Lima lost a local sports legend last week, and many of us lost a good friend, with the passing of Denny Helmig. He was a visionary sports enthusiast who helped change the landscape of slow pitch softball and its marketing, not only locally but nationwide as well. Social media was flooded with testimonials from former teammates and players he impacted, young athletes whose lives he touched and co-workers in the sports equipment field who he mentored.
Helmig, affectionately known as “Hawk” by his friends, grew up on Franklin Street directly across from Lima South Junior High and a stone’s throw from the baseball diamond next to the school. Fittingly, it was a ball diamond that defined much of his life. Helmig was in his element with a glove and ball in his hands or swinging a bat.
Denny was a member of the Lima Central Catholic baseball team that won one of the first ACME summer baseball state championships and was also starter on a Lima American Legion baseball squad that won a state championship in the summer of 1967.
After graduating from LCC, Helmig attended Ohio University where he played baseball and was a teammate of Mike Schmidt, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Philadelphia Phillies. He transferred to and graduated from BGSU before returning to Lima in 1970.
In that era, adult slow pitch softball was one of the highest participation sports in the nation and Lima had its own love affair with the game. Nearly every bar and establishment in the area sponsored a team in one of the numerous softball leagues around town. On any given summer evening you could find the ball diamonds in the parks around Lima jammed with athletes who had played baseball in their youth and then morphed into the game of softball as they aged.
It was in that environment that Helmig fell in love with the sport and found the vehicle that was to impact his life and that of so many others; the legendary Steele’s softball team.
Steele’s was the brain child of Gary Coates, the owner of Steele’s Automotive Parts located here in Lima. Coates and his longtime friend and fraternity brother, Glen Eley, began the team in the early ‘70s, hoping to make it one of the most competitive softball teams in town.
When Helmig joined the Steele’s team the next year, he took the vision to another level. The competitive spirit and salesman in Denny drove him to convince many of the best players in the Lima area to play for Steele’s. Over the next two decades, Steele’s Softball grew to legendary status, first locally, then statewide and ultimately at the national level, thanks in large part to Helmig’s drive and leadership.
Early on, Steele’s became the best show in town and began drawing huge, standing room only crowds to diamond No. 2 in Faurot Park for their night games under the lights. Those games became “can’t miss” events. The Steele’s team knew how to put on a show, often thumping prodigious home runs over the fence and into the overflow crowd gathered on the hill just outside the left field fence.
Steele’s lineup was a “Murderers Row.” Coached by Harry Johnson and Paul Schroeder, their batting order included memorable local athletes like Helmig, John Geckle, Ted Keysor, Joe Clark, John Wellman, Ray Crisp, Steve Barrington, Jim Baxter and Bobby Mulcahy, all gifted players. Home runs were flying over the fence farther and more often than ever witnessed before. And they were a colorful bunch, to put it mildly.
Helmig’s vision and promotional efforts became the driving force as the Steele’s softball team eventually ascended to highest level of play in the country. As Steele’s stature and reputation grew, Helmig added the best players in Ohio, and then from around the country to Steele’s stable of talent. Steele’s proceeded to win the state championship in Ohio and achieved a remarkable accomplishment by winning three straight ASA Super National Tournaments, considered the World Series of Softball, in the mid-1980s. Helmig described that team as “the greatest softball team of all time.” The team was featured in Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and on ESPN.
At the height of the team’s popularity, Helmig and his teammate and friend John Brenner gathered investors together and created the very successful Steele’s Sports Company, producing softball products that were endorsed by some of the mega-talented players he lured to the team, including two of the most famous softball players of that era, “Mighty” Joe Young and Mike Macenko.
Helmig’s contribution to the sport earned him induction into three halls of fame in the world of softball.
Helmig’s nationwide contacts in the athletic and sports marketing arenas allowed him to rub shoulders with many of the elites in the sports world, and he loved regaling his friends back home in Lima with his encounters with the rich and famous.
Denny was also passionately engaged in local sports, coaching junior high teams and even had a two-year stint as basketball coach of NBC Tech, now UNOH. He was a fixture at all the big area high school games, in every sport, and was an ardent follower of his beloved T-Birds.
At a table filled with jocks, it was Helmig who usually held court with his finger on the pulse of the latest gossip, rumors and history connected to local sports. Denny always seemed to have the early scoops and he was eager to share them.
But there was another side to Helmig that many were not aware of. Denny had a big and generous heart. Over the years he took countless young athletes under his wing and served as a mentor and even a father figure to many of them. He had a tremendous impact on those young men and women and I watched him make a real difference in their lives. He was a good man.
The strength behind Helmig was his family. Polly, his wife and former high school sweetheart, basically rescued Denny from a house occupied by eight raucous young bachelors, that was affectionately known as the “hog house.” (a story all its own) Their son, Gavin, and twin daughters, Kara and Sara, were always close by and Denny filled up with pride whenever talking about them.
Helmig’s was a life taken too soon and one that will be missed and remembered for a very long time.
Reach Bob Seggerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.