Take me out to the ballgame
By Tim Leeds
Havre is a softball town.
Apparently, it always has been.
Whether it's fans crowding the bleachers at Legion games, exhausted players fielding balls at 2:45 a.m. for the annual 24-hour softball tournament during Havre Festival Days, or the hundreds of Little Leaguers of varying ages who sign and mail registration forms every spring, it seems like every citizen of the town is touched by the glove and ball at some point.
Look back 66 years, and fans of Havre ballgames would find a team to really cheer about. A team so talented it seemed the restrictions of aging meant nothing to them. A team so good it went to numerous national and state championships in the seven or so seasons that it played.
This team loved fastpitch softball. In Lewistown on Saturday, fastpitch softball will love it back, when Seel's team of the 1930s and '40s is inducted into the Montana State Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame.
Seel's was started by Bill Seel, a local Havre accountant who didn't play himself, in the mid-1930s. The team wasn't started as some advertising scheme, but instead as a gesture of friendship.
"Most of the players were good friends of his, and he just sponsored them," said Wells Lamey, a former Seel's team member and lifelong Havre resident.
The team competed in the then-bustling Havre City League. Duane Naber, the ASA district commissioner from Havre who nominated the team, was a young boy when Seel's team existed.
"These players were playing before I even knew about fastpitch," the 57-year-old Naber said.
He imagines that during that time, between 50 and 100 teams competed for the state championship every summer. That, he said, added to the difficulty to succeed.
"It was much tougher to get out of the state than it is now," he said. "We had several teams in Havre at the time. (Seel's was) the top team."
Seel's team went to the national championship softball tournaments in Chicago twice in the 1930s.
World War II shut the league down for nearly a decade, with at least three players of the team going off to fight and a slew of others moving away to work.
Lamey remembers the time that Havre league softball started back up as one of high spirits and bright lights thanks to the newly installed lights at Memorial Field on Sixth Avenue. He said Lloyd Kelly, a player for Seel's team after the war and former city softball commissioner, was instrumental in getting the lights.
League play resumed in 1947 with about 10 new players added to the Seel's mix. This team went to the state tournament in '48 and '49 before becoming state champions in 1950. After the '50 season, the older gentlemen who had played on both the pre-war and post-war Seel's decided to bow out of softball gracefully. Lamey fully understood this decision.
"The way to go out is to go out as a champion, isn't it?" he said.
Lamey remembers some of those older teammates as being simply great athletes.
He said Norman Blythe, who was 43 when he won the state championship with Seel's in 1950, could've been headed for a career in professional baseball before he was sidetracked by the fighting overseas.
"The war interrupted his career," he said. "He was that good."
He also talked about the athleticism of Ray Kuka, who played for Seel's and moved away when the league shut down for the war. He moved to New York, where he ended up playing two seasons for the New York Knicks. In 1949 he moved back to Havre, just in time to win the state championship with Seel's.
These are players whom Lamey, as well as the Softball Association, feels should be recognized for their greatness.
Four Havre people who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame are Bob Evans, Dick Sherrill, John Callahan and Gladys Smith players, umpires or commissioners who improved the state of softball in Montana for the better.
On Saturday, the six living members of Seel's will be proud to see their names and those of their teammates added to that list.
According to Lamey, Seel's may not be the best Havre softball team that ever existed. But, if the way he speaks and writes about the times they had is any indication, they did show the sport the most love.
"During the years I played with Seel's ... softball was a way of life," he wrote about the team. "We seemed to wish for the days at work to go by in a hurry so we could get on the field and get the important part of life started which was the GAME."