He grew up in Springfield, often spending summer evenings at Fassnight Park or Meador Park and watching his dad and friends’ dads play fast-pitch softball.
That was back when men’s fast-pitch softball was a big deal, and no one quite knew the influence it would have on Doug Middleton.
“Growing up, we’d run around those ballparks,” Middleton said. “Back in the ‘70s, they used to have great men’s softball. And, for us kids, you didn’t have much else to do.”
Talk about planting a seed, because eventually Middleton made his biggest athletic mark in men’s fast-pitch softball as a fearsome pitcher. In fact, it’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted Middleton with the Class of 2023.
Certainly, baseball, football and basketball became part of his teenage years at Kickapoo High School – and he starred at outside linebacker in the early 1980s for the University of Central Missouri, never missing a start in four seasons.
Yet it was on the softball field where Middleton’s name rose to the top. You see, he eventually earned a roster spot on the USA National Team in 1992, 1996 and 1998. He also was the recipient of the Herb Dudley Award for the sport’s outstanding pitcher at the 1998 ASA Men’s Major Fast-Pitch National Championship.
Then again, many in Springfield were not surprised that Middleton had success, as he played summer fastball as a teenager, playing for Empire Bank and later with the Schlitz Bulls. The Bulls went on to win the ASA Nationals in their age group four times (1975-1978).
And that’s just the Cliff’s Notes version of his athletic success.
“I was playing softball when I was 10, and my dad decided to put together a team,” Middleton said. “He got us into a league, and we started playing local teams. And then he got us into a major tournament in 1972, and we won it.”
By the time he graduated from Kickapoo in 1980 and enrolled at Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Middleton sensed that – should his time end in the traditional sports like so many athletes – he would continue playing fast-pitch softball.
In his college summers, guess where you could find him? And, usually, that was not only on a softball field but in the ultimate leadership position – as a pitcher in the circle.
Truth is, he became good at it. And then became a wanted man.
Post-college, teams would try to recruit him, as Middleton’s pitches reached speeds of 80 mph and greater. That was his dropball, which is similar to a curveball in baseball. He also had two other pitches, a riseball and changeup.
At one point, he played for Harold’s Supermarkets out of Lexington. Eventually, a team out of St. Joseph called on him, as did a team in Iowa.
The crazy part was that local business owners weren’t afraid to throw their sponsorship dollars towards the teams, as they covered travel and hotel costs.
“At some point, you have to play better teams because you need to see pitchers you haven’t seen before,” Middleton said. “And then it got to the point that we started beating some of the better teams.”
Eventually, Middleton enjoyed a 10-year stretch in the 1990s and into the early 2000s where part of his summers featured international competition, as part of Team USA. That included playing in the Pan-American Games and World Championships.
For a kid who had grown up in the Ozarks, it became an unbelievable experience. After all, he eventually competed against players from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. The kiwis, as they called themselves Down Under, featured some of the best pitchers.
In other words, Middleton stood toe to toe with the best.
“As you get better, people start watching you. And then you get phone calls,” Middleton said.
For Middleton, he not only thanks his dad and teammates for success, but also John Bass, a key mentor.
“He took me under his wing when I was about 11 years old,” Middleton said. “He’s the one who got me involved and encouraged me to stick with it.”
A number of other men’s fast-pitch personalities of the Ozarks influenced him, too, such as Roy Burlison (MSHOF 2015) and an Illinois opponent by the name of Dave Scott.
Along the way, Middleton and his wife, Kristin, raised two sons, Jake and Justin.
“I didn’t play fast-pitch softball to get accolades like the Hall of Fame,” Middleton said. “But I was fortunate to play softball year in and year out.”