Back in the 1970s, there were frequent notices in Marvel Comics' Bullpen Bulletins about their softball team. They'd talk about the games, mention them when talking about specific staffers, etc. It sounded like they were having a lot of fun, despite not winning a lot of games. I was on the phone with a friend talking about that and we thought it'd be a great idea to have a team of comic book fans to play against them. Fans vs. Pros! What great copy! But we knew we'd need a sponsor. One name came to both of us immediately: Phil Seuling. Besides having a fannish personality, Phil was the man who made comic conventions what they are today. Fans have almost canonized him since he passed away; I could easily do an entire article just on Phil.
Phil Seuling is best known for his huge July 4th conventions, but he also had monthly cons without guests, just dealers and fans (called Second Sunday, then renamed to Comic Book Marketplace). I approached him at the next Sunday convention (probably at the old McAlpin Hotel) expecting to have to talk him into it. His first reaction: "Great idea! How much do you need?" I came up with a figure off the top of my head that would pay for some bats and balls and asked for team shirts.
I stood on a chair toward the back of the room and announced the formation of the team. I got more interest than I expected. We discussed the team and set up a practice date at Central Park's Sheep Meadow (this was before they put the fence around it). I remember going through the dictionary looking for a name for the team. I wanted one that was alliterative and visual. Fandom…. I looked under 'ph" and 'f' and came up with the Fandom Fireballs. Then I started contacting friends of mine who were into comics that I thought might want to join us. I invited Roxanne Yahn, who worked at the Supersnipe Comic Emporium (one of the first comic book stores in the U.S.), and she in turn invited some of her friends from the High School of Art and Design Comics Club. A softball team has ten people. We had a few to spare.
Now, I must point out that most of our players were non-athletes. One of their main forms of recreation was reading, not usually an athletic activity. This team was put together to have fun, not solely to win win win. Not that we didn't play hard and aim for victory, but that was just one part of having fun playing. If we didn't win, we could still have fun just playing the game.
As the person who organized the team and had played softball many times before, I became the coach as well as the manager. One thing I remembered from when I was a kid first learning to play is that beginners tend to misjudge fly balls by thinking they won't go as far as they end up going, so balls hit in the air end up going over beginners' heads, which is quite demoralizing. Something about misreading the arc they take as they go through the air. So I would always tell my beginners "Back up!' and being beginners, they'd listen and the balls would go into their gloves. There's nothing more encouraging to a non-athlete than success in something they formerly felt unable to do. The fun started right at the first practice!
Some of our players had played plenty of softball and knew what position they wanted to play. Others had to find out whether they were "natural" infielders or outfielders. It didn't take that long, really. By the time the five-day July 4th convention rolled around, we felt ready to go. Phil Seuling gave us all convention shirts as our team shirts (art by Howard Chaykin) and we put a notice on the convention bulletin board announcing the first Fans vs. Pros softball game in Central Park's Sheep Meadow.
Most of Marvel's softball team showed up. There were artists, writers, production people, most about as non-athletic as we were. There was no umpire, so there was no calling of balls and strikes, just swinging strikes and foul balls. If we called balls and strikes, pretty much everyone would get a walk and it wouldn't have been much of a game. Non-athletes, remember. Just for fun.
Not too many fans attended the game, but one fanzine writer and letterhack, Joe Peluso, wrote it up in Outlooks #2. The game started slowly. After about two innings, it was something like 5 to 2 in our favor.
Then Stan Lee showed up.
Stan Lee, one of the men who started Marvel Comics. One of the men who created all those great characters and stories. Stan still had an active role in the company back then, was still writing. He did not go to the convention that weekend, so the only fans who saw him were the ones who went to the game. He was supposed to be a pretty good pitcher, but imagine how excited a bunch of young comic book fans would be to be hitting against Stan the Man himself!
We got 11 runs off him that inning.
Balls were flying all over the place, over the heads and under the legs of our favorite writers and artists. Bench-jockeying from the Marvel bench included threats of making Spider-Man a reprint title and killing off our favorite characters. Not your normal bench jockeying and probably unique to that game of all softball games that have ever been played. We had a great time! So did the Marvel staffers, too, it seemed. They had the same attitude about winning and losing we did. It was just one part of the game.
The final score was 23 - 5! And the game was never mentioned in the Bullpen Bulletins.
We couldn't wait to get back to the convention to tell Phil! I don't remember the trip between Central Park and the hotel (almost certainly the Commodore Hotel on East 42nd St.), but I remember most of us arriving at the hotel and asking several of Phil's staff members before we found out he was interviewing Barry Smith in the Panel Room.
Back then, Barry Smith (now Barry Windsor-Smith) was one of the premier artists in comics. He was doing Art with a capital 'A,' bringing some respectability to a hobby that was still feeling the ill effects of the Batman TV show. The Panel Room was packed. There were over 1,000 people listening to Barry talk about the craft of illustration. It was an intellectual discussion of Art and we couldn't just run in screaming, "We won! We won!" much as we wanted to. But we had to do SOMEthing.
I wrote Phil a note, handed it to him then went back and joined the team leaning against the wall. Phil read it, smiled and I'll never forget this, actually interrupted the discussion with "Excuse me, Barry, but this is important." (More important than this discussion of the craft of drawing?) "I've just been given the results of the Fans vs. Pros softball game this afternoon and the Fans - that's you guys - won 23 to 5!" The room erupted with cheers and applause. "There's more," Phil continued. "Stan Lee was there and they scored 11 runs off him in one inning." More applause and cheering, even Barry Smith was smiling. We were feeling terrific. "Thanks, guys, you were worth your shirts" and he went back to the intellectual discussion of Art.
I have very little memory of the next few hours. I'm sure they were pretty anti-climactic. (The rest of the convention had a lot of other memorable moments for me. My only appearance in a costume contest (Mr. Gumby from Monty Python's Flying Circus, which ultimately led to me meeting Ed Menje, the man who brought me into radio), Vaughn Bode drawing what would be his last poster, and meeting for the first time people I had only corresponded with, among other things.)
Mark Gasper sent in some of his memories of the Fandom Fireballs: "As you may remember I wanted to play center field (I was still in my Mickey Mantle phase) and although I would also play shortstop, I played a lot of outfield.
"I do remember the July game against Marvel. I played center field and my parents showed up with most of my siblings (maybe ALL of them, I don't remember). My Mother made a banner for me something to the effect of 'Hooray for Our Hero Center Fielder - Mark Gasper.' I have a picture or two from the game (mostly involving my Banner), which was taken by my family.
"I remember Phil's announcement and going to the convention sweaty and dirty from playing which was strange, but fun.
"I didn't remember that that was Vaughn Bode's last convention. Wow!"
The team stayed together after the convention. We became a sort of unofficial part of the Publishers' League, the corporate league Marvel played in. We played practice games with many of the teams in that league and sometimes were the substitute opponent when one team didn't bring enough players to the league game to field an entire team (the players that did show up would get to play in the substitute game, though, usually on the Fandom Fireballs since we generally had fewer players than the other teams). We played both New York magazine and the New Yorker, but one of them was the team we played the most often, nearly every weekend (after over 20 years, I don't remember which one). We played two or three times per week for three summers.
A few other games stand out.
Our first "away" game was against a team that one of the people who owned the Spring St. comic shop played on. Unlike the grass field of Central Park's Sheep Meadow, they played on a macadam playground on Houston St. and Sixth Ave. I still can't walk past that corner without thinking of that game.
There were an enormous number of ground rules, but I only remember a few. A ball hit through the doorway of the left field fence was still playable, even if it went into Sixth Ave. traffic. There was no appreciable right field and there was a strange rule having to do with the hole in the right field fence. The first thing I noticed was that the other team was playing the ground rules, not the game. They also didn't seem to be playing for fun, but "had" to win. No smiling, no joking around. Our first away game was also our first macho cutthroat game. So we changed our style of play. No one talked about it, we just did. I think the whole team felt the same sense of outrage I did. This is supposed to be fun, why is winning the only way to have fun playing the game?
I moved our right fielder to guard the left field hole. Our short center fielder (unlike baseball, softball has four outfielders) became our deep left fielder to cover some other ground rule out there. For the first time, we stretched singles into doubles and doubles into triples. I remember Rick actually sliding into third base for one triple. We played hard and won big, but it wasn't as much fun as the Central Park games. It was like a testosterone thing instead of a game played for fun. Not our style, though we proved we could play that way and win against other people who played that way.
Our closest game was against Continuity Associates. Continuity is a studio Neal Adams runs that did comics, but mostly advertising. Back then, a lot of comic book artists rented space there. It was a very creative atmosphere and there was always a chance of getting some big money advertising work if you were there. And many artists are more disciplined working out of a studio than they are working at home. I used to spend a lot of time there and of course talked up the Fandom Fireballs, especially our game against Marvel. Long-time inker Jack Abel was also a baseball fan and organized a team out of Continuity artists. Neal was their pitcher. And an excellent pitcher he is, too. Talented hands whether he has a pencil, pen, brush or softball in it.
I was one of the first to arrive at the field (I worked a 20 minute walk away). Neal was one of my favorite artists, but he was the favorite artist of our first baseman Andre. I ran out to meet my ex-roommate Andre when he arrived, walking from the direction of left field. He spoke first, "Mark tells me Neal Adams is playing." "Yep." "Mark tells me I'm supposed to forget he's my favorite artist." "Yep." "Just treat him like any other player." "Right." "I'm supposed to forget that…" he grabbed my shoulders and his voice went up an octave, "…he's the best artist in the whole wide world." "He's just an opposing player today." Andre shook his head. He couldn't ignore that he was playing ball against Neal Adams.
The Continuity team was a lot like the Marvel team and our team: non-athletes. Unlike the Marvel team, they had a coach who helped them play the game: Jack Abel. He played shortstop and moved the infielders AND outfielders into the proper positions and kept yelling advice when they had to make plays. They listened to him and we found ourselves in the tightest game we would ever play. The score inched up slowly. No team ever was ahead by more than one run and many half-innings would go by without a runner crossing home plate, very unusual for a non-umpired, all-amateur, high arc pitching softball game.
Andre could not forget what a big fan he was of Neal Adams the artist. Whenever Neal the batter grounded out, Andre would catch the put-out at first base and apologize to Neal. Finally, on one particular third out, Neal blew up at him, "Don't apologize! Just play the game! Don't apologize!" I think Andre replied "Sorry," but I'm not positive about that. I reached home plate from my outfield position as Neal was picking up his glove to take the field and I heard Jenette Kahn (the Fandom Fireballs were the first fans to see the new publisher of DC Comics) ask him what that was all about. "He's a fan so every time he puts me out he apologizes."
In the next half-inning Andre got a double. He either scored the go-ahead run or got the go-ahead rbi (run batted in, a statistic given to batters who score baserunners). I couldn't resist a little bench-jockeying of my own and yelled out, "He doesn't apologize for that!" Neal just gave me a dirty look. I think I got only one hit off him that day and I had a very good batting average, like .800 (amateur non-umpired high arc softball batting averages tend to be much higher than professional baseball batting averages).
The final score was 4 - 3 in our favor. It was probably the best-played game of the three years we had the team. Jack Abel really had that team playing well, though I heard they didn't play too many more games. I suppose juggling game dates while also juggling advertising and comics deadlines prevented them from playing very often. And of course we teased Andre about not apologizing for the rest of the season.
Mark Gasper has his own memories of that game: "I remember playing Continuity and Jack Abel and in the bottom of the last inning playing center field with only two other outfielders at least one of whom could cover no ground and being ahead by 1 or 2 runs [only 1 - KG] with either the tying and/or winning runs being on base and Jack Abel up who had hit a couple of home runs already.
"In what was one of the first anticipatory moves I ever made as a Softball Player, remember I now play so much that this is second nature to me, I would watch Jack adjust his feet as he decided to which field he would hit the ball and moving back and forth in tandem with him as the pitch arrived.
"Finally on his last swing Jack shifted weight three times trying to fool me. He had noticed my moving back and forth in his line of vision as I was playing straight away Center directly behind the Pitcher (although deep, of course).
"And when he swung he hit one loooooong fly ball, but I had anticipated correctly where he was trying to hit the ball and was able to run it down. That may or may not have been the last out, but because of his prowess it was the most important out because we got through him in the lineup without a (tying or winning) run scoring.
We played against Warren Publishing (the publisher of Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella and Famous Monsters - Nick Cuti organized that team), lending them a couple of our players to complete their team, but never against DC Comics. One of the DC staffers told me they were afraid of losing to us and being embarrassed in a lot of fanzines. Most of our games were against various publishers and in three years, we only lost four games. Not bad for a bunch of non-athletes.
In fact, I'd go so far as to call our worst athlete our most inspirational player. Maritza was overweight with very thick glasses. She couldn't throw very far, often missed balls hit to her and had trouble hitting a ball when she was at bat. Opposing players would come closer when she was at the plate. Some opposing outfielders actually sat down in the outfield (I'm sure many of you have seen the type). BUT, she tried hard. Very hard. No one on our team made fun of her, they just tried to help any way they could. I feel she inspired our other non-athletes to try hard, too. How could anyone watching her struggle not try their best, too? And after a few games, she improved. The infielders who came in practically to the pitcher's "mound" would find balls going over their head. The outfielders sitting on the ground would suddenly find a ball going by them while they were getting up.
Maritza's memories: "It never occurred to me that I was such an inspiration to the team. I certainly knew that I was the worst player!!! What always kept me coming back to the games was the fact that I knew we were all fans with common interests and especially that it was all in fun and no one took it too seriously. If the games had all been played with the attitude of the people who owned the Spring St. comic shop, I would have been soooooooooo gone! Thank you for writing the article. It brought back many memories."
More from Mark: "And yes I do remember Maritza. And I do remember her efforts and her triumphs. She was absolutely terrific and as inspiring as you said."
No one on the team got more cheers for a hit than Maritza did. And I always followed her in the batting line-up with a power hitter so she wouldn't end up as part of a double play. There's nothing worse in an amateur softball game than a double play. It's very demoralizing for the team involved and really spurs on the opposing players. Outs are rarer than runs in amateur high-arc non-umpired softball games and I tried to make up the batting order with that in mind. While many other teams' managers bunched up their worst hitters at the bottom of the line-up, like they do in Major League baseball, thereby giving up an inning, I thought of our worst hitters as singles hitters and the best as rbi (runs batted in) hitters. Any ground ball hit had a good chance of creating a runner either through a bad hop on the infield, a fielding error, a throwing error or a first baseman dropping the ball that was thrown to them. Maybe that's why we only lost four games in the three years the team existed?
We also played a lot of practice games among ourselves if enough people showed up (12 or 14 was enough - the team at bat would supply the pitcher and catcher). Mark has a vivid memory of "an intrasquad scrimmage game I remember making one throw from the outfield and having two runners tagged out BACK-TO-BACK at the plate on the same play (I remember Dennis as being one of the runners - he slipped since he was wearing shoes)." After the games we sometimes went out to eat together and sometimes just went home.
I will always have warm memories of those years and will always marvel (pardon the pun) at how well we played, especially since many people on the team had never or hardly ever played softball before.
Dedicated to the Fandom Fireballs, thanks for the great memories:
Derek Alston, Martin Berkenwald, Dennis Cieri, Mark Gasper, Andre Gordon, Ricky Hicks, Mitch Itkowitz, Maritza Marzan, Mariano Del Pilar, Bill O'Shea, Kathy Parker, Rick Rosenthal, Francine Tepper, Roxanne Yahn, Bob Zimmerman, some players whose last names I forget or didn't know: Scott, Karen, Lucy, Andrea, Curt and other players who played occasionally whose first and last names I forget or didn't know.