The people of Petersburg, Va., are used to giving directions to tourists. They can tell you how to get to the Petersburg National Battlefield, where Robert E. Lee's troops made their last stand before fleeing farther inland and eventually surrendering to General Grant at Appomattox. They can point you toward the campus of Virginia State University, one of the nation's oldest historically black colleges. They can even show you the neighborhood where a boy named Moses Malone grew up to become the first basketball player to leap directly from high school to the pros.
But if you ask the whereabouts of the Hall of Fame, you're likely to draw blank stares. Though it has been there for a decade, tucked among the barbecue joints and strip malls that line the city's busy South Crater Road, the United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association (USSSA) Hall of Fame Museum is easy to miss.
Nestled between a beauty parlor and a gravestone retailer, the red-brick, white-pillared building looks more like a funeral home than a museum. In fact it was a funeral home before the USSSA bought it in 1981. Some of the previous occupants' furnishings remain, most notably the pews in which visitors sit as they watch an eight-minute film on the history of the slo-pitch game in the museum's Hall of Champions.
"I know," says Harry Marsh, the USSSA's director of communications, wincing as he rubs one of the benches. "Soon as we can, we're going to take these out and put in some bleachers."
Since the museum opened, in 1984—Marsh guesses there were "a couple hundred" visitors that year—it has attracted ever-larger crowds, large enough at any rate to satisfy the 11-member USSSA staff, which has its administrative offices in the 24,000-square-foot museum. In truth, the place is kept open largely by donations that arrive steadily from the more than 100,000 USSSA teams across the country that play in benefit tournaments to keep their shrine alive.
At 46, Marsh has the hefty build of a slo-pitch slugger, which he says he once was, "back in the days of the wooden bat." That was in the late '60s and early '70s, when Al Ramsey, then an auditor with a local chemical company and now the USSSA's executive director, was putting the organization on its feet. While running the USSSA out of the kitchen of his Petersburg house, he counted on Marsh, who was then an editor at the local newspaper, to give the game some ink.
Marsh did better than that. He virtually turned his life over to the sport, starting a national newsletter, The Slo-Pitch Game, which he continues to edit and publish. Most of the memorabilia in the museum's glass cases were collected by Marsh, and nearly all of the 250 photos in the Hall were taken by Marsh or his wife, Connie.
Among the treasures is a softball bat Dan Quayle carried to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield. The display offers no explanation as to why the bat went to Kuwait with the veep. There is a tribute to "Mighty" Mike Macenko, a mammoth second baseman who has played for Ohio's Steele's Silver Bullets since 1983 and who earned his place in the Hall by launching 844 home runs in a single season, 1987. And there is the squished boxing glove that was supposedly batted around a Chicago boathouse by bored sailors during the winter of 1887, giving birth to the underhanded game we know today.
But the highlight of the tour is the hall where portraits of the greats of the sport are displayed, along with biographical sketches written by Marsh. Among the 39 men and nine women so honored is "Colorful" Cal Carmen of Detroit, an alltime all-world first baseman of the late '70s and early '80s who enjoyed standing within two feet of the plate as he dared hitters to take off his head. The plaque reads: WITH HIS CONSTANT CHATTER AND BIRDLIKE WHISTLE, CARMEN HAD A WAY OF TAKING TEAMS OUT OF THEIR GAME PLANS.
Cooperstown should be so lucky.
Despite its funeral parlor heritage, the hall is the cheerful keeper of the slo-pitch flame.
Mike D'Orso and former Jet defensive lineman Dennis Byrd are writing a book for this fall.