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Forbes Field hosted historic high school games

| Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The cry throughout high school football training camps each August is "Let's make it to Heinz Field this year," referring to the site of the WPIAL football finals.

But in a bygone era, the WPIAL championship games in football and baseball were played at Forbes Field.

Forbes Field opened 100 years ago last week, and there is a display commemorating the historic ballpark at the Sen. John Heinz History Center set to run through Nov. 8 at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, a facility located within the center.

While Forbes Field is best known as a baseball venue, the Steelers played there until 1964, playing home games at Pitt Stadium until the Pirates were done with their season. Forbes was not made for football, as the grid stretched from the home plate area to right centerfield. There were no seats on one side of the field.

With a season ticket waiting list today, it's hard to believe the Steelers once drew just 8,000 for a game at Forbes Field in 1963 when hometown hero Johnny Unitas, who played his high school ball at St. Justin's, led the Baltimore Colts into Pittsburgh.

With no PIAA baseball playoffs at the time, the WPIAL could schedule the title game around the time when the Pirates were on the road.

Kiski Area and Latrobe played the last WPIAL title game at Forbes Field on Nov. 15, 1968. Latrobe prevailed, 19-7. At that point, the football field was laid out in the outfield.

While we're at it, let's pick the five best high school games played at Forbes.

1. Ken High 21, Vandergrift 0, Nov. 1, 1946. This was the regular-season finale. Both teams were undefeated and untied and were scheduled to play at tiny George Leslie Memorial Stadium in Arnold, too small to accommodate the expected huge crowd. Vandergrift had just installed lights at Davis Field and offered to host the game, but Ken High didn't want to give up a home game.

The game drew 17,967 fans, an incredible total considering there was no Route 28 Expressway or no Parkway East one could use to get there.

Since both the Red Raiders and the Blue Lancers were the only undefeated and untied teams left in WPIAL Class AA, the contest served as the de facto WPIAL championship game. Tony Kotowski scored 19 of Ken High's 21 points.

2. Ken High 28, Har-Brack 0, Nov. 28, 1947. The teams didn't play in the regular season, so Ken High had to win an actual game this time. A crowd of 15,115 on Thanksgiving Day watched in sub-freezing weather as Willie Thrower ran for a touchdown, threw two scoring tosses to Vince Pisano and intercepted a pass that was returned 42 yards. More than a dozen athletes who played in this game went on to Division I football, including Har-Brack's Ed and Dick Modzelewski, who played for Maryland.

3. Arnold 11, Beaver Falls 1, June 15, 1965. Arnold came into the game as a heavy underdog. There were no classifications at the time, so a small school like Arnold had to get past the big boys to win it. The Lions knocked out standout pitcher Jim (Jumbo) Suskovich, the first time the hurler was removed from a game since his Little League days. A local sports tradition also started that day as Bob Tatrn and Joe Falsetti broadcast their first game together on WKPA Radio. The broadcast partnership would last more than 40 years until Falsetti died in 2006.

4. Monessen 7, Wilkinsburg 6, Nov. 24, 1961. More than 21,000 fans watched this one, a WPIAL record that stood for nearly 25 years. The game was marred by a melee with three seconds left in the game when a Wilkinsburg player broke through the line prematurely. Both benches cleared and fans came on to the field to help break up the fight. Local officials Dom Corso of Brackenridge and Charles "Chic" Desmone of Springdale scrambled to the locker room when things got out of control. Another game official, Paul Bertha, played the first base umpire in the 1953 movie "Angels in the Outfield," shot at Forbes Field.

5. Kiski Area 4, Gateway 2, June 20, 1966. Though Kiski Area was in just its fourth year of existence, the Cavaliers brough home WPIAL gold. Coach Harold Egalsky had to take tests from the state department, so he could go to Russia at the height of the Cold War, leaving the team in the hands of assistant coach Al Veselicky. Pitcher Billy Tress advanced his record to 11-0 with an 11-strikeout performance. The entire 1966 team will be inducted into the Kiski Area Sports Hall of Fame Sept. 5.

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