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Sunday June 04, 2023

Neil "Tinker" Voller (1955-1989)

"Tinker" is the heart of the Pirates Baseball club.  He epitomised what it means to be a Pirate - on and off the field.  Play the game hard, play the game fair - but make sure you have fun while doing it.  Be involved in what the club does - no matter what it is, or who else is involved.

The below was penned by Rod Wright, former Pirates player and good mate of Tinker and provides an insight into why and who.


It is an honour for me to write a few lines about our good mate and my only worry is that I can't do him justice - anyway here goes.

Tinker played baseball for Pirates from 1982 until 1989 mainly as a 3rd grade pitcher and infielder.  The perpetual trophy that honours Tinker has become an important award at ur Annual Presentation night.  The reason behind the trophy is very difficult to describe - it's something like the award to the "persion who demonstrates the right attitudes (on and off the field) that reflects the true spirit of baseball".  The game is the thing and our club's development and attitude to the game would thrill Tinker to bits.

His reputation goes on and on and this is despite the fact that only a few us (still playing) are left from those that ever met and knew him before he was prematurely killed in a car accident together with his father in the winter of the 1989 season.  It was unusual for him to miss a game of baseball and we were all stunned when news came through that he had lost his life on a trip to the country.

So what was so special about this bloke?

Wll he was one of a kind - a great jokster and feared sledger of all players, officials and umpires alike.  He was the first player at the ground on game day and quite often the last to leave for our trip to the Pub.  The same can also be said of the numerous drinking holes we were at over the years - first there, last carried out.  Tinker attended every function that Pirates had - no matter where or when.  He was fantastic with all the kids who hung around the games - whether it be buying something at the canteen for on of them or doing some baby sitting for a busy parent or just being the clown.

Tinker was the sort of guy that if something funny was going to happen, it would happen to him and there was always a witness around to remember it and pass it on.  the stories are too many to tell here, but you'll get the idea!

He told us this one about leaving the Thirroul Pub after a long session, forgetting to turn onto the road, mounting the gutter on the other side and falling off his motor bike.  When he tried to get back on, it fell on top of him, pinning him to the road and he couldn't lift it off.  It started to rain and eventually he was lit up with the headlights of an oncoming car.  he was waving his arms and yelling out to attract their attention only to find it was the police.  They questioned him at length as to whether he was riding the bike and he swore that he wasn't so they packed him and his bike into the paddy wagon and drove him home.  No problems for Tink!

We went on a number of trips as a club- two notables were to Moruya and Gosford and most of the stories are memorable although unprintable - Paul (Chubby) Meehan would be a good place to catch a few gems.  Ask him about FUADPAF.

On the trip to Moruya we went (early one day after one of these nights) to a local hockey game.  Next thing Tinker yells out to the umpire "What's the score?" the umpire sticks up two fingers to Tinker. Tink says, "Thanks ump - one all is it?"  The look on the umpires face said it all.  There are hunderds of others.

If anyone needed anything done, all they had to do was ask Tink and he'd do it - no questions asked and no thanks asked for.

In terms of talking at the ground, he made me look like I was quiet and I indeed still have a number of lines that I use that were stolen from "The master of the one liner".  One of his specials was after an opposition infielder had a bad day and made another mistake only to be hit by Tinker with "who do you think you are - Michael Jackson?"  Everyone was thinking what does that mean and then came the follow up - "You wear one glove and that is for no apparent reason."

The other one was "Throw in a couple of bananas and some Oranges and we'll really have a circus".

The holler of "Slooooooowwww it down for him, sloooooowwwwww it down" yelled at Steve Evans after a lightening strike still rings in batters', umpires' and spectators ears even after all these years.

The weekend after Tinker's death we played at port Kembla and it rained most of the day but when we had a minutes silence for Tinker before the first grade game, the clouds parted and the sun came streaming in.  I'm sure he was there organising the whole show - while just letting us know that he was watching to make sure that we knew that he was OK and sledging all around.  He would have wanted to make sure that Pirates continued to play hard and never give a sucker an even break.

It will be ten years this coming April (1999) and do you know I never found out what Tinker meant?  And I, amongst others, still miss him.

1966 - 1969 -- The Early Years


Even though Pirates history indicates that we started in 1967 it could be argued that our beginning was twelve months earlier in the Autumn of 1966 (Sunday the 15th May to be exact) when two brothers Stephen and John Meehan were driving past Stuart Park, Wollongong on the way to watch a Rugby League game at the Wollongong Showground and having a few minutes to spare stopped to watch an Illawarra Baseball team play in a rep game against Marrickville. During the time Stephen and John were there they got talking to one of coaches Brian Simpson and it was 'Simmo' who eventually asked them to come and have a game with his club CRM Blues at Reed Park, Dapto the following Saturday for CRM¹s second grade team.

On that day (Saturday the 21st May) Stephen (left field) and John (right field) had reasonable games, against Dapto, with Stephen in particular taking one very good catch and in his exuberance tossing the ball in the air only to hear from the infield 'get it in - get it in' (with the two rookies having no idea what they were talking about). Dapto proved to be too good and won convincingly.

The Second Grade games in those years always finished at a quarter to three as some second grade teams did not play at the same ground as their first grade team and Stephen was asked to back up and play First Grade, against Port Kembla, at Wenham Oval (near the old CRM works). After a frantic drive from Dapto, Stephen ran on for his first 1st grade game, on his very first day, decked out in a Souths Football jumper, Souths socks and jeans and unbelieveably (or maybe not so considering what he has achieved since) hit an inside the park Home Run. John who was nearby heard someone remark Œ he¹s a First Grade baseballer from Sydney you know!¹. Port won this game 17-4 but won few friends for their attitude towards the newly elevated CRM team as new teams should be encouraged and not the opposite (of course this doesn¹t happen these days does it? - like hell it does¹nt!!)

Stephen and John finished off the season with CRM and continued on with their Summer activity which was Surf Life Saving with Bulli Surf Life Saving Club (actually both the Meehan brothers were Club Champions with Stephen considered one of the club legends with numerous surf, belt and Iron man championships while John won a couple of championships as well). During those summer months in, 1966/67, they started talking to fellow club members about the possibility of starting a baseball club from surf club members and there was a positive response particularly from the club captain Johnny Jones who, in 1963, was a member of Corrimal Dragons which won the Illawarra 1st Grade Premiership.



We applied to the Illawarra District Baseball Association for registration for our club which was in those days just known as Bulli Surf and we were able to enter a team in second grade and as we were a new club the IDBA allowed us to play in anything until we were financial enough to afford uniforms so we certainly were a rag tag outfit in jeans, sloppy joes/football jumpers, sneakers/football boots when we played our first game.

We had a trail game first of all at Wenham Oval against CRM on 1st April 1967 and the first team to represent Bulli Surf was Stephen Meehan (pitcher), Norm Mitchell (catcher), John Meehan (1st base), John Jones (2nd base), Doug Blair (3rd base), Alistair Fraser (shortstop), Allan Brown (left field), Geoff Clark & Ron Bradley (centre field), Charlie Bennett & Paul Gailiunas (right field) with the stats from that very first game being:-first batter - John Meehan, first hit - John Meehan, first K2 - Charlie Bennett, first walk - Norm Mitchell, first home run - Norm Mitchell, first one to cross home plate - Stephen Meehan, first error - Alistair Fraser, first catch - John Jones, first put-out 1 to 3 - Stephen Meehan to John Meehan, first steal - Stephen Meehan, first tag John Jones, first strikeout by a Bulli Surf pitcher - Stephen Meehan (and this was CRM¹s first batter in the game, Jim Hoffman, who was later to play for Bulli Surf) - the game ended in a friendly 5 all draw.

The first competition game was also against CRM on Saturday 8th April 1967 at Wenham Oval, Port Kembla and was originally recorded a 3 all draw with newspaper reports indicated that Bulli Surf were Œunlucky¹ to lose but more was to follow as a check of the scorebook indicated an error by the CRM scorer (Joe Gavin) robbing us of a run and we had to put our case to the Grounds and Gradings Committee of the IDBA and we won our point with the game being declared a 4-3 win to Bulli Surf.

Our second game against Western Suburbs Cardinals (15th April at Crehan Park) was a win for Cards 12-2.

Game 3 (22nd April) at Howard Fowles Park at Lake Illawarra saw us caught up in a close one with Lake Dodgers and with time running out we were 10-6 in front but on even innings it would have reverted back to a 6 all draw so between Norm Mitchell and John Jones it was decided that John Meehan would strikeout deliberately for the third out (this was later put down as a sacrifice K2) and then we would get Dodgers back in and try to get three up three down real quick for a win. The trouble was we couldn¹t tell Stephen, who was pitching, because we thought he would give our little plan away and he became frustrated after the first and second outs when we would just throw the ball back to him,to save time, rather than around the infield - anyway we eventually got the third out for a 10-7 win and Dodgers only tweaked on the plan when we told them after the game (and we were the rookies !!!!!). In that game Norm Mitchell batted a thousand (4 from 4, including two 3 baggers and two perfect bunts).

Game 4 (29th April) and our first game at our home ground Ocean Park, (down near the beach on the site of the old Bulli tip), was against Port Kembla and another win but more importantly the third Meehan brother Paul came in as a pinch hitter in the 6th innings and no he didn¹t pick a walk but got a one base hit to left field.

A lot of work had been done at Ocean Park in ground preparation with Stephen and John Meehan down there every day until dark watering, rolling, picking up rocks etc and all for nothing as it turned out as the Council allowed The Woonona Soccer Club to take over the ground at the end of the 1967 season and we were moved to Hutton Park where we had to start all over again (naturally the soccer club were more than happy with their new ground as it was lush green, flat and stone and glass free).

The season progressed with our catcher Norm Mitchell selected to represent Illawarra at the NSW Country Championships (he was probably the first and only second grader to rep Illawarra in the Senior squad but then he was a great player and an established star prior to 1967 and Bulli Surf and had played with Johnny Jones in that 1963 Premiership winning Corrimal Dragons team).

At seasons end we were in the semi finals against the Minor Premiers Western Suburbs Cardinals and given some chance as we had beaten them 9-4 only three weeks before but they prevailed 18 (17 hits, 8 errors) to 10 ( 9 hits , 14 errors ) and for Bulli Surf John Meehan and John Jones starring with the bat with three hits each while Stephen Meehan pitched the full nine innings for 9 strikeouts and 7 walks. Cards went on to win the Major Premiership beating Port Kembla 9-7 in the Final ( no Grand Final in those days only if the Minor Premiers were beaten in their semi or final and then could Œchallenge¹ for the premiership).

Among the many great players we saw in that first year of Bulli Surf Baseball was the 1st baseman for Cardinals - he was really something. Immaculate in his dress and everything about the way he played the game and at season¹s end he was Card¹s top player with a batting average of .429 and fielding average of .950 and years later his son Chris was to be a star in his own right with the Pirates and this great players name is Albert Hodge - thanks for the memories Albert!.



Our second season and we were determined to make an impact so first on the agenda was an Annual Meeting and an Election of Officers (something we hadn¹t bothered with in our inaugural year). Bulli Surf Baseball Club¹s first President was John Meehan and our first Secretary/Treasurer was Stephen Meehan.

At the AGM for the Illawarra District Baseball Association Stephen was also elected District Secretary and John the District Publicity Officer and Bulli Surf nominated teams for 1st and 2nd Grade as well as Little League (Under 16).

The race was now on to raise funds for uniforms and equipment with our club colours registered as maroon and gold (Bulli Surf Club¹s official colours). Fund raising was tough as a lot was done by a few but everyone stepped forward when uniforms were handed out (somethings don¹t change). Registration fees were $2.00 for seniors and $1.00 for juniors and students and our main source of funding was by way of 200 clubs and plenty of them.

We had done a bit of recruiting in the off season and had picked up a few players from other local clubs and everything looked good for a successful season.

Our initial game in First Grade was against Dapto at Crehan Park on 27 April and our team for that game was Stephen Meehan (pitcher), Norm Mitchell (catcher), John Meehan (1st base), John Jones (2nd Base), Les Taylor (3rd base), Jim Prentice (shortstop), Mike Pearson (left field), John Carter (centre field), Alistair Fraser/John Critcher (right field). The game ended in a 16 all draw and the stats from our first game in the top grade were:- first hit - Stephen Meehan, first walk - Les Taylor, first to cross home plate - John Meehan, first error -Les Taylor, first catch - John Meehan, first put-out 5 to 3 - Les Taylor to John Meehan, first steal - John Meehan (and it was 3rd Base !!), first tag - Norm Mitchell (at home plate). Incredibly there was not one strikeout by either pitcher Barry Stuart (Dapto) or Stephen Meehan (Bulli Surf) while Norm Mitchell starred with the bat going 4 from 5 and the Meehan brothers Stephen and John as well as Johnny Carter had two hits each.

Our second grade team in their first game of 1968 went down 10-21 to Dapto but the Little Leaguers had a win 23-10 over Port Kembla. The Illawarra selectors early in the season were looking ahead to the Country Championships and the first Probables Vs Possibles match saw Norm Mitchell and Stephen Meehan vying for rep honours with Les Taylor added to the squads not long after.

At this early point of the season The IDBA decided to form an Umpires Association because of the lack of qualified umpires and each club had to supply at least one candidate for the theory exam with Sam Pianegonda and Dick Dallas appointed as examiners. The IDBA also set the registration fee at $25 per club and after a ruling from the NSW Baseball Association settled the contentious issue of the strike zone as it is now between the armpits and the knees ( still the same isn¹t it ? - an issue I mean).

The 18th May 1968 was a red letter for Bulli Surf as we played Cardinals in 1st and 2nd Grade at Hutton Park (now our new home ground) and it reported in the newspapers as the first major league game played north of Wollongong in 15 years.

At days end Cards were too strong in both grades 21-5 (1sts) and 20-0 (2nds) and some of the interesting stats from the first grade game were:- Glen DeFaveri (Cards) batting 5 from 5, Bob Lowrie (Cards) hitting the first home run at Hutton Park and also batted 5 from 6 while for Bulli Surf Alistair Fraser hit 2 from 3.