YOUNGSTOWN - When Bill Sferra first played softball, Youngstown was a hotspot for men's fastpitch softball.
Sferra was just 16 and still a student at Ursuline High School when he joined the "Lil Parker" softball league that played its games at Oakland Field and the now defunct Tod Park at Brier Hill in the 1950s. He had to audition to even make the team, which differs from the slowpitch leagues nowadays.
"It wasn't like slowpitch, where you just get a bunch of guys and you have a good time and get a team," Sferra said. "In fastpitch, you tried out for a team and a lot of guys got cut. So, you got to be really good to make one of the good teams in that era.
Tribune Chronicle / Jeff Lange
Bill Sferra of Youngstown throws out the first pitch for the 11th annual Mahoning & Trumbull Fastpitch Senior All-Star Game. Sferra has made major contributions to the sport over 60 years, starting as a catcher at the age of 16.
"At that time, the fastpitch (softball) was probably just as strong, if not stronger than baseball. I started in that league when I was about 15 years old, which was one of the younger guys in the league at that time."
Following 60 years of service to slowpitch varieties, Sferra, 67, has received the honor of having a game named after him - the Mahoning and Trumbull Fastpitch Senior All-Star game. In its 11th version, it was renamed as the inaugural Bill Sferra Fastpitch Classic.
"That makes me feel good," Sferra said. "I don't know if I deserve it or not, but I really appreciate the honor."
Sferra starred as a catcher for 10 seasons in the men's fastpitch league, posting a career batting average of .300 and leading the league in hitting in 1958. He said his favorite memory was when his team, Costello Paints, finally overcame a rival.
"We was always No. 2 to Sons of Italy, and this one year we beat them out," the Youngstown native said. "We made the state tournament, and they didn't, which was one of the biggest feats that I've had."
An injury forced Sferra to end his playing career before the age of 30, but he didn't let that keep him away from the game. He eventually became the director of the men's fastpitch league and developed a Saturday slowpitch league that grew to more than 30 teams under his direction.
Sferra also became an umpire at 30, and since then, he's earned plenty of honors and respect not only in the state but across the country. He was the recipient of the National Federation of High School Umpires Association "Umpire of the Year" award in 1999, and he received the same award from the National Softball Association (NSA) in 2004.
In Ohio, he officiated 10 Ohio High School Athletic Association softball state finals, as well as 15 regional finals. He has been an OHSAA assignor for 26 years, selecting who will umpire games in the area.
"That's a pretty good honor because you're picked by the coaches," Sferra said of being picked for the state finals. "It's a good atmosphere. Actually them games are probably a little bit easier. They're all serious about the game. The normal squawking doesn't exist much in the state game. Everybody wanted to be there."
As with many things in life, Sferra said a lot has changed during the time he's spent involved with softball. The main aspect to which he pointed deals with girls and the emergence and continued growth in importance of travel ball in relation to success.
"They almost have to play not quite all year round, but they have to play in either travel leagues or after high school, they won't be able to compete," Sferra said. "That stuff didn't exist (back then). It never existed for the men, but for girls, they have to start when they're probably 10 years old and get lessons."
Although he's accomplished so much already and is getting remarried (his late wife of 49 years, Claire, passed away a few years ago), Sferra's influence on the game in the Mahoning Valley and the state won't end any time soon. He said he plans on umpiring and assigning for a little while longer.
"I assign for about 18 schools now, and I'll continue to do that," Sferra said.