Millstadt native Bob Mueller was one of the top fast-pitch softball pitchers in the Belleville City League throughout a 27-year career that included helping the South Side team win a state title in 1994.
Tim Hopkins was one of the top third baseman in the league during that same period and played 25 years for several teams. The two had several memorable matchups, according to Mueller.
"Tim was a great softball player," Mueller said. "He was a tough, hard-nosed competitor, and (he) had to be while playing third base all those years. And what a hitter. I played against his dad, Mike Hopkins, who was also a very good hitter. But Mike was the type of hitter who went to all fields. Tim was more of a dead pull hitter. He had tremendous power."
The two were tops in their era in a sport once wildly popular in Belleville.
Mueller, a 1978 graduate of Belleville West, and Hopkins, a Freeburg High School graduate, will be among 14 who will be inducted into the St. Louis Softball Hall of Fame on Tuesday at the Genesis Banquet Center in St. Louis.
The 44-year-old Hopkins, like Mueller, played in parks throughout St. Louis during an all-star career that spanned 25 years, playing for Mueth's Tavern and the Wolfpack. He also played several seasons with St. Louis GMC and others in St. Louis. An excellent high school baseball player while at Freeburg, Hopkins carried that ability over to the softball field.
"I started playing the game right out of high school," Hopkins said. "I played for a long time in the Belleville City League with Muerth's and then the Wolfpack. Then I played the last few years in central Illinois. No doubt it, though. I loved playing the game. Some of my most fun memories are of playing softball at South Side Park and throughout the metro east area."
While Hopkins and Mueller were excellent players during the glory days of the Belleville City League, both are disappointed by the lack of interest in men's fast-pitch softball in the metro-east area in recent years.
"Is fast-pitch softball dying in this area? Yes, I think it is," Hopkins said. "When I started playing I think we had 12 to 14 teams in the league. Then it seemed like we lost one or two teams each year. It's disappointing, but I really think it all boils down to pitching."
When it comes to softball pitching at South Side Park and on softball diamonds throughout the metro-east, Mueller was one of the best. A mainstay for one of the top teams in Southern Illinois, Mueller was a key member on the South Side team that won the state championship in 1994.
Averaging over 30 starts per season over his 27-year career, Mueller estimated he pitched 40 times on the 1994 team that finished with a 67-13 record. The 58-year-old Mueller was also picked by a Fairview Heights Merchants team in 1980, which placed second in the state tournament and went on to place fourth in the national finals.
"Each year, a team was able to add two players to its postseason roster and I got picked up by a team that went on to place fourth in the nation," Mueller said. "That is really what makes this special.
"I loved playing softball. It's given me a lot of great memories and I have gotten to meet many wonderful people over the years. It's been a lot of fun going over some things in preparing for the (induction) ceremony."
Mueller, like Hopkins, feels that the diminished popularity of men's fast-pitch softball has to do with the lack of quality pitching.
"What it came down to is that teams weren't willing to lose," Mueller said. "We had guys who were willing to pitch, but teams weren't willing to lose in order to break the new pitchers in. The Catholic schools promoted fast-pitch softball for years and years. A lot of people played softball instead of baseball. They were playing Friday Night Leagues and other places.
"Pitching fast-pitch softball isn't something you can just pick up. It's tough to do to be 35 years old and decide to be a fast-pitch softball pitcher. Again, what it came down to is that teams didn't want to lose. They didn't want to wait for a 25- to-26-year-old kid to develop while standing out there playing the game and getting beat bad."
Fortunately for Mueller and Hopkins, the thrill of playing fast-pitch softball at a high level became one of their passions. And on Tuesday, they will receive the ultimate honor.
"It really is a tremendous honor and one I really appreciate. It will be a great night," Hopkins said. "I think there are like 12 to 14 of us going into the Hall of Fame. You have some umpires going in as well as some of the top women softball players around.
"I loved playing softball. To play 25 years and to be able to go into the Hall of Fame for the way I played the game, it means I must have played it fairly decent."
Mueller said he is also humbled by the honor.
"It's a tremendous honor,'' he said. "Pitching softball isn't as hard on your arm as being a baseball pitcher, and you can pitch more often.
"But your arm does get a little tired when you're pitching in a tournament and you are pitching your third game of the day. I am also very grateful to my family. They supported me and just allowed me to just play ball."
Tickets to the Hall of Fame banquet and induction ceremony will be available at the door and are priced at $40. The evening begins at 5:30 p.m. with the social hour followed by dinner at 6:30 with the induction ceremony to follow.