Glory Days: 40 Years of NGSL
Not to mention a very polite rejection letter from Harvard.
Everyone who has participated in the North Grounds Softball League has a memory. In honor of the 40th year of NGSL, which organizes regular-season play as well as the popular UVA Law Softball Invitational in the spring, past commissioners shared some of their favorite stories.
Dylan C. Black ’97, a partner with the Birmingham office of the law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, was head commissioner when he was a 3L. He recalled that year as the first in which there were enough extra proceeds to donate to charity.
“Now the league is regularly delivering five-figure checks,” Black said.
But two years earlier, he witnessed something else that was memorable: the rarely executed triple play. He was on the field with his team, Co-Rec Gold, when his Class of ’97 teammates accomplished it.
“I was pitching and the ball was hit sharply at our third baseman, Steve Slazinski, who was covering the line,” Black said. “He stepped on the bag, relayed to our second baseman, who was Debbie Owen — now Debbie Owen Pell; she had played softball for Virginia. She turned that play slicker than Ozzie Smith. Turned it and threw to Erinn Kelly [Robinson] to get the runner at first.”
The team would go on to win the 1995 tournament.
Inevitable with tales of glory are also reports of injuries. Ex-commissioners recounted: a hopper to the chin that resulted in stitches, a broken nose and countless torn ACLs (resulting once in a whole team with knee braces called the ACLUseless).
Allison Lansell ’12, a health care attorney with Rolf Goffman Martin Lang in Ohio, lost a tooth in pre-season intramural play her 1L year. But she didn’t let that stop her from participating in NGSL, and later serving as a commish.
In a way, it was part of the bonding process, she said.
“I ended up being taken by ambulance to the ER where, unbeknownst to me, my Peer Advisor, Rebecca Martin ’11, who was on NGSL, sat for more than four hours in the waiting room to make sure I had a way to get home,” Lansell said. “When I got into NGSL, she was the first one to come up and give me a hug and introduce me to the rest of the organization.”
The tooth was re-attached, by the way — no harm, no foul.
The incident even led afterward to an academic discussion with then-Dean Paul Mahoney and Professor John Harrison about the assumption of risk at baseball games, Lansell said. (Harrison reportedly had once been the victim of a stray ball himself.)
Other NGSL memories came from off the playing field.
Thomas G. McNeill ’84, a member at Dickinson Wright in Detroit, was a head commissioner who, along with friend and William & Mary law student Bob Battle, came up with the idea of UVA hosting an invitational. Today, more than 50 different law schools send teams to compete.
But in the beginning, the students weren’t sure to whom the invites should be sent.
“We sent letters all over,” McNeill said. “Some replied ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ From most we heard nothing.”
But he said one reply stood out. The dean of Harvard Law sent a personal note, which, despite being an unequivocal no, was thoughtful in its “elegant and eloquent response.”
Other memories from the softball diamond shared by alums included:
Fred Vogel ’77: “In addition to having Keith Kearney ’77 belt out of stirring rendition of the national anthem on his trumpet, we decided to make a big splash (both figuratively and literally) by throwing out as the ceremonial first pitch a grapefruit painted white. Only the commissioners knew what was coming. Tremendous pressure on both the pitcher (me — notoriously wild on the mound and subject to cracking under pressure) and the batter (who knew only that he was under strict orders to swing and make contact regardless of where the "ball" was thrown). Fortunately for all, good pitch, mighty swing and contact, explosive success. The endless hype and promotion of the P.T. Barnum aspect of the league (most reflected in the constant stream of florid Law Weekly articles, where as many players as possible were mentioned in each story, as we soon discovered that everyone loved seeing his or her name in the newspaper) was off to an auspicious start.”
Nancy Hudgins '78: I was the manager of the Ernie’s Crabs team. My friends and I went to Ernie’s Crab House in Alexandria one summer. We talked the manager into giving us T-shirts for the team. Why he wanted to sponsor a team in Charlottesville is beyond me, but who could turn down free T-shirts? Our team played all three years and had a blast. Many of us are still in contact with each other.
Bob Stewart ’85: “The best team story: One tournament entry was a team from the New England School of Law in Boston that had a bunch of excellent softball players. These guys could hit, field and drink beer better than most all of the other competition. Many of them also had thick New England working-class accents (as opposed to the refined, patrician accents of well-to-do Bostonians). It was uncanny how, for a bunch of law students, they did not understand even the most basic legal principles. (UVA first baseman having jammed his finger on the previous play: ‘I think I have cause for a tort.’ New England baserunner: ‘Those are tasty.’) In hindsight, we think there was probably only one law student on the team, but they were a good bunch and we were glad to have them in our tournament.)”
Mark Carver ’85: “For the second year of the UVA Law Invitational, Bob Stewart, my teammate ... and head commissioner, allowed me to select the UVA team. It was a Soviet-style move with no transparency, accountability or respect for procedure — that was all fine by me. After Wake Forest’s impressive win the first year, Bob wanted to field a UVA squad that could win our own tournament. And win we did — defeating the New England School of Law team that, as Bob noted earlier, did not have law students and had only a portion of guys who were actually lawyers. Years later I was on a conference call with a lawyer from D.C. who asked out of the blue, ‘Didn’t you play for UVA in the UVA Invitational?’ ‘Yes, how would you know that?’ ‘I played for New England School of Law and you beat us in the final game.’ He then explained the whole story about how his group of friends heard about the tournament and wanted to play so they signed up and hoped for the best. Great guy.”
Charlie Joseph ’85: “My only footnote to Mark’s story was that about five years after law school, I also met a player from the team we beat (and I think it was BU, not New England School of Law). He told me that they were so upset about losing to us that they reconstituted their team a few years later and came back as the Western New England School of Law … and this time they won it!
“Our co-rec team, the Boneless Chickens, won the championship twice — once during our second year of law school and a second time during the spring semester of our third year. I played shortstop and ended up marrying our third baseman and fellow classmate, Anne Geary Joseph [’85]. We have four kids and have been happily married for the past 28 years … just goes to show what good things can begin on the UVA Law School softball field!”
Daniel Friel ’17: Last year’s invitational championship has some humorous/interesting bits. UVA’s Co-Rec Gold won the Co-Rec Division. Hannah Dunham ’17 blew out her knee in an intramural softball game about six weeks before the tournament and still proceeded to come to just about every game/practice to support the team. Then, on the first day of the tournament, Friday, Joe Zaleski ’17 brutally sprained his ankle, then decided to continue to play the rest of the weekend, and would walk up to the plate essentially putting all of his weight on the good ankle and swinging with only his upper body. I’m pretty sure he did not make an out after getting injured. Just continuously popped the ball right over the third baseman’s head and in front of the left fielder. Finally, I broke my wrist in two places during the quarterfinal game on Sunday, played the next two-and-a-half games through the championship, then went to the championship barbecue with my team and Ave Maria (the men’s champions) — at which point my right wrist was twice the size of my left one — so I constantly asked for bags of ice to treat the injury, deciding that the UVA health center could wait until morning. When I finally went to the doctor, she was extremely confused by my series of decisions the previous day. That tends to be a common theme with people who haven’t experienced softball at UVA — they generally have a little bit of trouble understanding how we could spend so much time involved with it.
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When the idea for what would become the North Grounds Softball League first occurred to three UVA Law students in 1976, they never dreamed the league would spawn a wildly popular charity tournament in which law schools from across the nation would participate.
They simply wanted to play ball.
“The impetus was a lack of things to do on North Grounds,” said Professor Gordon Hylton ’77.
The Law School’s new home had just been constructed about 1.5 miles away from Clark Hall, its old location on Central Grounds. Parts of the facility were yet to be installed, including patches of sod in front of the school. The North Grounds Recreation Center and The Park had not yet been created.
But Copeley Field was there. And if it wasn’t exactly whispering like the corn stalks in “Field of Dreams,” it was at least nearby and available for frequent use.
Hylton, who would go on to become a legal historian who often writes about sports, came up with the idea for the league with Fred Vogel ’77, future chief international counsel for the Marriott hotel chain, and Dave Mullins ’78, who would start his own practice in Christiansburg, Virginia.
For them, intramural softball on Central Grounds had grown tiresome. Law students often would travel there only to discover the undergraduate team had bailed on their scheduled games. When the games were on, they were often poorly officiated, Hylton and Vogel said.
Plus, the undergrads played with larger, softer balls — “somewhere between the Chicago-sized ball, which is an abomination, and a regular softball,” Vogel said. What was the point of hitting a homer if the ball didn’t sail?
The three friends received encouragement for their idea from the guys with whom they played pickup games, so they checked in with the Law School about their plan. This was their pitch: “We thought if we had our own league it would be very easy for people to come across the street to play, to do it literally between classes,” Vogel said. “And we thought it would promote collegiality, that it would be a fun thing to do, since North Grounds was kind of isolated.”
The Law School presented no objections and even gave them $200. With the help of Bob Barry ’78, they ran the idea past the intramural department, which OK’d the dedicated field use, and chipped in some basic supplies.
The league coalesced in a brisk two weeks, with the first game taking place Sept. 14. Dean Emerson Spies threw out the first pitch (due to President Jimmy Carter being “unable to add this engagement to his commitments,” a response from the White House read).
With names such as “Sliding Scales” and “Homerun Hillbillies,” the 15 teams that played were heavily weighted with male law and engineering students who resided at the Copeley Hill apartments. But a co-ed team “sponsored” by Ernie’s Crabs (which simply gave them shirts) played, too, along with a team of professors led by G. Edward “Ted” White.
“It was phenomenal,” Hylton said. “Everyone showed up for every game.”
The Copeley Singles (whose roster included leisure-time aficionado and future New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz ’77) won the Law School championship that fall over the Mudhens.
Hylton said one of the reasons the league enjoyed early success was the seriousness with which they conducted their fun. Mullins and Vogel, for example, insisted on Astroturf around home plate (to prevent it being washed away by mud) and proper foul poles. The league also paid some of the better student players to be umpires.
It didn’t hurt, either, that Hylton made sure to chronicle the league’s exploits as an editor on the Virginia Law Weekly, and Vogel talked up the league to everyone he could.
“I wanted it very much to succeed,” Vogel said. “I wanted it to be something people looked forward to. And even that first autumn season, it far exceeded our expectations with the number of teams and the enthusiasm people had.”
By the spring of 1977, 40 teams were participating in the league. Play incorporated participants from the Darden School of Business and the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School. The name “North Grounds Softball League,” which more accurately encompassed those playing, stuck.
To this day, the idea continues into extra innings.
On the occasion of the league’s 30th anniversary, Hylton shared a detailed account of the founding of NGSL in the pages of the Fall 2006 UVA Lawyer. He recently updated that article under “History” on NGSL’s website.