SF Gay Softball League Prepares For First Pitch Of 45th Season

This Sunday marks the beginning of the San Francisco Gay Softball League’s 45th season.

Before the players take the field and the first pitch is thrown, join us as we take a look at the league as it was 45 years ago and as it is today.

From High Heel Races To Organized Softball

Jerry Pritikin, our photographer friend who lived in the Castro back in the day, told us that getting involved in city’s gay softball league was “one of the best things ever to happen” to him.

In the early 1970s, six San Francisco gay bars decided to host a picnic up along the Russian River one Sunday.

“There was nothing to do,” Pritikin said, “and so they got together and provided buses. There were high heel races and drinking and things like that, but someone brought some softballs and bats.”

“What was amazing,” Pritikin said, “was the good talent that was all of a sudden discovered that afternoon.”

Jerry Pritikin, pictured here, in 1976. | Photo: Emory Reife/Facebook

Organized softball in San Francisco sprouted out of that afternoon of fun, and the community softball league was established in 1971, making it one of the oldest gay sports' leagues in the nation.

Pritikin got involved during the league’s second season when he began doing publicity for Al Hanken’s Roundup bar, and like many of the league’s early players, Pritikin hadn’t played much softball.

“If you told a guy to go play right field,” laughed Pritikin, “they sometimes didn’t know where right field was.”

The league ended up being more broadly popular. Pritikin told us that about half of his team—Oil Can Harry's—was made up of non-gay players.

“These guys brought their wives and girlfriends and mothers and kids to watch our games," Pritikin said. "Even Meals on Wheels would invite senior citizens and drop them off to watch our games.”

Hundreds and sometimes thousands would come out to watch the gay softball league play every weekend.

“The sport brought us together more than ever before,” he said. “It became a social thing.”

Spectators at a softball game in '75. | Photo: Susan Ehmer/SF Chronicle

Playing Since The Beginning

Pat Conlin, who co-owns the Pilsner Inn, has been playing softball ever since the league was created 45 years ago.

In the league’s first season, he played left field because he was “young and fast.” Now 84-years-old, Conlin occasionally plays first base.

He told us that there are only a handful of players left who’ve been playing softball as long as him.

“I’ve enjoyed playing,” Conlin said, “and it’s good exercise. It’s a good sport to get out and do things rather than sit inside and do nothing.”

The biggest change that Conlin has noticed over the past five decades is the number of teams in the league: it’s gone from six to more than 50.

“It was much smaller before,” Conlin said, “and there were fewer rules way back then about how many straight players you could have and how many players had to be gay. The league just kept growing and growing and growing.”

The Roughriders pose for a photo in 2009.  | Photo: Marc g./Facebook

A Field Of Their Own

Compared to Conlin, Vincent Fuqua, the league’s commissioner of nine years, is practically a rookie—he didn't get involved in softball until 1990.

Fuqua was a part of the league’s first season that allowed LGBTQ youth under the age of 21 to play. Because a majority of the teams were sponsored by local bars, minors had previously been prohibited from playing in the league.

“It was an incredible experience” said the Sunset resident. “As a shy kid, it was a bit nerve wracking, but it was great to get involved and play as a youth.”

The league has traditionally been open to everyone, regardless of age, orientation, and identity.

The SF Dawgs in 2013. | Photo: SFGSL/Facebook

Orlando Diaz, the league's vice commissioner, has been playing in gay softball leagues around the country for 30 years and has been participating in San Francisco's league for the last 13.

“It’s the most inclusive league I’ve ever played in,” Diaz said, "But back in the day, it was more about fun and community. It still is today, but the level of competitiveness has really gone up."

Also more competitive today than in years past is field availability in the city.

“It’s extremely challenging to find space to play in San Francisco,” commissioner Fuqua said. “We’re constantly competing with other sports.”

The fields that are available tend to be in worse condition than they used to be.

The Knockers, pictured here in 2015. | Photo: Khmera R./Facebook

“Our biggest challenge,” said Fred Lessley, who’s been playing softball since 1998 and lives in the Castro, “is that the city raises fees on our fields, but they don’t improve the fields."

Fuqua said the gay softball league pays more than it used to for field access—over $50,000 a season.

The SF Gay Softball League occasionally plays in Daly City, and this year it will experiment playing some of its games in Alameda.

“We wish we could have access to more fields,” Fuqua said. "I'd love for San Francisco to build a large complex where everyone can play."

The Crush give a shout-out to its team sponsor. | Photo: SFGSL/Facebook

The SF Gay Softball League is preparing its bid to host the 2020 Gay Softball World Series, an event that would bring over 5,000 players from more than 100 North American teams to the city.

Should the bid go through, however, the tournament will likely take place outside of San Francisco. When the city hosted the world series in 2001, games were played in San Jose.

“We’re a San Francisco league," Fuqua said, "but we might have to travel to the South Bay in order to play. The city's fields aren’t sufficient to host a world series."

Regardless, San Francisco's gay softball league will persist.

“We’ll continue to support each other and build community,” Fuqua said, “regardless of where we play.”

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