A couple of local softball legends received some well deserved recognition this weekend as they were inducted into the Tennessee Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame.
The late Ralph Rymer was instrumental in the beginning of the area softball programs in the latter part of the 1950s, while Rico Blair’s “striiiikkkaaaa” call has echoed across Bradley County diamonds for almost half a century.
The pair of local legends were honored in Hendersonville Saturday, joining former state commissioner and Cleveland City Recreation Director Tommy “Suds” Barrett as Bradley County members of the ASA Hall of Fame, which began seven years ago. Barrett was enshrined in 2008.
“Ralph and Rico have been around Bradley County softball since it began and were very instrumental in its development in our area,” commented current ASA district commissioner Rita Hannah, who nominated the pair for induction.
The “founding father of softball” in this area, Rymer was a player and coach for more than 30 years locally, best know for his Lady Aces softball teams.
Orphaned at a young age, Rymer was born in Bradley County, but lived in Monroe County for a short time before moving back to Cleveland. The son of a one-armed baseball pitcher, Rymer found he loved the game as well while attending Arnold Elementary School locally.
"Dad loved to tell about his first baseball experience," daughter Angela Waddell related. "The boys at recess would chose sides and play a pick up game. One day they needed one more player and asked him to play. He had never played. In his first at bat, he hit a home run."
"The next day he was the first player picked," his daughter Rhondalyn added. "He always said that day changed the direction of his life."
Rymer graduated from the school playgrounds to playing ball in the Army while stationed in Whittier, Alaska. After returning to Cleveland from the military in 1958, Rymer organized the first men's slow-pitch softball league.
One of the top fast-pitch pitchers in the premier Chattanooga Dixie Major Softball League, he led the VFW Post 4848 Bulletts to the Chattanooga City Series title as the team's only pitcher.
"Dad even pitched against the King and His Court (a four-man, fast-pitch show team that traveled the country playing local teams) and did pretty good," son Stacey Rymer remarked.
While playing in one of the top fast-pitch leagues in the South from 1959-70, Rymer accepted a job as the athletic director for the Cleveland YMCA in the early 1960s.
He organized several basketball, football, baseball and softball programs for area youth, plus started the first women's adult softball league in town. He served as president of the league for 20 years, while it grew from the original three teams to more than 30 teams in five divisions.
In the late 1960s, Rymer took over the directorship of the old Church Street Community Center, which is now the Cleveland Community Center.
"Dad organized the first T-ball program in town," Rhondalyn stated. "He loved watching the little kids learning the game, while playing in the dirt and having fun. He not only provided a place for the kids to play, but he cared for them as well as taking them our hand-me-down clothes and some of our old furniture and giving it to the families."
In 1973, Rymer organized the local girl's youth softball league, plus he started a younger version of his Lady Aces adult team. The local girls won their first state championship that year. The youth Lady Aces were a dominate team for the next 20 years, winning 10 more state titles in the 18-under division.
He also started and directed the Coca Cola Classic for many years, establishing it as one of the premier youth softball tournaments in the nation. At its peak in the 1980s and early ’90s, the tournament had a bracket that included as many as 125 teams. Now a fast-pitch tournament, the Coca Cola Classic is in its 39th year.
"Ralph had a big impact on softball not only in Cleveland but in the state as well," said Hannah, who not only played for Rymer 's Lady Aces, but was hired by him when she graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1971. She has served as the Community Center director for more than 30 years. "He not only made the Cleveland teams competitive on the state and national level but helped put Tennessee softball in the national spotlight."
Along with his love for local sports, Rymer was a huge Tennessee Vol fan, even taking his wife to the Tennessee-Kentucky football game in Knoxville on their honeymoon. Rymer passed away in September of 2008 at the age of 75.
“We’re real excited that dad is being honored for all his hard work,” son Stacey stated. “He put his whole life into softball. He didn’t get paid a dime for all the work he put in with the leagues, but that wasn’t why he was doing it. He loved the game and the kids.”
Along with calling softball since the mid 1960s, Blair has also called TSSAA basketball and football for more than 30 years each.
"I've done everything from Boys Club and YMCA ball to five national ASA (softball) tournaments," he explained. "I even called baseball out at the old Fulbright Park."
A 1959 graduate of College Hill High School where he lettered two years in basketball and football, Blair went to work for Hardwick Stove in 1961 and after the company switched hands a few times retired from Whirpool in 2005.
"Shorty Jordan was the personnel manager at Hardwick and he knew I played softball for two or three years after high school. He asked me to help him out umpiring some games and that's how I got started," related Rico .
"Shorty, Bill Burns, Larry Sells, James and Glen Curtis all really helped me when I first started out," he continued. "Three of them worked with me and during lunch everyday we'd sit and talk about the rules and different game situations. To be able to do that with them made it (becoming an umpire) a lot easier on me."
Although he is well-known for his "showman style," the 71-year-old's greatest reputation as a sports official is his fairness.
“I may miss a call every now and then, everybody does, but people know when I call their games that I'm going to call without favoritism. They know I won't cheat them. I have a great respect for the game. While I want to make it enjoyable for everybody, players and fans, I most of all want people to say I called a fair game."
“Rico has been an umpire for 40 years and he can proudly say he’s never had to eject a player,” Hannah related. “He has a way about himself that everyone loves and respects. A former president of the local umpire association for 10 years, Blair has helped to train younger umpires for many years.”
“I’m just a poor man from a small town, so to be recognized like this totally rolled me over,” Blair stated. “This is a blessing from God. Umpiring teaches you a whole lot about honesty and character.”
Blair's fondest memories come from the 15 years or more that his late wife, Doris, served as scorekeeper for his softball games. "After our kids were grown, Doris would be at the games with me every night whether she was score keeping or not. It was something we did together. I really enjoyed being able to share that time with her.”
Both members of the Bradley County Old Timers Hall of Fame, Blair and Rymer had a few “run ins” on the diamond.
“Ralph and I got on each other’s case a few times, but that’s normal for a coach and an umpire. We were still friends and I’m honored we’re going into the hall of fame together.”