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There once was a tall, skinny kid from Bellaire. With a natural gift of athletic prowess, he was, like a lot of his teenage buddies at the time, very involved in organized sports. A key influence in those days shortly after the second World War was the Catholic Youth Organization (CYA), where he played both basketball and softball. It was at this very young age when he discovered his special skills for the sport of fast-pitch softball (and who'd even HEARD of "slow-pitch" in those days?). His very first softball team was a team called the Conoco Juniors, sponsored by a Conoco gas station. He started playing in the Houston Chronicle softball tournament, an annual end-of-summer event sponsored by the local newspaper, at the young age of 16.
Many teams and many years later, Walter Wolff was beginning to make a name for himself and was quickly becoming to be known as one of hottest young softball pitchers in the state of Texas. By the time he was 25, he had never lost a Houston Chronicle tournment game, and had won 22 straight tournament games. One of his first glorious successes in the limelight was in 1959, when he received the Houston Chronicle tournament's Outstanding Pitcher Award. His Metallic Steel Building team were Houston Chronicle champions in 1966. His 6ft.-6in., 240lb. mound presence and 80mph pitches brought fear to the average batter. He became widely known for his trademark toothpicks, that he chewed on the mound while pitching. Perfect games and no-hitters were becoming commonplace, and strikeouts were so numerous, oftentimes surpassing 15 in a typical 7-inning game, that it was virtually impossible to keep track of them all. Although career statistics are unavailable, by the end of the 1968 season, Walter had played in 9 successive American Softball Association (ASA) state championship tournaments and had compiled a major city win-loss record of 461-53, while averaging 12 strikeouts per game. During the next 3 seasons ('69-'71), he won 89 games and lost only 33, while recording 37 shutouts.
Another defining moment of Walter's career was the time his team played the world-famous pitcher Eddie Feigner and his 4-player "King & His Court" softball team in the Houston Astrodome. Eddie, who is generally regarded as the best fastpitch pitcher in the world and who has been doing world tours for over 50 years, has gained quite an astounding reputation for his pitching showmanship, including being able to pitch behind his back, through his legs, blindfolded, and even from 2nd base. His 4-player team usually has no problem beating regular 9-player teams.
If there is any one term that most aptly describes
softball career, it would be "staying power." He continued
his career well into his 60s, being active in Old-Timer's softball (45
years and older) and playing mostly with Houston's Latin American teams
in his later years.
Interviewed just prior to the start
of the Chronicle's 50th Softball Tournament, it
was disclosed that Walter had played in every Chronicle
Tournament since 1947. This amazing article entitled
"Old-timers haven’t gone soft on softball" (page 1/page 2), written by Jayne Custred, appeared in the
Houston Chronicle newspaper in July 1988. Her story was a
heartwarming glimpse into old-timer fastpitch softball players like my
dad, whose careers spanned several decades and were still playing the
game with passion.
The first step onto the world stage came in 1961 when Walter's Jackson Sporting Goods team won the ASA state softball championship in San Antonio, Texas. He was the winning pitcher in the final game and was named to the all-tournament team. Winning the state championship qualified them for a trip to the ASA World Softball Tournament in Clearwater, Florida in September. In 30 innings of pitching in Florida, Walter gave up only 4 runs and won a 15-inning game against Mesa, Arizona. His Jackson Sporting Goods team repeated as state champions again in 1963 and won another trip to the ASA World Softball Tournament in Clearwater.
Other major softball tournaments Walter has played in include:
On October 10, 1986, Walter was inducted into the Softball Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Houston, Texas.
Not only did Walter Wolff play in numerous prestigious tournaments on American soil, but he also had opportunities to display his skills and spread softball camaraderie in international settings as well. He played 3 times in Mexico, including in Mexico City, Tampico, and the Mexican National Softball Tournament in Poza Rica in 1970. Impressing the local fans with his blazing pitching, he was once featured on the front page of a newspaper's sports section with these headlines -- "El Lobo Does it Again" (Lobo means "wolf" in Spanish).
Even more impressive was his tour of New Zealand as a member of the Western U.S. All Stars in February, 1974, traveling from city to city and playing the best teams in New Zealand, which is widely recognized as a dominate power in world softball. Later that same year in July, the United Softball Club of Auckland, New Zealand sponsored a tour of the U.S. by their team. While in Houston, Walter's construction company served as the New Zealand team's local host and made all their arrangements, even sponsoring some of their festivities, including a big party thrown at the Wolff household.
The following are the words of Jack Shanks, the New Zealand team's organizer, as recorded in his club's report of their 1974 U.S. tour:
"Arrived in Houston to be met by those wonderful people Nora and Walter Wolff. These people could pass as New Zealanders. The temperature was 95 degrees F., humidity about 70%, very hot, and as we walked into the bus, were served a cold glass of beer out of a 9-gallon keg in a drum of ice.
Things like this explain about these people who think of everything. We were put up in a very new and modern motel which was top class. On Friday night, we were treated to being taken to the Houston Astrodome for a game of Houston Astros baseball. This is truly a great sight and shouldn't be missed by anyone traveling to the States.
On Saturday, we played very well to win 7-1. Following the game, Nora and Walter put on a real N.Z. party at their house. Words are hard to find to thank these people for such a warm gathering and a great party. I am sure that all team members will always remember that night. Nora went to a tremendous amount of trouble to present an enormous meal of New Zealand foods, and to feed 80 odd people speaks for itself.
On behalf of all members to Nora and Walter Wolff, thanks a million."
As a result of all his hospitality, Walter was inducted as an Honorary Member of the United Softball Club of Auckland, New Zealand in 1974. The letter of appreciation he sent to the United Softball Club is shown here.
RISE BALL -- In many respects, Walter's rise ball is basically an underhanded version of baseball's curve ball. The grip is almost identical, with the index and middle fingers aligned up next to the seams at their narrowest point. Just before the ball is released at the bottom of the windmill windup, the wrist must tilt slightly sideways before it snaps to direct the ball in a back-spinning, upward trajectory. In so doing, the softball is released with all 4 seams at their widest point rotating end over end so as to get the most wind resistance possible. Wow, you should have seen this baby hop during the guy's prime. Talking about some baffled batters.......
DROP BALL -- As explained by Walter, the grip for the drop ball is not so critical, as long as the ball is released off the fingertips, again so that all 4 seams at their widest point are rotating end over end -- only in this case, obviously in a rotation opposite that of the rise ball, giving it a forward-spinning, downward trajectory. In his case, he grips the ball with his index finger cocked back and with the index fingernail planted against a seam, to give it more control. The most critical thing about the delivery of the drop ball is that the foot which is planted just prior to the release of the ball (the left foot for right-handed pitchers) should take a slightly shorter step (about one-half of a foot-length) than with a regular pitch. This places the upper body in a more slightly forward, off balance posture, giving more power to the actual drop ball delivery, accentuating its downward trajectory.
Additional Drop Ball tips from the Fall '67 edition of "Softball Illustrated," the nation's first softball magazine can be found here.
(1) All of the small thumbnail photos on this page are clickable, opening up into a larger image......
(2) Background music: one of Walter's favorite songs, "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash