the old greats would practice three or four hours a day to perfect their abilities.”
Fast-pitch was a game of nuances and opportunities, with little room for mistakes. Games were won by scores of 3-2 and 2-1, and home runs were hard to come by. That certainly doesn’t fit into today’s sports landscape.
But when I was growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania in the late 1960s and early 1970s, fast-pitch was the game, and people came to watch it. Former high school baseball stars would graduate to play fast-pitch on teams sponsored by businesses and industries. There were legendary players — such as the great pitcher from Reading, Pa., Ty Stofflet, who was once featured in Sports Illustrated, and who played up until the age of 59.
Stofflet was the Randy Johnson of fast-pitch and likely will join some of the greatest men’s fast-pitch players enshrined in Oklahoma City. There’s “Shifty” Gears from Rochester, N.Y., the first inductee into the hall, who had an 866-115 record as a pitcher, with 61 no-hitters, nine perfect games, 373 shutouts and 13,244 strikeouts. And there also is Bobby Forbes, who began playing for the legendary Clearwater Bombers fast-pitch team at 14 and became one of the greatest left-handed hitters in the game, once leading the national championship tournament with a .471 batting average.
And then there is Jim Brackin from Fairfax, the Washington area’s lone representative in the National Softball Hall of Fame, inducted in 1996. A shortstop, the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Brackin, who played college baseball at Troy State University in Alabama, won two American Softball Association Major Fast Pitch batting titles (1979, .563 and 1986, .563) and earned ASA All-America honors three times, with a .402 lifetime average in 13 national tournaments. He played on two USA Pan American teams, 1979 and 1983, and was named an alternate for the 1987 team. He also played in two U.S. Olympic Festivals, 1982 and 1986, with a .313 career batting average.
Plummer recalled seeing Brackin play. “He was an exceptional hitter, and very good in the clutch,” Plummer said.
His most memorable moment might have come in the 1986 Men’s Major Fast Pitch national tournament, when he singled in a run to give Stofflet his 45th win in national championship play, then a record. Brackin had come out of semi-retirement at Stofflet’s request for that tournament and delivered the game-winning hit in all three of Stofflet’s wins that year.
Brackin, 54, retired as an active player after the 1992 season, and since has coached girls amateur softball in the area, working with the Marylanders at the 18-and-under level and with the Shamrocks 16-and-under squad for the past five years. He also gives private lessons for girls fast-pitch, running a firm called Top of the Order. Being a Hall of Famer, he is in demand, but he never dreamed he would be a Hall of Fame softball player when he played the game.
“It was quite a thrill for me,” he said. “All the years that I played, I don’t remember anyone I knew ever talking about being inducted. We all knew about it, but it was never a consideration. We just played because we loved the game.”
While he has embraced girl’s softball and has nothing but high praise for it, he, too, bemoans the loss of the game he played — men’s fast-pitch.
“I started playing while I was stationed at Fort Meade [Md.] in the Army, and we had eight teams in our league,” Brackin said. “Everyone started playing slow-pitch, I guess because there is more offense in the game. But everything I loved about the game — stealing, bunting — you can’t do in slow-pitch. It’s not the same sport.”
The only good thing is that Jim Brackin’s status as a Hall of Fame men’s fast-pitch player will only rise as the years go on. There won’t be too many more to follow him.