An international legend
It was a different era. A different time. A different sport. And a different man.
Ollie Fiddler owned a fastpitch softball diamond like none other wherever and whenever he pitched. His one-of-a-kind figure 8, sometimes called a slingshot pitching motion in an era of “windmill” moundsmen, not only had to be seen to be believed, but so too was his unmatched command of a variety of deceptive pitches.
Pure sorcery. Cunning. Absolutely wonderful entertainment. Fans marveled at his incredible ability to send a steady stream of capable hitters, no matter what their talent level, back to the dugout from where they emerged moments earlier.
Fiddler was known for turning seasoned hitters inside out with marvelous change-ups, sometimes so slow a batter completed a powerful swing and follow-through while the ball was still on its way to the plate. Crowds loved him for it. It was so confounding and effective a pitch that it sometimes surprised even Fiddler, who said he often didn’t know he’d release it until he started into his rythmic, curling windup.
The gentle phenom with the broad and friendly smile, the strikeout master who gained rare status as an unquestioned legend of the diamond in two countries, passed away in Minot this past Thursday. He was 85 years old. Those who played with him, against him, and the many thousands who were there to witness the special times when he graced a softball diamond, remember him well. No one who saw him deliver a softball ever forgot him.
“When he came to Minot it raised the sport of fastpitch to another level, another world,” said Dale Olson, Fargo, a former Minoter and a former teammate of Fiddler. “Many nights a couple of thousand people would come out to see Ollie pitch. Mickey Mantle was my first hero but I couldn’t get enough of Ollie Fiddler.”
Jim Collins, Minot, who would later join the ranks of fastpitch players, recalls when he first saw the twirling Fiddler work his confounding magic against some of the top players in the sport.
“I believe it was 1954 that I saw him for the first time at the Minot International Tournament. He made me think, do I really want to play this game?” remembered Collins.
In 1961 Fiddler had a similar and striking impact on Olson.
“I was about 15 and rode my bike to the International games. When I went home I told my mom that I saw a guy pitching for Saskatoon that was phenomenal. I’d never seen a guy throw like that,” recalled Olson.
Fiddler became a United States citizen after moving from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Minot in 1968. He was already 21 years into his stellar pitching career and well known throughout the Canadian provinces for his achievements. At 34 years old he was at the age when many athletes would be considered past their prime. The ageless Fiddler proved otherwise. His exploits were unheard of for a pitcher of any age.
When Fiddler pitched for Minot teams, fastpitch softball was a nationally organized sport conducted under the direction of the Amateur Softball Association of America. State, regional and national competitions were all played under the ASA banner. The sport attracted many of the top athletes in the country.
Fiddler was feared by teams wherever he threw. He could beat anybody, anywhere and usually did. The diamond wonder threw a no-hitter in a North Dakota state championship game. He pitched Minot teams to state titles in 1968, 1969, 1979 and 1984. An aging Fiddler took the mound for Minot in the National Masters Tournament for players age 40 and over, pitching his team into the semi-finals before losing to San Diego, California 1-0. He was 57 years old.
“He was incredible. A legend,” said Olson.
As incredible as they were, such performances by Fiddler didn’t surprise Olson. He recalls Fiddler’s first appearance at a major tournament in Fargo when Phil Jackson, then a rookie with the New York Knicks who would go on to coach the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, came to the plate to face the man with the unique delivery and superb skills.
“I remembered Jackson as a good baseball player,” said Olson. “He was playing for a top team out of Grand Forks. The place was completely packed. Jackson struck out swinging on three straight change-ups and the crowd erupted. It was just incredible.”
Jackson batted a second time with the same result and then took himself out of the game. Olson encountered Jackson at a water fountain between innings.
“He said who is that guy? Where in the hell did you find him? To this day he remembers that moment,” said Olson.
Mike Littler caught Fiddler for more than a dozen years, many times traveling to softball crazy Canada for tournaments that attracted top teams from throughout the provinces.
“It didn’t matter where we went, people came up to Ollie and shook his hand. He was an amazing representative of the sport,” said Littler.
Littler remembers other moments involving Fiddler too, including a tense game when he felt the umpire wasn’t giving Fiddler the low strike. With two runners on base and top hitters coming up the worried Littler made an emphatic trip to the mound.
“Ollie put his arm around me and calmed me down,” said Littler. “He said don’t worry about it. I’ll strike the next two batters out and that’s just what he did.”
It is a story the confident Fiddler would never tell. Boasting was never part of his game. He never acted in any manner to show up a hitter.
Today the era of men’s fastpitch softball has long passed, but what a wonderful time it was!
Fans gathered at ball diamonds in great numbers to watch the games. That was especially true if Fiddler was on the mound. He wasn’t hard to find. All a person had to do was look for the largest crowd at a softball complex. There in the middle would be Ollie Fiddler, the master of the mound. He mesmerized fans, baffled hitters and did it all with astonishing grace and class. Minoters were extremely fortunate to witness his feats.
“He was just an incredible guy. He didn’t say much but everything he said had meaning,” said Peder Rice, Minot, who played with and against Fiddler. “It was almost like poetry watching him. He was so smooth. He’s a legend.”
George Killmer, Minot, pitched with and against Fiddler teams when fastpitch softball dominated the summer sporting scene.
“You put him on a diamond and he was the best. He was the best anybody could be and there wasn’t a nicer guy,” said Killmer.
When Fiddler was inducted into the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan hall-of-fame in 1993 his career win total was listed at more than 1,500 games with over 14,000 strikeouts. He tossed an astonishing 42 no-hit games and more than 400 one-hitters. He did it all without a hint of braggadocio. He was a showman but never a show-off, choosing instead to let his remarkable pitching and calm demeanor do the talking.
“He relied on his ability,” recalled Killmer. “I had all the respect in the world for him.”
Always humble, never distracted, his unassuming behavior set an example for others to follow, whether in uniform or not. His presence on a softball diamond was so infectious that even fiercely loyal fans of teams he was pitching against regularly applauded his abilities.
“He was the most respected player anyplace he went to pitch,” said Jerry Hoiland, Minot, a former teammate. “Nobody ever got on him. He was a gentleman. I never heard him raise his voice. He was one heck of a guy.”
Jack Nybakken, Minot, who played with Fiddler, is one of many who has similar memories.
“You couldn’t find a more humble individual. I always thought he was a special person in addition to being a great ballplayer,” said Nybakken.
Now the legend has passed. Tears have been shed by those he never knew, true testament to an absolute gem of a gentleman whose grace, ability and dedication propelled him to the top of his sport.
Though he received countless honors for his achievements on the diamond and accolades from hundreds of fellow players and thousands of fans across Canada and the U.S., it somehow never quite matches up to the greatness exhibited by the legendary Ollie Fiddler.