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SOFTBALL: THIS THING OF OURS

Summer and Buffalo bar-league softball. You play ball. You go to the bar, You eat chicken wings. What could be better?

Throw a few FBI investigations into the mix. It doesn't follow, right? Imagine lone figures in trench coats crouched behind the backstop eyeing the pitcher while a Fed in dark sunglasses interrogates the third-base coach.

But this isn't made up; it's the raw material for legend. In the past 25 years, the FBI, the New York State Attorney General's Office and other arms of the law have investigated shady dealings within the city softball league twice.

There's something very Buffalo about that. It's like the uneasy pride one feels at having a favorite uncle who's in the Witness Protection Program for ratting out a mob boss.

Come to think of it, a former head of the Buffalo Softball League actually was in witness protection.

But there's more to the greatest after-work game in town than the retelling of scandal. I think it's great you can be an adult, grab a glove and run around a diamond like you were 14 again, and society not only encourages it, you get an excuse to stop by the local pub. In some leagues, it's mandatory. And that's no joke. You better show up at the winning team's sponsor bar to show respect and, if it's early, it wouldn't hurt to tip one at the loser's bar just to show support.

I still play, most often in Delaware Park in charity games or in the new Buffalo Softball Federation. It's amazing how good it still feels to make the hit or throw the batter out at first. Winning is great; losing still ticks you off.

So when you dig into the story of Buffalo softball, you find that the often-amusing Parks Department mess is as much a part of its history as winning a championship jacket, playing Plant 6, the burning of Houghton Park and the strange scene of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein stalking the local infields in dress pants.

There's a certain advantage to this awareness. The lore adds a colorful depth to the otherwise mundane experience of, say, running the bases and accidentally knocking over the shortstop's can of beer. The next time you're playing on one of the city diamonds at LaSalle or Houghton parks, take a moment between innings and think about this: You're not just the left fielder for Chico's Bail Bondsmen's Wednesday night squad. Oh, no. You're also a player in this ongoing thing we call Buffalo Softball; you take your rightful place in the pantheon of beloved teammates, game-day heroes, and psychopaths.

Every at-bat, every absurd insult hurled at an ump, every pratfall is your contribution to its legacy. And it's a legacy filled with bizarre and haunting tales ... all true, or as close to true as we could get without having to ask for a search warrant.

The Death of Buffalo Softball

The board members saw it coming. They knew the end was near, but no one wanted to see it go on his or her watch. In early 2003, the Buffalo Softball Board of Directors decided to disband a league that, in one form or another, had been in the city since 1951.

"It wasn't that the city forced us," says Bill Gunn, one of the last directors. "Look, people moved out to the suburbs. Kids play video games now. They don't play softball. And we had a few people on the board looking to retire to Florida or wherever, and no one wanted to take over the work of running the league. So that was it."

It was a complicated league to run, according to Gunn, because of its checkered past. The scandals of the 1980s forced the board to enact stringent guidelines and accounting practices to ensure the record-keeping was above reproach.

"Team fees had to be collected, insurance paid, and two people had to sign each expense check (ensuring accountability)," says Gunn.

That meant finding a group of dedicated people willing to give a lot of their free time keeping track of 150 or so teams each summer. No one stepped up, so the league went dark.

It was a sad day for a league that boasted being one of the largest city-run softball organizations in the United States. During one stretch in the 1970s and '80s, about 700 teams played Buffalo softball, almost every night, from 5 p.m. to dark, sometimes under the lights.

Space was limited; competition was fierce.

There were once three divisions Red, White and Blue. Blue was for casual play, White was akin to Triple A baseball and Red was the elite division, the best of the best. Winning a Red Division Championship jacket meant something. Mickey "Wahoo" Wachowicz, 61, now a city Parks Department employee, has a city championship trophy on the mantel from his days as a center fielder with Park Lounge, but never one from the Red Division.

"That would have been tops," he says. "The teams I played on were mostly neighborhood teams. You grew up with these guys. But some teams like Plant 6 would get guys from all over the area."

And if there's a legendary team, it's Plant 6, named after the bar once owned by David Niemann, taking its name from Plant 4 and Plant 5 in the Chevy complex nearby on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda. After a hard day on the line, you might take on some "overtime" at Plant 6.

For more than 25 years, these guys have terrorized area softball fields as state and county champs, notching over 200 tournament wins throughout the country. They were so good, the Buffalo Softball League aimed a rule at them. A team could only have a certain number of tournament players on one team, so Plant 6 members often had to split up and play for other teams.

But on weekends, they traveled together. In 1980 Plant 6 played Halstroms, a local Pennsylvania team at a tournament in Bradford. They were down by 15 runs in the second inning. "I remember someone saying at the time 'We got them right where we want them,'" says Niemann. "And we never gave up."

Finally, it's the bottom of the seventh, with Plant 6 down by three runs, bases loaded and two outs.

Halstroms was going to walk Plant 6 third baseman Jerry "Buzzy" Buzinski, says Niemann. But their pitcher, Tommy Kurtz, decided to pitch to Buzinski, anyway.

There's a fine line between genius and stupidity. Sadly, Kurtz stepped over it.

"Buzzy hit a grand slam, and Kurtz just dropped to his knees and started crying right on the mound," says Niemann.

And if you can't make the opposing team cry, you can always get thrown out of the game. Plant 6 catcher Mark Stanko was getting frustrated with the umpire's strike zone at a tournament in Batavia. Stanko watched his pitcher's ball go right over the plate, and still the ump called "ball." Finally, he asked what the ump used to determine a strike. The ump told Stanko he used the batter's stance.

"Stanko then picked up home plate and threw it off the field saying, 'Well, then I guess you don't need this,'" Niemann says. The plate was staked in the ground with spikes, Niemann says, but Stanko kept working his fingers in the corners until he could pry it out.

Stanko was thrown out of the game. But he came back later in the tournament to hit the home run his team needed to win the tournament championship. It just added to Plant 6 softball lore.

Screaming Softballs

The softball under scrutiny so far in this story has been Slo-Pitch, a game characterized by the arching underhand lob tossed slowly to the plate. It's an easy game to learn, so more people play. Fast-pitch softball is different. It's a windmill-style throw ending with a sharp flick of the wrist, sending the ball screaming to the plate.

"A lot of your great Slo-Pitch guys were just OK fast-pitch hitters," says Edward Lindsay, once one of the best fast-pitch hitters in this area and the commissioner of Buffalo ASA Softball. "But fast-pitch, that was real softball."

Fast-pitch dominated the 1950s and '60s, but has since lost much of its popularity. Lindsay says fewer people are teaching the game in high school.

"You have no pitching today," he says. "The toughest thing about fast-pitch is finding someone who can throw that style well."

Women have kept that tradition alive, especially in the college ranks. Nan Harvey was a towering figure in local women's fast-pitch softball. Title IX, the federal law that gave equal opportunities for women's collegiate athletics, came too late for Harvey.

She graduated from the University at Buffalo before the university began fielding a Division III women's softball team in 1979. So she played fast-pitch for the Buffalo Sunbirds, a team Harvey described as the archrival of the North Tonawanda Shamrocks, tough opponents who fought hard to win the regionals. Not only did Harvey's team win, they went to the national championships four times.

To earn money during the softball season, she was encouraged to become an umpire, a job that kept her near her passion for the rest of her life.

"She approached her job as umpire with the same fairness and firmness she applied to everything," recalls Andy Hurley, associate athletic director at UB. "She clearly was a softball junkie."

Harvey, a Cheektowaga native, became the UB women's softball team head coach, earning state Coach of the Year honors in 1985. She won awards and inductions in numerous softball halls of fame. Before she died of cancer at age 46, Harvey gave back to her beloved UB with a sizable donation to the athletic department. Today, the women's softball field is named in her honor.

The Living Library

At 65, Lindsay, a friendly, talkative man who retired as a mechanic at Bethlehem Steel, is a walking library of local softball lore.

"I'll tell you a story," he says, sitting on a patio chair one humid afternoon in the driveway of his house on Fillmore Avenue. "There was this guy, Felix Mann, who was from Buffalo, but ended up in prison in the Midwest. Now he wasn't a murderer, nothing like that, but he was such a good pitcher that when a tournament would come up, his teammates would find a way to get him out of jail."

Niemann remembers batting against Mann when he played fast-pitch as a catcher for Midnight Cowboys in the Sunday morning East Side League in the early '70s. He also heard those stories about how the great pitcher once got sprung from the lockup.

"Felix had such an amazing curveball, it looked like it broke 10 feet. You'd swing four times before it got to the plate," Niemann says.

Lindsay laughs when asked how his teammates could have sprung Mann from jail.

"I don't know," Lindsay says. "But I guess because he was (in jail) in a smaller town, and he wasn't in for anything too serious, they found a way to get him out for a bit."

That's dedication.

And when it comes to jail, no one knows that better than two guys who helped run the Buffalo city softball league in the 1980s Ronald Raccuia, former chief of staff for the Common Council, and Robert E. Delano, former city parks commissioner.

Let's start with the summer of 1984, when Common Council Majority Leader James W. Pitts asked a simple question: How did the softball league spend the $150,000 it had collected in the last three years? City softball, you see, fell under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department commissioner, at the time Thomas Griffin, who reported to his brother, Mayor Jimmy Griffin. So far, so good.

Then someone found out that a $200 contribution had been made to the mayor's campaign fund. Who gave that contribution? Why, the Buffalo Softball Board. That prompted Pitts to ask for a complete investigation.

Instead of using the teams' money just for field maintenance and end-of-the-year banquets, the six-member board bought other softball-related merchandise like holiday turkeys, swimming pool supplies, flowers and fruit baskets.

Nothing says softball like a flower.

Peter Gospodarski, chairman of the Buffalo Municipal Softball Board, was paid $7,494 for "expenses." Edward Gasuik, the mayor's brother-in-law, got $2,850, the mayor's brother only $1,121. Isn't blood thicker than water?

So, while the unsuspecting softball players were sliding into dry summer dirt, their hard-earned league fees were turning into funds of slush. In the spring of 1985, the Common Council grabbed control of the softball league from the Griffin administration, and vowed reform. Did they find a decent softball man like Lindsay or a fair but firm league umpire? Not quite. Instead, Pitts and the Common Council turned the league over to Council Chief of Staff, Ron Raccuia.

Henhouse, meet your new fox.

Raccuia didn't buy turkeys or flowers. This was a thieving Buffalo Softball had never seen before. Gambling was Raccuia's game, and like all compulsive gamblers, he had hunches, he had gut feelings, and he had debt. Lots of debt. He also bet with bookies who might just be really big fans of "The Sopranos" today, and when you run up large deficits with guys like Vinnie "The Bat," you either pay or you walk funny.

Raccuia began stealing from the softball league almost immediately, eventually topping out at over $66,000. It's hard to prove he palmed more because the accounting ledgers were mysteriously destroyed. This was money his wife eventually paid back, restitution everyone thought was a wonderful gesture until someone found out she embezzled the money from a doctor she had worked for. She was never prosecuted for this crime because her husband cooperated with the FBI, according to an article in The Buffalo News.

Can it get better? If you lived through that time, you know it did.

Federal investigators told Raccuia, by law, they were tapping his phones. They said something like, "Ron, we hear you calling bookies."

Investigators say he acknowledged this, then went right on gambling, stealing most of the money from the softball league after he was told he was being watched by the Feds.

Go back for a moment. Remember when the Council wrested control of the city softball league from Griffin and the Parks Department? Sitting there ticking like a vindictive little time bomb was none other than Robert Delano, just-named parks commissioner.

Delano agreed, in the spring of 1985, to work with the new league and take care of its parks. That summer, players complained about the rough condition of the diamonds, blaming them for the serious injuries of three players. Delano blamed the Blizzard of '85 and shortages in manpower.

Tick, tick.

As the Raccuia scandal heaped shame upon the city, Parks Commissioner Delano ran the league with other Griffin allies before the Council took it away (because of the turkeys and all), and crowed about the whole thing. "I can't tell you how elated I am," a vindicated Delano told The Buffalo News.

Tick, tick, tick.

His elation was short-lived. Various horrifying deeds were pinned on Delano; a federal court jury found him guilty of racketeering and four other felony counts in 1992. He abused his workers, made them do private jobs on taxpayer time, and seemed to have a fetish for swimming-pool chlorine.

In the late 1980s, the city apparently bought 20 tons of chlorine, but only a fraction of that was used for city swimming pools. Where did the rest go? Even Mayor Griffin wanted an answer.

"I asked Bob Delano, and he said it was used in some of the pools and on the chalking of the diamonds," Mayor Griffin said then at his monthly press conference.

There it is. The chlorine was used to chalk the ball diamonds in the city. Then, I'm guessing that even second-graders began to scratch their heads in wonder.

Wouldn't powdered chlorine get kicked up in the dust of a game and burn the eyes and throats of decent, God-fearing Buffalonians? Even Jimmy was shocked.

Asked whether he was satisfied with Delano's answers, the mayor answered, "No one is satisfied with them, but I don't know where it went."

Burning Houghton Park

City softball survived these embarrassments because the players were indifferent to them. It didn't affect the game, so what was the point of outrage?

Besides, there were more pressing jobs at hand. Take the occasional burning of Houghton Park. It happened first with the Queen City Fourth of July Tournaments in the '70s and then with the Stroh's Labor Day weekend games. Teams would come from Pennsylvania and Ohio to play the locals like Plant 6, the Locker Room, and Wiechec's, but one good rainstorm could ruin all six diamonds at the park.

Canceling all action on the field wasn't an option; torching the field was.

Former Parks Commissioner James Nowicki sat in a booth at Cole's Restaurant one night in June and laid out the master plan on how to roast a perfectly good park.

First you'd use heavy push brooms to whisk the puddles away. "Back and forth, back and forth," says Nowicki. "Then, with the wind at your back, you'd take whatever fuel was around diesel, whatever pour it on the infield and light it. Then you'd rake the mud."

The infield burned and dried in seconds. Game on, right? Not so fast. The fire sent plumes of smoke into the air. Nervous neighbors panicked, thinking the whole park was involved.

"It seemed like every fire truck in the world was called in for this," remembers utility fielder Vic DeGeorge, 52, a Buffalo softball alum who works at Mr. Fox Tire Co. on William Street. "It was the funniest thing ever."

"The old fire commissioner, Karl Kubiak, lived right around the corner," Nowicki says, laughing. "I told him, 'We have a tournament coming and we have to get the game in.' "

But even that doesn't top the time helicopters were flown in to dry the soaked field.

In a fit of creative brainstorming only the love of softball and pure desperation could inspire, a few players from Channel 7 were able to get the TV station's helicopter to fly over the diamonds at Houghton, according to Nowicki. The theory: Massive rotor blades would air-dry slick grass like a gigantic desk fan evaporates the sweat from your face. Score one for rec-league physics?

"It didn't work," Nowicki recalls. "It just pushed the water around."

When talk of the kerosene-illuminated infields and the AWOL helicopters fades, there's always the fodder of legendary hitters. When DeGeorge played for Wiechec's Lounge, a long-time gathering spot across from Houghton Park, his team's best hitter was Marty Cott. In 1968 Cott was drafted third overall by the Houston Astros, just ahead of another catcher, the late Thurman Munson, one of the most beloved Yankees ever and 1976 American League MVP.

Cott got injured, DeGeorge says, bounced around the minors and came back to Buffalo to play softball and smash home runs for the neighborhood fans.

"At Houghton, guys like Cott would blast them out of right field and over the houses," DeGeorge says. "And the people loved it because it was entertaining and free," offers Nowicki. "Not everyone could afford the golf course or a boat, so this was a great way to pass the time in the summer."

But success in baseball didn't necessarily mean greatness on the smoldering fields of Houghton.

Joe Lang, who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1970 and played on the Voyageurs amateur baseball dynasty, "could hit a hard ball 400 feet," says DeGeorge. "But he couldn't hit a softball out of the infield. You figure it out."

The Boss' Field of Dreams

Named one of the toughest bosses by Fortune Magazine, Harvey Weinstein is known in Hollywood for being an aggressive taskmaster. Or jerk, depending or whom you talk to. When Weinstein was part of the Harvey and Corkey local promotion team in the '70s and '80s, the company ran a softball team in the city league's Blue Division. That winning Harvey style was evident even then.

Michael Damico, then assistant manager at Century Theater and now a Hamburg Central School teacher, says Weinstein would "summon me to his office and ask me where we were playing."

"Then he'd show up in blue dress pants and play somewhere between first and second," says Damico. "He was the boss. The boss gets to create new positions, if need be.

"And if you made an error," Damico remembers, "he'd fire you. You actually lost your job. He fired my brother Vinnie twice. And he didn't even work for Harvey and Corkey. He was a narcissistic sociopath, everything you wanted in a teammate and boss."

Weinstein apparently carried this trait with him when he left Buffalo. The 1993 Fortune magazine article quoted a Weinstein employee who lost his job because he made an error on the company softball team. He was rehired later in the game, but the employee was convinced it was no joke.

The Rebirth of Buffalo Softball

After the city softball board dissolved the league last year, Nowicki wanted this great city tradition somehow to carry on. He found a sympathetic ear in Marty Lesh at Cole's Bar, who worked with Damico and Wahoo to cobble together the Buffalo Softball Federation consisting of Damico's 56-team Buffalo Softball North, and Micky Wahoo's 64-team Buffalo Softball South.

North and South then play each other for the city championship. Wahoo is even thinking of bringing back the championship jackets, saying the emblem in front "would have something like a softball with a buffalo in it."

Ed Lindsay is getting up in years, doesn't always feel well, and is dealing with a radical treatment for his illness. He's a fighter and always seems to be in good spirits. And he loves to talk softball with passion and respect and an understanding that there really is something more to all of this than graft, racketeering and the blatant misuse of helicopters.

"To me, the most important thing I got out of softball was the friendship and the camaraderie," says Lindsay. "We'd pile into the car with our families and drive to Canada and play in a tournament. We weren't making money. I'd come back from there with 35 cents.

"But my kids grew up with my teammates' kids. They'd play together. Sure the game was important, but it was the friends you made, too. That was the best part."

Tom Ragan is co-host of the Shredd and Ragan morning show on 103.3 The Edge radio. A frequent contributor to First Sunday, Ragan's magazine credits have included stories about Buffalo parking lots built over historic sites and Christmas holiday mayhem.