Parents step in to save Pittsburgh baseball league rocked by theft scandal
When criminal charges surfaced against the executive director of the storied 14th Ward Baseball Association, angered and baffled parents wondered whether the youth league could survive.
Some pulled their children out. Others, with mixed feelings, sought to keep the league afloat.
"It was devastating," said Abbie Campsie, who has a son in the league. "I know Jeff Rosenthal personally. We'd chit-chat at the ballfield every week. It's still hard to figure out."
Rosenthal — a man so beloved in the community that one of the 14th Ward ballfields is named after him — awaits trial on felony charges of theft, forgery and receiving stolen property.
Police say Rosenthal, 63, of Squirrel Hill, embezzled $162,000 from accounts of the 14th Ward Baseball Association.
Nobody saw it coming.
Following his arrest in December, there were meetings, full of shouting, dismay and tears. Parents wanted answers to questions that have none, not until the legal process plays out, if then.
"It was a confusing time," said Gregory Allen, a coach and parent of two sons in the league. "There was a general sense of 'Where do we go now? What do we do?'"
What they did was fight for the league, which drew 350 boys and girls, ages 5 to 16, a year ago.
Because this is a league that has been passed down for generations. Today's coaches and parents grew up playing 14th Ward baseball. They didn't want their kids to miss out.
Campsie signed on as treasurer. Allen took over as chair of an interim committee designed to shepherd the league through spring and summer.
This week, the spring season opens at ballfields across the East End in Frick Park, Edgewood, Squirrel Hill and Highland Park.
"There's a sense of relief and anticipation," Allen said. "We're ready for baseball."
Campsie and Allen would rather focus on the games, not Rosenthal.
But the recent past casts a shadow. So the new 14th Ward league has vowed to make transparency a priority.
Each check must now be signed by two people: Allen and Campsie.
They will release financial documents on a website.
They're in the process of obtaining league insurance.
They hired an accounting firm to help organize finances.
Through it all, they had to sell parents on the concept of, "It's going to be different now," Campsie said. Because it had to be.
"It's going to be transparent. It's going to be open,'" Campsie said. "It probably wasn't transparent before. We were all trusting that everything that was supposed to be happening was happening. Nobody was suspicious.
"We're not necessarily going to remain in these roles," she added, "but we want to lay the groundwork for those who follow."
Their efforts have been rewarded: While some parents stuck by their decision to leave, Allen is thrilled to see that league participation is on par with last spring.
"We're still here and strong as ever," he said. "We even have maxed out some teams and created a waiting list."
Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O'Connor, who represents the 14th Ward, said he understands the significance of 14th Ward baseball. He grew up playing second base in the league.
"I told the parents I'd help them do anything I could to keep the league viable," said O'Connor, who attended a parental meeting after the Rosenthal charges. "It's a vital part of our community. It's very important to keep it going."
Now they return their attention to where it should be: kids on the field and fans in the bleachers.
"There's nothing like driving by and seeing the games going on," Campsie said. "There's a lot of great memories.
"The 14th Ward will be here as long as the desire is there."
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or email@example.com.