Zane Smith shares memories of the bygone era of military fastpitch softball

Written by Bob on December 14th, 2009

YUCAIPA, Calif. – It took but one game and Zane Smith was forever hooked on fastpitch softball.

In 1962 Smith was a young Navy Corpsman. And the Naval base he was stationed at had a fastpich team with a key position to fill. So Smith raised his hand.

“The manager asked, ‘can anybody catch?’” said Smith. “I said I could. I didn’t know anything about the game and I used a baseball catcher’s mitt.”

Little did Smith know at the time that warming up on the other side of the diamond was one of the all-time great military and civilian pitchers, Buck Brown.

“I was warming our pitcher up and I heard this Pow! Pow!” Smith said. “I turned and looked and it was Buck Brown warming up. He was really bringing it.”

Smith struggled his first year at the plate hitting .079, but he was determined to raise that anemic batting average and better his game. And over the next 28 years of his Navy career, Smith did just that.

In 1968, the right-handed power hitter was selected to the All-Marine Corps team. And he played in five All-Navy championships.

The 70-year-old Smith has long since retired from the Navy. But his memories of Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force fastpitch softball live on. Those were days when all the military branches had outstanding teams, pitchers, and players. Those were the days when the three branches battled ferociously to claim the title as the Inter-Service champion.

The heyday of military fastpitch has long since disappeared. But he cherishes those times still, and agreed to share some of his fondest memories.

Who were some of the great Navy pitchers?
Joe Lynch. He was the best Navy pitcher I ever saw. He was a big guy, about 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds and just 20-years-old in 1963 when I first faced him. The ball was a white blur. He threw harder than anybody I ever faced. When you were in the batter’s box he scared you. You stayed real loose.

“We played him at Camp Pendleton and he struck out all 21 of us. He got out of the service when he was 21 in 1964, and went on to play for Aurora and Clearwater (Bombers). He was the MVP pitcher and MVP player for Aurora when they won the ASA national championship.

Roy Burlison was the second best in the Navy. He could bring it too. Everybody in the world wanted him when he got out. And Jim Sperry, a crow hopper, had the great rise ball and the great drop.

“In about 1969, me and Darwin Tolzin were picked up for the All-Navy Tournament. Darwin started out as an outfielder. He had the good rise, good drop, and an unreadable change drop that you couldn’t hit at all. (In 1976, along with Al DeWall, Tolzin pitched All American Bar of St. Paul, Minn. to the ISC World Championship held in Long Beach and Lakewood, Calif.)

What were some of the great fastpitch military bases?
“The two best were Sub-Marine Atlantic near London, Connecticut, and Sub Flotilla One in San Diego. Our base team (San Diego) played in the Western Softball Congress for years.”

What military branch played the best fastpitch?
“The Air Force. They had some great pitchers. Big Bill White was 6-foot-6 and when he warmed up he started from the outfield fence and kept moving in. When he got to 46 feet, he was really bringing it. Then there was Jim Swilley, he was only about 5-foot-6, but he was really quick.

“The Air Force held world wide (selection) camps to chose their team. They had all the best players and softball was their job.

Describe one of your most memorable moments?
“In 1972 I hit a three-run homer to tie the game and we went on to win the championship (and qualify) for the All Navy Tournament.”

Who was one of the best all around players?
Cary Weiler. He gave you everything he had as a pitcher, and he was one hell of a hitter, and a good first baseman. He’s one of the best competitors ever. I remember one tournament where he was all cramped up and he just took the ball and kept going. He was also a good basketball player and made All-Navy.”

What about position players?
“George Giles was the best position player ever. He could slap hit and played every infield position, and when he ran he just glided along and fielded everything. Pete Russo was a 5-foot-7 centerfielder who could go get the ball with anybody. After he left the Navy he played with the Vista Bombers.”

You also managed. Tell us about that.
“I started playing and managing in 1972. I managed teams like Stanley Andrews (San Diego), Mel’s Car Wash in Oceanside, the Oceanside Bombers, San Bernardino Stars, and Albuquerque Roadrunners. In 1981 we won the Western Softball Congress with the Oceanside Bombers and went to the (ISC) World Tournament. We split four games with Camarillo Kings in the WSC and they won the World Tournament. They had Mark Smith, and he was a barnburner. He threw awfully hard.”

When you retired from the Navy, you managed teams in the ASA and ISC (Western Softball Congress) and saw many great players. Name a player who really impressed you?

“Nick Hopkins, Sr. I was in awe of him. He played shortstop for the Long Beach Nitehawks and he could hit and field with anybody. He could reach any ball and had a great arm and instincts for the game. I was a dead pull hitter and they had a shift on me, so I tried to hit to the right side and bunt.

“He came up to the stands after our game and said, ‘son, you’re really messing up. Quit trying to bunt and hit the other way. Go back to hitting the way you do.’ It was the best advice anybody ever gave me.”

Best rise ball pitcher?
“Bob Todd (Long Beach Nitehawks). He started at the letters and kept walking the pitches up. He had pin point control.”

Best drop ball?
“Ralph Salazar of Fresno and Ed Klecker of the Lakewood Jets. Ralph pitched for Winchells and RKT. He was so strong and he just rolled the ball straight down like off a table.

“Ed had one pitch, that drop ball, but it was the best. I faced him for five years, and I only got one rise ball from him in all that time in the 1974 (WSC) All-Star game. It was the fourth inning and Red Meairs (Long Beach Nitehawks manager) sent me in to pinch hit. Ed threw me a rise ball and I hit it out.

“Ed won the ISC World Tournament for the (Lakewood) Jets with that one great pitch.” (Klecker was named the Most Valuable Player of the ’73 World Tournament and was selected to the ISC All-World team in 1972, ’73, ’74, and he was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2006.)

Best change up?
“Vaughn McClure (Navy). I remember a game against the Nitehawks when he gave up back-to-back doubles in the first inning and they didn’t touch him the rest of the way. We ended up losing, 2-1, in 12 innings. Every team in the Congress wanted him.”

With all those years spent playing military and civilian fastpitch, what has the game come to mean to you?
“It was a love. A true love.”

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14 Comments so far ↓

  1. […] From Otto in Focus: Written by Bob on December 14th, 2009 By BOB OTTO botto3 (at) verizon.net […]

  2. Rod Taylor says:

    Hey Bubbam if you get this, I just wanted to say hi. Zane hit the ball so hard, and was a dead pull hitter. I had the best time of my life playing with him in San Diego, and with the Vista Bombers. We played a tournament in Yuma one time , and Zane cramped up so bad, that we had to help get him undressed and carry him to the pool to help him relax. Those were the good old days!!!

  3. Just happened to get on and read about Zane Smith. It brought back a lot of memories when I played as an 18 yr old with Sub Flot One back in 67-68 with Roy Burleson(age 21) and George Giles(age 38). It was only tour of dudy I had and enjoyed every minute of it. continued to play back home in Texas til ’86 where our team represented Texas 8 yrs in a row in the ASA National Tour. Thanks George(the creaper) Giles for picking me up to play with ya’ll. Wish I could see ya’ll again.
    Enjoying the memories.

  4. Bob Cheeseman says:

    Jesse,
    I also remember the great times in San Diego. My Dad Jim Cheeseman pitched along with Roy and Ted Brown. I was lucky enough to be batboy and keep score. My dad and I were just talking the other day about the great teams.

  5. Doug Noble says:

    I played for Bob Petinak at NTC in 68.

    Bob Your dad and I pitched against each other, in I think 71, at the Sub base in New London. We went 13 innings. I remember Dungee and Custer, and Jessie, and Giles…I went to ComSubLant because they came up with my transfer code 1st. We won the All Navy the 3 three years I was there, with Bill Godwin.
    Jessie,did you play for Mountian View in 74and 75, when I was with Sunnyvale? I went to Vegas with you guys in 75. Ray Philips won 9K with Gene’s money, and all who were around went to Mustang Ranch on Gene. Freddie Santos and I came in late and Gene gave me and Freddie 20 bucks to share. Memories are great. I don’t remember How many times we faced each other, but I remember beating Guy French once.

  6. Cary Reese says:

    Does anyone out there Remember me or any of the players from the 1969 Camp Pendleton varsity team. I played shortstop for Camp Pendleton and also played for the Tri City Merchants out of Oceanside in the congress league.Some of the names Pete Russo , Ron Gorr. USMC team.. Rusty and Corky Riener oceanside team. let me know. I’m CARY REESE at classic07hog@yahoo.com

  7. BARRY EHLERS HM2 says:

    ZANE, WOW WE WERE AT THE AMPHIB BASE IN CORONADO WHEN I GOT BACK FROM NAM. YOU TAUGHT ME HOW TO RUN THE PHARMACY AND WE PLAYED BASKETBALL AND SOFTBALL TOGETHER I LIVE IN LONG BEACH AND RANCHO MIRAGE, CA.. GIVE ME A SHOUT…WHAT GRET MEMORIES……BARTLACUS@AOL.COM
    BARRY EHLERS

    …Ran across your article on Smitty. I played basketball and softball with him when we were stationed at the amphib base at Corodado. He actually taught me to take over the pharmacy and he received order elsewhere. What a great guy! we had so much fun my last year in the navy in 69. Do you happen to have his e-mail address and or his home address. I would love to touch bases with him again. pun pun. kindest regards…….BARRY

  8. Bob says:

    Thanks for sharing Barry. Those were great times and now greater memories!

  9. dick harkins says:

    Zane:

    I remember you well. I played with Sub Lot One (previously known as Sperry 1962 and 1963, Sub Flot 1 thereafter, 1964 – 1970; don’t recall you on my team at least through my discharge in August 1970. Where are you now days?

    Dick

  10. Barry L, Kenney says:

    I played on the Long Beach Naval Station Team in 1967 & 1968. We played against two of the best Military fast-pitch teams in the military back then. Sub Flot One in San Diego and Vandenberg AFB team which both I believe were All Service Champs at one time or another in the 60’s.
    My question is what was the Sub Flot One’s Pitcher’s name that pitched in 67 & 68? He had quite a rise ball that I will never forget! Great to play in that era of the best fast-pitch softball in the Navy!

  11. Bob says:

    Hopefully someone from that era of military fastpitch can recall the pitcher that had the great rise ball. Many, many outstanding pitchers “cut their teeth” on the rubber while in the armed forces. I surely enjoyed my time playing Marine Corps fastpitch!

  12. Tom McLauchlin says:

    Zane my friend I miss playing with against and under you,But most of All I miss your friendship and talking fast pitch all night long. I learned more about the game from you and Georgie Giles, hey contact me.And for all reading Zane’s bat was a Paul Bunion size bat but he could hit the best of the best with that 38 to 40 oz bat. His best asset was his ability to call a game. Miss you big guy.

  13. dick harkins says:

    Sub Flot 1’s pitchers in 1967 and 1968 were Ted Brown (great rise and knuckleball); Jim Cheesman and Roy Burlison.

    I caught them. Burlison threw the hardest; Chessman was the best competitor and Brow was the best all around.

    The guy with the rise ball was Brown.

  14. dick harkins says:

    Brown had the best rise ball. Chessman and Burlison also threw a rise.

  15. Ron Williams says:

    Hey Zane, we were teammates on the North Island Packers. Besides a great catcher you were a great teammate. I remember taking a bladder full of beer in a cooler to the Padres game. Then throwing peanuts at the umpire from behind the first base dugout. We almost were thrown out.

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