Bob Campbell tells his life story in a humble neighborhood-guy kind of way but when it comes to 16-inch softball, there are few who can match his accomplishments. He has been inducted into the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame as a player, team member and organizer. He’s also one of those rare leftfielders who made a living from the game. Campbell worked nearly three decades for the de Beers Co., manufacturer of the sacred Clincher.
Not to mention that Campbell is a highly-regarded hitting instructor, whose video can be viewed at bobcampbellent.com. There’s more. Campbell is a charter member of Willow Creek Church and travels to impoverished nations like Nicaragua to share his faith and introduce natives to the oversized ball and bat. Like soccer, softball is affordable in third-world countries.
Campbell grew up in the Austin neighborhood and spent his early years playing sports at a park in Oak Park. “There was no Little League so we only played softball and pick-up baseball games.” He enrolled in Austin High School but due to severe dyslexia and ADD, failed every class his freshman year.
His academic career on the skids, Campbell quit school and enlisted in the Marine Corp. He was 17. “After a month, I wished I was back in school.” The military helped him, though, develop discipline and overcome learning disabilities. “God has blessed me in many ways. The disappointments I had early in life made me more appreciative of what came later.”
After he finished his stint with the Marines, Campbell longed to become a coach, like his idol John Wooden. “I read about him when I was 19-20 and his two most important ingredients for success were self-discipline and determination. I still have those words on my bulletin board.” Later, thanks to his job with de Beers, Campbell got to meet the UCLA coach at a sporting goods show in 1980. “I thanked him for what he did for me. I also told him my softball team had won four national championships, so I was still chasing him”
Campbell’s involvement in the sporting goods business came about from his co-founding “Windy City Softball” magazine in 1974. “16” softball was very vibrant, in the middle of its heyday. I hired Al Maag as Art Director to do the layout.” After recruiting this future Hall of Fame member, Campbell reached out to advertisers. “The first person I contacted was Fritz de Beers.” The Clincher manufacturer signed a long-term deal to purchase an eighth of a page.
“He said we could design the ad,” Campbell recalled, “We had a photo of a Clincher, the name DeBeers underneath and ‘The One and Only’ at the bottom.” DeBeers thought the ad was a work of genius. He called Campbell in 1977 and invited him to New York. DeBeers paid for the flight and a four-day visit to Albany, where Campbell toured the factory where the Clinchers were stitched together.
“Then he offered me the job of a lifetime. It was a handshake deal. He wanted to spread 16″ softball throughout the country.” Campbell, though, found that the game would only grow if gloves were allowed. “The ASA National Tournament allowed gloves in 16-inch softball. I’m a purist. I prefer the No Gloves Tournament.” Still, he found a market opening not in grapefruit-sized balls but in the new arena of aluminum bats.
“Aluminum bats came out in 1974,” Campbell explained, “I talked to Mr. de Beers about bats and he let me design one bat for Chicago. He said, ‘You know these guys. We’ll put your name on it, recommended by Bob Campbell.” Campbell modeled his first bat after his favorite softball bat. “It was 34 inches, 37 ounces, because most players liked heavy bats. In those days, if you could swing a telephone pole, you could use it.”
De Beers later scaled down its 16″ bat to 30 ounces and offered a bat for 12-inch softball. “We sold a lot of bats,” Campbell recalled, “We grabbed 20% of the business in the US. We owned the Chicago market. I still get calls for bats.” Campbell has kept three of the prototypes. He plans to donate one bat to the Hall of Fame and another to the Chicago Historical Society.
Campbell was making so much off the royalties; he was summoned to another dinner with de Beers in Albany. “He told me he couldn’t afford the royalties any longer but would give me a raise in salary.” He also assigned Campbell to an eight-state territory that included the coveted Hawaii market. “We quadrupled our business in those states.”
Still, de Beers was losing sales to sporting good giants like Wilson. To counteract this, Campbell offered free hitting clinics and gave away softballs at tournaments. “I learned a lot from talking to Major League hitting coaches at spring training. There’s only a sight adjustment in mechanics from hitting a baseball to hitting a softball.”
Campbell was calling on sporting goods stores in 1980, when he learned de Beers had passed a way from a heart attack, while playing tennis. In 2004, the company was bought out by K2, a Swiss corporation. All manufacturing was shifted to China. K2 later gave Campbell a generous retirement package.
A half-century earlier, Campbell had been a 16 year-old left fielder playing softball for his church team. He was recruited by the pastor’s brother to play for the Bucs at Clarendon Park. He became the player-manager and his team won the B League championship from 1961 to 1963. All in all, Campbell played 17 years as a leftfielder and spent 13 years on the mound. “I batted right handed and retired with a .600 average.” Campbell was inducted into the Hall of Fame during its first year of operation.
In 1967, he started playing for the Bobcats, featuring the legendary pitcher, Mike Tallo. The team went on to win ten national ASA tournaments, besting 64-team fields in a single-elimination format. Two years later, Campbell started his own team, the Bruins.
Meanwhile, his personal life changed dramatically, when he got divorced in 1975. “I started re-arranging my life,” Campbell said. This included joining a fledgling congregation that met in the Willow Creek Theater. “I rededicated my life back to the Lord.”
He also started a junior Bruins team. He coached his son and other teens from Buffalo Grove in slow-pitch 12-inch softball. The team had great success at the state level and won the national championship in Florida in 1976. It helped that Campbell had “showed them the softball swing.”
Eleven years later, Campbell filmed his hitting video. Nike helped finance the film with $7,500 Crawford kicked in $33,000. “It took me a year and a half to write the script,” Campbell said, “We filmed it in California. It’s still selling 25 years later.”
Meanwhile, Campbell was re-inducted into the Hall twice: once for being the “Organizer” who published “Windy City Softball” and in 2012, when his Bruin team was inducted.
In addition to all these accomplishments, Campbell found success at the No Gloves Tournament. “We took second twice at the No Gloves with the Sobies. The Bobcats won it in 1971 and 1973. It was single-elimination tournament at the time.”
Campbell married Barbara and became more involved in Willow Creek’s outreach to developing nations like Guatemala and Nicaragua. “I’ve been to Nicaragua and done softball clinics for churches of different denominations. Baseball is the most popular sport there but the impoverished kids in Nicaragua can’t afford gloves. When I give them a clinic in 16-inch, they love it. It’s pretty cool they’re playing 16-inch softball in Nicaragua.”
Spoken like a True Believer.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the de Beers company.