Covering sports in Orange County for a long time now, I’ve been told many a story about different athletes and great games that have come out of Orange County that were “before my time.”
One of those sports that I heard a lot about was men’s fast pitch softball and some of the local legends. It was a big deal from the 1930’s to the 1980’s where big business would sponsor traveling teams. You could get a job at a plant if you were a good softball player or you could get a raise by going from one plant to the other if you were a star player.
Guys would work graveyard shifts and then drive to Houston if that’s where the next tournament was and play four or five games on a Saturday. And then do it again on Sunday. No matter who was telling me the story, one name would always come up in conversation of the “best pitcher I ever saw.” His name is Louis Nance.
Nance will get his due February 21 in Houston when he is inducted into the Fastpitch Hall of Fame. I didn’t know there was such a thing and so when I asked Les Koenning, who nominated him, why it took so long for Nance to get in considering the stories I’ve heard. Koenning, now 83, said, “Well the greater Houston area didn’t mean going all the way to the border before now. Louisiana has one but they don’t recognize Texas players so we thought it was time we included Southeast Texas. And Louis was one of the first players I thought of.”
So I asked, could he bring it? “Yes sir, with the best of them,” he said. “Louis and I were both pitchers and we probably played together 18-20 years. He had a dropball that would buckle your knees.” But what about the heat? Could he really throw a softball over 90 mph? “Yes, and then some,” he said. “Louis was one of the greatest competitors I’d ever been around. Great person too.”
Koenning, who was once the athletic director at Hamshire-Fannett from 1965-74, also has a son Les Koenning who has been an assistant football coach at schools like Texas, Texas A&M, Duke, Houston and Alabama. Koenning said he and Nance had a rule when they were playing together, give up two runs in a game and your done. Bring in the next guy.
I grew up around Louis’ brother Donnie Nance in the McLewis area with his three boys, Gary, Dean and Tim. And Donnie’s home was the cleanest thing I’d ever seen. You could have a picnic without a blanket and paper plates because his grass was so clean. So it was no surprise to me when Koenning told the story about Louis would sometimes be absent from the ballpark in between games because he would be out in the parking lot washing his car.
Also like Donnie, Louis can be a man of few words. But I had to give it a shot considering the honor he is about to receive.
“Oh it’s alright I guess,” when I asked him about his induction.
Nance, now 82 and still a regular at the walking track, said he played for a number of teams in his career but it all started in the church league. “My brother played and that’s why I started playing. I taught myself how to pitch and guess I got pretty good at it.” Striking out 20 in a game wasn’t unusual for Nance but he remembered one game striking out 21 on a Saturday morning after working the graveyard shift.
The teams he played for included Conn’s Furniture, Sherman Lumber, Lighthouse out of Port Arthur, and Houston White Glove, which was a cleaning company. He also played for Reilly’s Rebels out of Refugio, Texas. How’d that work? “Well most of the tournaments were in the Houston area so they would just meet up with the rest of us when they got there.”
His daughter, Cara Campbell, called those days “some of the best times of my life. He would go to Port Arthur to practice almost everyday and we wouldn’t get home til 9pm or so. Then we would travel to a different town every weekend.”
Nance will be inducted with Dale Westmoreland, Gene Falls, Eddie Warren, Manuel Navarro, and Vince Ortega. Congrats Louis!
-Gary Stelly, KOGT-