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July 6, 2013

MIKE KOVAK | Future 300-game winner unwanted in Acosta

JOHNSTOWN — Life in Acosta a century ago centered around Consolidation Coal Company and, like so many coal patches at the time, the company ran everything, including the Acosta Baseball Club.

As Somerset County legend has it, and some historical records validate, Acosta fielded quite a ball club – one of the better teams in the area. A place on the roster meant a good job with the coal company and a place to live.

The teams were run like businesses. Coal companies hired managers and, sometimes, general managers.

“In the 1920s and 1930s, the towns were growing because the mines were growing. The more people there were, the more ball players there were,” said Bill Gavel, a former assistant baseball coach at North Star who became involved with the Somerset County Oldtimers Baseball Association and wanted to find the origins of the sport where he grew up.

After extensive library research, Gavel’s quest led to a meeting with George Morgan, who ran the Belmont Inn in Acosta. Morgan, who died in 2002 at the age of 93, was one of those guys who knew everything and everyone.

In other words, he was the perfect person for Gavel to talk with.

“George had the inside track on some information. To me, it’s an interesting story,” Gavel said.

And, if the story is true, it shows for all the perks enjoyed by the Acosta Baseball Club in the heyday of mining towns, good scouting wasn’t one of them.

As legend has it, word reached Acosta that an outstanding pitcher was set to appear in Meyersdale. The time was around 1920 and, as good fortune had it, a couple automobiles were handy for scouts from the Acosta Baseball Club to make the drive to southern Somerset County.

The scouts were give an edict: Sign the pitcher and offer a job with Consolidation Coal Company along with a place to live.

So, the trip was made. The pitcher was evaluated.

Upon the scout’s return, he offered this assessment according to Gavel, “You sent us down there to sign a pitcher and he isn’t nothing but a thrower.”

If there was a worse decision made in the history of Acosta Baseball Club, well, that legend has yet to make its rounds.

In a matter of weeks, the left-handed thrower from Lonaconing, Md., – only a couple miles from Frostburg, Md., and a short drive to Somerset County – was locked up by the Baltimore Orioles, then a member of the International League. He joined the pitching rotation midseason and finished with a 12-2 record. Over the next four seasons, he won 96 games and led the International League in strikeouts each year.

In 1925, Orioles owner Jack Dunn finally sold Grove’s rights to the Philadelphia Athletics for $100,600. At the time, it was the highest price paid for a baseball player.

Once in the majors, the left-handed thrower, known throughout the baseball world as Lefty Grove, became a six-time all-star, the 1931 American League MVP, a two-time World Series champion and is still considered among the top left-handed pitchers in major league history.

Grove finished his 17-year MLB career with a 300-141 record, a 3.06 ERA and 2,266 strikeouts. In 1947, Grove was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1998, he was elected to Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team.

“It’s a story people still tell around here,” Gavel said. “Lefty Grove was good enough for all this – the Hall of Fame, 300 wins – but he wasn’t good enough for the Acosta Baseball Club.”

Mike Kovak’s last day as sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat was July 6.

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