The extraordinary success of Johnstown’s Delweld entry in the 69th annual AAABA Tournament is still being celebrated, as well it should. This column has no intention of taking anything away from the euphoria surrounding Delweld reaching the final round undefeated, knocking off perennial favorite Baltimore in the process.
The fact that Baltimore came back to gain a final-round, doubleheader triumph and claim the championship for the 29th time was not entirely unexpected. Nor while keenly disappointing it did not take away the luster of a task well done by manager Chris DelSignore’s timely-hitting, pitching-rich talented team. Only one other time in the city’s proud history of hosting the national tournament had a Johnstown team reached the finals unbeaten! Congratulations!!
In a post-tournament gathering of Tribune-Democrat retirees, Ron Budash talked about how under different circumstances Delweld might have won Johnstown’s first AAABA title.
Ron said he was against two local entries, and went on to note that Delweld may have been able to close out the championship in the first final-round match had second-entry Martella Pharmacy’s league’s best pitcher been available to take over the final innings as Delweld’s early 5-2 lead began to crack. Ron’s point being Delweld was denied access to Martella players when adding pickup players to its tournament roster.
In the early years, Johnstown Junior League managers were restricted to recruiting players within a 10-mile radius of City Hall. Falling under that umbrella were standout players from the Seward, Sidman, Windber and Conemaugh Township areas besides Greater Johnstown.
Against the likes of Washington, Baltimore, New Orleans and other more populated entrants with much less restraints, Johnstown was at a distinct disadvantage. Local fans were restless wishing for a more competitive team. In the first dozen years, only Ken Keiper’s 1956 Hahn Packing team reached the finals. Then it wasn’t until the 1994 and 1995 tournaments that Altoona and Johnstown representatives reached the last round – but only after a decision was reached to expand the territorial limitations.
I remember talking with Johnstown Baseball Commissioner Dr. Bob Hartnett as to the effect the new expansion would have on the flourishing Junior League program in the form of less participation by local players. Over time the renamed Johnstown AAABA League dwindled to three teams, resulting in a merger with the Altoona AAABA program. The Johnstown league experienced a nice bounce with two new entrants for the 2013 season, increasing the membership to six teams.
In a telephone conversation with Dr. Hartnett, he said one of the rules in the expansion was that players had to be able to return home by midnight. The expansion, he said, was intended to draw in players from nearby college programs.
Originally established as a junior-age tournament with a top age of 18, the age limit increased to 20 and effective with this year’s tournament to 21 with a maximum of 22 if the player’s birthday occurred after a specified date.
Dr. Hartnett said he never was in favor of a 21-age limit because of opening the door for possible underage-drinking involving those below the legal-drinking age.
Sportswriter Mike Mastovich in a published article quoted AAABA commissioner Denny Altimore as saying:
“Our goal is to become a college league so that we can entice college coaches to send their kids here. You have to be 18 to play. Some of the younger kids who were brought in, but who weren’t really ready, now will have an opportunity to play in the Colt and Legion leagues.
The idea of the old Junior League becoming a college league does not rest well for those who enjoyed as young teenagers competing for a berth in the prestigious national tournament.
One of them is George Marsh. George, among Richland Township High School’s most outstanding all-around athletes, was a catcher in the AAABA Tournament. During a recent visit, George, now living in Punxsutawney, said both he and his wife believe taking the tournament opportunity away from the young teenagers is a terrible fate.
My association with the tournament is three fold. I was a 17-year-old outfielder with the champion Kiwanis Club entry that played in the second tournament in 1946. As part of a two-decade baseball and basketball officiating tour, I umpired tournament games. As a Tribune-Democrat sportswriter for 10 years, I covered the games.
I remember working the plate behind Joe Torre, a burly young catcher destined for stardom in professional baseball as a player, manager and election to baseball’s Hall of Fame. I was impressed with how low the big catcher set up to give the umpire an unblocked view of the plate.
Amateur baseball was huge in the ’40s and ’50s with the city footing the bill for the maintenance of fields and payment of umpires. In addition, numerous Little League and Pony leagues abounded. There was also an active Senior League with Junior League graduates joining veterans like Abe Heider, Stan Stetz, Jimmy Kegg, the Balog brothers Jim and Charlie, Johnny Kozora and so many others in quality baseball competition. The national pastime was also big in small communities making up the Cambria County Industrial League and the Somerset American League.
Back to the Junior League, unlike today when a comparative handful of teams comprise the AAABA League, the 1946 Kiwanis Club champions headed by Poz Dunford was the best of a two division league.
Uniforms had not yet arrived. We played in T-shirts and dungarees. As was the case when Prospect AC represented Johnstown in the first All America Amateur Baseball Tournament, the Kiwanis Club team borrowed uniforms from Johnstown High School for its journey to Washington, D.C.
The nation’s capital was the scene of the only AAABA Tournament not held in Johnstown with one exception. In 1977, the tournament was moved to Altoona because of the condition of the baseball fields after a devastating late-July flood ended the flood-free hopes of a city known for its floods.
Walter Krebs, the late editor and publisher of The Tribune-Democrat, had a lot to do with the tournament returning to Johnstown in 1947. He presented a check for $4,700 to then Sports Editor George S. (Chick) Cooper, instructing him to go to Washington with the assurance that he would guarantee payment of expenses.
Sixty-nine years later, the AAABA Tournament is still going strong and just as popular as ever. Big crowds continue to pack Point Stadium. The brand of baseball is better with more older and experienced athletes. Area fans have their wish – highly competitive, successful representatives.
Sixty-nine years is a long time. Change is inevitable. Still, the nostalgic part of me winces. Is the younger generation of baseball lads getting shortchanged?
Jim Siehl of Schellsburg, formerly of Richland Township, retired in 1991 after 44 years as a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat.