For two decades, from approximately 1945 to 1965, Clearwater was the center of the fast-pitch softball world.
That was the heyday of the 10-time national champion Clearwater Bombers.
“We were all kind of home grown,” said Clifford “Junie” Trombly, who joined the team in 1945, shortly after finishing his World War II military service, and managed it in 1979. “It was really a local bunch that came up through the City League and got together. All-star teams were picked from the City League and that’s how the Bombers got started.”
There were no upper or lower age limits for the players, but most started in their early 20s. Most were Clearwater High School graduates, although a few were alumni of nearby high schools, such as Tarpon Springs.
One notable exception was John Hunter, a hotshot left-handed pitcher imported from Nashville, Tenn., in 1950. Not coincidentally, that was the year the Bombers won their first national championship in Austin, Texas.
At first, the team was sponsored by the Blackburn Brothers lumber yard and was known as the Blackburn Bombers. Wally Blackburn, the son of one of the owners, played for a year or two.
Initially, the team played at Green Field, a neighborhood baseball diamond where the Philadelphia Phillies trained before Jack Russell Stadium was built.
“The bleachers would seat 300 to 400 people,” Trombly recalled. “But the nails stuck through and, if you weren’t careful, you’d rip your fanny.”
When Jack Russell Stadium opened in 1955 the Bombers played their home games there. But they also played plenty of “away” games.
“We traveled all over,” Trombly explained. “Chattanooga, Tenn.; Atlanta, Ga.; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Midland, Mich. and Canton, N.C. were among the places we played.”
A couple of the players were good enough to make the transition into professional baseball. Outfielder Ray Mink played minor-league ball in Birmingham, Ala., and Bobby Forbes, who played right field and first base, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But for most of the players, softball was just a hobby, and they went on to other careers. Former manager Doug Mason now sells real estate in Clearwater and Joe Everett is an attorney.
Every other Tuesday, former Bombers, whose team disbanded in the early 1980s, get together at Capogna’s Dugout, a baseball-themed eatery on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, to reminisce over lunch. Star catcher Harry Hancock might be there. Or Myron Guthrie, the first baseman who now lives at Top of the World, might show up. Or maybe Dean Robinson, who joined the team at the end of its golden era.
“We’re getting depleted as the old-timers pass away,” Trombly lamented.
Last year, star pitcher Herb Dudley died of congestive heart failure in Virginia at the age of 87. Dudley, who coached and taught at Clearwater High School for 30 years, is estimated to have won 1,000 games. During his 50-year fast-pitch softball career, he pitched an estimated 100 no-hitters.
The Amateur Softball Association, the national governing body of softball, put Dudley in its Hall of Fame and established the Herb Dudley Outstanding Pitching Award, which is given to the best pitcher in the annual national tournament. Dudley was also inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame.