Ben Hogan last picked up his big, bad softball bat in 1997. The man who once hit 190 home runs in a single slowpitch season was forced to give up the game at the tender age of 50 following open heart surgery.
But every year on this day he can't help but recall how he spent three decades worth of Fourth of Julys before that operation ended his fun.
"I don't remember a year we didn't play on the Fourth," Hogan said Wednesday afternoon from the Hixson Upholstery business he's run for 40 years. "In 1972 we even played in a tournament on Long Island. I was playing for Card's Carpets. Even my brothers and sisters went."
Thanks to Mother Nature's endless tears, it's a safe bet that no one in the Chattanooga area will play softball today, tomorrow and possibly through the weekend.
But when it comes to men's slowpitch, the weather is the least of the reasons for empty fields and leagues less than half the size they were in Hogan's heyday.
"I didn't know we had softball anymore," said 68-year-old Jimmy Pickett, who actually runs the Soddy-Daisy Church League three nights a week. "They're about to run the sport out. People who run it got in it for the money instead of the sport and it's ruined it."
Pickett points to his sons, both in their 40s, who've turned to weightlifting instead of softball.
"They both quit. Not enough competition. Not enough serious players. My youngest, Brent (41), just won the Arnold Schwarzenegger bench press championship earlier this spring. He benched 660 pounds."
Few men in the Scenic City better carried men's slowpitch on their shoulders than Pickett, who once coached the Arrow Pharmacy elite team.
"It used to really upset me, what's happened to it," he said. "When I coached in the Open Division, we'd travel to Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, all over. You'd have 60-70 teams come in here for the Pick O' Dixie on Father's Day weekend. On Fourth of July weekends up in Oak Ridge they'd have 40 teams or more for the Atomic Blast."
But it wasn't just big weekends like this one. Pickett's church league has 19 teams total and only seven men's squads.
"We used to have 35 or more," he said. "Everybody played."
Mike Clements coaches the White Oak Baptist team that plays in Pickett's league. Now 63, he's been playing, coaching or both since 1975.
"People just seem to be interested in other things these days," he said. "There's a lot of other stuff to do. It's really become hard to get young people to play. But we still do this as outreach. We're still here to serve the Lord. We just don't have the interest in softball we used to have."
It's clearly a different time. As Clements sagely noted, "You don't have to go somewhere to be social. Smart phones, texts, Twitter, all that. People can stay home and communicate."
Reasonable folks can argue whether that's a good or bad thing. But Hogan's not sure he'll ever see the sport return to its glory days in the Scenic City, when the Pick O' Dixie final would sometimes attract crowds of 5,000 or more. Or when the Fourth of July tourney at Soddy Lake would pull in 25 teams and wow them after dark with a fireworks.
"Not in the Chattanooga area," he said. "But there are still some big-time teams out there. Most of them will be at the Smoky Mountain Classic next weekend in Maryville."
Both Hogan and Pickett plan to catch at least one day of the 45th Classic, which will run July 12-14. Hogan believes the event's modified rules could ultimately save the sport.
"They've made it a better game," he said. "They moved the bases back to 80 feet [from 60]. They play on 320-foot fences and have five-man infields. It's not just home runs anymore."
That doesn't mean one of the greatest home run hitters that men's slowpitch has ever seen necessarily wishes he was in a tournament somewhere between Long Island and Soddy Lake today.
"I miss being around the guys," Hogan said. "But I don't miss the game as much as I thought I would. I'll spend the Fourth like most people. Just have a cookout and spend time with family."
And, if he's really like the rest of us, hope that the rain lets up at some point long enough for a few fireworks to be lit before the weekend comes to a close.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...