By Martin Cleary
The Ottawa Jewish Men’s Softball League, which debuted as a baseball loop for one religious group but is now thriving with a strong blend of Spanish-speaking players, is 100 years old.
Mazel tov. Feliz aniversario. Happy anniversary.
But the orthodox-style pitching league almost didn’t make it to its centennial milestone.
That’s right. Blame it on the COVID-19 pandemic, which played havoc with all sports leagues at all levels in the region for three years.
But somehow the once-thriving league of recreational softball players survived the shutdown, rose again last year and is flourishing this season with an increased abundance of upbeat tunes, barbequing and family fun, which is driven by the players with Dominican Republic, Cuban and Venezuelan nationalities.
The pandemic completely closed the league in 2020, but the attempt to resume softball games for 2021 was weak and concerning.
“At one point, there was just us (the Zephyrs) and the Gargoyles,” said league president Ami Wise. “We didn’t play any league games. It was just exhibition games to keep it going.”
Once every two weeks or so, the Zephyrs and the Gargoyles would gather at the Hampton Park diamonds to hit, field, share a laugh or two and play without umpires. Memories are fuzzy, but they played about eight games that year.
“We absolutely thought the league would fold,” he added. “There were just two teams. But we kept it going with two teams.”
Once the pandemic faded and sport returned to its pre-COVID-19 structure, the Ottawa Jewish Men’s Softball League magically came alive again. There were four teams in 2022.
This season, three new teams, which formerly played in other Ottawa leagues, wanted a taste of orthodox-style softball, which sees the pitcher deliver the ball underhanded in a straight line using a bowling motion.
The league was originally designed to give Jewish men a circuit of their own when they weren’t accepted into other leagues. And while it still has a good contingent of men of that faith, a lively Spanish element has spiced up Game Day.
The Blue Jays entered the league in 2018 and were joined this season by the Brewers, Los Rockies and Leones. The players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela have added a whole new dimension to the game, including pre-game cooking, lively music and supportive families.
“We have seven teams and that’s a good jump from four (pre-COVID),” Wise continued. “It’s the biggest since I joined in 2007.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, the league was known to have as many as 10 teams in one season.
“We’re an independent league and we used to be affiliated with the Jewish Community Centre until about 2017. One of the big realities is we are becoming less Jewish. We had more Jewish players before, but fewer now. But we keep going.”
Being Jewish isn’t a prerequisite to play in the league and Wise, who once wrote a story about the history of the league, added he didn’t think it ever was a requirement.
“We retained the name for the legacy and reputation of the league, being a gentleman’s league,” he said.
Today, the league also has grown with more diversity.
“It’s definitely lively on game nights. The parking lot is filled with music, food is being made and there’s intergenerational families.”
Before Wednesday night’s games, the Blue Jays were in first place (9-5-1 for 19 points), while second spot was shared by Leones at 9-6-0-18 and Los Rockies at 9-5-0-18. The standings are completed by the Cardinals at 8-5-1-17, the Zephyrs at 6-7-1-13, the Brewers at 4-7-1-9 and the Gargoyles at 0-11-0-0.
Game nights are Wednesdays and Sundays and each team will play once or twice a week at the two Hampton Park diamonds.
“It’s nice to have enough teams. Then there’s no existential threat the league will go under, like in COVID,” Wise explained. “It’s our own league. It’s a social outing for Ottawa men to play ball together.
“The diversity is great, a bonus. It’s nice to have the Latin cultural approach to softball. It’s a good level of ball.”
The league would like to recruit more teams for the future, but it’s one of the items on its to-do list, requiring more time and people. It’s also not easy finding orthodox-style pitchers in a sport dominated by windmill-style pitchers.
The league has been home to several generations of the Osterer family and David, the circuit’s historian, is proud of that as well as thrilled to see the league become more multi cultural.
“It means a lot to get out there and enjoy myself. How often can you play with your dad (Irving) and two brothers (Daniel and Robbie) at the same time? It’s a unique experience,” said Osterer, who’s impressed by the all-around camaraderie in the league.
“I love how people are talking about the league. We get crowds. I owe a lot of it to the Latin teams. They bring their families and friends.
“We welcome people of all walks, no matter if they have religious practices or not. If you want to play, you can play.”
In 2024, Osterer would like to see an eighth franchise brought into the league.
“I hope we can get an even number of teams,” he said. “Eight would be good. If we can grow and book more fields and branch out more, I’d love it. We don’t advertise, but people found out about us.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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