My interviews fell through this week, so I’m turning my column over to the immortal Mike Royko, a legendary 16-inch softball aficionado. With permission from the publisher of Windy City Softball where it first ran, and to mark the 25th anniversary of Royko’s death, here is an excerpted version of the story he wrote for that publication 47 years ago.
Windy City Softball was a magazine founded by Thomas Bonen, Bob Campbell and Al Maag. For the March 1975 issue, the magazine persuaded iconic columnist Mike Royko to write an article. Royko was an avid player and proponent of “Chicago’s Game.”
The story begins with Royko’s “Daily News” team squaring off against a Chicago Police Department squad. Before the game, a considerable sum was wagered on the outcome. Royko as usual pitched for the newspaper team.
Pitching that game, I felt like General Custer. Except these weren’t Sioux Indians circling me. They were Chicago ringers.
As the dust settled, I handed Sgt. Clancy his winnings and sputtered: “The only time those ‘cops’ have been in a police station is when they posted bond to get out.” But I couldn’t stay mad. Loading up is a tradition as old as the game of softball itself. Older. What the hell, George Washington hired Hessians, didn’t he?
So the loading up goes on. And for those who are still innocents in such matters, here are a few guidelines for success. Never be too obvious. An example: Last summer, the above-mentioned police team took the field against IBM. Suddenly an IBM player leaped up from the bench, pointed at the left-fielder, and said: “He’s no cop.”
“Howdya know?” a policeman demanded.
“Because he works with me at IBM,” was the answer.
Be sure your ringers know who they are. Example: A couple of years ago, Illinois Bell brought in a couple of heavies for a big game. The manager said something like: “You will be Eddie Burns, and you will be Jack Jordan.” Somebody had a shaky memory, because when the game ended and the Bell victors signed the back of the lineup sheet, the opposing manager said: “My, you have two players named Eddie Burns. Are they twins?”
The ideal ringer should not look like Mickey Mantle. Guys with muscles in their ears arouse suspicion. If he weren’t so well known, the perfect ringer would be Mike Tallo, the ERV Strikers’ pitcher and a remarkable infielder. With his frail appearance and herky-jerky movements, he looks like a picnic player — until he pounces on a bad hop grounder, or floats a soft double down either line.
“I always tried to bring in little guys who could hit the ball,” said Bobcat manager Eddie Zolna. “With big guys, you scare them. A little guy hits a homer and they don’t believe it. The second homer, they start believing it.”
“Sometimes it gets confusing,” said the Strikers Len West, “The manager will say: ‘You’re up to bat Jim,’ and you sit there. You don’t know who you are. Remember that big Mexican tournament a few years ago? In that one, I was Valdez.” Zolna was in it, too: “I grew a moustache,” he says.
Daily News columnist Mort Edelstein discussed the ringers he used to win a national championship in a Jewish organization. There was John McCarthy, alias Albert Goldstein, and Mario Mengarelli, alias Harry Kaufman, and Vito Sarcia, alias Manny Feldman. The next season, somebody recognized McCarthy and I was barred for life.”
Finally, there was Harry Hannin, whose Prohibition-era team won 55 straight games. One day [a certain state senator], who was known to hang around with men who held gray fedoras over their faces when the flash bulbs popped, asked for use of a couple of Hannin’s players for an upcoming game. “The next day I showed up at the ball field with my two stars, Lewis and Rosen.”
“I asked the senator who his team was playing. He said: ‘We’re playing against Machine Gun McGurn’s team. There’s $10,000 on it.’” The crowd was 10 deep and when the game started, the crowd was right up to the foul lines. Then somebody took the megaphone and announced, ‘Listen, I want you should not cross the foul line.’ You know, nobody moved? The game went 12 innings and one of my guys broke it up with a hit. I think you could say that I was relieved.”
Think about that kind of pressure, next time you’re in a beer game.