Inductee series: Softball hurler Roy Burlison was ‘toughest of the tough’

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Call him a winner: Roy Burlison was a top fast-pitch pitcher in the American Softball Association, especially for Missouri teams from 1972 to 1980.

Call him a winner: Roy Burlison was a top fast-pitch pitcher in the American Softball Association, especially for Missouri teams from 1972 to 1980.

It’s amazing if you think about it. In sports, you can be a kid just hanging around a ball field and, years later and thanks to happenstance, you’re traveling across the country getting to play a game you love.

Roy Burlison was one of the lucky ones in life. In fact, he still remembers the first day of his journey. The journey, that is, in fast-pitch softball.

“When I was about 14 years old in California, there were about six of us. Whatever the sport was, that’s what we played,” Burlison said. “We were hitting fly balls on a baseball field, and I look down and there was a guy throwing a ball funny.”

And so Burlison walked down to the other field for an explanation and, within a decade, fast-pitch softball was his life, for all intents and purposes.

And now look. Burlison is being inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame on May 27 in Springfield. His enshrinement is part of the Baseball Sports Enthusiasts Luncheon, at which former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will be honored as a Missouri Sports Legend. (To buy tickets and sponsorships, click here)

In many respects, Burlison’s induction is a nod to the thousands who built a national reputation for the premier American Softball Association, a huge draw across the country from the 1960s to 1980s. Teams back then took on the persona of big-league baseball clubs, traveling all over the country.

Burlison was a star attraction as ASA softball drew thousands of fans.

Roy Burlison was a star attraction as ASA softball drew thousands of fans across the country.

A feared pitcher

Burlison earned a reputation as one of ASA’s most feared pitchers, as he won more than 700 games and lost fewer than 100. He led the 1973 St. Louis Browns softball team to World Series against Montreal and then played the next six seasons for a team out of Springfield, leading the club to five ASA national tournaments, including three third-place finishes.

“He is the most dominating pitcher I’ve seen in the state of Missouri, and not only Missouri but the entire United States,” said Bonus Frost, a Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inductee in 2014 for his softball prowess. “If this were basketball, you’d have a better shot at making a half-court shot. You weren’t getting a hit.”

Burlison was a seven-time ASA All-American National Team selection and the 1969 and 1971 MVP of the ASA National Tour. He was named one of the top fast-pitch pitchers of all time in 1997, with his induction into the ASA Hall of Fame. Burlison also is a member of the Missouri ASA Hall of Fame, the Springfield ASA Hall of Fame and the Springfield Area Sports Hall of Fame.

“When he joined us in 1974 (in Springfield), we would play the very best teams we could schedule every year, whether we had to travel to Canada, California, anywhere,” Frost said. “We were good without him before he came along. But when he came along, we were 100 percent better.”

Burlison pitched for the 1976 Springfield club that reached the ASA national tournament.

Burlison pitched for the 1976 Springfield club that reached the ASA national tournament.

Long journey to the top

Burlison, an Arkansas native, took the scenic route to Missouri, so to speak.

Out of high school in Dixon, Calif., he joined the U.S. Navy and pitched on an intramural team out of Guam. For many, the anonymity of such a team and any success might have been fun enough.

Not for Burlison. He forged ahead. The team won the All-Navy trophy, and the success enhanced his transfer to San Diego, where his new team won the All-Services trophy before Burlison was selected for the All-Navy team, which played 140 games a season.

In 1969, he joined a civilian team out of California, earning MVP of a national tournament. A year later, he was working for a Chicago company, joined a new team and took it to nationals. The club placed third a year later, when he was named MVP.

Transferred within his company to St. Louis, Burlison naturally migrated to nearby softball fields.

“The level of softball back then was impressive,” Burlison said. “It had many Class A and Double-A (professional baseball) players that had been dinged up a little bit and couldn’t go on with their careers. It was the toughest of the tough. If you won it, you earned it.”

The competition piqued the interest of the cities that housed the teams. Springfield embodied them.

Many of Burlison and Frost’s teams drew a couple of thousand a game. The pinnacle was in 1978 when Springfield hosted the ASA national tournament. One game drew an estimated 10,000.

“It was unreal,” Burlison said. “Many times, we had our backs against the wall. The guys gave everything they had and would never give up. They played until the game was over.”

“Out of Springfield, we’d go to Iowa, Illinois, Jefferson City, St. Louis and Vancouver, California,” Burlison added.” We’d play out in Seattle, and wherever the national tournament was being held, we’d go there. We played 80 games a year. It was very much like the minor leagues.”

These days, Burlison is retired and living in Sherwood, Ark. He and his wife, Linda, are parents to Kevin, Brent, Shannon and Aaron and have three grandchildren: Halley, Alexis and Brennon. Halley is a softball player. Burlison also heads the Arkansas Fast-pitch Academy, where he teaches the game to teens.

Frost still marvels at his friend’s career.

“In 1997, when he was inducted in Oklahoma City (in the ASA Hall of Fame), he was recalled as one of the top five fast-pitch pitchers of all time,” Frost said. “And that’s saying something.”

WANT TO GO?

The ceremony: The Baseball Sports Enthusiasts Luncheon presented by Ozarks Coca Cola/Dr Pepper at is 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 27 at the University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center in Springfield.

Tickets & sponsorships: $40, or $100 for a head table ticket. Numerous sponsorships are available, including a table of eight for $400, which includes associate sponsorship recognition in the printed program.

For Burlison tickets & sponsorships: Contact Taylor Frederich at 417-889-3100.

Honorees

  • St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will be honored as a Missouri Sports Legend, in which a specially commissioned sculpture, cast in bronze, will line the Legends Walkway.
  • Byron Hagler, who won almost 600 baseball games and reached nine state final fours as the head coach of Licking and Hillcrest high schools. His 1988 and 1989 Licking teams won Class 2 state championships.
  • Former Saint Elizabeth High School softball coach Diane Juergensmeyer, who won more than 400 games and three state championships in 1992, 1994 and 2002.
  • Former fast-pitch softball standout Roy Burlison, who played on teams in St. Louis and Springfield.
  • John Schaefer, CEO of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper, is the recipient of the President’s Award.
  • Diamond 9: baseball standouts Jack Burrell of Humansville and Southwest Baptist; Brad Simmons of Glendale High School and the Kansas City Royals; Kelly Snider of Hillcrest High School the Oklahoma Sooners and the Los Angeles Dodgers; Barry Short of Mansfield High School, Three Rivers Community College and the New York Mets; Jim Lumpe of Glendale High School, the Mizzou Tigers and Montreal Expos; and former American Softball Association or college/high school softball standouts in Marionville’s Janice Crumpley Bluebaum, Hillcrest graduate Tim Blasi, Caitlin Chapin of Ozark High School and Missouri State; and Missouri Southern graduate Diane Miller.
Roy Burlison emerged as one of the top fast-pitch pitches in the American Softball Association. He pitched eight years in Missouri, leading the 1973 St. Louis Browns softball team to a World Series and the 1974-1980 Springfield clubs to five ASA national tournaments.

Roy Burlison emerged as one of the top fast-pitch pitches in the American Softball Association. He pitched eight years in Missouri, leading the 1973 St. Louis Browns softball team to a World Series and the 1974-1980 Springfield clubs to five ASA national tournaments.