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ART GILLIS - - A LIFE COMMITTED TO FASTBALL
“If I had any brains, I’d probably have been a good pitcher”
That was a summary judgment , or a self-portrait, shared by ART GILLIS when we chatted in the stands during the 2005 International Softball Congress World Tournament at Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Had any brains, eh? Well, the 81-year-old Gillis can look back at his playing career with that sort of candor. But a closer look at his overall career in the sport of fastball surely shows no absence of grey matter. As a team organizer, manager, sponsor and as a constant student, analyst, and oh-so-accurate critic of the game, the brainpower of the personable Art Gillis stands out vividly. His commitment to the sport and his achievements in the sport have few peers.
Gillis, one of the true sages of the sport, will be inducted into the I.S.C. Hall of Fame in August, 2006, in Kitchener. And if his acceptance remarks head into the realm of the philosophy and the psychology of the sport, get ready to listen to the genuine article for Mr. Gillis has seen it all. He can speak from the heart (as well as the brain) as one who has experienced the highest of thrills and also the depths of disappointment from his broad experience and from his many years with the game.
It was probably natural that Art Gillis would have the sport of fastball running through his veins. It wasn’t an accident that he was grew up next to a ball park in his native Plymouth, Michigan (near Ann Arbor) where by his own admission he “watched games every day”.
And then there were the summers spent with his Grandma in Saginaw where he was close enough to walk to the ball park. And the sport was in its heyday in Saginaw in those years with what Art recalls as “60 teams playing in leagues plus as many as 80 CYO teams playing the sport.” The young Gillis was a regular at Saginaw’s Hoyt Park with its eight diamonds and its parking lots lined with cars every night. (Ah, the good old days!). He recalls being part of huge crowds watching such attractions as the Joe Louis Brown Bombers and seeing such stars as pitcher Charley Justice in action.
Gillis played football and basketball while in high school. And then came the years of World War II.
Gillis had turned to fastball and was developing as a pitcher. By 1942 he was playing in Air Force competition; hurling in such places as Ft. Wayne and Madison. It was at Ft. Wayne that he met the legendary Diz Kirkendall. It was also from that era of his career that the “If I had any brains, I’d probably have been a good pitcher” comment originated. And there have to be some great stories behind that line!
Following the war, he returned to Michigan, playing in his native Plymouth, and then in Saginaw. Finding himself a part of a team with no sponsor, Art dug into his own assets to provide uniforms for his team. He also shelled out a huge payment of $10 each for motel expenses of his players for a tournament his team, the “Bolters” were to play. Gillis jokes that the vote was just nine to eight to name the team after the bolts and not the nuts. The name was an adaptation of Gillis’ business activities the installation of lockers for Republic Steel - - including a job they did in Florida as they installed 5,000 employee lockers at Epcot Center.
As Gillis’ team prospered and emerged as a world-class powerhouse, he discovered the International Softball Congress and the worlds that it permitted him to conquer. In his own words, “I found out about the ISC 29 years ago. If I’d found out sooner, I’d have been broke sooner.”
As his team had strengthened, he had turned to the talent rich nation of New Zealand for pitching help. He pioneered the importation of the Kiwi hurlers by American teams as he recruited Owen (“The Fog”) Walford who pitched for two seasons for Gillis’ Michigan powerhouse. (A bit later a Gillis team also was to feature an 18-year-old phenom named Michael White during the 1980 season.)
Walford led his team into the ISC World Tournament where he was an “All-World” pitching selection in 1978.
When Walford headed to Midland following that season, the cupboard at Saginaw appeared bare. That all changed with a late night phone call from New Zealand. A young Kevin Herlihy was on the line. “I understand that you treat chaps right well who play for your team”, was Herlihy’s opening line in that conversation - - - and the rest, as they say, was history. The partnership forged with Art Gillis as the sponsor and Kevin Herlihy as ace hurler went on to produce an International Softball Congress World Champion in 1979. That August Gillis’ Bolters defeated the Long Beach Nitehawks in Bakersfield, California, to claim the world title and establish Saginaw - - and its committed, aggressive, (and yes - BRAINY) sponsor- - at the pinnacle of the fastball world! Art Gillis had the ultimate team trophy, and Kevin Herlihy was selected as the “Outstanding Pitcher” of that 1979 tournament.
By that time Gillis had set his sights on yet another goal - - - a goal he was to achieve that same week - - - hosting the greatest spectacle in the world of fastball - - the ISC World Tourney!
He had bid to host the tourney earlier (in a 1978 venture) when, by his own admission, “I was not well prepared”. He had shocked the ISC chiefs that year with his offer that, “If you want to come to Saginaw, I’ll give you $45,000” Gillis assumed that the ISC wasn’t used to such a big dollar offer, and so the ’80 world tournament bid went to Tempe, Arizona.
Gillis wasn’t discouraged and in 1979 he was better prepared (and of course was destined to capture the world title during that same week) This time his offer was accepted as he offered 75% of the gate - - against a guarantee of that same $45K he had offered the previous year. Gillis believes that he was largely responsible for the ISC changing to fixed dollar bids rather that bids of a percentage of the gate.
And what a tournament Gillis was to host in 1981. Although his Bolters could not win a second world title in their home town, that tournament is regarded by many ISC regulars as one of the greatest in its storied run - - a tourney which saw Mark Smith and the Camarillo California Kings prevail and the all-time legend of a tourney game, the 34-inning masterpiece dual between Peter Finn and Pete Meredith recorded for posterity.
The Gillis-Herlihy partnership was to continue through 1982 making its share of ISC history.
But the story of Art Gillis wouldn’t be complete without the saga of how Art’s “little boy” absorbed all of the fastball adventures wrought by his talented Dad; absorbed all of the summers of having a parade of Kiwi hurlers living in his home as surrogate big brothers; absorbing all of the lessons (deliberate and casually picked up) from those amazing athletes - - and how Doug Gillis went on to become first one of the finest pitchers in the U.S. and later to become an entrepreneur of fastball schooling for athletes around the country. This author had the privilege of sitting in the stands in Allentown, Pa., with a proud, but very nervous, father Art Gillis as he watched son Doug take the mound as a 19 year old hurler facing the Decatur ADM team, the most-powerful team of that time.
So “Hats Off” to Art Gillis!! His dedication and commitment to the game is unmatched. Younger fans, unfortunately, may not always recognize the tall, thin gentleman with the crooked smile and the ready story to tell of some of the real “greats” of the game - - - and that title “great” is oh so appropriately applied to that legendary gentleman himself - - -Mr. ART GILLIS.
By: Gordon Wise - - - ISC Information Officer
June 30, 2006
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