It was bound to happen.
When my Advocate column addressing the career of former softball pitcher Mark Smith went online last week, before the day was out I had received an email and a phone call from Pictou County. Both readers raised the same thing — – how I rate Barry Semple’s career with Smith’s.
In response, I defined how opportunities had expanded greatly in softball from Barry’s era to Mark’s time. When Barry was a star, top teams could advance only to Maritime championships. By Mark’s generation, clubs could reach international and world stages. Spotlights had become much brighter.
I reiterated that I have always considered Semple the best softball hurler ever in Pictou County. As I noted in my second book, Remembering Pictou County, I said he was certainly the most talented I watched back in the 1950s and ’60s.
It was long ago that Barry excelled with the Scotias, so I perhaps should review some of my memories of him. To do so, I’ll reference a few separate matters.
I begin in 1958.
I had said goodbye to engineering studies at St. Francis Xavier University and was preparing for journalism classes at the University of King’s College. My summer job was covering senior softball for the Evening News.
The Scotias were big.
Reporting on their games gave me the chance to know players like Barry Semple and his twin brother Brian, and others like Scow Vincent, Jack McArthur, Dempie Murray, Doug Brown and Rab MacDonald, and to better know guys like Jimmy MacNeil and Ralph Cameron who I knew from hockey.
That summer — and subsequent seasons after I joined The Chronicle Herald – I watched the Scotias advance from being the premier team in the county, to Maritime senior B champions, then Maritime senior A winners. Those clubs were awesome, and Barry was a leading light.
Forward 40 years to 1998.
Barry Semple was always a quiet, rather private person. Despite his pitching abilities, he seldom wanted to discuss himself or his achievements. He may not have been a recluse in the true meaning, but he shrugged off interviews faster than disposing of opposing batters. Talk to the other guys, he often told me.
But now, 65 years old, retired from the car plant, and living at his Lower Barneys River home across the road from the old Semple homestead, he was willing to talk. It was certainly worthwhile driving down from Halifax. Though still with the Herald, I had started writing sports columns for the Evening News.
We chatted for nearly three hours.
Barry explained how, in just 10 years, he had gone from throwing balls at an old barn door to being the number one pitcher in the Maritimes. He felt “pretty lucky, really” to have had such marvellous experiences. He joked about how it was so long ago that it happened before softball players began wearing gloves.
Barry talked of his years working in Trenton. He talked about marrying Betty Lou on Christmas Eve four years earlier. His comment: “Sixty-two years old and I went and got married!” It wasn’t hard seeing that he loved that new role.
It was a happy couple I saw that day. There was far more room than when Barry lived in the prefabs in New Glasgow, there was a big garden out in the backyard, a lovely place for them to enjoy their senior years.
Now forward to 2004.
It was six years from our afternoon together, time for another reunion, another chat. This time, though, the circumstances were different. This time I hadn’t called him; he had called me. He wanted to talk.
I didn’t foresee what was on his mind.
By then, I was representing another paper. Three months earlier, the News had dropped my column. The next week, I was writing for the Pictou Advocate.
Barry met me at the door, as he had the previous time. As we went inside, I sensed something different about him. He didn’t appear to be the same happy-go-lucky guy I was with the previous time.
He got right to the point.
“You’ve been a dear friend,” he said, “and I wanted you to hear this from me, not from someone secondhand.”
Oh, oh, I thought.
“I’m up against my biggest opponent ever,” he started. “I’ve got cancer and I’m not going to be on the winning side this time.”
He explained how the disease was damaging his athletic-looking body. He talked about what he was going to face in the future. He was all but ignoring the good memories of his softball career that culminated in 1993 when he and his Scotia mates were inducted into the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame.
As we said our goodbyes a while later on his doorstep, his voice had a different tone. It was as though he realized there wouldn’t be any more interviews.
That was on my mind as I drove home. I thought back to the first time I met him — at the Trenton field those 46 years earlier.
Then came 2005.
It was an April day, less than a year since Barry and I had talked about his “biggest opponent.” The grand pitcher, who had won a big majority of the games he pitched, took the loss in his last outing. He was 72 years old.
The other day, I dug out another Advocate column I wrote about Barry in 2010. It carried the heading, “A vote for Barry Semple as the best softball player.”
To conclude my memories of an outstanding athlete and person, I’m going to reuse the last paragraph from that old column.
At that time, I wrote this: “One thing I’m pretty sure about. I doubt I will ever see another player as talented, as dedicated as Barry Semple. In my mind, he will remain number one.”
I won’t change a single word.