August and baseball in Johnstown.
The month and the sport have coexisted in the Flood City throughout 75 years of All American Amateur Baseball Association Tournaments.
This year’s event will officially open on Aug. 5 at Sargent’s Stadium at the Point as the host city’s representative plays in front of a packed stadium amid the hoopla associated with one of summer’s biggest spectacles in Johnstown.
It’s been that way almost every year since 1945.
For one week, baseball takes center stage in Johnstown and its surrounding communities.
Rain or shine. Through good economic times associated with the once-booming steel and coal industries. Through the financially challenging stretches. Whether the local team is contending for a title or facing an early exit.
The event and the host city have become almost interchangeable.
For the first 74 years of the tournament, Johnstown earned a reputation as an accommodating host.
The local representative had never won the tournament title, although Johns-town came tantalizingly close with runner-up finishes eight times.
When the first pitch is thrown on opening night this year, Johnstown will carry the banner of defending champion for the first time in the event’s storied history. Martella’s Pharmacy went 6-0 in 2018 to win the city’s first AAABA Tournament crown.
So, where did the tradition begin?
In the beginning ...
In the year’s after Pearl Harbor, with World War II raging, professional sports weren’t quite a priority.
Amateur sports helped fill the void.
Industrialist Glenn L. Martin, of Martin Aircraft Corp., had both the financial resources and the love of baseball when he organized a meeting of representatives of amateur baseball from six eastern U.S. cities in New York City in 1944.
By the conclusion of the meeting, the All American Amateur Baseball Association had been formed.
Johnstown hosted the first tournament in 1945, but unlike today, the city wasn’t quite prepared for the host role and took plenty of public criticism both locally and throughout the AAABA.
In 1946, the tournament moved to Washington, D.C., and it appeared as if Johnstown had squandered an opportunity.
But Walter W. Krebs, editor of The Tribune in Johnstown, and George S. Cooper, sports editor, joined forces with a reorganized Johnstown Oldtimers Baseball Association. The Oldtimers originally had been formed by a group of local athletes in the mid-1930s to promote baseball, but had become more of a social group as the years passed.
Krebs and Cooper set out to woo the AAABA Tournament back to Johnstown.
The new version of the Oldtimers supported the effort. Krebs offered to underwrite expenses for the tournament and properly promote it.
The AAABA Tournament returned to Johnstown in 1947 and received rave reviews. The city has played host to all but two of the annual AAABA Tournaments, with the 1977 Johnstown Flood forcing a temporary move to Altoona that summer.
Steadfast and evolving
The AAABA Tournament has played on, thanks largely to the extraordinary efforts of the Johnstown Oldtimers Baseball Association, which annually raises funds to sponsor the event.
The tournament has adapted through the decades, adding franchises from throughout the eastern U.S. and even Canada during the heyday. Now, the tourney looks to replace teams that have dropped out, usually due to economic hardships.
The AAABA has moved from wooden bats to aluminum bats and back to wood.
Enter the designated hitter during the 1970s. Upper and lower brackets in the early ’80s. Pool play in 2016.
Newspaper coverage of the tournament has been part of the AAABA since the outset. Radio broadcasts and live television coverage emerged as technology evolved. Now, websites, blogs and social media also spread the word about the big hits and stellar pitching performances.
Baseball has been one constant.
So has the Johnstown community.
People who might not attend a sandlot baseball game all summer will purchase tickets in August to be a part of opening night at the Point. The casual observers sit next to the diehard fans who’ve been following their team since June.
They go to the AAABA opener because it is an event, a rite of summer attended by 5,000 or more people in the current stadium – and by as many as 10,000 to 15,000 in the days of the old Point with the upper grandstand.
Some fans shuffle across the concrete walkways at the Point to be seen almost as much as they are there to see the action on the field.
Some go because their parents took them to the games years ago. Now, they bring their own children. The cycle is a grand slam home run for Johnstown baseball.
The only thing missing for more than 70 years was a local championship.
That changed in 2018 when Martella’s Pharmacy went 6-0 and won a tight contest against perennial power New Orleans in the title game at Sargent’s Stadium at the Point.
Martella’s led in the ninth inning as the home crowd roared with each pitch.
I had a perfect vantage point to use my iPhone to record what every Johnstown fan in the venue hoped would be the historic final out.
Standing near play-by-play radio broadcaster Don Stanton and color commentator John DeFazio, I inadvertently had audio to go with the video footage.
History was about to be made, right?
Well, I remembered conversations I had with the late Ken Keiper, Ron Ling and Tony Joseph about Washington Federal Storage’s Gary Miller’s ninth-inning, two-run double down the right field line that sunk their Johnstown Hahn Packing team in the 1956 championship round at the Point.
As a 22-year-old fan, I watched Sam Zambanini’s Coca-Cola squad rally for four runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie “Rags” Scheuermann’s New Orleans team in an elimination game.
Coke, which was the first Johnstown team to win its first three tournament games, had been down 8-4 and many fans had left the Point only to return when the noise level elevated throughout a spectacular rally that put the potential winning run on second base with two outs.
Slugger John Polinski ripped what seemed like 10 but probably was three or four foul balls off the screen in left before lining out to send the game into extra innings.
New Orleans won 9-8 in the 10th inning.
A decade later, New Orleans beat Ross Kott and Johnstown Sani-Dairy in the ’95 title game.
In 2001, Galliker Dairy made it to the championship round with a perfect 5-0 record behind some great pitching by Anthony Zambotti. Washington’s Maryland Bombers had lost by six runs to Johnstown earlier in the tournament and needed to beat the Dairy twice in order to win the title. They did.
Three years later, the Johnstown Grays mounted an impressive ninth-inning comeback to tie powerhouse Baltimore 4-all and put the winning run on second in the semifinals. After a two-out single to left, Baltimore’s Eric Perlozzo made a perfect throw to get the final out at the plate. Three extra innings later, Youse’s Maryland Orioles won 8-4.
Of course, New Orleans had its own unlikely ninth-inning, five-run comeback against the Grays in 2005, using a gutsy squeeze bunt by Lee Haydel to tie the score in a game the Boosters eventually won 5-4 to earn a spot in the final round.
Undefeated Baltimore edged Johnstown’s Delweld 4-0 in the title game in 2010.
In 2013, Baltimore’s Ryan Ripken had a MVP performance in the tournament and was part of Youse’s Maryland Orioles’ 10-run win over a very strong Delweld team in the championship game. Baltimore needed to beat Johnstown twice, and Youse’s managed to do so with a 12-5 victory in the first meeting during a Sunday doubleheader.
Johnstown’s Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors made it to back-to-back title games as the Johnstown-2 team, but lost to Zanesville in 2016 and New Orleans in 2017.
So, pardon me if the sight of New Orleans runners standing on all three bases with two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run ballgame summoned memories of those not-so-happy endings for Johnstown.
This time, however, was different.
Martella’s lefty Brady Walker had pitched a magnificent game, his second great outing of the tournament, for 82/3 innings. Left-handed fireballer T.J. Adams made it interesting before doing what he had done so often throughout the season – overpowering a hitter and ending the game with a swinging strikeout on a 3-2 pitch.
An estimated 5,000 fans at Sargent’s Stadium erupted in a huge cheer and collective sigh of relief after the 3-2 win was secure.
The victory was yet another historic chapter for an event about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.