It all began a long time ago in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. A young man named Dave Neale at 19 years old was fighting golden gloves. He was learning then that if you keep fighting the same guy everyday you will eventually beat him. He carried that thought process with him throughout his life . It definitely helped him win softball championships after softball championships. That way of life paid off as Dave helped coach his Steele’s Silver Bullets to the 1988 USSSA Men’s Major Softball crown that was held in Long Beach, California.
Dave Neale graduated from Rhodes High School in 1956 and lettered in three different sports, football, basketball and track. Right after high school he got married and had 5 children. Early in his marriage you could see his love and passion for the game of softball grow stronger and stronger.. He started playing softball in 1957 for a team called Trio Tavern. It was then that he realized what he wanted to do. He wanted to coach his own softball team some day. Little did he know that someday he would be coaching one of the finest softball teams ever assembled.
Dave played on a number of teams over the years, Swing Inn, Pyramid café, Number One Lounge, Pesano’s Rest., and Hillcrest Tavern. In 1965 he was tabbed for second team All American as an outfielder for Swing Inn at the ASA Nationals. They say the crowds were in excess of 10,000 people all weekend long. In the Cleveland area he was a four time All-City selection and still holds the record for the most home runs in the city tournament with 16. I had 15 in 1979 when we won the city championship with our Hillcrest Tavern team. Dave proved he could still play when at the age of 49 in 1987, he suited up to be able to fill a complete lineup when some of his Steele’s players were injured. He played 3 games that day and pitched in all 3 games. He ended up going 5-7 in one game and ended up hitting .600 for the day in Muncie, Indiana.
Hillcrest Tavern was a bar that he and his brother Jim owned, so why not sponsor your own softball team His Hillcrest Tavern teams played in their first ASA Men’s Major in Parma, Ohio in 1977. In that tournament were the teams like Ken Sanders, Nelson’s Painting Service, Howard’s Furniture, Jerry’s Catering just to name a few of the teams. His Hillcrest team finished a respectable 9th place. In 1978 he took his team to California for the ASA again and this time defeated Ken Sander’s 3-2 on a field where the wind was blowing straight in. Ken Sanders the manager and owner of the team told the umpires he wanted the game changed to another field. Dave came out onto the field and ask Ken if he was nuts? After all the arguing the game stayed where it was and we put Ken Sanders into the losers bracket. The Hillcrest team finished 5th that year and was knocked out by Nelson’s Paints.
Dave was a very aggressive manager during those days and was not going to let anybody get in his way. After 5 years of having his own team he got involved with Ted Stepien and put together a team with some players from the Pro Softball team in Cleveland, the Teamster 293 team and our Hillcrest Tavern team. We were called Nationwide Advertising and played in the N.S.P.C. The N.S.P.C. was then what the USSSA Conference is today. They had all of the best teams in the country playing in it and that made for some great slo-pitch softball. We finished right behind Howard’s Furniture that year good for second place. Dave had made a promise to Ted Stepien that he would do the amateur thing for one year and then he would coach a team in the Professional Softball League. He coached our team call the Cleveland Competitors that year and guess what happened? We finished in second place again. It was then that Dave decided to go back into the amateur ranks and try his luck there again.
The first thing he did was take over Steele’s Sports Company. He joined forces with Dennis Helmig (USSSA Hall Of Famer) to put together the best amateur team money could buy. In 1983 we took the best players in the Cleveland, Ohio area and went after the championships that had eluded him. The cream of the crop in Cleveland proved to be the way to go but guess what? We finished in second place again to Jerry’s Catering from Florida in the USSSA Men’s Major World Championship. So over the winter Dave, Denny and Jerome Ernest decided the best way to beat the best was to go after some of the players from some of the other teams to try and win that first championship. In 1984 we picked up players like Mighty Joe Young, Greg “The Bull” Furhman, Dave Steffen (ISA Hall Of Famer) and slick fielding Rick Trudeau to try and win that first crown. It just was not to be as we opted to play in the ASA Major that year and lost to Cable TV to finish in 4th place.
It was in 1985 when Dave finally put all the pieces together to win that championship that he was looking for. We got Craig Elliott to play for us and that was really all we needed to do was get a player of his caliber and it seemed like everything fell right into place. Over the next few years Dave really excelled at coaching his softball teams. That year we won the ASA Men’s Super Nationals in Birmingham, North Carolina over Elite Coatings. This was the first one of many championships for Dave. He had finally come into his own as a softball manager.
Dave was the kind of guy who didn’t care much for trophies and awards. All he wanted was to know that when he left the field he was the winner. Period! He loved the thrill of victory. He also would bet anyone who wanted to put a friendly wager on any game.
Dave loved to watch softball and was always looking for that great athlete. While barnstorming the countryside with his team he would be scouting the players. He would try and pick out the best athlete, not so much the best softball player. Then you try and turn that athlete into a great softball player. He would look for an all around athlete. An athlete with speed. He used to like to hear people say Geez, look at that big guy run, not how far he can hit a softball. His ideal team was not one filled with all home run hitters. The reason being he said was where would he put Rick Weiterman. Rick was a team leader and the best base hitter he ever saw. His perfect softball team would be if someone came up to him and say we want to play your team in basketball or football. He felt he could beat you in any sport with the players he had over the years.
Dave was a firm believer in preparation for the big tournaments. He wanted to work on it all year long. He use to say ”wind them up and watch them play”. He use to keep an eagle eye out during batting practice, not just during not just during the game. Every now and then he would see a player like myself try to hit it too far. That’s when he said you would lose your natural swing. Hitting can be a funny thing. When it’s going good it’s going good. When it’s going bad it’s going bad. The best players in the world go bad. They are all the same. They are only human. Dave was a firm believer in practice. The more you practiced the easier it got.
One thing about Dave was the he always played up. He never dropped down to win a tournament. He always tried to play the best possible softball that there was to play in the country. It all goes back to 1959 when he found out about softball. And that is the way he wanted it until the day he died. He would say that managing is the same as it always been, you are only as good as your players.
Dave Neale Sr. retired from Steele's Sports Co. in 2000 after working for the company for more than 18 years. During his career he won all of the associations respective world tournaments. He has been inducted into all 4 softball Hall Of Fames. He is in the Greater Cleveland Hall Of Fame. One of his biggest joys was winning the Smoky Mountain Classic 3 times.
During the last couple of months I would go and have breakfast with Dave and we would talk very little about softball. We would always be talking about what team was going to win the next game, meaning pro sports. Dave loved to gamble and that was something else that he enjoyed. I would ask him this question, do you think we created a monster with our teams over the years. He would say no! What we did was bring the softball game to the people. We put together the best team we could and promoted the game of softball. He used to say “we were all softball people”. I asked him one time was there something that we should have changed during our careers. He said “maybe we should have never played with the poly balls”. “Play the game with cork balls like it use to be and maybe the game might be different today”. Other than that he said “softball is still a great game”. Every now and then he would go down to watch the city tournament with his buddy Andy Okulovich.
On January 16th of this year we lost Dave. Dave Neale passed away at 70 years old at home after a short illness. His family was by his side. All I know is his softball legacy will live on forever.