Summer that wasn’t ended era/Paul Peterson

If you played in any level of baseball or softball in the Copper Country in 1992, the chances are good that you wore an extra layer of clothing under your uniform.

That year, you see, was the infamous summer that wasn’t.

The median temperature all over the world had dropped one degree because of the Mt. Pinatubo explosion in the Phillipines the year before.

If you think one degree is an insigificant number, think again.

The temperatures seldom got over 65 degrees the entire summer, and it seemed like it was in the lower 50s much of the time.

“I’ve played baseball for more than 40 years,” the late Merv Klemett of Hancock recalled a few years ago. “But never in weather that cold day after day.”

Now, our area is famous for swings in weather.

I can recall a Twilight League game at the old Wolverine Field (the one with the concrete slab in center field) in late June when snowflakes started falling late in the game. It didn’t stick … but it fell.

Then there was a mid-summer game at old CLK Air Force field when temperatures dropped from a sunny 81 temperatures to 51 in a half-hour as a thick fog enveloped the entire field.

But the summer of 1992 also signaled the end of fast-pitch softball in our area.

Fast-pitch had been immensely popular around here since the early 1940s. At one point in the early 1960s, there were no less than 22 teams in Houghton and Baraga counties.

Legendary squads like Calumet Liberty Loan, the Keweenaw Bay Brewers and South Range Bosch always drew large crowds.

When the district tournaments were held – usually at Hubbell Field in Houghton – cars were parked all over the hillside surrounding the park. It was the place to be on a late summer evening.

The slow-pitch softball boom in the middle 1970s began to whittle away at the fast-pitch numbers. But the biggest demise of the game came when not enough young pitchers weren’t being developed to take over for aging standbys like Butch Downey, Mike “Nutch” Nordstrom, Jim Butler and others.

“Fast-pitch was a game in where you always needed good pitching to be successful,” said longtime Baraga County player-manager Arnie Putala. “When it began to fade, the sport was in big trouble.”

The local league had dwindled down to three teams by 1991 and there were just two left by 1992.

Impromptu games were played that year but they were held mostly to keep enthusiasts going until an infusion of younger players arrived. That infusion never happened.

Now the only time you see fast-pitch is when an all-star game is played at the Karsama Memorial Tournament in Tapiola. And that hasn’t taken place for a couple of years.

Fast-pitch softball can still be found in Marquette County, and in isolated pockets around the state.

Nationally, its numbers are also well down.

But the cold, hard fact is that the sport will never be what it was here.

And there’s something sad about that.