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No regrets for Larry Papini

| Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012

As a senior at California Community High School in the 1951-52 term, Larry Papini had designs on civil engineering.

Instead, his path led him to professional baseball and back to his alma mater for a distinguished career as a teacher and coach.

"Regrets• None at all," said Papini, 77, a California native who has lived in Roscoe for more than 50 years. "It's been a great ride. I have a wonderful and loving family, good friends, and lots of great memories."

After high school graduation in 1952, Papini shifted just a few blocks from his Union Street home to California State Teachers College - now California University of Pennsylvania.

"Pitt, West Virginia, Penn State and even Carnegie Mellon were out of reach in terms of tuition," said Papini, who put aside the idea of civil engineering.

"I decided to go Cal State. I knew I would get a good education and be close to home," he said.

Papini established himself as one of the best all-around scholastic athletes in California high school history. He played football, basketball and baseball for coaches Jim Underwood, Bill Watkins and Don Cornell, respectively.

"Sports was an outlet for us in those days. There were no computers, TV, video games," he said.

"We were looking for a way to burn off that teenage energy and perhaps get a scholarship or a contract with a professional team. There were so many great athletes in town and in the Mon Valley when I was growing up, and they were inspirations to us.

"We saw our fathers coming home bone-tired from the mill or the coal mines and thought, 'there must be something better.'"

Every school had quality athletes in all sports - Brownsville, California, Charleroi, Monessen, Donora, Monongahela, he said.

"The 1940s after World War II and the '50s represented a golden era of high school sports, I believe. ... As a kid, I couldn't wait to get a chance to compete on that level."

Papini recalls a base-ball game in California in the mid-1940s.

"I was in seventh or eighth grade, and Charleroi was coming to town to play an important section game," Papini said.

Papini said Charleroi had a great pitcher in Fred Uhlman.

"California's lineup included Tony Segzda, Roy Barli and the Konek brothers, John and Pete," Papini said. "The game was played at the old field near the Italian Club, the one we called the Roman Colosseum."

He said Green, a powerful hitter, belted a home run over the fence in left center - a drive of more than 330 feet.

"I had never seen anyone in high school hit a ball so far at that time," Papini said. "No one was really sure where it landed ... it may still be up there."

Papini cracked the starting lineup for California's baseball team as a sophomore in 1950.

As the Trojans prepared to open defense of their Section 19 championship, Cornell looked to Papini at shortstop; John Konek, first base and pitcher; Ed Hazelbaker, second base; Dick Sabo, third base; Roy Barli, pitcher and first base; Bobby Letrick, catcher; Ed Micjan, pitcher; and outfielders J.D. Gorman, Bernie Sosnak and Cliff Copenhaver.

In 1951 Papini was nominated to the annual Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph All-Star Game at West Field in Munhall.

The same year, Papini was chosen by Major League scouts to play in the All-West American Legion game at Forbes Field.

In Papini's senior year -?1952 - California won the Section 19 baseball championship in a strange twist of events.

The Trojans bowed to Charleroi, 3-2, in the regular season final and appeared to be destined for a second place finish.

But Cornell protested the game because of a controversial call. The WPIAL upheld the protest and ordered the game to be replayed. The second time around - at West Field in Munhall - California won, 3-2, to clinch the section title.

The post-season was short, though, as the Trojans lost to Redstone, 5-1. Redstone's ace hurler, Bobby Locke -?a future Major League player - struck out 13 and limited California to two hits.

"He was something else," Papini said. "You could see he had all the tools to make it to the top."

Papini, an end, achieved honorable mention on the 1951 Associated Press All-State football team.

Papini ended his California high school basketball career by being named 1952-53 All-Section 5-A

He played basketball and baseball California State in the 1952-53 and 1953-54 school years.

Papini played American Legion baseball for California and Fayette City. He played for Perryopolis in the Big Ten League.

"The Big Ten was a very competitive league made up mostly of teams in Fayette County," Papini recalled. "A lot of the players were seven, eight and nine years older than I.

"Many of them had returned to the area after World War II and had jobs in the mines. They were big, strong guys with a lot of talent. I was only 18 when I started playing against them, but it was a great learning experience."

By 1954, Papini was a 6-foot-3, 180-pound player for the Charleroi Merchants. He caught the attention of the Boston Red Sox, who signed him that spring.

Papini, 20 at the time, also had been sought by the Pirates, Dodgers and Reds.

"That was a big deal, no question about it," said Papini, who was wooed by legendary Boston scout C.J. "Socko" McCarey. "It was a dream come true."

Papini relinquished his amateur athletic status but said he was committed to completing his last two years at California State.

The Sox assigned Papini Bluefield, W.Va., in the Class D Appalachian League.

He also played minor league ball for Decatur, Ill., in the Midwest League and Crestview, Fla., in the Alabama-Florida League. Papini compiled a batting average of .273 and a .396 slugging average before deciding he'd had enough..

"It's not as glamorous as some folks would lead you to believe, especially in the minors," he said. "Long days and nights, riding along bumpy roads in those old buses - and realism hit hard."

Papini said he signed for $2,500, adding other players received $50,000 to $80,000.

"I'm not tooting my own horn, but I had confidence in my talents, fielding and hitting," Papini said. "But you know that it's a business; that is, if a team has invested more money in other guys playing the same position as you, they're going to protect their investments and give those players the first shot at moving up."

Papini returned home to the Merchants.

In 1957, he was named the Merchants' most valuable player after helping manager Alf Caruso's club win a title. Playing in 52 of Charleroi's 53 games, Papini led the team in hitting with a .329 batting average.

He was the MVP a second time in 1959, when he hit 17 home runs, a Mon Valley League record, and batted .427.

Papini stopped playing in 1960 but stayed in sports.

He became a math teacher at California Community High School during the 1956-57 term and coached football, basketball and baseball.

He taught for 41 years before retiring in 1997. Over the years, he served as a varsity head coach in baseball, football and both girls' and boys' basketball.

Papini's 1981-82 girls' team reeled off 19 straight wins on its way to a 22-1 record and the Section 15 championship.

The team bowed to St. Paul's Cathedral, 58-48, in the first round of the WPIAL tournament at California State.

"It was becoming a very busy time in our lives," Papini recalled of the start of his career in teaching and coaching.

"It's probably good that (sandlot) baseball was part of my past. We had started a family. There was no lack of activities at school - every minute of the day was accounted for."

Papini and his wife, the former Jessie Lou Petrick, of Roscoe, celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary Jan. 26. They have five children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

"Three of our children chose military careers, so we have traveled to places I never dreamed of visiting," Papini said.

"Our grandchildren are involved in sports and other activities, and we've kept busy following them. We're very proud of our family. God certainly blessed us in that respect and in many other ways."

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