Ford City baseball marks 50th anniversary of first section title
The history of Ford City athletics spans the better part of a century, and this month marks the 50th anniversary of one of its team's first major triumph.
Ford City's baseball team captured the first section title in its program's history in 1963 as it overcame a pair of early-season losses to claim the Section 9 title and a WPIAL playoff berth.
The Sabers — a new mascot after the school had recently changed from its old nickname, the Glassers — dropped a nonsection opener to eventual Section 8 champ Har-Brack, 4-1, and their section opener to Kittanning, 7-5. But the team wouldn't lose again for the rest of the regular season as it finished with a 9-3 (9-1) record after a first-round playoff loss to Mt. Pleasant, 4-3.
The team was coached by Jack Christy, who went on to further success as a basketball coach in Western Pennsylvania and led by four seniors — outfielder Tom Dodds, third baseman Gary Olinger, first baseman Mike Yates and catcher Jim Bordick. Even with their 50-year reunion coming next month, those seniors still have fond memories of their final high school season.
“It's hard to fathom that it was that long ago,” said Dodds, the team's leading hitter with a .486 batting average. “We realized winning a section title had never been done, but it wasn't something we reminded ourselves at the time. Fifty years from then, you have a whole different perspective on it.”
The team also had a strong 1-2 punch on the pitcher's mound with junior Fred Slagle, a transfer from now-defunct Dayton High School, and sophomore Bob Cacurak sharing the starts. Despite being an offensive star himself, Dodds said the team's pitching was its biggest strength.
Apart from Slagle's arrival from a neighboring school district, most of the Ford City team grew up together in the local youth leagues and had been teammates for years.
“I played Little League all-stars with Mike Yates and played on a Connie Mack League (13- to 15-year-olds) with Jim Bordick, (outfielders) John Oresick and Bill Wingard,” Olinger said. “We qualified for the state tournament on that Connie Mack team, so we knew we were pretty good.”
The moment that the team began to think a section title was a possibility came when it faced Kiski Area, a section powerhouse at that time.
The Sabers won the first meeting in eight innings, 2-1, behind a four-hit performance by Slagle and a walk-off single by Dodds that could have been a home run because of the lack of an outfield fence to stop his deep drive.
“When we beat Kiski, that's what told us we would have a shot at it,” Olinger said. “It was understood among us that it would be the team's first section championship, but that wasn't a huge goal coming in. The historical part wasn't as big as just winning it when we had the chance.”
Later in the season, the same two teams met with first place on the line, and Ford City won a slugfest, 13-11, despite committing seven errors. Dodds also had some key hits in that game, but he remembered a costly error just as much.
“They had the bases loaded and hit a ball right toward me in left field. It was a clean single, but I let the ball go right through my legs to let the other runs score,” Dodds said. “I probably gave up as many runs as I drove in that game.”
The memorable season ended when Mt. Pleasant's Rodney Gearhart hit a solo home run in the seventh inning to break a 3-3 tie and knock Ford City out of the playoffs, but the '63 Sabers already had claimed their part of the school's sporting history.
Also playing big parts on that championship team were outfielder Mike Frick, shortstop Ron McElfresh and second basemen Jim Vidanoff and Fred Woyton.
“We got a trophy, I think. Who knows? Maybe not,” Olinger said. “If we did, it might still be in the school's trophy case. (The title) didn't even make it into our yearbook because it happened too late in the year, but we still remember what we were able to accomplish on that team.”