Legendary A-K Valley softball team won improbable world title in 1969
A world championship was brought to the Alle-Kiski Valley in 1969 on Labor Day.
Hubby’s of Arnold won the United States Slow-pitch Softball Association title in Toledo, defeating Sol Mintz of Washington, Pa., by a 6-5 score.
The road to the championship wasn’t easy. It included a late invitation, an interrupted honeymoon and a dramatic finish on the last pitch of the final game.
It might be hard to imagine today how popular adult, slow-pitch softball was in the 1960s and 70s. Leagues were spread throughout the Valley area and beyond.
One of the biggest was centered around the former Sokol Camp in Lower Burrell, now part of Officer Derek Kotecki Memorial Park.
Weekend holiday tournaments would go into the wee hours of the following morning with nocturnal softball fans packing the stands.
Hubby’s, sponsored by John Toney of American Slovak Club of Arnold and managed by Jack Nee, played the role of the perennial bridesmaid before the breakthrough finally came.
Even in 1969, Hubby’s finished second in the AK Shaughnessy playoffs to Golf Oasis, second in the Fourth of July Tournament and second in the regional qualifier to Sol Mintz.
But then the big break came. When a top team had to back out of the world tournament, organizers were impressed with Hubby’s and the invitation was sent out to join the 32-team, double-elimination tournament.
That was fine except for the fact the starting shortstop, Larry Ondako, was on his honeymoon in Virginia Beach with his bride, Julie.
Said Ondako: “When I started as an assistant to (basketball) coach Tony Sellari at Burrell, he told me if I was going to coach, I better marry a special girl. When Jack Nee called and said to head to Toledo and Julie said let’s go, I knew I picked the right girl.”
Hubby’s won six games that weekend. But with several games left, Ondako lost a contact lens lost and didn’t have eyeglasses with him. He borrowed a pair from someone in the bleachers.
The local team defeated the host Toledo squad, three teams from Milwaukee and a team from Virginia leading to the title game.
Hubby’s was breezing along with a 6-1 lead going into the bottom of the seventh until Sol Mintz rallied to make it 6-5. Nee conferred with pitcher Wally Szlachetka.
“I told them to just throw the ball and let him hit to somebody,” Ondako recalled. “He smacked the ball right to our outfielder. John Zamperini was right there.”
First baseman Fred Hanlin and catcher Bernie Kubiak drove home two runs each in the clincher.
Ondako was voted tournament MVP, and Szlachetka and leftfielder Jerry Bussard made the All-World team.
“Jack was such a great guy,” Szlachetka said. “He got people like educators, professional (engineers) and got the most out of the guys.”
“It’s about time we won something,” Nee growled to a Valley News Dispatch reporter when asked to comment upon returning from Toledo.
The team was enshrined in the USSSA Hall of Fame in Petersburg, Va., a number of years ago. The hall has since moved to Florida.
Another New Kensington area team, Golf Oasis, finished fourth following a pair of losses to Sol Mintz.
Nee is deceased, along with Hanlin and Kubiak.
Ondako had a successful coaching career with Leechburg basketball and Burrell softball. Szlachetka is one of the area’s most well-known game officials in several sports.
Other team members were team captain John “Butch” Liput, Wally’s brother Mike Szlachetka, Ron Zienciak, Ron Liput, Denny Russell, Frank Wise, Paul Dallas, Casey Ladish and Frank Kuniak.
George Guido is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.