1960s and 1970s: The Chemistry Graduates Softball Team

Submitted by Diana Knight on

by Peter Stonebraker, Ph.D. ’73

In fall 1967, I entered the University of Washington as a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry. By the end of the winter quarter, fellow-student Parker Ashurst and I determined there were enough chemistry graduate students interested in playing softball to form a slow-pitch team. We named it the “Chem Grads” and signed up to play in both the 1968 spring quarter student and faculty/staff (F/S) intramural leagues. Our initial roster listed just 10 players, in theory exactly a full team, but we often played with only eight or nine. Still, we quickly became very good.

The Chem Grads won the F/S league and made the student league playoffs that first spring, taking particular satisfaction in beating teams from fraternities. We continued to win, and by winter 1969 I concluded that we were proficient enough to compete in a slow-pitch league managed by Seattle Parks and Recreation. By 1971 we became champions there as well. We also competed in various other summer leagues.

After 1970 we limited our intramural participation to the F/S league, winning both the spring and summer seasons, but no longer enjoyed defeating fraternity teams in the student league. Instead, Applied Physics Lab (APL), which had formed a F/S team that also followed us to the Seattle leagues, became our main rival. In the spring of 1972, we beat the Math Department’s team for the intramural championship, confirming our claim that among scientists, chemists are the best athletes.

Pictured: Standing (L to R):  Dave Ellsworth, Gary Masada, Peter Stonebraker, Bob White, Russ Labar, Doug Schaaf. Front row (L to R): Parker Ashurst, Rex Cates, Gary Barfknecht, and Ken Schmitz. 1969 at Riverview Playfield in West Seattle. Photo Courtesy of Gary Barfknecht

Also in 1972, myself and eight other team members upgraded to a Seattle AA league. Sponsored by the Universal Plastics company, we played 20 games per season instead of our former 10. We also competed in a few weekend tournaments, including the Greater Seattle Slow Pitch softball championship in the summer 1973, where we made it to the finals. In 1972 I also helped form the Greater Seattle Slow Pitch Association, with more than 1,200 teams, and served as the president from 1972-73.

The Chem Grads roster changed as student players graduated and others arrived. During my five years, the team included nearly 20 different chemistry grad students and staff members, plus a visiting sabbatical faculty member from Australia, a grad student from the Botany Department, and another from Health Science. A significant number of these players had a variety of high school and college athletic experiences and virtually every player earned a PhD! A partial list of players (and their positions) includes:

  • Parker Ashurst—pitcher, catcher
  • Gary Barfknecht— catcher, pitcher
  • Rex Cates (Botany)— shortstop (left-handed)
  • Dave Ellsworth— left center field
  • Steven Flajser—infield and right field
  • Dave Green— right field, first base
  • Art Greeno— pitcher
  • Russ Labar—pitcher, several infield positions
  • Gary Masada—second base, shortstop, pitcher
  • Dave Rhodes (Health Sciences)— right center field
  • Doug Schaaf— left field (left-handed, batted right)
  • Ken Schmitz— catcher
  • Peter Stonebraker—first base, outfield, pitcher
  • Bob White—third base

Unfortunately, the names of others have faded from memory. Charter team members who did not play all five years include Ashurst, Barfknecht and Labar. Ellsworth, Greeno, and Schaaf have since passed away.

Ken Schmitz and Gary Barfknecht were our mainstay catchers. Gary Masada covered second base and shortstop for two years then became an All-Star pitcher. Bob White played third, and Rex Cates, our Biology PhD recruit (and current professor at Brigham Young University) was our left-handed shortstop. I mostly played first base and outfield. Dave Green held down first when I played elsewhere. Our outfield was strong, with Doug Schaaf in left and Dave Ellsworth in left center. Initially, several players, including me, handled right-center. But in 1970, Dave Rhodes, a 6’-6”, 220-lb. former NAIA basketball all-star and Health Sciences recruit became our fixture at that position. Dave Green, Steve Flajser and others roamed right field.

For any given intramural game, we had to be flexible regarding who played where based primarily on who could show up for the late afternoon games, and we often played with fewer than a full-complement of 10 players. City League play involved a more consistent and structured lineup.

I kept batting and fielding records that showed the best players (Schmitz, Ellsworth, Rhodes and Schaaf) consistently hit over .500, and even the lowest average was a strong .350.

During 1968-70 we also fielded a fast-pitch softball team. Though we had good pitching (Labar and Masada) and good defense, we lacked timely hitting and found the slow-pitch game fit us better.

Our defense, smart playing, solid hitting and yes, team chemistry, were the keys to our success. We executed many inning-killing double plays and even one triple play. Our left fielder (Schaaf) made a running shoestring catch for the first out, threw to second to catch the runner off base for the second out, and a throw to first also caught that runner off base for the third out, ending an inning that was not looking good for us in a tight game.

Other strong memories include:

  • The many department fans who showed up for our championship games.
  • Accidentally inflicting a serious injury during a Capitol Hill summer league game when, during a double play executed by us, our second baseman fielded the ball and threw it to our shortstop, who crossed second base then threw to first. The runner going to second successfully blocked the throw, but with his face and suffered a broken bone under one eye.
  • A Seattle City League game against the King County Sheriffs—college “long-hair freaks” vs “straight” cops. As I rushed to catch a ball hit into shallow center field, I saw a large sheriff’s deputy tagging up on third. In stride I rifled a perfect throw to the plate. The deputy, however, welcomed the opportunity to run over Gary Barfknecht, our smaller, long-haired, bearded “hippy” catcher and did so. Gary hung on, and the deputy was tagged out but trash-talked anyway. Gary, a Minnesota native, picked himself up and replied, “I’ve played hockey my whole life. I’ve been hit harder!”
  • Perhaps nothing pleased me more than beating teams that had overlooked or dismissed us. After one such game, I chatted with an opposing team member. He casually asked what the “Chem Grads” meant. I’ll never forget the astonished look on his face when I told him we were chemistry graduate students, most on a PhD track.
  • In the summer of 1973, after making the finals in the Greater Seattle Slow Pitch Championship and winning the F/S championship again, I left and relocated to San Francisco for a career at Chevron. I’m not sure if the team carried on. I hope so, as there were some talented younger chemistry grad students capable of creating their own Chem Grads memories.

Editor’s Note

Many thanks to Pete for working on this story. We contacted several alumni mentioned in this story while Pete was recording his memories. As he describes, students graduated and left the team and others joined in. If your participation on the team partially overlapped with Pete’s, you might have other memories. We hope you enjoy reading Pete’s memories and perhaps you are inspired to submit your own stories of extra-curricular activities while at the UW that you fondly recall. Submit story ideas to our Alumni Update Form.

10/13/2021 Update: Caption added to photo with list of names of people pictured.

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