Monessen softball pitcher gained early recognition in '40s
Part 2 of 3
Bill Sullenberger's reputation as a standout fast-pitch softball player extended beyond area playing fields.
“We lived at the lower end of Tyrol Pass in a six-family apartment building in the 1940s,” Roger Sullenberger, a Rostraver native now living in Hempfield, recalled of his father. “My family moved there shortly after I was born. My dad and my uncles Jack and Ralph Sullenberger were known for their speed, especially on the basepaths. I have an article from the Stars and Stripes military newspaper published during World War II about my father's speed in baseball and softball games. The newspaper nicknamed him ‘Mercury' because of how fast he was. That's when he was stationed at Love Field in Fort Worth, Texas, as a control tower operator in the Army Air Corps.”
Bill Sullenberger made an early impact on the Monessen City League when he was named as an outfielder from Rainbow Grill with the All-Star team that faced the champion Cro-Ams in the traditional final game of the season on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1946, at Ninth Street Park.
The Cro-Ams, a perennial contender in the city circuit, clinched the championship on Aug. 29 by defeating the Ravens, 5-1, in the fourth game of the best-of-five series. Pete Kovatich tossed a five-hitter for the winners and allowed only one extra-base hit, a double by George Mahalko. The Monessen Daily Independent said Kovatich “whipped his fast ball past the Ravens with amazing speed ... resulting in pop-ups and long fly-outs into the waiting hands of Cro-Am outfielders.”
Carl Staycer was manager of the Cro-Ams, with John Matush as team captain. In addition to Kovatich, the squad comprised Frank Matush, Pete Prezgar, Frank Prezgar, Albert Kovatich, Lawrence Elyanich, Mike Hrebar, Edward Stacer, Joe Beck, John Matko, Mike Gaspich, Bob Beck, Jack Goimarac, Steve Matush and Mike Saflin, who had three hits including a triple in the championship game.
Pitchers Andy “Puddles” Kossar and Andy Rockovich combined for a seven-hitter as the All-Stars nipped the Cro-Ams, 5-4, in the season-ending, nine-inning exhibition game. Fauncy Altomare led the Stars' 12-hit offensive attack with two doubles and a single, and teammate Bla Zimmaro collected a pair of singles. Eddie Staycer's three singles topped the Cro-Ams.
The Independent noted that the Cro-Ams were unable to field their regular championship team due to players working the 4 p.m. to midnight shift in the mills. Many of the players chosen for the All-Star team, including pitcher Andy Dzurinko of the Delaware Indians, missed the game for the same reason.
Dzurinko, who hurled for other teams in the City League including Crossroads during his softball career, is considered one of the best pitchers in Monessen fast-pitch history. He tossed several no-hitters and one-hitters during his 20-plus years on the mound and gained legendary status by striking out 21 batters in one game.
Roger Sullenberger said Fauncy Altomare brought another family tie to the story.
“My mother was Rosetta Altamare from Monessen,” Sullenberger said. “She and Fauncy were related. My dad always said that Fauncy, who was a catcher, was a great player.”
Fauncy, a longtime city employee in Monessen, was only 34 when he died shortly before noon on June 26, 1953, when he leaped from a runaway city truck on Tyrol Pass. According to police, the truck's brakes failed and it plunged over a 20-foot embankment near Westmoreland Paving Co. City employees Joe Heath and Emil Dankovich were injured in the accident.
The Monessen City Softball League canceled its games that evening out of respect for Altomoare.
Long considered the league's best longball hitter, he was a member of the Hotelmen team, which was leading the pennant race with a 10-1 record. Other entries were Ravens, Cro-Ams, ULBA, PNA, Firemen, Coke Plant, Crossroads and Runabouts.
The Daily Independent recalled that Altomare was “a softball standout for the past 15 years ... (who) spent most of that time with the Delaware Indians. He also played for the Ravens and managed the Italian Club team in 1949.”
“He was a great softball player and a fine sportsman,” Domenick Zimmaro, league president, told the newspaper. “His loss will be keenly felt by the City League, which has come to regard him as one of Monessen's all-time softball greats.”
Bill Sullenberger's career flourished through the 1950s.
On Aug. 24, he pitched the No. 5 Finish Department to the championship of the Allenport Plant Employees Recreation League in a 2-1 win over Automatic Finish. Automatic Finish ended the regular season in first place and No. 5 was fourth. Sullenberger's team won three games to one in the best-of-five post-season championship series. Volpi belted a home run, Ed Stark hit a triple, and Dean and Adams added doubles to lead No. 5's 11-hit attack in the finale.
Sullenberger pitched a good part of the season with a cast on his broken left hand.
“He broke the pinky finger on his left hand early that season,” Roger Sullenberger said. “That was before he started wearing a glove, and he caught a hard line drive that cracked the finger. The injury didn't affect his pitching, of course, because he was a righthander, but he could not hold the bat with both hands and he only swung with his right hand. He still hit the ball, and I recall that he hit a home run that way.”
Roger said his dad was “not a drinker ... nothing more than a mixed drink on the holidays.”
“But 1957 was one of the years that he really enjoyed celebrating with the team after the championship in the APERL,” Roger said. “He enjoyed a few cold ones with his teammates.”
Sullenberger also toiled with Naomi AC in the Tri-County Softball League that season. One of his best games was a 7-3 win over Roscoe. He was the winning pitcher and led a 12-hit offensive attack with a home run and three singles.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.