Headnote: It’s been awhile since my last post. Sorry about that, but the deadline for the Maccabiah book is just about a month away (barring an extension). But this piece, which comes from my other blog, has a connection to this one as well so here you go.
* * *
I have always aspired to play softball at a high level. In my current situation, I play in a 50-and-over league which means most of the guys have kids who are out of the house, which relieves them of a lot of child-rearing responsibilities. Which, as you might guess, leaves the more hard-core among them with more time to play softball.
As much as I love to play, I could never envision myself playing in three and four leagues at a time, as do some of my leaguemates (a few who are even married), much less making a “career” out of it.
But if I could be involved to that extent, I would want to be like Dave Blackburn, a Paul Bunyanesque character who, in addition to his “secular” competitions, was a staple of Team USA at six Maccabiah Games.
Blackburn was on his way to a game in 2010 when the van he was in was involved in a horrific accident. He was the most seriously injured of his teammates: he broke more than two dozen bones, was placed in a medically-induced coma for two months, and had part of his right leg amputated. Recovery took more than six months.
“He was larger than life: personality, size, and ability,” said Jeff Bukantz. United States chair of Maccabiah Games for in 2013 and again for 2017
In a telephone conversation, Bukantz called Blackburn one of his best friends since they day they met during orientation prior to the 1985 Games.
“I was on the [pay] phone with my wife, about to say goodbye for 17 days… All of a sudden I see this gigantic guy come out in a pro wrestler’s robe and a championship belt. Dave was a softball player, I was a fencer, but here we had something in common because we were both nutty about pro wrestling. So I immediately said to my wife — even though there was no one on line at the time — ‘sorry, there’s a long line here, I gotta go. Love you, goodbye,’ and I went over and immediately introduced myself to Dave and wound up spending the night til about two in the morning telling wrestling stories in the dorm with him and his softball buddies. It was the most random meeting.”
Bukantz has been involved in the Maccabiah since 1981 and aside from his fellow fencers, Blackburn “became my closest friend.” Over the years, in addition to their Maccabiah get-togethers, they visited each other’s homes in California and New Jersey and remained in frequent contact.
Another thing they had in common: both of their fathers competed at extremely high levels in fencing and softball. “We always used to talk about the Halls of Fame that our dads were in… and how proud we were of them. And after we finished talking about our dads, we said ‘Well, what about us? Maybe we could be in some Halls of Fame, too, and follow in our dads’ footsteps.’ We would talk about that and dream about that.”
A few days before the accident, Blackburn called Bukantz to tell him had had been elected to the International Softball Congress Hall of Fame. “I was so happy for him, I said, ‘Dave when is it going to be? Give me the date, I’ll be there.’”
Bukantz’s voice caught a bit as he recalled the details of the injuries and the healing process. “Here was this guy who was like 6’3″, 300 pounds with calves the size of a world -class weight lifter. The guy was mammoth and all of a sudden here he was, sitting in a wheelchair.
“That was sad, but Dave didn’t let you be sad…. Whatever was going on inside of him, he kept a stiff upper lip and he was always laughing, whatever sick jokes we were telling.”
As chair of Team USA in 2013, Bukantz made a decision with Ron Carner and Bob Spivak, president and chair, respectively, of Maccabi USA: “Whatever it takes, we’re going to get Dave there. However it is, however much money we have to raise, whatever the logistics, we’re gonna get Dave there.
“I think Maccabiah was a huge part of his life,” Bukantz said. “We had a three-time rule [limiting athletes to three Maccabiah Games so other can participate]. I think Dave went to six,” because of the importance of the pitcher to softball perhaps more than another other position in any other team event. “And Dave was the man, he was always the man, even as he got older…, he was still our best guy. He took great pride; he was ‘Mr. Maccabiah.’”
Bukantz made Blackburn a banner-bearer for the Opening Ceremonies. Even though he was in charge of the entire U.S. delegation of more than 1,100 athletes, coaches, assistants, and support staff, “I just went down to the infield and stayed with him almost the whole time because I knew it was an important moment in his life, that he lived to make it to this moment, and I wanted to spend it with him.”
The U.S. won the gold medal at every level of softball during those Games: open, juniors, masters. “The plan was that when it was [all] over, as they’re giving the medals out, all the teams would come out, and from each country, everyone who had the number seven would take their [jersey] off and give it to Dave because they were retiring his number…,” Bukantz said.
Less than a year later, Blackburn would die of a heart attack at the age of 54.
“You wish you could rewrite history,” Bukantz said. “But if you had to do it over again, you couldn’t write a better farewell than that one night. It was really something else.”
Blackburn was working on The King & Me, a documentary weaving together the stories of Eddie “the King” Feigner, world famous softball pitcher, showman, and promoter, along with the tale of the Maccabiah Games, the Maccabi USA softball program, and Blackburn’s involvement as primary pitcher on its international traveling softball team.
The project is still on the producers are looking for financial assistance to bring this fitting tribute to fruition. Admittedly, it will be a monumental task to raise the remaining funds in the brief time left, but the holiday season is a time of miracles, isn’t it?