HARRISON – It’s a given that most anyone who ever played a game of catch is familiar with Little League Baseball, the major leagues’ National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and the iconic Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. But one area of recognition is likely often missed – the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame. That unawareness was remedied recently by Harrison resident Jim Thomas, when he was inducted this year into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame Class of 2018 as a Pioneer Player.
Thomas said that he had procrastinated in submitting his information, but that his kids “got on me” and he finally turned it in.
The NSSHOF, which is based in Mustang, Oklahoma, sets specific nomination requirements and procedures, including a deadline of year’s end to be considered for the coming calendar year. Those nomination booklets go to headquarters and the respective Credential Committee member in either Texas, California or Oklahoma.
Thomas’s category followed the Pioneer Nomination Path, which has a minimum age of 75 years and requires a minimum of 10 years in senior softball as either a player, manager, director, umpire, sponsor or in a special category. Thomas said he managed his Arizona team for about 10 years and has played everything from pitcher to catcher to just about everything on the field, but that mainly he was an outfielder.
“I had a pretty good arm,” he said. “And back then, I could run!”
The Pioneer path is not done on a point system, but rather takes into consideration that these older players may never have had the same opportunity to win the All-American or All-World awards as today’s players, because those point system-based awards may not have been available throughout these player’s full careers.
The Pioneer criteria include: Actual playing ability; On-field accomplishments; Level of competition (Major Plus and Major); Number of years participating in senior softball; Overall contribution to senior softball and its development; and any All-American or All-World team selections received.
Voting is done by every current member of the NSSHOF who chooses to do so, and an additional one vote can be cast by associations, including ASA, Huntsman, ISA, ISSA, LVSSA, NSSHOF, SPA and SSUSA.
The process itself includes Credential Committee review and validation of all nominations, and preparation of a biography of each candidate which is forwarded to Hall of Fame Headquarters. After review, the biographies are posted to an online ballot available to all voting members. The winning candidates are then notified and select their induction site.
As with any sport, teammate chemistry plays a large part in a team’s success. Thomas’s effectiveness as a team player is evident in the peer comments posted on the NSSHOF website. They include:
Hugh Brotherton: “Jim can play any position in the field and hits for high averages, as well as the long ball. He has a great attitude toward softball, and more importantly, toward life.”
Al Murray: “I’ve had the privilege to play with a number of great players, including Jim Thomas. Jim’s skill as an outfielder, infielder, and pitcher has been a tremendous asset for COS during this tenure.”
Ron Brown: “Jim would rank as the best power hitter, using his power wisely by delivering singles, doubles, and triples as the occasion called for it. Defensively, he played the outfield with speed and unbelievable range coupled with a powerful throwing arm. There were times when I thought we could play with three outfielders because Jim could fill the void.”
Thomas, who started school in Farwell, noted his grandmother, mother and uncles all graduated from Harrison schools.
“I moved up to Harrison when I retired,” he said. “I was born in Harrison and was associated for years because my grandmother was still up here. When my parents retired, they went back, and when I retired they were in their upper 80s so I joined and took care of them. So that’s how I ended up back in Harrison.”
Thomas, now 87 years old himself, said he continued to play until April of this year, but that medical issues have him sidelined – for the moment.
“It’s the first time I missed the World Masters Tournament out in Las Vegas – well, the National Championship Tournament – in 35 years,” he said. “They won it again this year, and I wasn’t there to help ’em.”
Thomas said the first Major Senior Softball Tournament was held in 1989 in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was called the World Series at that time. He said that a couple years later, there was a falling out which resulted in another being started in California called the Senior Softball Championship.
“About the same time, they started the SPA [Softball Players Association],” he said. “They were the three major tournaments, and there are two of them left now. The World Series that started the whole thing no longer exists, so there’s the Softball Players Association and Senior Softball USA.”
Thomas said he began playing senior softball in a 50 and over league in Highland Park, the first in Michigan.
“I had to wait a year to join the boys,” he said. “Because they started it in ’81 and I turned 50 in ’82.”
Playing softball in the Detroit area until he retired in 1994, Thomas then went to be with his parents in Arizona, a place where he had previously played in a World Series. Thomas said he wintered in Arizona for 18 years and had the privilege of playing with the same group of ballplayers throughout that time.
“We had a very good national travel team,” he said. “I’ve played all over the country,” Thomas said. “I’ve played from Syracuse to Seattle, Winnipeg to Houston, and West Palm Beach and in between.”
He said that in the last few years, the World Masters Tournament has been held in Las Vegas, and that the SPA usually has been in Dalton, Georgia.
“In between they have the Winter World Tournament down in Fort Myers, Florida,” Thomas said. “And they also have a Winter World Tournament in Scottsdale [Arizona]. For the people from the West and people from the East.”
That, he said, means there has been quite a bit of travelling involved, which can add up financially.
“I just told the kids, ‘I’m spending your inheritance,’” Thomas said. He added that his children support his softball endeavors very well.
Thomas also spoke of the World Senior Games in Utah which goes on for two weeks, noting the event includes a vast variety of sports, not just softball. Last year, he participated on a team out of Wisconsin which had picked him up to fill out their team which gives a whole new slant to “pick-up game.” And, yes, they won.
“The last time I was there, there were people from 54 different countries,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to play in that tournament for 15 years.”
Thomas said he missed tournaments in Ohio, Georgia and in Manassas, Virginia, this year – more than he has missed since he began playing ball. He is optimistic about his health improving and hopes to get back down to The Villages in Florida, where he winters, to participate with the other 3,000 people who play softball in that area.
“In a place like Florida, it wouldn’t be unusual to have 600 teams there,” he said. “We’re talking age brackets from 50 to 85.”
Thomas explained that he was something of a groundbreaking player, as when he was 65, there were no teams for 70-year-olds. As he has aged, the league ages have also expanded; when he was 67 the 70s teams began, when he got to 70 the 75s began. He then began playing with an 80s team in Florida, which he termed “really great.”
“When I turned 83, I joined the only 85 team in the country,” Thomas said. “There’s only been one year in that length of time that we did not win the world championship.”
Times have certainly changed because now, Thomas said, this year there are six 85 teams in Arizona.
“They’re still hanging on,” he said. “A couple of us were talking about 90s, but I don’t know.”
Thomas said his favorite part of his softball career has been traveling around the country and meeting players.
“Over 35 years, they may be from California and you may be from Michigan,” he said. “But you get to be friends over a period of time. By the time you get into the 50s and 60s, you have a pretty good bunch of guys – because if you’re a jerk, you don’t last.”
Anyone speaking with Thomas could attest to the energy in his voice and his unflagging enthusiasm for his sport – as well as his appreciation for his three children who are spread around the country and look out for him as he travels to events across the nation.