As summer wanes in the Tri-State, more than 400 men and women gather at Evansville’s Wesselman Park and Deaconess Sports Park fields on Sundays for a long-standing tradition. It’s not to watch their children run the bases in youth leagues, but instead to play in a popular sport for adults — slow-pitch softball.
“Softball takes the average person and allows them to be great, for a day,” says Roy Arnold, coach of the Low Ballers adult softball team at Wesselman Park. “We all work for a living and we all enjoy having a little bit of success. If a single or a double or a pop out is that, it gets us out and gets us excited.”
Arnold, a Boonville, Indiana, resident, has played softball for more than 10 years. He travels to Evansville for each game because of his passion for the community he grew up in. Dani Monks, a softball coach and teacher at F.J. Reitz High School, makes up a younger generation of adult softball players.
“I love getting back on the field and staying young,” says Monks. “You’ve got to take some time to do some fun stuff when you are an adult. Be a kid a little bit.”
According to Chris Rehn, the former sports director of Evansville’s Parks and Recreation Department, softball was how a lot of people in the Midwest grew up.
“We graduated from high school or college, and we wanted to play with our buddies,” says Rehn.
The Evansville Parks league has about 40 teams, with more than 400 locals who play every Sunday. One might think 400 people is a lot, but Rehn, who took the sports director position in 1979, remembers a time where there were more than 1,000 teams.
“By 1990, for a city our size to have 1,000 teams was mind-boggling,” says Rehn. “We actually had to turn teams away. There was so much interest, players were restricted to one team for each classification, including church, industrial, and open leagues.”
Specialty leagues were created for those who could not make evening games during the week. For a 10- to 12-year period, 25 teams played in the midnight league, which Rehn says accommodated industrial shift and restaurant employees.
“Industrial teams were a huge part of the slow-pitch league,” says Rehn. “Whirlpool, Mead Johnson, Vectren, and other companies sponsored their employees to play and there was a tremendous amount of competition amongst the different companies.”
As travel sports for children increased, Rehn says, the amount of participation in adult leagues decreased.
“The biggest factor, in my opinion, was the fact that people did not have as much time,” he says. “With the evolving of kids’ travel sports in the early 2000s, your summer was basically taken up by at least three weekends out of the month.”
In 2014, Rehn retired as sports director and says, at that time, the league had about 400 teams. Today, the leagues are still going strong, but look very different.
Deaconess Sports Park, an eight-field complex, opened in May 2015 and began managing its first adult softball league in April 2016. Tim Fulton, director of sports facilities for the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau, says they have worked with the Parks and Recreation Department cohesively to continue offering adult softball leagues multiple evenings a week.
While the Parks Department now offers a Sunday league only at Wesselman Park, many teams have transitioned to the Deaconess Sports Park, playing on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Longtime softball player, 57-year-old Jim Griggs is a testament to this. Griggs started playing in 1977 and says it was the competition and camaraderie that kept him involved for more than 39 years.
“A lot of people my age play golf, but to me, that’s not competitive enough,” says Griggs. “I play softball for competitive reasons, always to challenge yourself as well as your team compared to the other team. Also, I like the camaraderie of playing with friends. I actually have played with both of my sons a few times, but never at the same time. I hope to eventually have the opportunity to play a game with both of them at the same time, though both of them currently live out of town. ”
Griggs says he began playing with his fraternity brothers from the University of Evansville. After many years of playing in the Parks Department leagues, he says he made the change to the Deaconess Sports Park League because of the variety of weeknights to choose from.
Currently, Fulton says, the league plays on Tuesday and Thursday nights with 49 teams, but his intent is to offer games Monday through Thursday nights.
“Our spring league was smaller at 19 teams, but that was kind of to be expected with the transition from the Parks Department League and everything,” says Fulton. “In the summer league, we are starting to see some decent numbers. We are trying to bring people out to the North Side to play. We have a great facility for them to play in so, so far, so good.”
Rehn reminisces about the Parks Department league and each team’s commitment to their own neighborhood park.
“Over time, you had leagues that became shaped or entrenched in a certain field, and teams would beg to play at the same place against the same people year after year,” says Rehn. “It evolved that way because of the way neighborhood parks were set up. They wanted to sit on the tailgate and drink a beer after the game in their neighborhood parking lot.”
Despite this sentiment, Rehn is positive about the new Sports Park.
“I was very excited that we were finally going to have a facility like that for our community,” says Rehn. “Though I am frustrated that it took so long and that many of the teams and individuals that played in my program weren’t able to play in a facility like that, I am thrilled we finally do. It’s a beautiful complex.”
A few softball players say they have heard, because of the decline of teams and players at the Sunday league, all leagues may run through the Deaconess Sports Park in 2017. (Neither organization could confirm that this was an active plan.)
Current Assistant Sports Director of the Parks Department league Suzie Dillman says she is unsure if this will happen, but believes 2016 may be a transition year for the leagues.
Interested in playing softball in Evansville?
Department of Parks and Recreation Leagues: The deadline to enter a team is Aug. 19.
10-game season (5 weeks of double-headers) begins Sunday, Sept. 11
Wesselman 1 Field: 1 to 4 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 6:30 p.m.
Wesselman 2 Field: 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
West Side Nut Club Field: 1 to 4 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $500 per team
For more information about adult softball leagues through the Parks and Recreation Department, call Lisa Wube at 812-435-6162 or visit evansville.in.gov.
Deaconess Sports Park Leagues 12-game season begins in September Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (specific nights are based on the amount of teams to sign up for the season) 6:15 p.m., 7:25 p.m., and 8:35 p.m.
Cost: $600 per team
For more information about adult softball leagues through Deaconess Sports Park, call Tim Fulton at 812-401-1890 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.