Hall of Famers Revisit Glory Days
06/28/2016 08:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
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By Lisa Hanchey
Back in the 1950s, a group of guys started up a fastpitch softball open league in City Park in New Iberia. Most of them had been playing together in their neighborhoods since childhood. In the 60s, the league converted to slowpitch. “The best part back then was that anybody who showed up could play,” recalls long-time player Jimmy Robicheaux. “It was us against them.”
Eventually, industrial companies and law enforcement agencies formed organized teams and played at Bank Street ball fields alongside the open league. Tournament games became so popular that they were held almost every weekend. Family vacations centered on tournaments held in Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas. “Our wives knew before they married us that we would be playing every weekend, no matter what,” says Ferdinand “Pop” Gilliam.
Robicheaux adds, “That still applies to me. It was an every weekend thing. Once I had kids, they would say, ‘Daddy, where are we going this weekend?’”
In 2004, the New Iberia Recreation Department decided to honor outstanding players by creating a Hall of Fame. Twenty highly respected players were inducted into the inaugural New Iberia Recreation Department Softball Hall of Fame Program. Since then, 89 members, for a total of 109, have joined its ranks, 35 of which are now deceased. “When we were coming up playing, we looked up to them kind of like our idols,” says Hall of Famer Larry Hensgens. “Even to be nominated and accepted into the Hall of Fame – it’s emotional. It’s very touching to know that they think of you as much as they do. We just enjoy playing the game and the camaraderie.”
To be considered for this award, nominees must be age 60-plus or deceased. “We just played for the enjoyment of the game,” says Class of 2004 member Robicheaux. “We never expected to be honored for that. We put guys together who had been friends forever. Their wives got to be friends, their kids got to be friends.”
The event has grown significantly from its humble beginnings. In 2004, the Hall of Fame ceremony consisted simply of a banquet and an introduction of the inductees held at the recreation center. Still, the inaugural event was a roaring success, with 500 inductees and guests attending. The inaugural class consisted of J.B. Broussard (deceased), Louis Buteau (deceased), Voorhies Begnaud, Ricky Dartez (deceased), Bob Dugas (deceased), Gilliam, Square Hensgens (deceased), Curtis Hulin, Hardy Landry (deceased), Theo Landry, L. J. Norris, Wallace Polk (deceased), Herbie Pourchiau (deceased), Alfred Raggette, Robicheaux, Elwood Rose, Eddie Sorrel (deceased), Mickey Suire (deceased), Dalton Touchet (deceased) and Pliny Walet (deceased).
After a few years, committee members streamlined the number of nominees to 6-10 annually and moved the program to the Sliman Center. Thanks to loyal sponsors, the event is free for all attendees. “We don’t know of any other recreation department that has a Hall of Fame like we do,” Hengens says. “We are very fortunate that we have the support of the recreation department and the mayors. We put the banquet on for free. There is no cost to the city of New Iberia.”
For inductee Larry Hensgens, the most special banquet was in 2004 when his father, Square Hensgens, was inducted into the first class. “To see my hero get inducted – it was just a dream come true,” he recalls fondly.
Recreation Department Program Coordinator and Hall of Fame Program Co-Chairman Pat Thibodeaux’s most memorable moment occurred in 2007, when he arranged to have inductee Ted Williams’ son, who was serving in the military, call from Iraq during the banquet. “I tried to call Ted’s son a few minutes before Ted was supposed to go onstage, but I was unable to reach him,” Thibodeaux recalls. “While the emcee, Ray Escuriex, was on the stage introducing Ted, the call came in. I walked onto the stage and put the phone up to the microphone so that Ted’s son could tell his father how special this moment was to him. Then, the two were able to talk privately on my phone. Ted was very excited that he got to talk to his son. That was a special moment. People in the audience were crying.”
At this year’s event held in February, six members were inducted, including Chris Blanchard, Mike Comeaux, Gerald Faulk, Wilfred “Bucky” Manuel, Pat Trahan and Lloyd Verret. Each inductee was introduced by the speaker of his choice, who spoke a few – or not so few – words about the honoree. “Initially, it was supposed to be about softball, but then it became about what happened when ‘so-and-so’ was hunting or fishing, or on a trip,” says Hall of Fame member Chris Blanchard. “Sometimes the talks go on for 15 to 20 minutes about the inductee. If you play softball with somebody for as long as we have, there are a lot of things you can roast them on.”
But, the speeches all have a common theme – the special bond between the players. “I don’t care who gets up there to give his talk - it always comes down to the camaraderie that we’ve all shared,” Hensgens reveals. “It always ends up being about all about the friends you’ve made playing softball – lifetime friends.”
“It’s a brotherhood,” chimes in 2004 Class member Donald Segura.
And a sisterhood. In 2005, the Hall of Fame Program inducted its first female member, Margaret Romero (deceased). Among the 2008 inductees is Yvette Girouard, former coach of Louisiana State University’s and University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s award-winning championship softball programs. The men’s side also boasts a celebrity – former pro baseball star Terry Fox, who played for the Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Braves and Philadelphia. Now in his 80s, Fox continues to play in the annual Hall of Fame game.
This year’s Hall of Fame game was held on May 7 where it all began - at the Bank Street Ballpark. Approximately 40 players stepped up to the plate – six of whom were over 70 years old and two aged 80-plus. “Everybody bats, but not everybody runs,” Robicheaux says with a laugh. After the three-inning game, players and spectators enjoyed jambalaya cooked up by inaugural Hall of Fame class member Segura.
Looking forward to the next banquet is the Class of 2017, including long-time program emcee Escuriex, Danny Faucheaux, Rene Gary, Keith Oliva, Russell Polk, Perry Romero, Shelton Romero and Teddy Segura. Hall of Fame committee members hope to add a third team of Hall of Fame game players in the future.
For seasoned veterans, the Hall of Fame award is particularly poignant. “A lot of people get awards when they are 20, 30 years old,” Robicheaux says. “But when you get to be as old as we are and you get to stand or sit on the stage and get recognized by your peers in front of your wives, your siblings, your kids and your grandkids, and you get to an accept an award - that makes me feel really, really special. Everybody who is getting this award is deserving of it and their families get to participate in it – it’s the most special time in your life.”
Older Hall of Fame members continue to enjoy playing the game. “We’re still in pretty good shape for our age,” says inductee Larry Viator. “But now, some of us are hurting when those tournaments finish.”
Robicheaux says that this famous quote from George Bernard Shaw captures how these Hall of Famers feel: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old: we grow old because we stop playing.”