The firm handshakes, the tall tales, the laughter ... and even a few cold ones. The Boys of Summer were back.

No, these were not old-timers from the Dodgers or Yankees getting together for some laughs and a few alcoholic beverages. These were players from teams called Salina First State Bank, Plantation Steak House, Barragree Rent-All and LK Dairy, among others, who got together Friday at Salina's 4-H Building for what was billed as a statewide fast-pitch softball reunion.

Friday's reunion, which brought together nearly 100 former players from across the state, was the brainchild of Hays resident Alan Billinger, a top-flight pitcher during his 21-year career, most of it with LK Dairy, of Hays.

The reunion was a carryover from a year ago, when a group of 35 to 40 former players met at the Speakeasy Bar & Grill in Salina.

"I called about 10 or 11 guys and said let's each bring someone with us to Salina," Billinger said. "We had a tremendous time talking about the old times, showing pictures, telling stories. After getting home I started thinking, 'You know, we're not getting any younger, and a lot of us haven't seen each other for 25, 30, 35 years, so I just called (Salina's) Bob Vidricksen one day and said, 'Bob, we're going to do a reunion statewide. Can we do it in Salina?' Bob has been a big help with all this.

"We had a guy fly in from Arizona and some have driven from as far as Lakin, which is 4 1/2 hours from Salina. So, they're here from Lakin to Kansas City, and everywhere in between."

Billinger said he's been like a kid in a candy store waiting for the reunion to happen.

"This is a time to renew old acquaintances and make new ones," he said. "I don't know everyone and they don't all know me, but it's a great time to get to know everyone."

Billinger was one of the top pitchers in the state during his heyday. He spent most of his 21-year career (1963-84) pitching for LK Dairy out of Hays, but also threw for Hoisington, some Great Bend teams and also Topeka and Solomon for one year each.

"Those were days filled with a lot of camaraderie," Billinger said. "We could be as competitive on the field as you could get and no matter if we won or lost, we were always eager and anxious to drink a beer with each other after the game. It was probably the highlight of your life; a good time in your life."

Billinger's father, Al, was also a pitcher during his day, and the basketball coach at St. Joseph's Military Academy, Thomas More Prep and then TMP-Marian from 1952-85. He was an assistant for his dad at TMP and also coached the softball and girls basketball programs at the Catholic school from 2001-13, winning state softball titles in 2007 and '08, and a state basketball championship in 2010.

Billinger said being from western Kansas and playing high-level fast-pitch softball wasn't easy.

"It was hard to stack up because we didn't have the numbers," he said. "It was always so much traveling for us to get to Kansas City, Topeka, Wichita, and we just didn't have the financial support a lot of those teams had. But, we were still competitive. I remember in '71 going to Topeka for the state tournament. Nobody expected anyone from western Kansas to do much, but we ended up taking second in the state."

Billinger said his main pitches were a rise ball and a drop ball, or screw ball. He said batters like Bob Vidricksen and Lynn Chadd, just to name two, were always a challenge.

"It was like one-on-one, by gosh almost like a wrestling match," he said. "You better be better than the person you're facing or they're going to take you to the yard."

 

Field to commissioner

One player who could take you to the yard was Vidricksen. No Salinan had more success on the fast-pitch diamond than Vidricksen, who played high-level softball for two decades (1966-86). Now a Saline County commissioner, he played on six state championship teams, five runner-up teams, hit over .400 four times and never under .310.

The toughest pitchers he faced? There were several, but Vidricksen ranks Topeka's Charlie Rappard, the late Charlie Schlesener from Hope and Lynn Chadd from Hutchinson as three of the best.

"They knew how to win. When they stepped on the ball diamond, it was all business," Vidricksen said. "They were all three totally different personalities and went at it differently, but there was a goal in their mind, and that was to win. There was no fooling around.

"If you could get in their footsteps and follow along and take the game seriously, you had an opportunity to win. I loved playing with those guys."

In the late 1950s and early '60, fast-pitch softball was at its peak of popularity. Salina had three fast-pitch leagues and nearly every small town in the area had a team, sometimes two of them.

Vidricksen played for 10 different sponsored teams, starting with Morrison Grain and ending as a player-manager for Barragree Rent-All. There were also teams sponsored by Griff's Burger Bar, the Peacock Lounge and First State Bank, to name a few. First State Bank finished second to Topeka's Plantation Steak House in 1971, '72 and '73 before a Solomon-sponsored team — filled with Salina and local players — broke through and won the state title in 1974.

One player on that team — Schlesener, who passed away in 2004 — is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all-time in Kansas. Chadd, a Hutchinson resident and member of that team, was a great pitcher and hitter in his own right.

Getting Schlesener to pitch for your team was considered a coup.

"In my mind, he was the best," said Chadd.

"A man named Bill Ketterman came to town and worked at Beech Aircraft. He knew Lynn Chadd and Charlie Schlesener," Vidricksen said. "We were getting ready for a Memorial Day tournament and, on a whim, Mike Everhart, Bill Ketterman and I went to try and find Charlie. We weren't exactly sure where he lived."

The trio found Schlesener on his farm outside of Hope and asked if he would pitch for them in the Memorial Day tournament.

"He said, 'I can't, I have too much hay down,' " Vidricksen said. "We all looked at each other and thought, wait a minute, here's a novel idea, 'We'll come down and pick your hay up for you if you'll go play ball.' And, boom, it took off from there.

"He enjoyed us, we enjoyed him, we won the tournament and from there on, he played with us for the next four years and we won a state championship and was second a couple other times. It was quite a thrill to do that."

Speaking of thrills, Vidricksen said one of his biggest was playing for a Salina team in 1974 that won the state title for the first time after finishing second three years in a row to Topeka's Plantation Steak House. It was a Solomon-sponsored team full of Salina players.

"It was something we had been shooting for for five or six years," Vidricksen said. "We knew we could do it."

Two other personal highlights were being the player-manager for the 1985 Barragree Rent-All team from Salina that won the state title, and being named the MVP of the 1980 state tournament held in Salina when he batted .615 for state champion Plantation Steak House.

And then there was the historic 20-inning game of August 30, 1985, at the Mid-America Regional in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, featuring Salina's Barragree Rent-All, with a budget of around $2,000, versus Vigortone, of Cedar Rapids, with a budget of around a quarter-million dollars, according to Vidricksen.

The Salina team, completely outmanned, scored the winning run in the bottom of the 20th inning on a passed ball for a 1-0 victory. It was a game the old-timers there called one of the greatest they had even seen.

Vigortone featured pitcher Mike White, who is now a member of the ASA National Hall of Fame and at the time was ranked as one of the top four pitchers in the world. In 19 innings on the mound, White struck out 30 batters, walked just three and allowed two singles.

"None of us had ever seen anyone like Michael White before," Vidricksen said. "I batted against Charlie Rappard and Charlie Schnesener at their best, but Michael White ... that ball had an unbelievable hump to it.

"But, they brought in a left-handed reliever. He walked three guys in the 20th inning and we scored on a wild pitch."

Meanwhile, Barragree pitcher Lynn Chadd threw all 20 innings himself — at the age of 46. He gave up eight hits and seven walks, but never a single run.

Vidricksen ranks Charlie Rappard, of Topeka, as the greatest Kansas pitcher he ever faced, but said no one was more intelligent on the mound than Chadd.

"Lynn was the smartest pitcher you could ever imagine," Vidricksen said. "He knew who he could throw a strike to; he knew who he could coax into swinging at a bad pitch, those types of things. He kept them off-balance. He threw rise balls, he threw changeups, He threw drops balls — inside, outside. He was just marvelous at being able to know what a hitter could do and who couldn't. Lynn knew he could mess with and who he couldn't."

 

Cherished memories

Chadd said he would rather hit than pitch, even though he is considered one of the state's all-time best on the mound.

"I just liked to bat," said Chadd, now 80 years old, though he doesn't look it.

Born in the tiny town of Seward in Stafford County, Chadd attended St. John High School, located 14 miles south and east of Seward. He started playing fast-pitch in 1956 when Ban Johnson baseball leagues began disbanding and said he was taught how to pitch by a black man from Great Bend named Lynn Perry, who was the main pitcher for Great Bend.

"Just about everyone had a team," Chadd said. "Little towns like Spivey and Rago, all the towns had competitive teams."

Chadd played and pitched for a variety of teams and was usually picked up by a team for postseason play. But, it was just as much for his bat as it was for his arm.

"The one thing about fast-pitch, everyone knows who the pitcher is, whether he's good, or if he's bad," he said. "When you were going to play somebody, you knew who they had pitching. They didn't know who the right fielder was, even though the right fielder was important, too. It's not right, but that's just the way it was."

Chadd played until retiring at the age of 51. Five years earlier, he pitched for Barragree Rent-All in the epic 20-inning 1-0 victory over Vigortone of Cedar Rapids in the 1985 Mid-America Regional.

Chadd pitched all 20 innings of the game as the Salina team beat on the nation's best teams and pitchers (Mike White).

"I call that luck," he said. "There was no rhyme or reason to beat that team. They were like, way, way, way better than us. But, it happens I guess. But, like I've told people before, I've beaten some of the best, but I've also lost to some of the others. So, it goes both ways."

Chadd said Hope's Charlie Schlesener would be his pick as the best pitcher he ever faced, but then again, there were a lot of good ones who tried to get him out. He said the reunion was a good time to see old friends and teammates — even if some of the old stories have 'changed a little' over the years.

"That's the good part," he said, "but I'm also here listening to all the lies ... you know how that goes."

 

Family strong

The Bonilla family, which has been part of the Salina softball scene for over a half-century, was well represented at the reunion. Fortunato "Forty" Bonilla, his son Donnie, brothers Santos and Rod, and former teammate Bobby Clark, were sporting red T-shirts with a Boston Red Sox "B" on the front.

Nine of the Bonilla brothers played for the team over the years — Fortino, Albert, Bill, Tony, Fortunato, John, Santos, Willie and Rod. Some of the brothers originally played on two teams — the older players with Las Águilas (The Eagles), while the younger players were on the Our Lady of Guadalupe (OLG) team.

But, once Santos Bonilla returned from Vietnam in 1968, he formed what is still called the Salina Bonillas team today.

"Both teams (OLG and Eagles) had gone away by then and Santos started up a team again," Rod said. "That's when it started and it just kept on going. It got to be a family thing.

"It's hard to get players anymore. The younger players struggle hitting a ball that's coming rather quickly, versus a ball that's floating in from the sky."

There were numerous Hispanic softball teams throughout the state in the 1960s, a time when Hispanics and other minorities were not allowed to to play on organized baseball teams.

"In those days, they had two leagues here — the upper league and lower league," Rod said. "The upper league, you were talking First State Bank. These were guys who went all over the place to play tournaments. They were Solomon, they were Griff's and Vacu-Blast out of Abilene.

"They had some big dogs throwing for them, like Charlie Schlesener. He was one of the best in the state. He threw for First State Bank. Pete Gomez out of Topeka threw for Vacu-Blast. Lynn Chadd would throw for Great Bend and Billinger would throw for Hays. I mean, these were top-notch players."

Speaking of Chadd, Rod Bonilla related a story he still remembers clearly to this day.

"We were always looking for pitchers and one of the best pitchers in the state was Lynn Chadd," Rod said. "My brother Tony was living in Hutchinson at the time. He wasn't playing any more, but he came up to Salina this one time and said, 'Well, I have this friend of mine named Lynn who'll play with you guys if you want.' And we thought to ourselves, 'Yeah, Tony, that's right. You got a friend who pitches, right.'

"We knew about this guy named Chadd because that's what we always called him, Chadd. We didn't know anyone named Lynn. So, the state tournament is here in Salina at Schilling and we're out there watching Chadd warm up before a game. Our brother Tony comes over and says, 'Well, I'm going to go over and talk to my friend Lynn and see what he's up to.' And all of us, our jaws dropped to the ground, because, what a minute, he's one of the best pitchers in the state. That's Tony's friend?

"They're up there talking with each other and we're beside ourselves thinking, 'Hey, this is Tony's friend and he could have got him to play for us?' Well, we never took him seriously. We should have."

The Bonilla team, now managed by Donnie and Ricky Bonilla, recently played in the 71st annual Mexican-American Men's Fast-Pitch Tournament in Newton. It's the oldest Mexican-American tournament in the country and the Bonillas have been part of it for over a half-century.

 

Champions recognized

Two of the three members still living from the 1959 state championship team from Rago, were on hand Friday — pitcher Ezra Smith and infielder-catcher Ed Kanngiesser. They were introduced and recognized before lunch.

Rago is a town of about 100 people located 15 miles south of Kingman. One of its claims to fame is being the hometown of Clyde Vernon Cessna, the original founder of Cessna Aircraft. The other is being home to the two-time Men's Major State Softball champions (1959 and '65).

"We were just a bunch of country boys," said Kanngiesser, who played the sport from 1955-66. "We had a good bunch of boys, no dissension and a great manager."

Kanngiesser said Rago had one of the best softball diamonds in that part of the state and teams from Wichita loved to come down and play because, in addition to having a "super field," it also had a great concession stand.

"Great hamburgers," he said, smiling.

The town of Spivey, which sometimes received mention on the TV western "Gunsmoke," was Rago's biggest competitor, according to Kanngiesser. Spivey, with a population of around 70, is located four miles west of Rago.

"We had some very competitive games," he said.

Smith was one of two pitchers on Rago's 1959 title team, but pitched all three games on the final day of the tournament to help his team win the championship.

"It was special, lots of memories," said Smith, whose softball career lasted nearly 30 years before he retired in 1983 at the age of 51.