30 Years Young: North Grounds Softball League
J. Gordon Hylton ’77, League Co-Founder
THE IDEA FOR A SEPARATE law school softball league dates back to the end of the 1975–1976 school year when Fred Vogel ’77 and I were talking about how disappointing our experience had been playing in the University intramural softball league. For the second year in a row most of our games were with undergraduates; our opponents sometimes didn’t show up; and at this time UVA intramurals used the large 12-inch Chicago-style softball instead of the regular 9-inch ball.
When we returned for our third year of law school in early September 1976, we decided things needed to change. Fred and I chose to organize a fall softball league for law students (and a few others) that would play on the largely unused Copeley field, which had been there, replete with backstop, at least since the new law school opened in 1974. We proposed the idea to Associate Dean Lane Kneedler ’69 and Assistant Dean Don Lemons. Thankfully, neither had objections. From the University we got permission to use the field and were even given a bag of equipment. From the very beginning Fred was intent on improving the field, and through his efforts we installed foul poles and a large patch of astroturf around home plate.
Once we put the field in order, we began to advertise the league through word of mouth and by posting announcements in the Law School. Fred used his extensive social network to encourage others to organize teams. Our roommate Dave “Moon” Mullins ’78 and many other friends readily joined in and by general agreement, we named Fred the League Commissioner and Dave and I assistant commissioners. In honor of Powerhouse of Athletics, sponsor and donor of our trademark yellow baseball caps, we called our team the Powerhouse A’s and began practicing almost every day. This allowed us to publicize the new league and recruit talented players.
Throughout most of the first season the League was called the Law School Softball League. But gradually, Fred’s coined name, North Grounds Softball League, would take its place.
Even with the very short notice, 15 teams entered the league the first season, including a faculty team which included Ted White, Tom White, Bob Scott, and current Virginia Supreme Court justice Don Lemons ’76. More than 200 players, almost all of whom were law school students or faculty, were on the original rosters. While most of the players were male, there were a handful of female players that first season, including Ernie’s Crab manager Nancy Hudgins ’78. Original players included future New York Times Crossword Puzzle editor Will Shortz ’77, future United States Senator George Allen ’77; future D.C. US Attorney Roscoe Howard ’77, and future National Hockey League vice-president Skip Prince ’77.
As assistant commissioner, I had the primary responsibility for making up the schedule. We divided the teams into a seven-team Clark Division (named after the recently abandoned Clark Hall) and an eight-team No-Name Division (named after the then still unnamed new law building). The Clark Division included teams called: Copeley Singles; Ernie’s Crabs; Homerun Hillbillies; Law Review; Learned Hands; Maros’ Maulers; and Sliding Scales. The No-Name Division teams were called: Bad News Bears; Bullets; Faculty (also referred to variously as the Diminished Faculties and the Brooding Omnipresence); Mudhens; Paisanos; Powerhouse A’s; Renegades; and Rookies.
Play began with three games on Tuesday, September 14, 1976. Opening day festivities included third year law student Keith Kearney ’77 playing the National Anthem on his trumpet and newly appointed Law School Dean Emerson Spies throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. The first game was won by Rob Reklaitis ’78 and his ’ Maros’ Maulers who defeated Dale Ditto ’78 and his Home Run Hillbillies 12-11. In the other two first day games Learned Hands defeated Ernie’s Crabs 12-10, and the Copeley Singles won out over the Sliding Scales, 12-3.
From the very beginning the North Grounds Softball League was closely connected to the Law Weekly. I was the news editor and Herbie DiFonzo ’77, the editor-in-chief, and Bruce Williamson ’78, the features editor, were enthusiastic softball players. In spite of this, the story of the first games ran only on page three with most of page one given over to stories on the new dean Emerson Spies and the new Law Librarian, Larry Wenger, who replaced the legendary Frances Farmer, who had retired. Somewhat belatedly, the Law Weekly ran an opening day photo of Dean Spies and Commissioner Vogel with the opening day umpiring crew in its October 8 issue.
Despite the initial lack of publicity in the Law Weekly, the League still brought in the crowds with unpredictable games, like when the Powerhouse A’s rebounded by winning eight straight games after losing the first two. The 10-game regular season ended on October 22, 1976. The Clark Division was won by the Copeley Singles with a 7-3 record. The No-Name Division was won by the Mudhens who finished 9-1, one game ahead of the Powerhouse A’s. The 1-9 Faculty team finished in a tie for last place. The top four teams in each division advanced to a play-off with the final four (Mudhens, Powerhouse A’s, Copeley Singles, and Paisanos) playing a double elimination tournament. In something of an upset, the Singles defeated both the A’s and the Mudhen’s to win the first championship. In the final game, the Singles defeated the Mudhens by an astonishing 24-2 margin.
The Singles roster included: Gary Feulner ’77 (Player-Manager), Roger Glass ’79, Gary Goldberger ’79, John Guyer ’77, Phil Lookatoo, Jim Murphy ’79, Donnie Olek ’77, Steve Rose ’77, Ed Rouh ’77, Doug Shoettinger ’77, Will Shortz ’77, and Bill Twomey ’77. The umpire in the championship game was Professor Ted White.
The spring season opened up the league to teams from the business school (then in what is now Slaughter Hall) and the JAG school. For the spring, Dick Downing ’77 joined Vogel and Hylton in the commissioner’s office.
We moved the date of opening day for the spring season back to March 21, and invited President Gerald Ford to throw out the first pitch (the February 11, 1977 Law Weekly reprinted the letter from White House Director of Scheduling Fran Voorde, graciously declining the invitation). After the President declined, we moved back opening day to February 28, and nearly 50 teams with more than 500 players signed up for the spring semester. The faculty team folded after playing only one game in the spring.
During the summer of 1977, a team of North Grounds League players in Charlottesville studying for the bar examination won the University of Virginia intramural softball championship. In the fall of 1977, the league continued under the leadership of co-Commissioners Dave Mullins and Bruce Williamson, who were chosen by the outgoing commissioners. Early in the fall 1977 season, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ’50 pitched one inning in a NGSL game. I was clerking for a judge on the Virginia Supreme Court but came back to Charlottesville for Kuhn’s appearance. New NGSL Co-Commissioner Bruce Williamson introduced me to Kuhn as “former commissioner” Gordon Hylton. In reply, Kuhn said, “Well, that does happen sometimes.”