THE FOUNDING OF NGSL
The following is an account of the formative seasons of the North Grounds Softball League, as told by J. Gordon Hylton ’77, a co-founder of the League. Incidentally, Professor Hylton is the first and only individual to play in the NGSL as a law student, an alumnus, and a professor. We offer him our sincerest thanks for his recollections.
The idea of 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.
We had much more fun playing after-class (and sometimes during-class) pick-up games on the largely unused Copeley Field, which had been there, replete with backstop, at least since the new law school opened in the fall of 1974 (which was also our first year at the law school). One of us mentioned to the other at the end of the 1976 school that we “should organize our own league when we get back in fall.”
We did nothing about this over the summer, but when we returned for our third year in early September 1976, we decided to organize a separate fall softball league for law students. We sounded out the people who were showing up to play pick-up games at Copeley Field on the idea, and when they responded favorably, Fred and I went to Associate Dean Lane Kneedler ’69 and Assistant Dean Don Lemons ’76 with our proposal. Fortunately, neither had objections, although Dean Kneedler did remind us that he had said nothing about providing any funding for the project.
In these early efforts we were very much assisted by David “Moon” Mullins ’78 and Bob “the Boomer” Barry, ’78. Fred, Dave, and I shared an apartment at Ivy Gardens, and we met Bob, a transfer student from West Virginia University, at Copeley Field on the first day of the new school year. Given his propensity to hit pitches over the road behind left field, we quickly recruited him for our team. Equally important, as it turned out, Bob had gone to UVA as an undergraduate and was personally well known to the people who ran the University of Virginia’s intramurals program.
With Bob, we went over to the Intramural Office in the old gym on the main grounds. Not only were we able to convince the powers that be to let us take control of Copeley Field for our games and practices, but they also gave us a couple of bags of old softball equipment and a box of balls. Over-ruling my objections, “Oh come on, Fred it’s just softball,” Fred insisted on installing a large patch of Astroturf around home plate—to facilitate play in rainy weather—and pounding into the ground carefully measured off foul poles in left and right field. As usual, Fred’s ideas turned out to be brilliant.
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 also used his extensive social network to encourage others to organize teams. The daily pickup games also helped publicize the new league. Because we were not sure how many people would be interested in playing, we permitted each law school team to have a limited number (2 or 3, as I remember) non-law school players. (That our power hitting shortstop Lem Marshall was not a law student may also have been a factor in the adoption of that particular rule.)
By general agreement, Fred was named the League Commissioner and Dave and I assumed the roles of assistant commissioners. I made out the original schedules and Dave and Fred and Bob and other volunteers worked to get the field ready for opening day. Throughout most of the first season the League was called the Law School Softball League, but Fred’s preferred name, the North Grounds Softball League, was also used.
Even with the very short notice, 15 teams entered the league for that first fall season, including a faculty team which included current faculty members Ted White and Tom White, former dean and recent faculty member 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, future National Hockey League vice-president Skip Prince ’77, and current Virginia judge Dan Bouton, ’79, George Thomas ’77, David Pettit, ’77, and Doug Shoettinger ’77, all parents of current [2009-10] UVA law students.
The new league was divided into two divisions: a seven-team Clark Division (named after Clark Hall, the former law school building on the main grounds) 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; Renegades; Rookies; and the Powerhouse A’s. The last of these was our team, which had previously been called the Copeley Roadhogs (after a now obscure Statler Brothers routine). However, Fred Vogel managed to convince a local sporting goods store, Powerhouse of Athletics, to sponsor our team. (Sponsorship actually consisted only of free yellow baseball caps, but Fred viewed our having a sponsor of any sort as contributing to the credibility of the league.) Each team was scheduled to play ten games with at least one game against each time in its division.
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 both good friends and 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 this initial lack of page one publicity in the Law Weekly, the League flourished from the start. Teams showed up for games, and surprisingly large numbers of students showed up to watch the games. Somewhat distressingly, the Powerhouse A’s, installed as pre-season favorites, dropped their first two games. However, the club rebounded by winning eight straight games.
The initial 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 Mudhens to win the first championship. In the final game, the Singles defeated the supposedly power-laden 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, ’78, 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.
For the spring membership in the league was opened to teams from the business school (then in what is now Slaughter Hall) and the JAG school. This actually made the “North Grounds Softball League” name even more apt, and the February 18 issue of the Law Weekly announced the official name change to the NGSL.
Dick Downing ’77 joined Fred, Dave, and me in the commissioner’s office. Fred also came up with a number of ideas to publicize the spring edition of the league, including a set of photographs of us practicing softball in the snow which were run in the Law Weekly, and a “spring training” opener when the assembled players took turns taking practice swings at grapefruit. (A photo of this made its way into that year’s Barrister, the law school yearbook.)
At some point in late January, we decided to invite newly elected President Jimmy Carter to throw out the first pitch of the spring season. Carter had spoken at the law school in 1975—when my roommate Andral Bratten ’77 pronounced that Carter “was a nice guy but he has as much chance of being elected president as I do”—plus he had been known to play softball with his staff during the presidential campaign. To give him time to get settled-in in Washington, we proposed an opening day of March 21.
Unfortunately, the President apparently had other commitments that day, and the February 11, 1977 Law Weekly reprinted the letter from White House Director of Scheduling Fran Voorde, graciously declining the invitation. With the advantage of hindsight, I later realized that we should have invited out-going President Gerald Ford to throw out the first pitch, since he also had an athletic past and now had plenty of free time on his hands.
Not needing to wait for the president, we began the second season on February 28, with nearly 50 teams with more than 500 players signed up for the spring semester. Included in the mix for five Darden teams—Darden was then located in Slaughter Hall—and two from the JAG School. The onslaught of teams necessitated the creation of five divisions, labeled A, B, C, D, and S (for Sissy). The last of these provided opportunities for those who sought a less competitive environment, but the other four played at the same level. On a disappointing note, the faculty team folded after playing only one game in the spring. However, the faculty’s one star player, Ted White, was able to jump to a student team.
Suffering from an over-sized roster bloated by Fred’s efforts to sign up as many good players as possible, the Powerhouse A’s split into two teams. One team, captained by Fred, retained the original name while the other, captained by me and containing many of our original players from earlier years played under the name the Real A’s.
Both teams made the playoffs, but the second title went to the Mud Hens, runners-up in the fall, who defeated the Powerhouse A’s, two games to one in a best of three final series. I think we were so disappointed with the results that the photograph of Dick Downing and me awarding the championship trophy to the champions did not appear in the Law Weekly until the following September 23. Fred, the losing pitcher in the final game, was nowhere to be seen in the photograph.
Fred and I graduated that spring, but that was not quite the end of our involvement with the league. First, during the summer of 1977, a reunited Powerhouse A’s team composed of law school league players in Charlottesville studying for the bar examination won the University of Virginia intramural softball championship. Also, the following fall, Fred and I were added to the roster of a new team, the Amazing Coneheads, which was headed by our friends and former teammates, Dave Mullins and Bruce Williamson.
We were able to play as a result of our final contribution to the league’s rules, the “former commissioner player eligibility” rule. Otherwise, the league was considerably more democratic in the second year. The league was run by a five person commissioner’s office, headed by Mike Sarahan ’79 and including holdover Dave Mullins and Barbara Newcomb ’78, the first female commissioner. Thirty-six teams signed up for the second fall, and for the first time the league was divided into three divisions called Macho, Regular, and Co-Rec, or Special. Opening Day of the second year came on September 19, 1977, with Dean Spies again throwing out the first pitch.
As luck would have it, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ’50 was scheduled to visit the law school in September 1977 at the invitation of the Legal Forum. Learning this, we contacted him and invited him to play for the Coneheads during his visit. Kuhn, a good guy, accepted the invitation to play, though only upon the condition that he could pitch. Bruce Williamson printed up a Bowie 50 Coneheads shirt for the Commissioner who hurled a newly flawless first inning. Unbeknownst to us, there was a photographer from New York present at the game, and a picture of the Commissioner lobbing a pitch to an unidentified batter showed up in the next day’s edition of the New York Times. A photo of Commissioner Kuhn and Bruce Williamson and their Conehead shirts is memorialized on page 89 of the 1978 Barrister.
When I was introduced to Kuhn before the ceremonies began, Bruce Williamson who had secured the commissioner’s appearance at the game, introduced me to Kuhn as “former commissioner Gordon Hylton.” In reply, Kuhn said, “Well, that does happen sometimes.”
As it turned out, the Amazing Coneheads won the first ever Macho League championship that fall with Fred flying in from Charlotte to play a key role in the final victory. I missed the final, and my next appearance in the North Grounds Softball League did not come until the fall of 2003, when, as a visiting professor at the law school, I played in a faculty student game.
But the story of the NGSL after the fall of 1977 is, as they say, history. In 2007, we started the annual Founding Fathers game where players from the 1976-77 season return to play a team composed of current commissioners and their fellow students. So far, the Fathers are 0-3, but we have yet to completely embarrass ourselves. We are all, of course, delighted that the league that we started 33 years ago on little more than a whim has not only survived but flourished beyond anything that we could have imagined in September 1976 when the idea first got off the ground.