Keeping York County's (PA) softball history alive

October 17, 2009

York County, PA

When the thought popped into Don Runkle's head, he wasn't completely sold on it.Years had gone by, many more years than some would care to acknowledge. View Full Story

When the thought popped into Don Runkle's head, he wasn't completely sold on it.

Years had gone by, many more years than some would care to acknowledge.

Even so, Runkle wondered if decades later, would men's fastpitch softball players from the 1950s, '60s and '70s in York County consider getting together for a reunion?

"It was just sort of a wild idea I had," Runkle said. "We all played ball together for many, many years. We weren't all on the same teams, but we played in the same leagues. We knew the same people."

So in 2006, Runkle organized a softball old-timers luncheon for veterans of York County's community, church and industrial fastpitch leagues.

And to his surprise, the idea caught on and has turned into a regular occurrence.

"We had 18 guys show up that first time," said Runkle, a Dover resident. "Since then, things have just sort of mushroomed. It's not always the same people, but we meet every three months. We have the fellowship of being together and swapping stories.

"When we got together at the end of September, we had 33 people in attendance. We look at it as our third anniversary group picture."

Among those who show up at the Old Country Buffet restaurant in York for each gathering is Dave Lehr, who pitched for various teams from the mid-60s through the early years of the 80s.

"I guess you could say I'm the youngest of the old-timers since I'm only 61," said Lehr, who started off as a bat boy 50 years ago for some of the other

players who attend the luncheons. "I was born and raised in York on Vander Avenue in a row home, and my backyard extended was Girard Park.

"That was the home field for Stambaugh's and Girard A.A., so I grew up around the guys such as John Erney, Dick Rawlinson and George Powell, three of the greatest players our area has ever known."

The softball old-timers meet on the first Monday of the month every three months.

"Dave is the youngest, and our oldest guest is Tom Horn, who's 92," Runkle said. "The majority of the guys are in their late 70s and early 80s, and I'm 81."

Runkle played baseball, too, back in his day. In fact, he saw time with the Susquehanna League's Frysville squad in 1949, but softball was his love. He spent more than 20 years patrolling outfields for teams in the Industrial League.

"Met-Ed had a team. Caterpillar had a team. There was a team sponsored by the York Wallpaper, Co., where I started," Runkle said. "We probably had somewhere between eight and 12 teams in the Industrial League, and the Community League had more teams.

"A lot of the guys played softball well into their 40s, but I had to get out around 36 because my knees just couldn't take it anymore."

Although he stood just 5-feet, 4-inches tall, Lehr was a pitcher who learned from a master in Erney -- the Columbia resident and York County legend -- who was inducted into the Pennsylvania Softball Hall of Fame in 1984.

"I was always pestering him with questions like, 'How do you grip the ball to throw a rise? How do you grip it to throw a drop?'" Lehr said. "He told me, 'Put the ball where you want it when you want it' and that was the key to being a successful pitcher."

His love of fastpitch softball has sparked Lehr's pursuit of compiling a memory book, something he wants to share with others.

"I came across some scrapbooks from back in the day, five of them full of newspaper clippings and photographs," Lehr said. "I'm trying to make copies of all the stuff for all of the guys who come to our meetings.

"Someone needs to preserve the history of men's fastpitch softball around here. We're talking about a four-decade span of time from the late 1940s through the mid-1980s."

Lehr's plans for comprehensive look back at men's fastpitch softball in York County took a back seat to his health, though, during the summer, when he underwent a heart transplant.

"A year and one day to the day of my second heart bypass surgery, I get the call from the University of Maryland at 3:45 in the morning saying, 'Get down here. We've got a heart for you,'" Lehr said. "I was on the waiting list since Dec. 9 and had the surgery on June 19."

Lehr spent 24 days in the hospital before being released. Now that he's feeling better, he expects to pick up his work on the softball history project.

In fact, earlier this week, Lehr, Runkle and nearly a dozen other members of their group traveled to Sunbury, site of the Pa. State Softball Hall of Fame.

It's the common love of the sport -- even after all these years -- that keeps the former players gathering together.

"We get together for the friendship and the camaraderie, but I like the guys to share stories, too," Lehr said. "I came on board in the fall of 2006, and Don Runkle said to me, 'Dave, I don't know how to get these guys to respond and open up when they get there.' I said, 'I'll take care of that.'

"So I told them, 'We want you to share some stories. If you won't, you're going to have to listen to me, because I have them.' I was definitely blessed with the gift of gab."

dave@ydr.com; 771-2063

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