The parks and recreation commission didn’t have any fields when Frank Bradley conceived the Smoky Mountain Classic softball tournament 40 years ago.
There wasn’t even a parks and recreation commission, for that matter. The tournament predates the commission, with Bradley serving as the commission’s first executive director, by three years.
“They hired me before the parks were even finished,” Bradley said.
Never one to let such trivial things stand in the way of a good idea, Bradley went forward with his dream to bring big-time softball to Blount County. As the classic readies for its 40th edition beginning July 11 at area parks, there’s now nothing bigger.
“I’m real proud of the fact that it’s the main tournament,” Bradley said. “I’m proud that it’s done this well.”
The nation’s top 20 teams in slow-pitch men’s major softball now make a visit to Maryville part of their summer. It’s nothing for budgets of some of the top clubs to exceed $1 million. The power now on display is genuinely tremendous, with the trajectories of home runs leaping out of Sandy Springs Park on championship Sunday rivaling a shuttle launch.
And it all started with one team: Howard’s Furniture.
“They were just the best,” Bradley said. “They were one of the first teams that got players from around the nation.”
When the tournament played to its first crowd in 1969, the teams were largely regional in nature. Local powers Eastern State and Trailways won the first two tournaments, with Knoxville teams winning four of the first five.
Bradley did everything to attract the best teams in those early years. Teams were assigned sponsors when they came to Maryville, someone to show them around and help with food and hotels.
“No other tournament had ever done that,” Bradley said.
For the classic to really take off, though, Bradley knew he needed Howard’s Furniture. Six years after the tournament opened, he got Richard Howard, the team’s iconic owner, to bring his team to Maryville. The classic was never, ever, the same.
“I just kept hounding them,” Bradley said. “I talked to him for years before I ever got him to come here.”
It wasn’t simply Howard’s Furniture was the reigning slow-pitch national champion. It was more than its roster containing some of the sports biggest names.
Howard’s Furniture was a “family-oriented team.” Its players actually worked in Richard Howard’s Denver, N.C., factory.
“As a matter of fact, Rick Sherr still works at Howard’s Furniture,” Rick Howard, son of the company founder, said.
Howard’s Furniture brought the classic immediate prestige. It was no longer, “Where’s Maryville?” when he approached teams, Bradley said. Now, everybody wanted in. And they had deep pockets.
“One day, the two owners met at home plate before the coin flip, and they bet $10,000 on whose team would win,” veteran umpire Larry Hunt said.
Howard’s did more than hit home runs to fuel fan interest, Hunt said. Team stars like Gene Fisher, Bert Smith, Stan Harvey and Steve Howard, Richard’s nephew, were larger than life to the young fans who began showing up at the classic, and they were approachable. The up-close setting at the classic gave it an edge, something other top tournaments, many played in minor league baseball stadiums, were unable to match.
“You can walk down and get an autograph, if they’ll give it to you,” Hunt said. “At those stadiums, you can’t get anywhere near the players.”
The crowds quickly grew beyond anything anyone saw coming.
“I think it was a little bigger crowd back then because you had more family-oriented teams,” Hunt said. “Churches on Montvale (Road) would cancel on Sunday because there was nowhere to park.”
Hunt and fellow umpire Doug McBrayer know the classic’s history better than many. McBrayer was a fixture at the tournament its first 30 years, the first five as both a player and umpire.
“We had a local team,” McBrayer said. “We might win a couple of games and get put out on Saturday. Then I’d go umpire.”
Technology hit the classic in a big way not long after the arrival of Howard’s. Ron Ritter of Scott County Merchants hit eight bombs en route to being named home run champion for the 1971 tournament, the first year the statistic was kept. A decade later, York slugger Craig Elliot blew Ritter’s mark out of the water, finishing with 26, a record that would stand for nearly two decades before Shen Valley’s Rusty Bumgardner bettered it with 30 in 1997.
“Back in the early days, they built the bats too hot and the balls too hot,” McBrayer said.
The power surge the classic experienced as the bigger teams began arriving wasn’t without precedent, McBrayer said. His classic team traveled to Chattanooga one summer to take on a defending national champion. The hometown team showed well, falling, 18-17, to the nation’s best.
“They hit 17 home runs,” McBrayer said. “We hit two.”
The days of hitting behind the runner, winning on doubles and singles were soon gone. The best teams once had four of five players who could hit one out. Now, everybody on the roster could. They had great equipment, too.
“Some of the teams I played on had two or three bats for the team,” McBrayer said. “Now, every player has two or three bats.”
Bradley eyed the advance of technology with concern as the tournament gathered momentum. He lobbied for changes. He moved the bases further back at the classic — the first tournament director nationally to do so — to bring defense more into play.
“The maintenance crew about killed me because those things are (anchored) in concrete,” Bradley said, “but it made the game better right away.”
Hunt successfully lobbied to exempt players from running the bases after home runs, something that shaved considerable time from the length of the average game. Teams in recent years have deployed five infielders to help hold down the scoring.
The tournament may never be what it was before, McBrayer said, but it shows no signs of slowing down.
Big-time softball was soaring nationally by the classic’s second decade, and the players who’d carried it there got their cut. Salaries for the biggest names were now six figures. Rosters now comprised players from several different states, the players only seeing each other when they traveled to tournaments on the weekend.
Softball had become big business, too big for some, eventually driving many of wealthiest owners, including Richard Howard, from the game.
“That’s what eventually ran us out,” Rick Howard said.
Bringing teams to the classic was, in many ways, his father’s passion, he said.
“We always wanted to go to the best tournaments,” Howard said. “Dad always loved to go to Tennessee to play softball. The guys that ran the tournament were spot on. They had a first class tournament, and you had the best teams.
“He loved the setting. He loved the food. We ate a lot of the country cooking.
“The fields were wonderful. They ran it first class, and you knew you were going to be treated properly.”
Howard’s Furniture not only attracted the other big teams to the classic, it helped bring in corporate sponsorships. The addition of companies like Bike Athletic, Worth and Louisville Slugger “allowed us to make the tournament bigger,” said current parks & recreation executive Joe Huff, who now oversees the classic.
By the 1980s, the classic was a money-making machine on all fronts, pumping as much as $400,000 into the local economy for three days every summer. Parks & Rec was no longer looking to break even with the tournament, it was turning a profit.
Bradley says he’ll never forget the day he and former executive director John Wilbanks approached Bike about sponsoring the classic.
“We were going to ask for $3,000 or $4,000,” he said. “We said, ‘If they offer us $2,500, grab it.’ Five minutes after we were in there, I thought, ‘We aren’t asking for half enough.’”
Bradley stepped down as parks & recreation executive director after the 1978 tournament, the reins eventually landing in Huff’s hands. The new boss has done many things to make the tournament only better, Bradley said.
One notable addition for this year’s tournament is a 10-foot high fencing that now runs the length of the outfield to hold down some of the home runs. The move to USSSA three years ago, with its different rules concerning pitching, has helped as well.
The classic has changed much since he breathed life into it 40 years ago, Bradley said. Much about it, though, has remained the same. It’s still THE tournament to the best teams. It’s still the one the Howard family still holds in the highest regard.
“Please pass along our congratulations for 40 strong years,” Rick Howard said.