The softball season begins this week, and once again I'm reminded why it is one of the finest games ever devised by man.

No contract disputes. No strike threats. No prima donna walkouts. No whining about salaries.

Just men (and some female persons) playing their hearts out for the fun of competition, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and the glory of Fat Louie's Bar & Grill.

Having played this game since boyhood, I know of no other amateur sport that has the kind off fierce competition one finds on a softball diamond. s

As a example, consider the softball game that was played last week near Greenville, S.C., pitting the Fountain Inn team against the lads from Laurel Creek.

As often happens, an umpire made an unfortunate call. That distressed a supporter of one of the teams, and he ran into the field waving a knife at the umpire.

This prompted one of the players to whip out a pistol. So did a player on the other team. They began blazing away. An umpire fell mortally wounded. An infielder was grazed in the hip. The bullet also severed his belt, causing his pans to fall down.

Meanwhile, somebody slapped a second baseman with a bat, breaking his jaw, shoulder and nose.

Since four innings had not been played, the game was called without a winner. But it will not soon be forgotten by softball fans in Greenville.

Most softball games don't produce this lengthy a casualty list, but it does show that the players and their fans take it seriously.

Here in Chicago, where softball was invented and is still played without gloves by all but shameless cowards, players seldom carry guns. But that doesn't reduce the occasional clash of wills.

Last season a memorable dispute occurred during a game at Oscar Meyer Park.

This is a saloon league, which means all the teams are sponsored by one or another of the local gin mills. It also means that the patrons of the saloons stagger to the sidelines to cheer their teams. Rather than wave banners, they wave fifths of Jim Beam or muscatel.

In this particular game, the umpire, who is also the assistant park supervisor, made a disputed call.

He was clearly wrong, but there were bigger and noisier drunks supporting the team that benefited from his mistake, so he wisely refused to reverse himself.

After the other team shouted at him for a while, the umpire's Latin blood boiled over, and he said:

"Hey, man, you gimme a bad time with words and I'm gonna call out my boys and they're gonna give you a bad time with bullets, you unnerstan'? You don't unnerstan', then I'll explain. You gonna get knocked off."

It's hard to argue with an umpire who threatens to have you killed, so the game went on.

Another highlight of last season came during a game in a Southwest Side park league.

The shortstop had made about five errors, and it was only the second inning. Finally, the pitcher-manager sneered at him and said something like:

"I seen better hands on clocks."

Some players can't take constructive criticism. The shortstop walked over and punched his pitcher-manager in the stomach.

All pitcher-managers have large, soft stomachs. It is he badge of their leadership role. So he collapsed and rolled around in the dust, moaning.

The umpire pointed at the shortstop and said: "You're out of the game for fighting."

The pitcher-manager heaved himself to his feet and said: "You can't throw him out -- he's my only shortstop."

The umpire said: "It's automatic ejection from the game for fighting."

The pitcher-manager said: "But he wasn't fighting with the other team. He hit me. That doesn't count."

As they sat on the bench, the shortstop said to the pitcher-manager: "Sorry Dad." And the pitcher-manager said: "That's okay, son. You inherited your mother's temper."

Another cause of softball quarrels is "the ringer," which is an illegal player.

In the famous Grant Park industrial leagues, where more than 250 teams play Mondays through Fridays, the rules require that all players be employes of the sponsoring companies.

Since most teams ignore the rule, nobody complains except in the most brazen cases. One such moment happened last season when a player for a bank's team pointed at the center fielder on a factory team, and said:

"That guy is a ringer. He doesn't work in your factory."

"How do you know?" demanded the manager of the factory team.

"Because he works with me, and I don't work at your factory."

"On yeah? Do you work with him at the bank?"

The complaining player's jaw dropped. He had forgotten that he worked at a department store.

Sometimes, ringers are brought in at the last minute and have to play under the name of somebody who is on the team's roster.

Unusually nobody notices. But in one game, the manager of a team became suspicious of the other team's brilliant center fielder.

He looked at the names in the lineup, then walked up to the center fielder, who was black and had a splendid Afro hairdo. The manager said:

"Is your name really Chester Poniakowski?"

"Yeah, man, that's me," the center fielder said.

"How do you pronounce it?" asked the manager.

"I pronounce it Chester, man. But you can call me Chet."

"You don't look polish to me," the manager said.

"I know, man. That's why my old man left Warsaw. They thought he was a ringer on his soccer team."