Pictured is the Alton Kohlers slowpitch softball team, circa 1980. Kohlers went 904-276 from 1979-88. The team is being inducted into the Illinois ASA Hall of Fame in Decatur on Saturday. Longtime umpire from Alton, Ken Thaxton, will enter as an individual and Alton’s Dave Wille is the recipient of the 2017 Don Plarski Award for exemplary umpiring.
Saturday will be a big day for the Riverbend area at the Illinois Amateur Softball Association (ASA) Hall of Fame Banquet at the Decatur Hotel and Convention Center.
This year’s class includes 11 individuals and 3 teams with Alton native Ken Thaxton going in as an umpire and Alton Kohlers getting in as a team.
To boot, Alton’s Dave Wille is this year’s recipient of the Don Plarski Award. That award, given out annually since 1982, is in honor of Plarski, a longtime ASA umpire, Telegraph sports editor and former Major League Baseball player.
Needless to say, there’s plenty of excitement from the local contingent over the inductions.
“I know how lucky I am to be a part of all this,” said Thaxton, who now lives in Prescott, Ariz. “To make so many friends and to be recognized for my efforts, I just can’t tell you how much of an honor it is for me.”
Longtime pitcher for Kohlers, Alton’s Mike Drake, added, “I got in a couple years ago with the Bucks. They do it up right (ASA). It’s something you will never forget. It’s such an honor.”
For Wille receiving the Plarski Award was a big honor. It’s given out annually to someone who has shown exemplary umpiring skills and worked well with peers inside the ASA, a great umpire on and off the field. Longtime senior vice president of the Illinois ASA Leroy Emerick nominated Wille, who has been retired from umpiring for several years, for the award. Wille umpired in the area for 27 years.
“It’s great,” Wille said. “I didn’t think I needed stuff like that, but it’s really nice to get it. I didn’t know Don really, but my wife went to a yard sale and bought quite a bit of his equipment right after he passed away, so I’ve been carrying around some of that stuff.”
But while they may not forget Saturday’s enshrinement festivities, it’s the road to get there that was truly memorable.
Kohlers went 904-276 from 1979-88 on their path to the HOF. In ‘79 the Alton Bucks and Ye Ole Tavern merged to form Kohlers under ASA HOF sponsor Don Kohler. They were led by manager Dan Beiser, an ASA HOF manager, and player/manager Dennis Jones.
Some highlights for the team were reaching 39th in the national rankings by Slow Pitch News, including 4th among Illinois/Missouri teams in 1980. They were 3rd at the ‘83 Illinois AA state tourney and also 3rd at the Midwest Regional, earning the first trip for an Illinois squad to nationals since 1973.
In ‘85 Kohlers won the Illinois AA state championship and got out of the Midwest Regionals to earn a second national tournament trip. In ‘87 and ‘88 they played exhibition games with the Steele’s Silver Bullets at Gordon Moore Park. Steele’s was the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
In ‘88 they played the Missouri state champs, the St. Louis Merchants, at Busch Stadium for an exhibition game.
It was all times they will never forget. Beiser and Don Kohler have since passed away, but Jones cherishes the memories and keeps in touch with many of the players. He was the glue that kept it all together.
“You build relationships for life,” Jones said. “These guys are still my friends, like Brad (Jacobs) and Dave Brenner, they work for me now with my business. It never goes away; it’s like a family and that was real important.
“It’s a family thing; your kids come, their kids come and meet each other. It’s just something you cherish for the rest of your life.”
It was definitely a family affair for Andy Kohler, son of Don Kohler. He grew up as part of the team, playing various roles over the years.
“I wasn’t even a teenager when it started and I was batboy and turned into a position player, utility and a pinch runner and ended up getting my own team,” Kohler said. “They won over 900 games and they were a dominant team around the area and it’s just gratifying to see them get in.”
Some of the mainstays over the years for Kohlers included Bethalto’s Jones, Godfrey’s Brad Jacobs and Alton’s Drake and Dave Brenner. Some other local contributors were: Bethalto’s Hank Dunham, Wood River’s Tom Guthrie, Alton’s Collis James, Leon Wright and Otis Ward, as well as Brad Sitze of Rosewood Heights, among many others. Alton native and former Edwardsville superintendent Ed Hightower played for Kohlers for awhile, too.
“Recruiting became a little more popular,” Drake said. “You just wanted to get a little better.
“Over the years we had a force. As time went on we did well at AA at state and the AA state tournament was what we looked forward to every year. We looked forward to some of the other big tournaments like the Gateway Classic in St. Louis. They had national teams in and you always wanted to do well there.”
They traveled most weekends, not finding the competition locally they needed. They played in national tournaments like the Smoky Mountain Classic in Tennessee to get their fix.
A 1988 exhibition with the St. Louis Merchants at Busch Stadium was a highlight. It was originally supposed to be against Steele’s Silver Bullets, but the Coors Light sponsorship threw a wrench into that.
“I had it all lined up to play Steele’s at Busch Stadium, which would have been wonderful, except Steele’s was Steele’s Silver Bullets and this was back when Anheuser Busch still owned the Cardinals,” Drake said. “I told Marty (Hendin, executive with Cardinals), ‘This team we’re playing from Ohio is Steele’s Silver Bullets.’ And he said, ‘Silver Bullets as in Coors Light Silver Bullets?’ Back then Coors Light gave about $250,000 a year for their sponsorship, so the Cardinals said they couldn’t do that. We ended up playing the Missouri state champs, which was the St. Louis Merchants.
“Several of the Cardinals sat in our dugout during our game and couldn’t believe how far softballs were being hit. Tony Pena was in there, Jose Oquendo, so that was one of our high spots.”
Jones added about some of the highlights, “Some of the national tournaments, you’re playing in front of 7,000 to 8,000 people and it’s a little different. Then after the game all the kids are coming to you and asking for your autograph. How often does that happen in your life?”
Thaxton got to see quite a bit in his 24 years as an umpire from 1972-95. From ‘89-95 he served as the Illinois ASA state umpire-in-chief. He mainly worked fastpitch during his career, including 5 national championships, and worked the plate in 4 championship games.
He worked the Pan American games in ‘87 and was also the recipient of the Don Plarski Award that year, a personal highlight for him.
“Don Plarski and I actually umpired together and I got to spend some time with him and that was a big deal because he was an outstanding umpire,” Thaxton said. “He had a natural thing about him that you couldn’t teach and they ended up naming the award after him. I really enjoyed every moment I got to spend around him. I was really proud of that.”
He felt he got to see the best of the best in his career.
“The state of Illinois was a hotbed for fastpitch softball during that time,” Thaxton said. “Being from Illinois I got a chance to work with the best players in the world.”
Kohlers felt the same way during their slowpitch tenure as a team.
“It was just fun playing I’d say the best in the country, but for slow pitch it was probably the best in the world,” Drake said. “It was just a wonderful experience. You had one wife back then and it was softball. That’s what you did.”
Kohlers will be well represented in Decatur this weekend. Andy Kohler will be there and knows his dad will be there in spirit, too.
“I’m going to up there,” he said. “Dennis Jones is going to speak for a few minutes and Mike Drake will be finishing up on it. I’ll definitely be up there. I’m taking my wife and we’re going to enjoy ourselves.
“I know dad won’t be there to enjoy it, but he’ll be looking down on us smiling, because that was his biggest thing putting the team together,” Kohler added. “He wanted them to be the best they could be and win state and they were able to achieve that and now they’re finally getting recognized for it. I’m sure I’ll be touched a little bit and I’m sure some of those guys will have tears in their eyes for everything they put into it. The Hall of Fame is a pretty good honor.”