By Shelley Grieshop
What started out as a ball tournament for area bar patrons has grown into the largest Muscular Dystrophy Association softball fund-raiser in the world.
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the MDA softball tournaments held each year in Coldwater. More than half a million dollars has been raised since its debut.
It all started in 1980 with Dale Buschur, co-owner of a bar/restaurant in Coldwater, who had an idea to start a tournament for non-league players.
"I knew I could find about six teams, I just wanted to start a small softball tournament," Buschur, 57, said.
The event would be dubbed the burn-out tournament -- no league players would be allowed to play. Organizers wanted players only "of the same caliber," he said. (That rule later changed). Buschur and partner John Kesson approached Coldwater Memorial Park officials and asked them if the event could be held on the village's ball diamonds. Under one condition, officials told them: There could be no profit made. All funds collected had to go to charity.
Buschur knew immediately which charity it would be, even though he'd never met anyone afflicted with the disease.
"I remember watching the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon each year and never once did I see any contributions from Mercer County. So I thought, OK, let's give all the money to MD," Buschur explained.
In just a few weeks, with flyers posted throughout the area, Buschur had 20 teams and the telephone was ringing off the wall, he said.
"I probably turned down 10 teams that first year," he said. "I had no clue how to run a tournament of that size."
Buschur went back to park officials and got the go- ahead for the weekend instead of just the afternoon. Seeking a little free publicity from the MD Association, he asked the organization to send a representative. Thinking a first-year fund-raiser would net just a few hundred dollars, MD officials declined.
The final tally for that first-ever tournament: $7,329.
"They (MDA officials) couldn't believe it, they kept asking me how we did this," Buschur said laughing.
In the beginning the winning trophy was a flat tire -- yes, players played in the hot sun all day on dusty diamonds to take home an old, flat tire. Today, shiny plaques and gold trophies are awarded and bragging rights are taken home, too.
"If you win the Coldwater MD tourney, you sort of win the "big one" around here," Buschur said.
MD officials are still mystified by the amount of money raised each year at the park in Coldwater. Amounts donated the last 10 years range from $23,000 (during a rainy weekend) to more than $40,000.
"Just to think that for 25 years the people of Coldwater and surrounding communities have raised more than $650,000, it's phenomenal," said Amanda Hussong-Cox, program coordinator for the MDA of Greater Miami Valley, Dayton.
Hussong-Cox said the organization is thankful; they realize the commitment involved is huge and requires massive numbers of volunteers. More than 850 local volunteers help make each year a success.
"Still, it seems every year they find ways to make it bigger and better," Hussong-Cox said.
Hussong-Cox and Buschur said there are a few surprises in store for organizers this year but would not reveal the "big secrets." On the anniversary of the 20th year, Jerry Lewis, founder and host of the national MD Telethon, released a proclamation announcing the event as officially "the world's largest." Although invited often, the comedian's health has kept him from attending, organizers said.
A women's softball tournament was organized two years after the men's and also has grown in size from a mere eight teams. This year there are 40 men's teams and 25 women's teams paying to play -- and a waiting list for teams who want the chance. Three Canadian teams again will cross the border to participate.
"If you have a spot in the tournament you could put it in your will," Buschur said with a laugh. "It's that important to these players."
A lot more than softball goes on during the five-day extravaganza, which begins Wednesday night. There are horseshoe, bean bag and even hillbilly golf tournaments, raffle drawings are held and skydivers drop from the clouds onto the playing field. Live music and a variety of food is available -- literally something for everybody.
"It takes a lot of people to make this work, it's a real team effort all the way around," Buschur said.