Shoe Column: Exploring Wiffleball’s Deep Local History
By Tim “Shoe” Sullivan
Any discussion of wiffleball in Stevens Point has to start with 1217 Green Avenue. Dennis Johnson’s place.
For many years, Dennis and his family hosted a wiffleball tournament right in his backyard. And you could usually see parts of it on television. They really knew how to put together a tournament. The Johnson’s had a big backyard. Home run fences. Bases. Trees in the way. Five-person teams up the gazoo. National anthem.
You could always tell when the Johnson’s Backyard Tournament was underway by looking at Green Avenue. If cars lined the road, then someone was playing. Nobody could ever find a spot to park.
They would have teams from SPASH. And Mankato State. Pointers. Wisconsin Badgers. Bucky Badger was there the year after Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks dropped in. The pitcher would lob the pitch in and the batter would swing and take off running. The players would run the bases, crash into trees, slide into someone sitting on a cooler watching the action, and in general, all hell would break loose! Tons of teams, and you couldn’t walk three feet without bumping into someone grilling or sitting in a lawn chair soaking up the scene.
Wiffleball was a huge thing in my time. Fast-Pitch. It started for me in 1960. My parents bought me a black plastic wiffleball bat and a wiffleball in a box that had a picture of Pete Rose on the carton. The “field” was our driveway.
Must’ve play a thousand games there. My brother Casey and the kids from the neighborhood were the opponents. The Stroik’s. Charlie Rossier. Hell, lots of kids.
We probably threw the first pitch right after Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates hit his home run to win the World Series in 1960 against the Yankees. One guy would be the Yankees. Bobby Richardson…Tony Kubek…Roger Maris…Mickey Mantle…Yogi Berra…Moose Skowron. I would be the Pirates. Bill Virdon…Dick Groat…Roberto Clemente…Rocky Nelson…Smoky Burgess…Don Hoak…Maz.
Our driveway was a weird playing area. You batted from home plate in front of the garage. You tried to hit the ball right up the middle. If you hit the house or Mrs. Schmidt’s house, it was a foul ball. If you hit it on either roof, it was a home run. In other words, you could hit a rocket but it would be ruled foul, but your pop-up might be a homer. Most of the kids hated playing wiffleball in our driveway.
Nobody ever ran because there were no bases (like the Johnsons’). We used imaginary runners. And if your drive made it to the street, you got a triple.
Nobody ever knew how to throw strikes with that Pete Rose wiffleball. It wasn’t uncommon to walk 10 batters in a row.
But one day I took a good look at the box. And right there in black and white, it showed you how to throw a curveball. And a slider — good Lord!
That curveball would strike out 20 batters every game!
For a few years, roughly 10 Pointer hockey players lived in the house next door. In fact, their chimney was the right-field foul pole. There was Benny Gorewich. Wil Nichol. The Fricke brothers. Eric Brown, a winger they called “Franco”, and a few others. Over an entire winter, we all talked up wiffleball. In the spring, I was gonna take on their whole team. And Franco joked about it every day.
And finally, the snow melted and the game was on. Franco was about 6’3”, a right-handed batter. They batted first. And I made sure Franco would be the lead-off hitter. The first pitch came in right at his head. He jumped back and the ball broke about three feet right down the middle. Two more like that and Franco sat down as his whole team laughed at him. The first 10 guys struck out.
Got cute once. Ryan Akia was up, and I took a little off the curveball. He hit it over the roof and into Water Street. By far, the toughest batter was their backup goalie, Tony Bergeron. A little lefty. He would just poke at it. Never swung hard. Tony would foul off about 20 pitches, and that would definitely tire out a pitcher.
They all took turns pitching, and some of their curveballs would break about seven feet and miss the whole garage.
Not all wiffleball games were in the Shoe Driveway. Dave Kopperud liked to play one-on-one on the Nelson Hall tennis court. We would go for two hours and nobody could even hit a foul ball. Almost all of those games ended up 1-0. Kopperud somehow had mastered a screwball which broke IN to you instead of away. Impossible to hit. Rufus Konopacki never gave you much to hit either.
Adam “Bomber” Rutta had a great wiffleball record in his “RuttaDome”. He could really bring it. I tried to slip a slow curve past him and Bomber belted it over his chimney and broke the ball.
Played tough games against Syl Woytasik and Joey Besiada all the time.
The longest home run I ever surrendered was hit by neighbor Ron “Minnow” Shimek when we played in front of Lincoln School. I hung a curve and Minnow blasted it. The ball landed in the back of a dump truck going along Water Street. That home run must’ve went for miles.
Tom Jensen and I played over a hundred wiffleball games and both of us usually struck out all the time.
My brother Casey had a few wiffleball tournaments in his backyard. He had bases and a backstop. Great field! My nephew Bobby was picked off second with the “hidden ball” trick once. Several great wiffleball players played in them. Bobby Gould. Mitch Sutton. Shorty Flees. Casey. Bomber. I threw a screwball to Kevin Flatoff and he hit it over their house in left. Bomber also ran into a tree while chasing after
a long fly-ball. He was okay. The tree not so much.
Word on the street is that Pete Clark of Point was an outstanding wiffleball player.
And then there was the wiffleball “game” against Craig Ludwig of the NHL’s Dallas Stars. Summer of 1995. Midnight. Had some casual cocktails at Frank & Ernie’s when “Lud” decided it was time to play a little wiffleball. We moved over to in front of Kim’s Barrel Inn where there was a streetlight. Lud bats from the sidewalk I pitch. Strike one. Swing and miss. Strike two. Next pitch … strike three! Ball bounces off Kim’s and rolls down a sewer. Lud gets upset and throws bat down same sewer. Game over!
The NHL fined him $4.98.
I still have the check.