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When coal town baseball thrived

| Friday, June 20, 2008

Before Word War II, the coal towns of Western Pennsylvania were noted for something besides coal. Every town of any size had a baseball team. Yatesboro was one of those towns.

Tom Piscolish, soon to be 94, was a long-time pitcher for Yatesboro. When he was 13, growing up in the nearby community of Margaret, Tom saw a magazine advertisement offering a pitcher's glove and a book on how to throw a curve for " A buck and a half." He saved his pennies, answered the ad, and that marked the beginning of a lifelong pitching career. Sometimes he pitched two and three games a week plus batting practice. He said his arm never got sore in all those years of throwing the ball.

The family livelihood came from mining coal and Tom was not excused. He started digging coal when he graduated from high school in Rural Valley. By that time the family was living in Yatesboro.

Mining coal was pick and shovel work. It was hard work, especially in conditions where you couldn't stand throughout the entire work shift. The coal-mining machinery we have today was not part of their life. It was yet to be invented.

Mine owners did give good players a few breaks. Piscolish did not have to work the night shift. Piscolish and his teammates did not get paid for playing baseball. They got paid for digging coal.

In the 1930s and '40s, coal miners had two heroes - John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers and President Franklin Roosevelt. My grandfather mined coal during the pick and shovel days. After the war when I was home during a college break, we were discussing President Roosevelt and John L. Lewis. My grandfather left no doubt where he stood when he said "Billy, John L. Lewis was just like Moses, when he led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt." I sensed the same sentiment from Tom Piscolish. Lewis and Roosevelt formed a bond with coal-mining families throughout the entire coal region.

Recently I saw a photograph of the 1935 Yatesboro ball team. Across the front of the players' shirts in large black letters was UMWA, standing for United Mine Workers of America. This was a sign that mine owners no longer had tight control over the players. The election of Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, had changed the political climate in America.

The photograph showed me something else. In back of the players is an impressive grandstand for the spectators. This was in sharp contrast to the seats we had in my hometown of Clymer in nearby Indiana County. Our seat was the railroad track that ran along and above the ballfield. That was our seat for the entire ball game. If you were on the lean side you remembered to bring a cushion or suffer discomfort of the steel rail. From what I have seen and heard, I believe Yatesboro took their baseball more seriously than Clymer folks.

Our baseball field in Clymer had another flaw. Out beyond the outfield Sherman Street ran parallel to the train tracks. Sherman Street was out of reach for most batters. However, on a rare occasion, a player would make excellent contact with the ball and out would go a window on Sherman Street. That brought applause unlike any other. That was one of the privileges of living on Sherman Street.

Tom Piscolish's love of sports is not limited to baseball. He is an excellent bowler and on the hill above his home is a horseshoe court where you can hear the ringing of horseshoes on a summer evening.

In 1977, in recognition of his accomplishments, he was inducted into the Armstrong County Sports Hall of Fame.

Tom Piscolish has set another record that will never be broken. He is the only living member of the 1932 Rural Valley High School class.

Editor's note: William R. King is a retired agricultural agent for Armstrong County and a noted photographer of area landscapes. He lives in North Buffalo Township.

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