Remembering softball’s glory days in St. Joseph

Written by Bob on September 10th, 2017

ST. JOSEPH, MO – Nice summer and fall evenings stir up memories for many St. Joseph residents of the days when fastpitch softball was king in the city.

On summer evenings during its heyday from the 1950s through the 1980s, places like Walnut Park and Drake Field were packed with fans locally and from abroad.

They came out to see their local fastpitch stars: Tim Reynolds, Herb “Rumpy” Lucas, Charlie Pusateri, Gilbert “Jeep” Kirby and Bill McKinney.

Teams were sponsored by businesses like the Morris Plan, Polsky Motors and Walnut Products.

Ed Christgen remembered when his father, Ken, got the whole family involved in the sport. It was in 1966 when car dealer David Polsky asked his father to sponsor a team.

“We started then with just one team, and by the early ’70s our family or our company was sponsoring seven teams,” Christgen said.

The Christgen family owned Walnut Products and sponsored teams with names from the business such as Walnut Products, Wal-Air Aviation, Missouri Valley Veneer, St. Joe Woods, Walnut Sawmillers, Iowa Missouri Walnut, an all African-American team and a young girls’ team called The Baby Woods.

The teams competed in the Triple A and Double A fast-pitch leagues against local teams and teams from as far away as Brookfield, Missouri, and Topeka, Kansas.

“Basically they were all within about 90 miles,” Christgen said.

“We had league games five nights a week at Walnut Park. Every weekend we had tournaments. Basically it was St. Joe, Savannah, Cameron and Chillicothe and such. St. Joe had almost 200 fastpitch teams in the early ’70s.”

Slowpitch wasn’t as big as it is now, Christgen added. Springfield, Missouri, Aurora, Illinois, and St. Joseph were the three hotbeds for fastpitch softball.

“The last year I sponsored a team was in 1985, and we played 128 ball games in 20 states. It was very competitive, high level, best players in the country,” Christgen said. “When I think about softball, I think about Bill McKinney, Dave Polsky and my father. There were so many good players.”

The name Charlie Pusateri, a Walnut Products shortstop, often comes up when good players from the fastpitch era are mentioned.

“I started playing in ’43,” Pusateri said. “They ran me out of hardball, that’s why I went to softball.

Pusateri said the good softball was in the 1970s with players like Charlie, Leo and Bobby Blakley, Tom O’Brien, Tim Reynolds and Paul Lemon.

“I mean, we had some players on that team. We went out and fought with everybody, stayed right in the game,” he said. “Charlie Blakley in right field, I mean, he had a rocket, Jerry McDaniels, Doc Miller. We’d play 100 games and probably win about 90 of them.”

Names like Don Dewey, Ronnie Jackson, Gilbert “Jeep” Kirby, Donald Bundy and Bill Silbilski also come to mind for many fans.

Walnut Park always was packed with fans, Pusateri remembered. Before games were played at Walnut, they were played at Goetz Field in the north end near Green Hills supermarket.

“Mutt Nagle took care of the ballpark down there and we had crowds down there. They’d come out of the woodwork,” he said.

Sometimes there would be a packed house at the ballpark for a 2 a.m. game, Pusateri recalled.

The players and their families hung out together, too. A few families would pile together in one van and travel to road games, he said.

“We had a good bunch, we jelled together, wives jelled together, kids all grew up together, played cards together at one another’s house in the winter time,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.”

In 1981 and 1985, St. Joseph hosted the national fastpitch tournaments.

“We were good enough and played decent enough ball that everybody wanted to have the national tournament here,” said Bill McKinney, a former pitcher and retired city parks and recreation director.

McKinney remembered Roger Shepherd, Dave Groenke, Leo Blakley and Whitey Adams as star players, along with a tall, well-built pitcher named Herb “Rumpy” Lucas.

“Rumpy could throw probably harder than anybody, but he didn’t have a lot of control and he walked a lot of people and got himself in trouble,” McKinney said. “If you didn’t have a pitcher, you couldn’t play fastpitch.”

McKinney said he liked to pitch and pitched a lot.

“When you’re young, you can do that. We didn’t have relievers,” he said.

McKinney also was instrumental in getting the first national fastpitch softball tournaments in St. Joseph.

“Bill really made the fastpitch program here in St. Joseph fantastic,” Christgen said.

The rising popularity of slowpitch softball in the ‘80s helped kill fastpitch in St. Joseph and other places. Slowpitch required less skill and allowed more people to play. While fastpitch players took the game seriously and didn’t drink during games, slowpitch teams often had kegs in the dugout, as it was seen more as a recreational outlet.

Slowpitch games also tended to be higher scoring than fastpitch games.

‘When slowpitch came along, more people could play, especially the ones who weren’t good enough to play Triple A or fastpitch, and you didn’t need a pitcher,” McKinney said.

Alonzo Weston can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPWeston.

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