Eddie Zolna, the only Chicago player to be inducted into the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame, died Tuesday at his home in Frankfort at 85 of complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
The pitcher’s Bobcat teams won 12 ASA national titles between 1964 and 1980. In total, he “played and directed teams to more wins and tournament victories in the history of the sport, including several World Championships,” according to his biography on the website of the Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame.
In 1989, “Eddie Z” became the first and only 16-inch player inducted into Oklahoma City’s ASA Hall of Fame, softball’s governing body. And he was the only player to be MVP three times in national tournaments.
Mr. Zolna grew up in a family of five kids at 51st and Washtenaw, the son of Slovak barkeeper parents who ran Zolna’s tavern.
He went to St. Simon the Apostle grade school, where the nuns pulled the pen out of his left hand to encourage him to use his right. As a result, he batted left and pitched right, relatives said. He attended St. Rita High School before he transferred to Gage Park High because “he was a little mischievous,” said his daughter, Jeanne Dresden.
He worked a decade as a Chicago Police officer and detective before opening his own insurance agency.
Like many Chicago softball players, Mr. Zolna had battle scars. “He broke his nose, he broke his elbows — he’d get into a lot of fights,” his daughter said. His had bunions from squeezing into too-tight cleats. He couldn’t wear a wedding ring because a player sliding into base carved Mr. Zolna’s ring finger with his cleats.
Still, he liked to keep up appearances. He polished his nails with clear lacquer “just so he’d look good when he was selling insurance,” his daughter said. And when he went out for Pilsner beer with Lorraine, his wife of 62 years, he insisted they were going out “for cocktails.”
Mr. Zolna met his future wife in 1951, as she watched her brothers play ball at 48th and Aberdeen. Later, he hid an engagement ring in a bowl of popcorn, but when she said she didn’t want any, he took her hand and guided it to the ring.
He was known for putting together teams with powerhouse players nobody had heard of. “They would say his roster was the Chicago phone book,” said another daughter, Jayne Zolna. “He would spot someone playing against him [and say], ‘C’mon, kid, you’re on my team.’ ’’
Though Mr. Zolna didn’t recruit him, he also played against one of the most famed softball aficionados: newspaper columnist Mike Royko.
Mr. Zolna “was a fantastic player, a very competitive player,” said Bill Plummer, a retired manager at the ASA Hall of Fame. “He was a showman.”
For a time, Mr. Zolna managed a 12-inch pro league slow-pitch softball team, with former Cub Joe Pepitone as president and first baseman, Jayne Zolna said. Pepitone was renowned for his abundant hair, but in reality, he had “a gamer” — a special toupee for games, she said: “Dad used to tease him — Joe was the first player to bring a blow-dryer into the locker room.” Mr. Zolna tried a hairpiece for a while but switched to hats.
He pitched more than 5,000 games during his career, according to the Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame website.
The Zolnas raised their children in Palos Heights.
In the winter, he bowled in leagues. “Bowling keeps me in shape for softball and softball keeps me in shape for bowling,” he once told the Chicago Sun-Times.
When he went out to a tavern, Jayne Zolna said, “People would say, ‘There’s the guy that invented the game.’ ” Mr. Zolna co-wrote a book, “Mastering Softball,” with Mike Conklin.
In addition to his wife and two daughters, he is survived by another daughter, Judy Zolna; a son, Eddie Jr.; and one sister, Mary Zbella. He had seven grandchildren, one of whom died before him, and two great-grandchildren.
Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Kurtz Memorial Chapel, 65 Old Frankfort Way, Frankfort. His family plans on dressing him in a suit and his Three Stooges tie, with a softball tucked in beside him. The funeral service and burial will be private.
Contributing: Dan Cahill