It’s the rare athlete who can revolutionize his sport. Hall of Fame pitcher Mike Tallo transformed 16-inch softball from an unlimited slugfest into a tight defensive battle. Superlatives fail when describing his career and the impact he had on the game. Former teammate Ken Flaws compared him to Greg Maddux, a good-hitting Gold Glove pitcher. Another Hall of Fame pitcher, Pat Caputo, called him the “Sears Tower of softball.”
Not that Tallo was an imposing figure on the field. H.O.F. spokesperson George Bliss described him as “pencil thin and not very tall.” What he lacked in size, Tallo made up for with speed, pinpoint pitching and softball savvy. Not bad for a guy who didn’t play the game when he was growing up.
Tallo, though, was a talented baseball player, who rose all the way to the Triple A level in the San Francisco Giants organization. When his career stalled in 1973, Tallo left California and returned to his hometown of Chicago. He was 26 years old and already knew that “hitting a baseball was the hardest thing in the world.”
Hitting a 16-inchsoftball looked easy in comparison. Tallo sat through games with scores like 25-24. Defense was non-existent. He took it upon himself to change all that, partly for personal survival.
In 1974, Tallo was invited to watch a game. “Their pitcher didn’t show up, so I pitched.” Pitchers were in such close proximity to the plate; it could be dangerous. “I developed a drag step to protect the pitcher,” Tallo explained. He would step off the rubber and deliver a high arcing pitch “to give myself time to get back.” Though it’s common practice today, Tallo was the first pitcher to turn himself into a sixth infielder.
“I made softball a defensive game instead of an offensive game,” Tallo said, “When other pitchers realized how they could help on defense, scores went down.” Yes, but no one could pitch and cover bases like Tallo. The man once threw back-to back no-hitters in the same tournament. Describing the moment, Tallo said, “They had no chance against the arc. I was throwing it 25 feet up. I was standing on second base when the ball came down.”
Flaws, a H.O. F. infielder who played behind Tallo said, “He reinvented the whole game. He could cover every base. He was a ’10’.” Caputo echoed him. “He covered second on double plays, he covered first base. I learned a lot from him. He would intentionally walk batters to get to hitters he could take. He could throw a strike anytime he wanted. No one compared to Mike.”
He could also hit. “Jake Jacoby was a great hitter,” Tallo recalled, “I learned from Jacoby how to cut the ball.” Though he didn’t hit for power, Tallo was a consistent threat at the plate, once going 23-24 in a city tournament. “Tallo tomahawked the ball over third base,” Bliss recalled, “He was the best at it. He also used to hit “The Snake” an infield spinner.” With his great speed, Tallo could beat out infield hits.
“A pitcher is only as good as the team behind him,” is the old softball adage. Tallo pitched for some of the greatest teams in softball history, including the Bobcats, Sobies and Whips. His first team was the Strikers, sponsored by Ed Vrdolyak. Their first season they won 181 games and lost only lost 12. “When I was with the Bobcats, in 1976,” Tallo recalled, “We went 140-3. We won everything that year. We won the No Gloves Tournament three times, 1976, ’77 and 78. It was the best tournament in the country.” Tallo’s teams won the No Gloves a total of ten times. He was named MVP in more than 70 tournaments.
Besides all the heroics on the field there were shenanigans away from the diamond. “Danny Cahill from the Sun-Times called me,” Tallo recounted, “And said he wanted me to play in the newspaper tournament at Grant Park. I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t work for a newspaper. Then he told me Mike Royko wanted to meet me. I went down to the “Daily News” building and went to Royko’s office. We talked for awhile, and then he said, “Now you’re an employee.” Tallo led the “Daily News” team to victory. “I worked for the newspaper for one day.”
Tallo may not have been a print journalist but he did team with Tim Maher on the radio. They hosted the “Miller Softball Report” for two hours on Sunday nights. The show was carried by WKKD from 1993 to 1999. “We took phone calls and talked about tournaments,” Maher recalled. Tallo was not shy about sharing his opinions.
Speaking of his former partner, Maher said, “Mike Tallo was without question the best pitcher in softball history. He was five-foot-nothing and 100 nothing but he was the Michael Jordan of softball. He’s a legend, he’s idolized by everybody. His name and picture should be at the entrance to the Hall of Fame.”
Like many H.O.F. inductees, Maher misses seeing Tallo at softball games. However, fans may get a chance to greet Tallo this July, as he plans to attend the No Gloves Tournament. It would be an honor to meet the man Royko praised in print and shake the hand that shook the world of softball.