By Gene Lehmann, Chickasaw Nation
Enid — A Chickasaw athlete known for feats of brilliance on softball fields throughout Oklahoma and the nation was inducted into the Oklahoma Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame Jan. 25.
The honor bestowed upon Vernon Straughn came 58 years after his death from injuries sustained in a 1955 automobile accident. He was 43 when he died.
Straughn’s inclusion in the hall is a “dream come true” for his family, according to Straughn’s 72-year-old son, Lance, who has worked tirelessly to bring recognition to his father. Straughn’s pitching and hitting skills are legendary among sports writers and softball aficionados.
He once pitched a 19-inning game, fanning 47 batters in a 1-0 shutout while playing in a league in Ardmore. He took the mound in a national championship game in Cincinnati, Ohio. His son still has his warm-up jacket from that contest, one of few mementos to survive a 1943 house fire.
Straughn could fling a softball an estimated 100 mph. He could hurl a curve ball and a slider. Those pitches are unheard of with the enormous sphere of a softball because both require a rotation of the wrist and a downward “snap” from either the index or middle finger. Additionally, he pitched in an old-style “figure 8” rather than the “windmill” motion predominate today.
Lance Straughn estimates his father played in 800 games during his short life. Many times, he played for more than one team at a time.
While Straughn excelled on the softball field, he is just as well-known and beloved for contributions to scouting. He served as a Boy Scout master most of his adult life, according to his son. Straughn’s wife, Lillian, was a Cub Scout den mother.
“Kids considered him a second dad,” Lance Straughn said. “We always had a lot of kids over at the house. He was a great man who cared about others and helped them whenever he could.”
Huge man, big heart
Born Jan. 4, 1912, in Wilson, Straughn’s mother was Frances Carlton Straughn, an original enrollee. His great-grandfather traversed the Trail of Tears in 1837 when the Chickasaw Nation was removed from its ancestral home in the southeast.
He stood 6’2” and weighed in at about 220 pounds.
“It was solid muscle, too,” Lance Straughn proclaimed.
Straughn was an imposing figure on the diamond, and his stature “scared the fool” out of competitors. Despite his athletic prowess, he held down a day job with Shell Oil as a gasoline engineer. He was employed by the company for two decades, his son remembered.
It was a simpler time in America. It was a time when one’s passion outside of work was often embraced by his employer. Such was the case with Vernon Straughn. While he was also an explosive football, basketball and track performer for Wilson High School, his true love was softball.
During the Great Depression, World War II and into the 1940s and ‘50s, it wasn’t unusual for companies to sponsor softball and baseball teams, particularly in the South. Townsfolk would fill the stands to watch people they knew and worked with battle it out on the baseball diamond.
“A lot of the time, Shell would let him off to play because it was a big deal back then,” Lance Straughn said. “Everybody went to the games. All of the big companies and many of the smaller ones sponsored teams.”
The companies received advertising by sponsoring teams with company names and logos splashed across uniforms.
Back then, local newspapers dispatched writers and photographers to contests, thus giving sponsoring companies “free” advertising on sports pages.
Straughn’s three sons — Lance, Marlin and Barry — quickly learned playing catch with dad had its challenges.
“Even when he laid off a pitch, catching stung like a thousand bees,” Lance remembers vividly. “He would just wear you out. His pitches would rock you backward and, man, it hurt so bad.”
Indeed, Straughn’s brother, Glenn, refused to shag pitches with a catcher’s mitt.
“He wore a first baseman’s glove to catch for dad during games,” Lance said.
A first baseman’s mitt is elongated and is heavily webbed. Due to its shape, a ball can be caught without impacting the hand encased within it.
While Glenn Straughn saved his hand, his brother’s fastball destroyed the glove.
“Dad would throw so hard it ripped out the webbing,” Lance said.
Batters could tell when Straughn was “on his game” or “off his game” by the mere sound of the pitch as it raced by them.
“Dad’s pitch had a big ‘whoosh’ sound,” Lance said. “Batters who faced him with regularity could tell by the sound if dad was throwing full bore or pacing himself.”
That doesn’t mean the information helped them hit a Straughn pitch. It didn’t.
Baseball and softball fans live for statistics. While the compete record of Straughn’s 22-year career is not available, here are just a few that are documented:
• Of 218 games pitched, he won 167.
• Pitched 1,540 innings.
• Pitched 14 “no hitters.”
• Pitched three perfect games, considered the “coup d'etat” of pitching excellence.
• Pitched in 17 state, two regional and one national tournament.
• In the 80 games where data for both hits and strikeouts are available, Straughn had 909 strikeouts while giving up 240 hits.
• He had 1,005 strike outs in 85 games.
If you apply that average to all of the documented games, Straughn had more than 2,500 strikeouts in 218 games.
Unfortunately, since statistics of games compiled during those years were sporadic at best, putting together a full record of Straughn’s career is difficult.
“Many times, newspapers would publish only the final score,” Lance said.
That won’t deter him from working toward having his father inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame, however.
“I worked hard to get dad into the state hall of fame in 2012, which would have been the year of his 100th birthday,” Lance said. “I put together all the information available and sent it to the state softball people and never heard a thing back from them. Then, suddenly, I receive a letter saying dad was accepted into the hall of fame this year.
“We are very pleased and happy,” Lance said. “Now, we can get to work on a national level.”