Great memories of Central Valley fastpitch

Written by Bob on July 8th, 2010

“We knocked the Long Beach Nitehawks out of the tournament, but lost to Hoak in the championship. That was special knocking them (Nitehawks) out.” – Ray Unruh

HANFORD, CA – Back in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, oh what a great time that was for fastpitch softball, recalls, Manuel “Butch” Cardoza. And the little town of Hanford in California’s Central Valley had two of the best teams around – the Kings and the Merchants.

“We had phenomenal pitching,” said Cardoza, 73. “Les Haney would strike out most of the batters. We had to just get a run to win. He was the LeBron James of softball.”

Cardoza recites the names of the great Central Valley players of his era: Les Haney (1972 ISC Hall of Fame), Ray Unruh (1998 ISC Hall of Fame), LeRoy Zimmerman (1970 ISC Hall of Fame), Jerry Felipe, Joe Avila (2010 ISC Hall of Fame), Lou Ferraro, and Bill Buckley, just to name a few.

But Cardoza could well include himself. In 1958, he played for the Dinuba Condors in the International Softball Congress World Tournament and was selected as the tournament’s “most promising young player.”

“We finished second in the World Tournament that year,” Cardoza said.

But actually, Cardoza and the teams he played for – the Kings, Merchants, and Condors – really didn’t have to play on a “world” stage to face good competition.

Some of the best teams in the USA were just a short drive away, he recalls. Taft, Modesto, Fresno, and Dinuba, all had great teams.

Perhaps, he’s a little biased, but Cardoza rates his hometown Kings among the best.

“I was the bat boy for them, that’s how I got started,” he said. “We played at Hanford Stadium and we always sold out.”

The Kings went on to win World Tournament championship in 1949 under the National Softball Congress banner. Taft claimed the title in 1948. And the Hoak Packers of Fresno claimed top honors in 1950, along with winning championships in 1951, ‘52, and ‘54 in the International Softball League World Tournament.

Why such dominance?

“The Central Valley was a hotbed of fastpitch,” said Ray Unruh, 77, who caught and played second base for the Hanford Kings, Clovis Cowboys, and Fresno RKT. “Our Central Valley League had eight quality teams – Sanger, Taft, Hanford, Dinuba, Fresno, and Selma.

“We had great games with the Fresno Hoak Packers. One time we went 17 innings with them and they won the world championship four times. There was a lot of competition.”

And there was also a bit of a rivalry with the teams “down south.” Such as the Long Beach Nitehawks (10-time ISC World Champions).

“There was an intensity,” Unruh said. “We wanted to show them that we were in the same class. We probably played them 10 or 12 times and beat them four.”

And beating the Nitehawks anywhere, any time, was especially gratifying. A knockout in the 1954 ISL World Tournament (held in Selma, Calif.) remains a highlight in Unruh’s career.

“There was three teams left, us (Dinuba Condors), the Nitehawks and Hoak (Packers),” Unruh said. “We knocked the Nitehawks out of the tournament, but lost to Hoak in the championship. That was special knocking them (Nitehawks) out.”

Unruh pointed out that most knowledgeable fastpitch folks have heard of great Central Valley pitchers, such as Zimmerman, Haney, and Herman Dunkirken. But there were others in the same class.

“Tom Lampe from Tulare threw a perfect game in the World Tournament,” Unruh said. “Don Sarno (Long Beach Nitehawks and 1980 ISC Hall of Fame member) started with Dinuba.

“And Brian Voight (1953 ISL World Tournament Most Valuable Player, and 1982 ISC Hall of Fame) is in the top three great pitchers. He had the great raise ball and excellent change up.”

Unruh also puts Bill Horstman and Bill Buckley on that grand list of Central Valley pitchers.

But the days of great fastpitch have long disappeared in the Central Valley. And for Unruh and Cardoza, they feel grateful they came along when the sport was booming.

“I played every night and weekends,” Cardoza said. “Softball was a big thing.”

And Unruh fondly recalls special games, special players, special times.

There was that game against the Nitehawks that went nine innings before Cleo Goyette ended it with a walk off home run to give Long Beach a 1-0 victory, he said.

And he remembers the game in which his teammate and shortstop, Joe Avila, dared to steal three bases from the Nitehawks’ catchers.

That “kid” Avila was quite the player when he joined the Merchants as a rookie in 1961.

“Joe was good right from the start,” Unruh said. “We had a bet between us about who would have the highest batting average at the end of the year. I figured I would beat this rookie, but he beat me.”

Great times and great memories of Central Valley fastpitch.

14 Comments so far ↓

  1. Eric legge says:

    Feel very sad when I read articles
    of yesterday about or game.
    What or why did this happen.

  2. Bob says:

    Starter programs such as 4-H softball, grammar school softball, and a lack of Little League, helped develop pitchers. We don’t have that today. And I believe teams were comprised of mainly local players that the town or city could identify with. Today, the best team’s rosters are filled with players from across the globe. It’s hard to identify with a team that fans seldom see and players they don’t know. A few years a go, a Yucaipa-based sponsor had a team playing on the World Tournament level, but there wasn’t one local player, and they never played in Yucaipa. How can fans identify and support a team they don’t know and never see? Until U.S. teams abandon the philosophy of building their teams stocked with primarily Canadian, South and Central American, New Zealanders and Australians, and commit to building their own teams with local prospects and talent, the sport will continue its downward spiral. Eric, you got me started…!

  3. Bob says:

    …And I would like to add that I admire the efforts of people like Don Petro of Reese, Michigan, and others like him in Vassar, Munger, and Frankenmuth, who work tirelessly recruiting and developing young players and giving the a league (the Vassar League) in which they can learn to play the game.

  4. Ray Unruh says:

    Good article Bob. email me if you find other articles about fast pitch softball, Thanks Ray Unruh

  5. Joe Avila says:

    Bob when I was in grammer school we played fast pitch so thats where we learned to pitch we did not play baseball till high school and every town had a recreation league for mens softball I have many fond memories of catching Herman starting feb. 1st. each yr while we were still playing basketball to stay in shape for softball & he would throw 300 stikes before we would quit.That was the kind of dedication it took after high school to become a great pitcher, the young athletes today want instant gratification hince slow pitch is the choice for men today.

  6. Beverly Craveiro says:

    My Dad, Ernie Craveiro was the official announcer for the Hanford Kings and I grew up sitting in the press box learning how to keep score. I idolized the Kings players…Cotti, Haney, etc. and later played Women’s Softball on the Nobel’s Melody Ranch Girls. Got a hit off of Ginny Buesick..(spelling?)Worlds fastest female pitcher (appeared on the Tonight Show)of the World Champion Fresno Rockets. That one I’ll never forget!

  7. Bob says:

    Now that’s interesting memorbalia. Maybe you could write a short story about your experience, and I will put in on the website?? I think readers would enjoy you memories of that special time.

  8. Terry (Harris) Pierce says:

    On September 8, 1949, the Hanford Kings won the World Softball Championship Tournament at Forbes Field in Greeley, CO. My dad, Herb Harris was on the team, along with Kermit Lynch, Ivan Crawford, Dom Faruzzi, Al Cotti, Jack Mashburn, Bill Rapp, Lou Ferrero, Whitney Becknell, Bill Horstmann, Les Worden, Freddie Vierra, coach Ray Felix, and Bill Buckley. I found a picture of the team in a book called “IMAGES OF AMERICA, HANFORD 1900-2000” BY ROBIN MICHAEL ROBERTS. The names above were copied from that book. I am grateful the information is out there for all to see.

  9. Dan Ramirez says:

    I was a teammate of Ray Unruh and Joe Avila with the Dinuba Condors during the 1960’s. Also on the team were my brothers Richard and Lupe. One of many highlights was beating KG Fincher twice during a tournament in Prescott, Arizona. This was the year after Gardena with KG Fincher won the ISC World Championship. In my opinion during the 1950’s and 60’s the top 3 teams in the San Joaquin valley were Hoak Packers, Hanford Kings, and Dinuba Condors (came in 2nd in ISC World Tournament 3 times) Top pitchers were Leroy Zimmerman, Les Haney, Bryan Voight. WE know about the great players these teams had. But there are two other players who were outstanding hitters; Chuck Caldera and Homer East, who passed away early after playing several years. He hit for average, power, and was extremely fast. There are many stories to tell about fast pitch softball during this time.

  10. Daniel Ramirez says:

    I played with the Dinuba Condors in the 1960’s with Ray Unruh and Joe Avila. Great pitchers I faced include Les Haney, Bryan Voight, KG Fincher, Joe Lynch (Navy), Tom Lampe, Ralph Salazar, and Herman Dunkerken. I did not face Leroy Zimmerman, who many consider the best ever. He won 10 World titles. Some of the best hitters I played with or against include Ray Unruh, Joe Avila, and Chuck Caldera . I started playing softball after the era of the Long Beach Nitehawks, Hoak Packers and Hanford Kings but remember seeing them play. They and the Dinuba Condors were great teams. Dinuba came in 2nd twice in the ISC World Championships.

  11. lucio martinez jr. says:

    My dad used to play mens fastpitch in san jose ca. He played first base and pitcher, being short and a leftiehe got alot of flack from other players until he was known for a powerhouse that had speed and could dig any ball in the dirt that was thrown to first. He was invited to nationals with a man named chuck caldera who was a pitcher ranked second in nation, now this guy could really pitch some super sonic pitches. They had a great freinship but my dad lost contact so i am now trying to contact chuck caldera to reunite them and well my daughter pitches now and maybe chuck can give her some pointers. My number is 14088496054 my email is Chuck if your out there or anybody can help me please contact me thank you…. my dads name is Lucio martinez sr.

  12. lucio martinez jr. says:

    After discussion with my dad lucio martinez sr. I was corrected and my dad was not invited by chuck caldera to nationals but was invited by nava lathing a team from hayward ca. But didnt attened because of a broken finger, my apologies. Lucio martinez jr…..

  13. Philip warring says:

    My father said he pitched as a backup to jack Newman for the hanford kings but can’t remember the year. Does anyone have old rosters during the late 40’s or 50’s?
    Thanks for your help..

  14. larry dieter says:

    I remembering fast pitch for 20 years starting in 1956—-I don’t know how many times we played against Les Haney in Taft Calif.—-Yes whatever any one says good about Les is the truth—-he was as good as anyone I batted against in fast pitch and I batted against so many I lost count We played in Lost Hills Paso Robles San Luis Obispo Santa Maria Santa Barbara—-bakersfield the prison in Techapi and San Luis Obispo—-Now I am 80 and look back all the time on those days—Dam we had a lot of fun—therte used to be so many teams right herte in Calif. but now it seems like guys just do not want to play like us—well thank you for letting me sound—O by the way I have lived here in Wasco fot all my life–All you old soft ball players keep thinking about all the good games you played and always have fun

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