Sports

James Burns: Exum was a gentleman first, champion second

James Burns

Lou Exum moved slowly through the hallway of her Harris Acres home, tracing a custom glass casing on the wall with her index finger.

Inside, the assortment of softball trophies and plaques, both big and small, seemed to glow under the lights.

Like gold.

And for Lou, they are.

Now and forever.

With a soft but shaky voice, the former Merced City Schools principal chronicled the amazing adventures of her husband, the late Dana Exum, using the softball awards and mementos as mapdots to his life.

She pointed to the Hall of Fame certificates, smiling proudly as she recalled each invitation.

There are three in all sitting in that case, and a fourth hanging on a wall in the living room.

There are softball trophies of all shapes and sizes, from tournaments near and far.

A curvy one sculpted out of wood isn't the biggest of the bunch -- not even close -- but it represents one of the high points of a career that spanned five decades on the diamond.

It's a 1954 regional championship trophy.

The Merced Monarchs went on to play at a world tournament that year, where Dana was named the Outstanding Pitcher and earned All-American honors.

"It was exciting to see him play ball and to see how the players just loved him," Lou said. "They never razzed Dana."

Yes, Dana Exum was quite the fastpitch softball player. Some would say the best they've ever played with or against.

He pitched in more than 5,000 games, baffling batters with a fastball that topped out at...

You ready?

Ninety-five mph.

"He threw so hard that when the ball game was over, you had sore hands," said Bill Ladd, Dana's catcher for more than a decade. "Dana always threw a hard ball heavy.

"And everything he threw was a moving pitch. Whether it was inside or out, high or low, it moved."

Dana Exum's life reached its ninth inning on Sunday evening.

He died in the arms of his wife in a hospital bed in their living room.

"My heart's broken after 64 years," Lou said in a trembly voice, fighting back tears that have filled her nights for almost a week now.

"I haven't been able to stop crying. I thought I was somewhat prepared for this, because he was so ill. But you can never be prepared for the total shock -- the total reality."

After an afternoon nap, Dana was helped into a sitting position.

Lou nestled up next to her beau, cradling the mountain of a man in her tiny arms.

And like that, without so much as a warning...

He was gone. Dana was 85.

"He melted into my arms," Lou said. "It was very, very peaceful. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

Dana lived one of those memory-per-minute lives you only find in Disney movies.

He was a globetrotter, a Navy man, a prized football recruit and one of the few pitchers who could match softball's King, the late Eddie Feigner.

In fact, the King and His Court once dropped two games to Dana and his batch of hometown all-stars in the 1950s.

"When you talk about California, and the pitchers who pitched in California up until the '80s, there were only three guys that were as good as Dana," Ladd said. "Only three."

But his legacy won't be the trophy case, the no-hitters or the brushes with fame.

Dana never cared much for that kind of publicity or notoriety, anyway.

In this age of showboating and grandstanding, Dana's life is proof-positive that nice guys don't finish last.

He never tossed his cap or kicked up dust.

If his shortstop booted a routine grounder, Dana didn't curse or point or shoot him a nasty glare.

He simply struck the next batter out.

Dana was a gentleman, through and through -- even to tag-along 12-year-old girls.

Like Lou.

As a child, the Southern Belle was often made the center during Sunday front-yard football games that attracted the neighborhood's rough-and-tumble boys.

"The other boys would just push me into the ground, but Dana was so gentle," Lou said.

"He would gently and very carefully push me into the ground.

"I'll always remember how sweet he was to me."

She pauses, letting the warm, fuzzy feelings wash over her one more time.

"Being married now for 64 years, it's like losing a part of yourself," Lou said. "He was a Christian, and so am I, so someday we know we'll be in heaven."

"I know he's up there right now, organizing a game in heaven. I know it."

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

Remembering Dana Exum

A memorial service will be held on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Central Presbyterian Church at 1920 Canal St.

In honor of Dana Exum, a memorial scholarship for fastpitch softball players has been set up at Merced College. Checks can be made out to Merced College Foundation, with Dana Exum noted on the memo line. The address is: Merced College Foundation, 3600 M St., Merced, Ca. 95348-2898.

The following is a video tribute to Dana Exum.

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