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Sullenbergers symbolized spirit of fast-pitch action

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Part 1 of 3

There was a time when fast-pitch softball commanded considerable attention on the sports pages of area newspapers. Teams throughout the mid-Monongahela Valley competed in various leagues and nowhere were they more popular than in Monessen.

“The fast-pitch teams probably hit their peak in the mid- to late 1950s,” Ralph “FiFi” Sullenberger of Tampa, Fla., recalled. “But I do remember watching the original Monessen City League games when I was a kid growing up in the 1940s. There were some great players in those early days and as 8- and 9-year-old kids, we always looked forward to watching them play at such places as Ninth Street Park, Tin Plate Park and the field behind the old elementary school on Shepler Hill. We couldn't get enough of it.”

Sullenberger, 75, a shortstop, was one of three brothers who left an indelible mark on the game. The others were pitcher Bill “Sully” Sullenberger, a strong-armed righthander, and catcher Jack Sullenberger. Bill's son Roger also toiled as an outfielder for several years to complement the family affair with fast-pitch softball.

“I was the youngest of seven brothers in our family,” Ralph said. “Bill set the standard for us in terms of getting involved in sports. He was the first one to play.”

The brothers and their six sisters were the children of Robert and Gladys Quinn Sullenberger. Roger, who lives in Hempfield Township, said his father and uncles came by their competitive nature naturally.

“My grandfather Bob Sullenberger was a very good baseball player in the coal mine leagues in the area for a number of years,” he said. “His playing career was cut short when he was injured in the Pricedale Mine in 1930. I loved to hear the old family stories about those baseball games – towering home runs, hard slides and very short tempers at times.”

Bill Sullenberger, who was born in Star Junction on June 23, 1921, began his formal softball career as an outfielder after returning home from service with the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. Fate led to his conversion as a pitcher.

“He was a good hitter with lots of speed and a strong arm,” Ralph recalled of his brother. “He was playing for the old Rainbow Grill team and was an outfielder until he broke his leg when he stepped in a big hole during a game in 1947 or '48. Bill decided to start pitching when he recovered and that's where he stayed the rest of his playing days.”

Bill's introduction to organized sports began at Rostraver High School, where he played football (right end) for coach Bill Overand in the late 1930s. He also competed in Junior American Legion baseball before switching his attention to softball.

“My dad's family lived in the Monessen area, for the most part, from 1937 on,” Roger said. “Over the years he played for such teams as Rainbow Grill, Hilltop Firemen No. 1, Union Hotel, Valet Cleaners, Chateau Lounge, Ravens AA and Park Casino in the Monessen City League as well as Naomi AC and in the Allenport Plant Employees Recreation League at Pittsburgh Steel. I remember going to his games as a little boy at City Park, Ninth Street Park, Naomi near Fayette City, Shepler Hill and Palmer Park in Donora, just to name a few. I initially became involved with his teams as a batboy, as all the sons of the players did, and eventually played as I got older. There was no organized baseball where we lived (Pricedale).”

One of Roger's earliest memories of watching his father play is that only the catcher wore a glove.

“My dad didn't start using a glove until 1957, the year he tried to stop a line drive up the middle with his bare hands,” Roger said. “By then, most of the players were using gloves; my dad was one of the last pitchers to not use one.”

Among the other top pitchers who come to mind for Roger are Gutsy Brown, Stush Nickolich, Paul Petrusky, Donald Stover and Don Ward. Position players of note, he said, were Jock Senich, Frank “Shoes” Stancato, Carl Crawley, Tony Crisi, Del Frew, the Bronson brothers, Richie Grogan and Slick Schilling.

“I know there were many outstanding players in the City League and elsewhere, and I don't mean to overlook anyone,” Roger said. “Those are the men who made a lasting impression on me. It would be impossible to name everyone.”

Another fond memory involves Roger's first experiences of playing “catch” with his dad.

“Most kids go through that starting with the traditional soft toss,” he said. “My early experiences were trying to catch his windmill pitches when I was about seven or eight years old. We lived on the old Finley farm in Lynnwood from 1952 to 1955 and there was a vacant garage that served as a backstop. Like the other pitchers of those years, my dad could really fire the ball to the plate. It was rather intimidating at first to see that ball ‘whooshing' toward my catcher's mitt but I eventually learned to catch him and would often warm him up before he pitched at games at City Park.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.