October 21, 2014

Elyria
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Muddy softball tradition turns 70

ELYRIA — Like every good story in American history, it started with an honest game of cards.  Seventy years later, it has grown into a staple New Year’s Day gathering for dozens of Elyria families.

Welcome to the annual Elyria Mud Bowl, a colossal slopfest of a softball game where longtime locals abide by a take-no-prisoners approach to a game that, in its own unique way, is fiercely steeped in tradition.

CHRONICLE
Paul Fritz, a fomer Elyria resident who played in the very first Mud Bowl in 1937, shows off his invitation to the 13th annual game, which was played in 1950. Fritz is throwing out the first pitch in the game at Hamilton School at 1 p.m. today.

Elyria native Paul Fritz, 90, can attest: He was part of the original Mud Bowl game 70 years ago at Hamilton School in Elyria — the very spot where the game is played to this day. 

Fritz was a spry boy in his late teens, a standout athlete and a pitcher on Bittner’s softball team, a group that was making waves in the area’s softball circuit throughout the late 1930s.

At a card game one night in 1937, a few guys said they could beat the Bittner’s team in a softball game, Fritz said.

The Bittner’s guys, including manager Clem Monske, took the challengers up on the offer, and a New Year’s legend was born: the Elyria Mud Bowl.

“All the originals are dead,” Fritz said. “I’ve lived the longest … and still, I keep on coming.”

The same two teams play every year: The 38 Club — so named because an Elyria Country Club caddy was on that team, and that was his badge number at work – and Bittner’s, named after the original softball team sponsored by Bittner’s Funeral Home.

That first game started with friends, but over the years has folded dozens of Elyria families into the mix. Names like Monske, Sadowski, Metera, Janowicz, Kaminski, Sito and more have become regulars at the annual Mud Bowl. 

The rules? It depends on who you ask. 

Certainly there are seven innings, and usually there are 10 players on each team. More recently, players have begun using a softer softball to cut down on the distance that the ball travels. 

Beyond that, the Mud Bowl is in Mother Nature’s hands.

“You don’t go to the Mud Bowl gospel and it says: ‘Here’s how it is,’ ” said Chris Sito, whose family has played in the Mud Bowl for more than two decades. “You play for whoever has a spot. And if you don’t win, you have a whole 365 (days) you have to wait to play again.”

The first two years were fast-pitch — Fritz was notorious for his breakneck windmill pitch — but it later moved to slow-pitch every year after.

Subtle changes have followed: Bittner’s Funeral Home merged with DiCarlo, which became Bittner-DiCarlo, which was later bought by the Laubenthal family, and the Laubenthal Funeral Home now helps organize the Mud Bowl. 

“One year we had a foot of snow,” Fritz said. “Rain, mud, snow — it doesn’t matter. We always play.”

Through World War II, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and now the current Iraq conflict, the Mud Bowl kept on humming, albeit with tiny changes.

Last year, Sito’s daughter, Kristen, was the first female to play in the Mud Bowl game. 

“Unofficially, it just keeps happening,” Sito said of the game. “There were rumors 15 years ago that this will be our last one. But no way — this is 70 years old. You can’t just go out and just start this tradition.”

More than anyone, Fritz knows this.

He lives in Florida most of the year, but always makes it to Elyria on New Year’s Day to watch the Mud Bowl.  Fritz won’t be playing in Tuesday’s game — he just had a pacemaker installed — but he will be throwing out the first pitch.

For his part, Sito is hoping the Mud Bowl will stretch into eternity.

“If I make it, it would be great to play in the 100th one,” Sito said. “Or even have my kids or grandkids play in the 100th one.” 

Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.