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Former athletes remember coverage, early glory years

| Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011

He's been gone from this mid-Mon Valley for nearly 50 years, but Gary Hogan retains many fond memories of growing up here.

And those affectionate recollections were stirred again with the recent tribute in this corner to longtime sports editor and newsman John R. Bunardzya.

"Reading about John brought back so many positive thoughts about him and growing up in the late 1940s and 50s in Charleroi and the Mon Valley," Hogan, a longtime resident of South Easton, Mass., said. "A while back, Paul Strelick and I were reminiscing about those years and playing Midget League baseball in Charleroi. Our team was the Shoemen and we were sponsored by all of the shoe stores in town."

Hogan recalled that it was "always a treat to read Mr. Bunardzya's Midget League summaries on the sports pages (of The Charleroi Mail) during the summer."

"Hey, we were just kids in those years,"he said. "We played our games at the high school stadium and that was a big thrill for us. Seeing our names in the newspaper was like icing on the cake. I'm sure kids our age throughout the Valley enjoyed the same feeling when their names appeared in their hometown newspapers."

Players who hit home runs in the Charleroi youth games received a coupon for a free foot-long hotdog at the Express Drive-In restaurant on the then new four-lane highway between Speers and Bentleyville. It was owned and operated by Joe Baker and Al Costanza, a couple of enterprising Charleroi residents.

As Bunardzya noted in one of his columns in The Mail, "They hit 'em and we feed 'em" was the familiar slogan used by Baker and Costanza in calling attention to the home run hotdogs.

Baker and Costanza also created handy pocket-size scholastic football schedules as part of their marketing strategy. The cards carried schedules for Charleroi, Monessen, Monongahela, Bellmar, Donora, California, Centerville, Bentleyville and Ellsworth high schools.

Clientele at the popular Express Drive-In located along what is now Interstate 70 included teenagers, who cruised there and claimed it as a haven for fun, and adults who also enjoyed the eatery's delicious charcoal grilled hot dogs, hamburgers and cheeseburgers and french fries, soft drinks and milkshakes.

Hogan was one of the Charleroi Midget League players who benefitted from the free foot-longs offered by Baker and Costanza, who later extended the giveaways to youngsters who pitched no-hitters.

"It was 1953 or '54, the year we won the league championship," Hogan said. "I hit a home run and had to pick up the coupon at The Charleroi Mail office on Fallowfield Avenue, near Fourth Street. There was a high counter as you walked into the building. I identified myself to the woman who greeted me. A minute or so later, a man I recognized as Mr. Bunardzya came over and asked,'What's your name, son' I replied, 'Gary Hogan,' and he gave me the coupon for the hot-dog and then said, 'Good job, I'll be keeping an eye on you.'"

Fast forward to Wednesday, Dec. 10, 1958, at the Big 6 Conference football banquet at the Twin Coaches supper club.

Hogan, a junior quarterback, and Strelick, a junior halfback, were among 12 Charleroi High School players honored as conference all-stars that night.

Strelick, Mike Kondratik and Bob Daugherty, who also won the Big 6 scoring title with 85 points that season, were first-team selections; Pete Goimarac, Keith Melenyzer, Bill Hogan (Gary's brother), Mickey Bitsko and Jim "Mouse" Chacko earned second-team laurels, and Hogan, Don "Chops" Reeves, Dave Hega and Lou Partazana drew honorable mentions.

"Mr. Bunardzya came to our table to congratulate us," Hogan recalled. "And then he surprised me by reminding me about the free foot-long hotdogs and said, 'I told you I'd be keeping an eye on you.' That meant a lot to me because he meant so much to all of us in Charleroi as well as people throughout the Mon Valley."

One year later — on Thursday, Dec. 10, 1959 — Strelick, Hogan, Bitsko and Goimarac returned to the Twin Coaches as members of the Big 6 Conference All-Stars. Hogan, Bitsko, Goimarac, Bob Hodgson and Bob Sink garnered first-team honors; Strelick, who was hampered by injuries most of the season, and Denny Harger were on the second team, and Bob Abbott, Wayne Zanardelli, Frank DeStefon, Jerry Moffit, Dale Cosgrove and Bill Johnson gained honorable mentions.

Football fans in the Mon Valley - and elsewhere - will recall that those players helped Charleroi win the WPIAL Class AA championship five days before the banquet by defeating Aliquippa, 13-12, on Saturday, Dec. 5 at Pitt Stadium.

The Cougars posted a 10-0-0 record during the regular season as they won or shared the championship for the fifth successive year. Charleroi coach R. James (Rab) Currie was a unanimous choice for Coach of the Year honors.

Strelick's vivid memories of Bunardzya and the championship season extend to pre-season activities.

"I mostly have great memories of how Mr. Bunardzya covered every sport, no matter how small or what it was," he said. "Rab was an expert at player psychology and strategy, often times pitting players against one another with eventual outcomes that were truly beneficial to everyone, especially the team. One example of this speaks highly of John's integrity and doing what's right for the team."

Strelick recalled that just before pre-season (football) camp in Somerset was to begin in August 1959, he, Bob Hodgson, Bob King and "some others" were slated to go to a Junior Legion Baseball Tournament in Reading. Teams had to play their way into the state event in district and regional competition, and Charleroi advanced to the Reading tournament.

"Rab wasn't pleased about our decision. He wanted us to be in camp," Strelick said. "Some of the guys relented and reported to camp, but several of us stayed with the baseball team and went to Reading. We made it to Somerset for the last two days of training and John wrote about how bad camp was going because of our absence. The story was repeated even after we returned to Charleroi. We had a horrible scrimmage against Uniontown and the baseball issue was blamed in a story in the paper the next day. I believe Rab wanted to get the team angry and frustrated with each other and asked John to print what he said."

Strelick admitted that the Cougars did become hostile at times and often sparred with each other.

"It was definitely frustrating," he said. "So I approached (Bunardzya) in our locker room one day after practice, after Pete (Goimarac) and I had a fight. I told John how the baseball issue stories were disrupting the team, that they were divisive and creating more issues. I said we didn't want to see any more stories in the paper. Rab was standing there taking all of this in. John never printed another word about the baseball issue, even though we knew Rab wanted him to continue doing it until opening day with the idea that we would focus our anger and frustration on our opponents instead of each other.

"John chose to take the side of the players and he earned our lasting respect. Somehow, I also knew that Rab was right because we finally stopped sparring with each other and went after our opponents. The psychology obviously worked."

Hogan, Strelick, Goimarac and Bob Daugherty got their first taste of championships in 1954, when the aforementioned Shoemen walked away with their first Charleroi Midget League title since the league was formed in 1948.

"Paul's dad (Paul "Pinsky" Strelick) was our coach and manager,"" Hogan said. "He had a great baseball background, knew the game well. He taught us the fundamentals and also some other tricks of the trade. We practiced two or three times a week but it paid off that season (1954).

"He was so instrumental in developing our skills as young kids who dreamed about become future Major Leaguers. Like so many things during the late 1940s and early 50s, sports was the thing to keep young boys busy and out of trouble ... and dreaming about being the next Ralph Kiner."

Reflecting on his father's nickname, the younger Strelick, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., recalled that "Pinsky is what they called him ... everybody.?"

"In fact," he said with a knowing smile, "it wasn't until I was about seven years old before I realized his name was Paul."

Paul Strelick Sr. was a standout baseball player (outfielder/ pitcher) for such teams as Gene & Boots and Hotel Charleroi in the Charleroi City League and the Mon-Yough League, one of the strongest sandlot circuits in the area.

The Shoemen swept through the regular Midget League season with a 14-1 record against the likes of The Charleroi Mail, Guttman Oilers, Boosters, Auto Dealers, Theatres, Lions Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Rotary, Elks, Kiwanis and Firemen. They won the National Division pennant to advance to the Little World Series against the VFW team that captured the American Division title.

The Shoemen swept the best-of-three series by defeating the Vets, 1-0 in the first game and 6-2 in the clincher Wednesday, Aug. 7. Strelick had a double and two singles in the championship game, while Hogan smacked a triple and home run and Daugherty belted a triple. Mel Biagini was the winning pitcher as he scattered six hits, struck out six and walked only two.

The champions were honored Tuesday, Oct. 5 at a banquet at Rego's restaurant.

In addition to Hogan, Strelick, Daugherty and Biagini, the squad included Cliff Daugherty, Vic Spridik, Tommy Connor, Joe Surdyn, Ron Paterline, Ken Dooley, Pete Goimarac, Vic Barcelona and Eddie Protin.

The players received jackets from their sponsors, the Charleroi Shoe Retailers Association. The CSRA was comprised of Bernard and Eddie Fineberg, Union Shoes; Nate Mishkin, Kirby's Shoes; Eddie Bergstein, Haas Shoe Store; Tom Labin, Labin's Boot Shop; Joe Pagano, Pagano's Shoe Store; Abe Janoff, Kramer's Shoes; Bud Cole, S&S Shoes, and John Hutchko, Book's Shoes. Hutchko also served as master of ceremonies.

Team members also received individual trophies from Irwin Lichter, the well-known Charleroi furniture dealer whose store carried his surname. Lichter had been presenting the awards to Midget League champions since the Charleroi program was formed in 1948.

Also honored were coach Pinsky Strelick and Louis Surdyn Sr. and Alvin Patrick, who assisted Strelick in his managerial duties.

Speaking briefly were Pete Garnic, coordinator of the summer recreation program for the Charleroi School District; George "Beans" Chacko, recreation supervisor; Bunardzya, and manager Strelick.

Hogan and Strelick recalled that teammate Joe Surdyn, who played centerfield, was the grandson of Louis Pasquinelli, longtime owner of Louie's Bakery, a fixture in Charleroi for many years..

"We all lived in the same general area of town, what is known even today as the Tenth Street Neighborhood," Hogan said. "Louie's was located near there on Fallowfield Avenue, and it was such a treat to enjoy the pleasant aroma of fresh baked Italian bread every morning. (Pasquinelli) had some of the best bakery goods in the Mon Valley."

Strelick agreed, saying, "I'll never forget the pleasant smell coming from the bakery."

Surdyn, a 1962 graduate of Mon Valley Catholic High School who has lived in Monessen for many years, still savors the experience of playing for the Shoemen.

"We had a great bunch of guys," he said. "Mr. Strelick was an excellent coach and "I've always been grateful to have been part of the team and the 1954 season."

Hogan said those kind of memories last forever.

"They transcend time," he said. "I believe as we get older we appreciate even more the special moments that are part of the threads and fabric that made it special for so many who had the pleasure and privilege of growing up in the Mon Valley."

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