Soft Hands Sam Gendusa Starred For Mike Royko's Softball Team
Soft hands and quick feet are valued talents for those who seek to play the game of 16-inch Chicago-style softball, and Sam Gendusa was one of the best at dancing around the first-base bag.
Salvatore J. Gendusa, 75, a gifted first baseman who played on Mike Royko’s championship Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times softball teams at Grant Park from the mid-1970s into the early 1980s, passed away at his home on Chicago’s Northwest Side on March 31st after a long illness.
PHOTO CAPTION # 1: Mustached, slim Sam Gendusa, who resembled New York Yankee baseball star first basemen Joe Pepitone, is second from the left in the back row of this 1974 Chicago Daily News team photo. A young Mike Royko, also sporting a moustache, is standing in the middle of the back row.
Sam Gendusa was a quiet gentleman who let his talented hands speak for themselves while playing a great first base for many North Side softball teams over more than three decades. At 73 years of age, this writer is reflecting on having played Chicago’s game for 47 years. For more than a decade, I was fortunate to be Gendusa’s friend and teammate on many fine saloon and company teams.
Gendusa’s graceful footwork and scoops around first base were recalled by teammate Paul Sortal, a Royko’s Raiders slugger. “Sammy was a dancer around the bag, a master of the two-step—changing his feet to adjust to errant throws. He picked many balls out of the dirt,” Sortal said.
“Gendusa’s father, Anthony Gendusa, was killed in Germany in combat during World War II, when Sam was an infant,” recalled teammate and friend John Nocita, retired Art Director of the Sun-Times. “Sam was a football star at Foreman High School.”
His mother, Vida Gendusa and Sam resided with his aunt’s family until his mother’s death. Sam is survived by two cousins he grew up with, Joseph Grippo of California and Gerald Grippo of Florida.
“Sam was a sweet guy and a heck of a ball player,” recalled teammate Herb Gould, a former Sun-Times sportswriter. “He was a great, smart hitter and had soft hands at first base.”
“Sammy was one of the really good guys,” recalled Sortal. “He was easy going, and fun to visit with post-game because he was interested in his teammates and a good listener.”
A humble and generous teammate, Sam often volunteered to give aching players what he called “back adjustments” with those skilled hands when he was not working as one of Royko’s part-time “softball leg men.” Some teammates insisted Sam could have earned a living as a chiropractor if he was licensed.
Sam also was proficient at wood and furniture refinishing. His work is still on display on the restored surface of this writer’s vintage dining room table.
When Gould decided to strip the stairs in his old coach house and got over his head in work, he recalled: “Sammy came over and made the wood look great in no time.”
A young Sam Gendusa can be viewed in the background on the famous July, 1982, “Royko at The Goat” video on U-Tube, which features a typical Sun-Times’ team victory party at the Billy Goat Saloon on Michigan Avenue’s lower level.
The truth is my college roommate Don (Garbo) Garbarino and I founded the Daily News softball team in 1970, after I tacked an announcement note on the newsroom bulletin board.
Royko, a great lover of softball, saw a good idea and ran with it. “Lad, I understand you are starting a softball team,” said Royko. “Here’s how we’ll do it. I’ll be the manager, and you will be captain.”
I naively asked: “What are the duties of the captain?” Royko said I would have to make the phone calls to players, schedule practices and game dates, and lug the bats, balls and bases. However, as captain I did have the honor of designing the very first Chicago Daily News softball T-shirt.
Thirty-eight years later—in 2008—the Chicago Daily News/Chicago Sun-Times team was inducted into the 16-inch Chicago Softball Hall of Fame as a historic team.
PHOTO CAPTION # 2: The 1979 Chicago Sun-Times team is pictured at the Grant Park Tournament of Champions.(Left to Right—Back Row): Don Garbarino, Bob Gorzynski, Paul Sortal, Don DeBat, Dean Karouzos, Mike Royko, Len Cudzilo, Dave Sortal, Sam Gendusa and Al Hansen. (Front Row): Clark Bell, Jim Warren, Mike Zilinziger, Steve Loh, Herb Gould and Dan Gorman.
Over the years, Gendusa’s and my teammates included such Hall of Famers as Gil Muratori (Bruins), Mike Tallo (Bobcats), Al Placek (Playboys), Tom Bonen (Strikers), Tim Weigel (Royko’s Raiders), and Dan Cahill (Touch), along with a cadre of “AA” and “A” players: Jerry Jess (Beatlebomb), Doug Von Boven (Shoes), Len Cudzilo (Bobcats), Al Hansen (Bakers), Ken Gillard (Baggers), Bob Gorzynski (Woodmen), Mike Skowronski (Strikers), Don Weis (Gaffers), Steve Kus (Stooges), Roger Franzak (Beatlebomb), Dean Karouzos (Risk), and Clark Bell (Royko’s Raiders).
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gendusa and I also played for Royko's Raiders, a “B” saloon team at Clarendon Park and Lake Shore Park. Slim, 6-foot-tall Gendusa also starred as a line-drive hitter for the Nomads at Dunham Park in the 1970s, where he once slapped 20 consecutive base hits to all fields over six games without making an out, recalled Nocita, who pitched for the Nomads, the Daily News and Sun-Times.
Cuzilo recalled: “Mike Royko once said: ‘If there was one softball player I’d trust to get the game-winning clutch hit, it would be Sammy Gendusa.’”
Sam and I also played for Batz, a veteran team in the Portage Park “B” league, and Solidarity, a star-studded team that won the “A” League championship at Kosciuszko Park in the 1980. Many of the fine Solidarity players were of Polish heritage, including Joe Oleksy, Tony Dudek, Steve Wysocke, Glen Placek, Rob Placek, and Mike Skowronski.
“Sammy always said Batz was one of his favorite teams because it was loaded with softball characters and potential future Hall of Famers,” recalled Garbarino, a power hitter who batted cleanup for the Daily News, Sun-Times and Royko’s Raiders.
Batz stars included Jess of Ron “Beatlebomb” Braasch’s legendary Clarendon Park team, Hall of Famer Davey Hardt of the mighty Wolves, and his son, Ricky Hardt, who is still pitching A-league softball at 60 years of age.
In 1985, Solidarity was reborn as Risk, and Gendusa and I continued to play for the star-filled team, which later featured Hall of Famers Al Placek (Playboys), Tom Horn (Lettuce), Sal Ganir (Dwarfs), “AA” stars Gary Bergner (Defenders), Dave Ganir (Dwarfs), Larry Comstock (Defenders) and future Hall of Famers Keith Dickens and John Clausen of the Jets.
With players like these it is no wonder that great Risk team and the Vintage Risk saloon “B” team—managed by this writer—went on to win more than 30 league and tournament championships at Hamlin Park, Horner Park, Oz Park and Trebes Park over the past 33 years.
Simultaneously, the historic Sun-Times team continued to win more than 20 championships in the Grant Park League in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, along with major tournaments, including the 1993 and 1994 Old Style Classic.
Stars on the Old Style Classic team included Hall of Famers Dan Brichetto, Tom (Bomber) Horn, Al Placek and Dan Cahill, along with “A” and “AA” players—Steve Kus, Dave Southwell, Mark Masterson, Glenn Placek, Rob Placek, Dean Karouzos and Larry Comstock.
Several fine Sun-Times tournament teams, organized by future Hall of Famer Bob Egan (Trips), won the tough Mike Royko Classic tournament in Grant Park five times between 2001 and 2009.
Most recently, Vintage Risk’s squad—a blend of seasoned veterans and talented young players—won six championships in 2014, 2015 and 2016 at Horner Park and Trebes Park. After nearly five decades of managing, and playing nearly every softball position—from 3rd base and center field, to short-center field and 1st and 2nd base, and finally as a pitcher for the last two decades—I reluctantly retired from Chicago’s game in 2017 with a few broken fingers and two aching knees.
It was a great ride. Now, I pass the Clincher to the great young stallions of Chicago-style 16-inch softball—those who have the passion to play and respect the only game in town.
Details for a planned June memorial for Gendusa have not yet been finalized. For more information, call Nelson Funeral Home, 847-823-5122, or visit: http://www.nelsonfunerals.com A 1999 Hall-of-Fame inductee, Don DeBat currently is writing, “Chicago’s Game,” a book on the history of 16-inch softball. For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.