Baseball was natural draw in Fayette City
Gravitating toward baseball was a traditional move for youngsters growing up in Fayette City in the 1940s and ‘50s – a rite of passage that was anticipated and expected in many cases.
Most boys played a lot of pickup games in Fayette City before moving on to sandlot teams that had a storied baseball history in this Mid-Mon Valley and they enjoyed being part of it.
As William “Jed” Janeri, a Fayette City native who now lives in Lancaster, Ohio, recalled a few years ago, baseball also was the major focus of attention in his hometown because Jim Russell, who lived on Town Hill, was playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates in those days.
“We couldn't miss playing baseball,” Janeri recalled. “When the Pirates were playing at home, Jim's mother (Mrs. Lilly Russell) would call us to let us know when he was back in town (Fayette City). He always brought along such teammates as Stan Rojeck and Wally Westlake for his mom's home cookin.' We got to the Russells' home quickly and came away with such things as a larger-than-life outfielder's glove, a baseball and dozens of small boxes of Wheaties. Jim and his teammates were very gracious.”
Mike Hancock, a Fayette City native who lives in West Chester, Pa., also recalled the visits by Russell to his hometown.
“I remember the time he brought Ralph Kiner to town,” Hancock said in reference to the Pirates' home run king. “It may have been (Kiner's) second year with the Pirates and he had hit 51 homers that season, I believe. What a thrill that was.”
Jack Young of Shepherdstown, W.Va., is another Fayette City native who includes Kiner and the Pirates among his favorite childhood memories.
“As a kid growing up in Fayette City, I ate, drank and slept baseball,” Young said. “Before I was big enough to play with an organized team, I would bum rides to see the local teams play. There were so many good players in our town. I also loved to listen to the Pirates games with Rosey Rosewell and, later, Bob Prince as the radio announcers. They made you feel like you were at the ballpark.”
Young's recollections of Kiner, who was his hero, also involves sportswriter Chet Smith of The Pittsburgh Press.
“Chet's mother (Mrs. Della ‘Ma' Smith) lived in Fayette City and she and my mother were friends,” Young recalled. “One summer, my mom asked Mrs. Smith if Chet would be able to get a bat used by Ralph Kiner for me. In a few weeks, a Ralph Kiner bat was delivered into my hot little hands. It was my pride and joy and I showed it to just about everyone. I took it to the ballfield one day and one of the older players asked if he could use it to hit a few balls. I said OK and regretted it a few moments later. He shattered the bat hitting a fastball. I was crushed. I took it home, taped it up and never took it back to the field.”
Any time anyone recalls the hey-day of baseball in Fayette City, they will likely point to the year 1950. The success of two teams that season gave the community widespread recognition as “the biggest little baseball town” in western Pennslvania.
For the second successive year, Fayette City produced a pair of sandlot champions in The American Legion and Merchants teams.
The American Legion team defeated Allenport CIO, 2-0, on July 26 to clinch its third straight league pennant. Pitcher Joe Livingston tossed a six-hitter to pace Fayette City, which finished the regular season with a 25-4 record. Carl Russell's double was the only extra base hit Fayette City managed off losing pitcher Ray Koslosky, who gave up only four hits.
Less than two months later, on Sept. 14, the Fayette City Merchants wrapped up the Tri-County League championship by defeating Allenport, 14-1, in a game called because of darkness after five innings.
Ted Schneider threw a two-hitter for the Merchants as they completed a three-game sweep of Allenport in their best-of-five championship series. The Merchants scored in every inning behind the bats of Eddie Schwab, Harold Livingston and player-manager Dickie Barker, who had two hits apiece. Livingston, who had four RBI, and Schwab belted triples, while Schwab, Schneider and Barker each collected doubles.
The Merchants and Allenport, who won the league title in 1948 and ‘49, waged a heated race for first place during the Tri-County circuit's regular season, with Allenport reeling off a 15-game winning streak at one point. The Merchants, however, finished on top and compiled a 32-4 overall record for the campaign.
Allenport, managed by George Nantus, showed a 30-7 ledger. Among its top players were Johnny Kostelac, Lefty Phillips, Mike Panich, Bill Medvick, Adam Milchovich, Andy Sentenick and Ziggy Zajack.
The Tri-County League began play with exhibition games in April. Other teams in the TCL were Monessen Ozarks, California, Newell, Fellsburg, Whitsett, Long Branch, Smithton and Brownstown. As recounted in a story by sports editor Johnny Bunardzya in The Charleroi Mail, some 200 persons gathered in the social hall of the Methodist Church in Fayette City on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 1950, to honor the American Legion and Merchants teams. The tribute was sponsored by the Fayette City Lions Club.
Chet Smith, the nationally-known sports editor of The Pittsburgh Press, was the featured speaker. Others who offered words of praise were Dr. Michael (Ki) Duda, superintendent of Monessen Public Schools; Gene Hester, athletic director at California State Teachers College; Robert Van Bremen, supervising principal of Washington Township Schools; Raymond “Ram” Barker, head football coach at Marion High School, and football officials Yans Wallace and Carl Rebele, of Pittsburgh.
Jim Hamer, longtime football official whose career included a stint in the National Football League, was program chairman and toastmaster. Bunardzya noted that Hamer “as usual came through in his own inimitable style and ribbed his way through the program.”
Among those introduced were Johnny Canigiani, a cobbler who also owned a pool hall in the community and served as Fayette City Council president; Johnny Kruper, former Fayette City athlete who was a football and basketball aide and teacher at Uniontown High School; Frank Lovich, another Fayette City football product who starred at Lock Haven State Teachers College; Clarence “Bud” Stark, former Marion High football coach who was faculty manager of athletics at Uniontown High, and Andy Sepsi, athletic coach and faculty member at California State Teachers College.
Hamer also acknowledged Lee Ridgway, a member of the board of the Merchants Baseball Club; Bunardzya; Dave Mathieson, of Gillespie, a former standout sandlot player for Fayette City; Postmaster Dutch Renstrom; O. Smith; Jack Stockton; John Wheeler; James Swartz and John Hancock.
Other the guests were Mrs. Della (Ma) Smith, Chet's mother, who resided in Fayette City, and her daughter, Mrs. G.W. Spalter.
Bunardzya emphasized in his post-banquet story that Dickie Barker, whose Merchants had won 80 games and lost only 11 while taking championships in the Mon-Yough and Tri-County leagues the past two years, also spoke briefly and lauded his players before introducing them. Joe Alberta, manager of the champion Legionnaires, did similar honors for his team.
Joe Moravek, a grocer in Fayette City and Lions Club president, welcomed the gathering and introduced Hamer; the Rev. Charles Ribick, pastor of St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church, who offered invocation, and the Rev. G.L. Bayha, pastor of the Methodist Church, who delivered benediction.
Entertainment was provided by Mrs. Wellington Baldwin, who sang “One Kiss,” “Summertime,” and “Shine On Harvest Moon,” accompanied at the piano by her daughter, Dana Baldwin. Lion Miller Boag led group singing, with Mrs. George Roy at the piano.
A delicious ham loaf dinner was prepared and served by member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the church.
The honored championship baseball teams were comprised of:
Fayette City American Legion
Players - Carl Russell, Lee Jones, Walt Plevniak, Leland (Pegetti) Haywood, Skip Hollick, Al Caruso, Sonny Trozzo, Jimmy Yates, Ed Holod, Joe Livingston, Bobby Carcelli, Jim Davis, Boyard Parks, Lenny DeFrancesco, Angie DeFrancesco, Bob Fisher, Damon Turek, Jack Russell, Ollie Niemela, Ray Ermlich. Also, manager Joe Alberta, treasurer Jack Stockton scorekeeper Billy Williamson, mascots Joe and Bernie Sarra.
Fayette City Merchants
Players - Ray Watson, Jack Young, Bob Young, George Belsick, George Yusko, Bill Janieri, Eddiw Schwab, Harold Livingston, Ronnie Ledgerton, Curt Davis, Bill Beattie, Joe Cvetan, Jim Gardner, Norm “Tucker” Celaschi, Ronnie Kruppa, Ted Schneider, Jack Russell, Ollie Niemala, Ray Ermlich. Also, manager Dickie Barker, assistant manager Tom “Bundles” Package, treasurers Don Mossburg and Frank Parry, secretary Danny Livi and board members Lee Ridgway, Joe Farquhar, Emil Livi and Abe Trew.
Some of the players were on both teams and Schneider split his time on the mound between the Merchants and Van Voorhis of the Pigeon Creek-Warner League.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.