By JIM MISUNAS
There was a time decades ago when fastpitch softball was king.
Great Bend was the hub of fastpitch softball in the 1960s and 1970s when the Great Bend Cowboys Oilfield Specialties dominated the summer sports scene.
Great Bend’s Mitch Haney is among local players who have been inducted into the Kansas Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame. Haney will celebrate his 50th anniversary in softball with a fastpitch softball reunion Friday in Salina.
‘Those were great times, good memories,” Haney said.
More than 90 past players have registered for Friday’s gathering in Salina. One former player will fly from Arizona. Another is driving 240 miles to attend.
“We’ll have former players who are in the 80s attending,” said Al Billinger, who resides in Hays. “One of the highlights will be recognizing the 1959 Rago, Kansas state champion. Three living members from that team will be honored. Former players living in Kansas City to Lakin and everywhere in between will attend the reunion.”
After 11 a.m. registration, a Mexican buffet will be served for lunch.
“It’s been 25 to 30 years since some of us have seen each other,” Billinger said. “We’ll catch up on old times, renew old acquaintances and make some new ones.”
A similar 2003 fastpitch “softball reunion” at Great Bend coordinated by Lynn Engle also drew strong interest. Engle worked with longtime catcher Larry Engle, a perfect one-two battery. Lynn Engle played, umpired and worked as a softball administrator
Great Bend pitcher Lynn Engle recalled the fierce competition offered by the Men’s ASA Fastpitch Tournament in Great Bend in the 1960s and 1970s. The 12-team field had to earn their way into the state tournament. Great Bend families would invite opposing players to stay in their homes.
Other pitchers featured were Billinger, Hutchinson’s Lynn Chadd and 6-foot-9 Charlie Rappard. Haney and Doug Keiswetter were local softball stars.
Great Bend was the site of a Memorial Day Tournament and a Firecracker Invitational Tournament that featured the previous year’s Kansas state champion and high caliber out-of-state teams. KVGB broadcasters Bob Hilgendorf, Grover Cobb and Dick Painter aired many of the games on the local radio station.
“The town would come alive with a festive spirit,” Engle said. “The players, wives, families, umpires, local officials, media, town merchants, and the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce all combined in a special way for the Kansas Men’s Fastpitch Tournament. Friendship was earned on the ball field through the spirit of high caliber competition.”
Al Billinger of Hays, a longtime Thomas More Prep basketball coach, said Great Bend featured the best softball support in the state.
“Brit Spaugh was the best place to play softball in the state,” Billinger said. “The bleachers were as unique as Brit Spaugh itself. There was seating along the first base foul line which was something you never saw. I always enjoyed coming to Great Bend. Great Bend always had tremendous fan support. I loved playing there where I pitched for Hays and other teams.”
Engle said the gatherings are inspiring.
“The reunion is a get-together for those who were addicted to fastpitch softball,” Engle said. “The fierce competition, trash-talking, athletic achievements on defense and daring baserunning were elements that drew us into the fray. Nearly every town in Kansas that had a grain elevator sponsored a fastpitch softball team.
“I reckon each person who attends the reunion in Salina still has the juice in them that made them awesome opponents,” he said. “Because of that spirited competition, we’ll meet one more time to remind each other just how good we were.”
Engle carries fond memories, including his last softball game in Salina when he couldn’t convince the home plate umpire he’d drilled a pitch off his shin that was fielded for an out.
“The umpires weren’t convinced that the ball hit me even though I showed them the bleeding abrasion where I was just struck,” he said.
Barton Community College Hall of Famer Tom Curtis coached the Cougars to two NJCAA Tournaments and more than 700 wins. Curtis was featured as a high-caliber middle infielder with the Cowboys. Curtis assisted Tom Morehouse on the inaugural 1983 Barton team before leading the Cougars for 26 seasons.
Curtis was a player/coach who led the Great Bend Cowboys to three ASA Class A state championships. He played for a Class B state champion.
When Curtis was picked up as a “younger player,” he quickly realized the game was played at a high level.
“All these men were working and living in the area, but most of them came from baseball backgrounds,” he said. “Fastpitch softball was competitive. Great Bend and Topeka were the hub of fastpitch softball in Kansas.”
At one time, the Great Bend Boosters was the best fastpitch softball team.
“Eventually the best fastpitch team formed into the Great Bend Cowboys, which became a dominant team,” Curtis said.
Topeka’s top teams were Plantation Steak House and Doug Ruedlinger Insurance.
“Topeka Planation was a longtime rival,” Curtis said.