It’s the 75th anniversary of the All American Amateur Baseball Association (AAABA) tournament in Johnstown. A tradition since 1945, 16 teams from far and near will descend upon Johnstown this month to play in day and night games all around the city and its surrounding community. A special slate of anniversary events will commemorate this special year, put together with the help of area non-profits and businesses throughout the week. It’s especially exciting coming off of last year’s first win in AAABA 74-year history for Johnstown’s hometown team, Martella’s Pharmacy.
With all the hoopla and hype, there are many people behind the scenes who work hard to make sure the events and games come off without a hitch. Still there are many more who love the sport and are passionate about baseball and who come back year after year, watching for that new Major League hopeful.
The tournament isn’t just about one week of baseball games, leading to a winner. It is about a whole community working together to make a difference in their town and in the lives of young men.
It all starts with George
The AAABA doesn’t exist without George Arcurio III, president of the Johnstown Oldtimers Baseball Association and past president of the National AAABA. Ask anyone. “He does it all,” they will say. From fundraising to greeting fans, nothing is beyond him.
“Many people take their vacations during that week. It’s very exciting. It’s for the kids, that’s what it’s really about,” he says.
Aside from the excitement of the anniversary, there’s a lot to do behind the scenes to get ready for the game. This tournament is one of the few that pays for all of the player’s rooms and meals in order to alleviate the burden for the teams.
Arcurio has been involved with the association for 46 years, working side by side with his father, George Jr. “I inherited it from my father,” he says. “When he passed away . . . he passed the torch on to me. I love baseball. I love being within the community. It’s a great event.”
Joining Arcurio on the board is its newest member, Josh Krentz, who has taken on the role of identifying new sponsorships for the tournament. “I’m trying to explore new opportunities – maybe people out here that I can call up. Explore a few different avenues.” ‘Out here’ is Apollo, Westmoreland County, where he now lives. From there, he drives in to Johnstown to attend board meetings and otherwise manages his responsibilities on his computer or phone. At a young 30 years old, Krentz inherited his position on the board from his grandfather, Jim Krentz.
“My grandfather was a big part of this,” he says. “He was involved for many years. I had been trying to get involved, volunteering, volunteering, and I kept pushing forward.” Krentz fondly remembers helping out with the tournament since 1996, from bat boy to selling tickets, to anything they needed him to do. Now, he is finally on the board and anxiously waiting for this season to begin, the fruits of his labor to be seen as the youngest member.
Next, a coach who’s been there
Just a few years ago, Jesse Cooper was a four-year starter on Martella’s until 2014. Then in 2017, he debuted as the manager of the team. It only took one season for him to help lead his team to their first win in 75 years. Cooper credits his success to many people, too many to name. Coaches from Bishop McCort, from his college days at Seton Hill University and from when he was a player at AAABA. “It was nice to be put in the position to bring my style of coaching to the table and learn some things from what they have established about the game for years,” Cooper says. “With my past experience with people like that to mentor me and lead me in the correct direction, it motivates me to be the best version of myself so that my players can look back and take something with them from having me as their coach.”
As a huge fan of the grays long before he was a player, Cooper felt that it was something that he just needed to be a part of, the franchise of Joe Martella and his family. He believes it is a rewarding experience being a part of his players’ collegiate baseball careers and having some part in building them into high character people.
Cooper says transitioning from a player who tried to lead on the field to now leading as a coach, especially with some of the players on his team who he had played with three years prior to him becoming manager, was a good experience. “It was amazing how much respect I was shown right from practice number one and that’s what gave me the confidence to make the team my own and really create that family atmosphere.”
Cooper is building upon the success from last year with nine returning men from the local area. The best thing about college leagues like the AAABA, he says, is having the chance to help these guys hone in on their skills that they have worked relentlessly on over the years.
“If we have a group of guys that can buy in and come to the ball park to get better day in and day out as the season rolls along, I really like our chances,” Cooper says. “A culture of unselfishness is imperative to be a team that wins consistently. However, every year great teams come to this thing with a hunger to be at the top when that final out is recorded. So I think it’ll just come down to us playing the game with confidence and playing for the guy next to you.”
Cooper’s been going to the games since before he could walk. His parents would tell him on opening day that one day, he would be down there on the field, playing. “As a young kid, it’s hard to believe or picture that becoming reality, but I’m proud to say that I had the opportunity to play and coach in front of the people of Johnstown, and without all the support behind me, I don’t think it would’ve been possible.”
A few good players
Jonny Kutchman an infielder for Martella’s going into his fourth season, joined the team right out of high school. He hopes to defend that win from last year as he begins his senior year at Waynesburg University.
“Playing and contributing in the national championship with Martella’s team was an experience of a lifetime,” Kutchman says. “To finally be on the team to win it for Johnstown for the first time ever was an awesome experience and I’m glad that we could bring the title to Johnstown.” Every player and coach on the team had a role that helped us win in a total team effort, he says.
“It’s a very competitive league and it can help players develop and become better players in the long run,” Kutchman says. He is thankful to his coaches and says they help prepare him and other players every day.
Although it is a long season, it’s something he’s used to. His schedule of working during the day and playing at night becomes a routine. “Our coach always tells us to come out and play hard every night and that’s what we try to do night in and night out,” Cooper says. He is pumped and ready to play as this year’s defending champions. “We always have a chance to win it all. We always find a way to put a team together every year that can win and compete at a high level.”
Martella’s is synonymous with baseball in Johnstown, Cooper says. He’s glad to be a part of it all for as long as he has been. “Every year it’s always a great experience to be able to play in front of a large crowd,” he says. “Our goal every year is to go out and win games and represent the Martella’s sponsor well, and ultimately go out and win a national championship like we accomplished last year.”
Add in some perspective
Baseball never left Pat Gully’s life. Reflecting on his time in AAABA, he says the biggest highlight was playing in front of hometown crowds of that magnitude as a teenager of 5,000 plus. Now he is making it a career as a full-time assistant baseball coach at Mount Aloysius College.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he says.
Each team he played for throughout the years was different, but the coaching staff and the local area kids kept each team together. “Chemistry, hard work, and the love of the game – that is what wins baseball games,” reflects Gully, who played for Martella’s for five seasons (2010-2014) making it to the tournament each of those seasons. That love and dedication are what has been instilled in the Martella’s franchise.
Many of the men he played with were kids he also grew up with during his baseball career. The tournament was something every 8 to 14-year-old looked forward to, he says.
Gully believes there is a secret recipe to the tournament: great coaching staff, amazing sponsors, awesome families that come out and support the teams and all around good teammates.
“It is a family atmosphere and it was ‘fun’ to show up at the ballpark every day.”
Gully continues to support the tournament, sitting in the stands with his family and friends watching the games. “There is still that butterfly feeling in the bottom of my stomach each year as I sit in the stands behind home-plate, and look out amongst the thousands of people ... thinking back to when I was out there like a deer in headlights, a scared to death 17-year-old kid,” Gully recalls. “However, that is the best part. Nowhere else can you get that feeling back, and I don’t want to speak for my past teammates, but I am sure every one of them would do anything to get back out there and do it all over again, just to get that butterfly feeling.”
A dash of super fans
Rex Morgart Sr. has been going to the games for over five decades with his Uncle Harry Quarry, who has him beat by one extra decade. “It’s been a family thing forever,” he says. His uncle is the one who got him started. They save seats for all of their family members and watch the tournament all week in the evening. But the two of them take in a lot of games – two a day, one in the afternoon and one in the evening; so they make a week of it.
All of that is impressive to say the least, but that’s not what makes Morgart a super fan. He and his son, Rex Jr., have been collecting baseball cards of every player who have made it in to the Big Game since AAABA started.
“It started when (younger Rex) was 12,” remembers Morgart. “He went to Bill Felix’s candy store he used to own downtown.” There, younger Rex got inspiration from the baseball card display the owner had. From there, the younder Morgart fashioned his own. “My first display was on a piece of poster board with about 24 cards,” says Morgart Jr. Felix allowed him display it in his store window. Thirty years later, both father and son have collected over 600 baseball cards covering four large billboard displays.
The process of collecting AAABA cards is labor-intensive. Morgart Jr. purchases rosters and cross-references those who have made it into the major and minor leagues during the year. Then based off of his list, he scours E-bay, purchases cards only given away at stadiums, and finds others sold in Topps or Upper Deck baseball packs. It’s a labor of love.
Right before the tournament, Morgart Jr. makes his yearly trek into town from Washington, DC to update the boards with his father with all of the new additions. He takes a vacation like so many others who are dedicated to making this event a success. Together, they organize the boards, switching out some of the cards for newer cards or cards that haven’t been seen in a while so that people can get a new perspective on players from year to year.
“I still come back every year to watch some of the finest amateur baseball in the country and spend time with Dad,” says Morgart Jr..
The cards are on display Sunday evening for the players and their parents at their banquet Sunday evening, August 4, at Summit Arena and then they take the display to Suppes Ford on Main Street for a public display in their window for the duration of the tournament.
“The kids come here and they have never been to the tournament before – they see that all the guys that have played here and it gives them a sense of the history,” says Morgart Sr. Some of his favorite cards are Ernie Oravetz, who was only 5’4” and was drafted to the Washington Senators in 1955; and Gene Pentz, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and the Houston Astros (‘75 to ’78) who not only still resides in Johnstown, but also serves on the Greater Johnstown School Board. And of course, Randy Mazey, who is the head coach at West Virginia University and was named 2019 Big 12 Conference Coach of the year.
One particular memory Morgart Sr. remember vividly is watching Jim Abbott from Flint, Michigan, a noted left-handed one-armed pitcher. “I watched (Abbott) down at the point and my wife’s cousin was the catcher for the Johnstown franchise, he says. He remembers the cousin almost hitting a homer against Abbott. “I can still see it like it was yesterday. Everybody just went crazy. To think a lot of these guys are going to play Major League baseball are going to be right here in front of you playing when they are just young and it is great for the city,” Morgart Sr. says. “The Old Timers have put so much time into this. You can go on vacation and you can mention Johnstown and the first thing out of their mouth is the AAABA tournament. There are so many people who love baseball.”
And the finale!
Dave Kindya and his son, Ben, both of Armagh, have been blowing up the hillside with mortars across from Sargent Stadium at the Point Park for decades now, rallying Johnstown baseball players and fans to victory. Better known as the Bomb Squad, the duo comes back year after year to the same spot with a team of four helpers and roughly 40 family and friends cheering from the far side of the river. “It’s a tradition that we have been doing for years,” says Ben, who started helping his dad when he was a teenager. “It is something that out family did and nobody else can say they did it or are a part of it.”
Dave used to bring Ben out to the site before he could even walk. Now in his 30s, Ben is ever present as his dad’s right hand man. The family tradition started when Dave’s brother, the late Russell Kindya, fired mortars in the same spot to celebrate his son-in-law in a college baseball league at the stadium. Not long after, Russell and Dave began doing the same for the AAABA tournament.
Now, father and son take over the tradition, firing off their homemade mortars for home run hits for local Johnstown teams. There are a few other Bomb Squad sanctioned blasts aside from home runs — “When they get hits or when they get a rally. Sometimes, we don’t shoot because we think they are slacking,” explains Dave, shrugging. After last year’s championship game, they ran through all of their reserves of powder for the first time because they shot off so many mortars. And that’s a good thing, says Dave.
This year, they are looking forward to another big Johnstown crowd. They think that after last year’s winning season, fans will start filling up the seats again like they have in years' past. And that they would like to see again.
“It’s always nice to see big crowds in the stadiums,” says Ben. Even though they are on the hillside, he says it is nice to hear the excitement of the crowd cheering, especially for when their cannons go off.
As for the Bomb Squad, they are looking forward to another 75 years of hillside highjinks.
“We will keep coming back here,” says Ben. “For us, it’s our legacy.”