The Press Newspaper
Erard says Burton gone, but his memory continues
Oregon resident Larry Erard says people still ask him about famous fast pitch softball pitcher Gerald Burton, even though Burton passed away at age 75 on August 30, 2011.
Burton was known as the infamous “Mr. Softball” during his role with a four-man traveling softball team, of which he was the star pitcher.
“His great talent of hurling softballs at speeds of 100 miles an hour has thrilled many fans,” Erard said. “He will always remain in our hearts and our prayers.”
Hidden ball tricks, pitching from second base and ripping the leather covering off the baseball and injecting it with lead — those were just a few of the shenanigans that came with the traveling softball group that was a popular item throughout the Midwest in the 1980s. The group, which was made up of just four players, was a fixture in summer entertainment for a number of years, from its founding in 1978 to its dissolution in '85.
The founder and manager of the group was Erard, a man who was active on the local sports scene. Erard coached a number of sports, among them basketball and baseball, including one player who went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
The members of the four-man team included catcher Don “Chopper” Schmeltz, shortstop Doug Brummett, second baseman Greg Christian and Burton. Schmeltz, the longtime coach of the Pemberville Post 183 American Legion baseball team and former Eastwood coach, replaced Mr. Softball’s initial catcher, John Pirrwitz, who left the group. After Mr. Baseball, Christian took a long stint as the Cardinal Stritch head varsity baseball coach.
Erard, who also served as the broadcaster for Mr. Softball’s games, had his son, Mark, serve as the team's bat boy, where he occasionally got in on the action.
They were something of a Harlem Globetrotters-like act — a collection of goofballs who used softball as a medium by which to behave in a silly manner in the hope that spectators would find the event engaging.
The group would constantly try to confuse and bewilder the opposition, running the wrong way on the base paths, having the bat boy come in to sometimes pitch and constantly moving the pitcher's mound around.
Like the Globetrotters, Mr. Softball rarely ever lost. They won, according to Erard, roughly 450 games and losing approximately five.
The group traveled throughout Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, competing against other softball teams, and even, on occasion, against some prison teams. They migrated around in a van provided by Dunn's Chevy-Olds, the team's sponsor.
The highlight for the group came in the summer of 1984 when the television program Real People, which aired on NBC, taped a segment with the group and later aired it on television. The segment, taped at John Ousky Field at Oregon’s William P. Coontz Recreation Complex, drew an estimated 5,500 spectators.
“We had a big party at Tony Packo's and watched the show when it aired,” said Erard. “That was probably the highlight, being on NBC. How many people can say they were on national television?”
Another special moment came when former Detroit Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich joined the group for an evening. According to Erard, Lolich, the MVP of the 1968 World Series, spent several hours with the group and had an enjoyable time.
Yet another story told is about the team’s pitcher, Burton, who was discovered by Erard after pitching a perfect game while both were attending a tournament in Cincinnati. Oddly enough, Burton sang the national anthem before each event.
Burton was laid to rest in Kileen, Texas. Born in Nuriva, West Virginia, Burton graduated from Woodward High School in Toledo where he met his first wife, Constance Quinn, and together they had seven children.
Burton served 20 years in the Marine Corps, receiving a Combat Action Ribbon, Purple Heart, and Bronze Star for two tours of service in Vietnam. He was an ordained minister and member of People’s Choice Worship Center, where he was a member of the Gospelaires quartet. Along with his love for song, he was an avid bowler, fisherman, coach, master craftsman, and ace mechanic.
While serving with the Marine Corps in Vietnam, Burton lost an arm and lung when a grenade exploded. He had an arm attached in place of the lost one, but lived the rest of his life with just one lung.
Pietras will join four returning starters on the line, led by 2012 All-Ohio Athletic Conference guard Jason Cook, who is expected to be a candidate for NCAA Division III All-American honors.
“We feel that our offensive line will be our strength for us,” said Coach John Snell (71-41). “We return four starters who worked well as a unit. At the end of last season (7-3) our offense was clicking pretty well and I think a lot of that had to do with how well our line was playing. It definitely helps execution when everyone is on the same page.”
B-W is ranked 20th nationally in the Lindy’s Sports Annuals (www.lindyssports.com) and 23rd in the D3football.com D-III preseason national poll.