Up until 1983, the Northern Trust Bank’s corporate softball team had limited success. About every other year, the team finished second in their Grant Park league, which qualified them to play in the GP Industrial Tournament. Once in the tournament, however, success was fleeting. They would maybe win their first game, but rarely would go any deeper in the tournament. However, in 1983, that all changed when Northern Trust won its first tournament and never looked back, winning over another dozen tournaments over the next twenty years.
The team’s good fortune changed when Steve Sims and James Hudson joined the team. Steve and James played for the Hustlers, a South side powerhouse team that used to winning. However, Steve’s entry into the team was not as smooth as one might expect. During the March tryouts, Steve in particular did not stand out. In Chicago, March weather can be very brutal. That March was no exception and Steve did not fare well in it. It’s fair to say that Steve was not a “cold weather player” that year. After the final tryout, he waited breathlessly to find out if he made the final cut. Steve lamented, “I play on the Hustlers, but I may not make the bank’s team!” Well, he did make the team and history shows that his selection was the correct one because he was arguably its best player during many of the championship years.
Once on the team, Steve and James joined incumbent starters Jerry Frey, Bob Brei, Gene Partipilo, and Mike Rohan. After finishing second in the league again, they entered the GP Industrial Tournament with a different mindset. Although not physically imposing (remember, they were bankers going up against railroad men) they prided themselves on solid defense and timely hitting. After beating their first four opponents, they played Rheem Manufacturing. Rheem was expecting to finish off an unbeaten season, having won all their league and other tournaments that year. However, Northern surprised them and won 13-8. For many players on the team, this was their first taste of championship in a long time. The following year, the Northerners repeated. Once again, they faced Rheem Manufacturing and once again they were victorious.
Northern Trust continued to win but didn’t reach the championship round again until 1989. In the final game, Northern Trust was up by one run in the last inning against Santa Fe. Santa Fe’s leadoff man and speedster was on second with one out. Time was called and when play resumed everyone knew their number three hitter would jack one as far as he could hit it. If not a home run, it would likely score the tying run. Just as expected, the ball was shot into the right field gap. The Northern Trust players all hoped that they could hold them to just one run when John Oplt, their right fielder, defied the odds and not only caught the ball, but whirled and threw it back towards the infield. Jerry Frey caught the throw and relayed it home to a waiting catcher Johnny B. The ball and the runner arrived at the same time and amid the cloud of dust, the umpire strained to determine whether Johnny held onto the ball. Reminiscent of a Hollywood ending, when the dust settled, up from between the sliding runner’s legs appeared a hand with the ball in it. Game over; Northern won.
There are many reasons why the men of Northern Trust played the game. This was one of them. That story was told and retold time and again whenever two or more of them gathered in a bar, at someone’s house, or in the bank cafeteria. Every championship had its own memories. Some were won when the least likely player got a key hit or made a great play. Some were won when the star players performed as expected. One was won when a player, not expecting to play, showed up and was inserted into the lineup to make the eighth player necessary to start the game. Had he not shown up, the game would have been forfeited and we would not have gone on to win the tournament.
From 1983 thru 2002, the Northern Trust Bank team won 475 games, over 80% of all games played including tournament games. Key players on those teams include:
Jerry Frey Bob Brei Gene Partipilo
Mike Rohan Steve Sims James Hudson
Ron Spivey Norm Cavedo Dan Doherty
Maurice Oattes Chris Cobb Daryl Miles
Terry Davis Reggie Knighten John Oplt
Perry Gholston John Bierwaczonek Ray Carney
Jeff O’Neill Bob Yess Robert Parker
Randy Blackwell Barry Perry Bob Sturgis
Tas Vasilakos Joe Yacullo Jim Van Pelt
James Jensen Dave Hbrabrich Bob Keeley
Dwayne Lee Jon Pivoney Pat Woolfe