The “ace” of the pitching staff of the Piqua Fastballers who led the Piqua men’s fastpitch softball team to national and international status from 1985 – 1988 has died at the age of 75 in Lansing, Michigan.
The Fastballers team put Piqua on the national map of men’s fast pitch teams during their tenure from 1982 – 1990 bringing national and world-champion teams to play the locals in Piqua during a heyday which saw the locals, and Gaffner, traveling throughout the U.S. and Canada as they established themselves, and the Piqua community, as a hotbed of the sport playing in a renovated Lower Mote Park facility where they frequently drew large crowds
Willie Gaffner, a Michigan State University graduate, was one of the top fast pitch softball pitchers in the Midwest for over 30 years pitching for top teams in Ashland and Piqua in Ohio as well as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and in Midland, Pontiac, Detroit, Lansing, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
He joined the Piqua pitching staff in 1985 and pitched the Fastballers to the International Softball Congress (I.S.C.) Ohio area tourney championship in that season and into the I.S.C. World Tourney in Kimberly, Wisconsin. (Gaffner notched 26 wins with a 1.41 earned run average). The following year, Gaffner teamed with fellow Michigan resident, Jimmy Doyle, in pitching the Piqua team to the Ohio Major Fastpitch A.S.A. state title and into the A.S.A. Major National Tournament in Seattle, Washington. (He won 23 games and had an e.r.a. of 1.74) Then in 1987 Gaffner anchored the Piqua pitching staff in winning the A.S.A. Regional title and into the 1987 A.S.A. Nationals in Springfield, Missouri, where the two teams which defeated Piqua finished as champions and runners-up in that national event. (Gaffner had a 1.54 e.r.a. in that season). He led the Fastballers to a runner-up finish in the A.S.A. Regionals in 1988, his final season with Piqua.
In addition to his team record of lowest e.r.a., Gaffner established the team mark for consecutive shutout innings (32.1) and most strikeouts in a game (18 in a 12-inning game).
Gaffner is remembered by Gordon Wise, the Piqua Fastballer Co-Founder and General Manager during that era, as a “quality person as well as a top-flight pitcher. Willie allowed us to compete with the best teams in the country. He was a class act through and through and a marvelous mentor to our young Fastballer athletes”.
Gaffner was a physical education teacher in Michigan, and during the spring would make the 218-mile trip from his home down to Piqua, even for the weekly Wednesday night doubleheaders, pitch the first game, then hop back in his truck and return for school bright and early the next morning.
During Gaffner’s years with the Piqua Fastballers, teams appearing on the Piqua home schedule included the Clearwater, Fla. Bombers (10-time A.S.A. U.S. National Champions); Seattle, Washington “Pay ‘n Pak” (reigning ASA National Champions and I.S.C. World Champions); the multi-year A.S.A. National Champion Aurora Sealmasters/Home Savings; and the Allentown, Pennsylvania “Sunners” (with the all-time top left-handed pitcher of the sport, Ty Stofflet, – – who lost to the Fastballers in a 1-0 contest).
Gaffner’s pitching teammate and Fastballer Co-Founder, Doug Plank, remembers him as “making me better as a player and as a person.” Plank continued, “Willie had a great rise ball and an excellent drop. At times he would go into a zone where he had total command of both, and batters were nearly helpless against him as he became as good as any pitcher in the country. An intellectual as a pitcher, he was always thinking of what he needed to do in the next game as he walked off the mound with another win. Willie Gaffner had a strong faith. While he never forced it on you, we all knew he was a Christian. I once asked him if he ever talked to Jesus while he was pitching. He answered, ‘Why yes, I just did. I said Jesus that is a poor umpire!’”
Teammate Kent Wise called Gaffner “an elder statesman who was respected for what he had done – – and was still able in his 40’s to do it. We really looked up to him. Willie was one of the fiercest competitors I ever played with, and that fire went up a notch in late innings or when he got a man on base. Not the typical pitcher, totally non-flaky, he could have a discussion of serious topics while involved in a tense game. Playing third base behind him, I trusted Willie. He was not going to throw a pitch that the batter would take my head off with a line shot.”
Former teammate and Field Manager Dave Hepner recalls Gaffner as a “great friend who would drive hundreds of miles to join us wherever we were playing. I recall one Tuesday night, Willie arrived at a diamond in Columbus just in time for the first game, and just as a cloudburst of a rainstorm hit – – and Willie calmly got back into his truck and drove back to Michigan – – just an amazing guy. I am glad to count Willie Gaffner as my friend.
Gaffner was a key player in the Piqua emergence among the top fast-pitch men’s softball stops in the Midwest during their heyday seasons from 1984 – 1988. Rest in peace, Willie Gaffner.