Jesse Cooper played in four AAABA Tournaments and will manage in his third when the 75th annual event begins on Monday at Sargent’s Stadium at the Point and outlying fields throughout the region.
Still, the Martella’s Pharmacy manager gets excited each time the “bingo cage” filled with 16 small numbered balls spins.
The contents inside are shaken up, bouncing and rolling until one ball pops out of the metal and wood contraption that has determined the match-ups for each of the 75 AAABA Tournaments – all but two of those played in Johnstown since 1945.
“Every year I feel something come over me,” Cooper said after defending AAABA Tournament champion Martella’s landed in Pool D to face the Youngstown Creekside Crocodiles at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Sargent’s Stadium. “I don’t know what I’m expecting to see. I know the outcome. At some point we’re going to be playing one of the great other 15 teams in this thing.
“It’s interesting that feeling, just sitting there anticipating who you’re going to play in that pool and who you’re going to be seeing the next three nights. You get a kick out of it. It’s definitely a tradition and an awesome thing they do.”
Much like the tournament itself, the “bingo cage” is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
AAABA Tournament Chairman John Austin, of Altoona, said the same cage has operated at the outset of each tournament during all 75 years.
“It’s the same bingo cage that was used back in 1945 when this all started,” Austin said.
“About 15 years ago, it was beginning to show some wear and tear in the little box that the balls fall into. Just kind of shined it up a little bit and took a little bit of the rust off. It still works.
“It’s amazing that it’s been around this organization for 75 years and never got lost. Hopefully it will be around another 35 years.”
The “bingo cage” helped produce an eight-game schedule that also included Johnstown-2 Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors playing against perennial tournament power New Orleans Boosters at noon at the Point. The game is a rematch of the 2017 championship contest won by the Boosters.
Last summer, New Orleans was runner-up to Martella’s, which won the first AAABA Tournament championship in Johnstown history.
The complete opening-day schedule, which has seven games starting at noon and the night game, includes:
• In Pool A: Brooklyn-2 Bonnie Rams vs. Buffalo-1 Royal Printing, Portage Haschak Field; Johnstown-2 Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors vs. New Orleans Boosters, Sargent’s Stadium.
• In Pool B: Cleveland Blaze vs. New York Long Island Astros, Westmont Hilltop High School; Altoona Johnston Realty vs. New Brunswick Matrix, Mount Aloysius College.
• In Pool C: Buffalo-2 Full Circuit Power vs. Philadelphia Bandits, Roxbury Park; Zanesville Junior Pioneers vs. Columbus Jets, Lilly Washington War Memorial Field.
• In Pool D: Maryland State Crabfest vs. Brooklyn-1 SAYO Grays, Fichtner Field (formerly Johnstown Middle School); Youngstown Creekside Crocodiles vs. Johnstown-1 Martella’s Pharmacy, Sargent’s Stadium, 7:30 p.m.
Youngstown manager Bob Mingo has been coming to Johnstown since 1988. The veteran Creekside Crocodiles leader watched the black ball drop through the cage and pair his team against Martella’s, assuring the Ohio squad an opportunity to play in front of 5,000 fans amid the opening-night hoopla.
“They made things better a long time ago than they do today,” Mingo said of the cage.
“It’s the anticipation. That thing is spinning. Sometimes they have trouble getting the ball out. You’re waiting. It’s like Heinz Ketchup. You’re waiting for that ball to come out.”
Johnstown Oldtimers Baseball Association President George Arcurio III said the cage, like the tournament, is a testament to resiliency.
“Through the years Bob Wolfe (Zanesville), Jim Wright (Zanesville) and John Austin have all taken care of the bingo cage,” Arcurio said. “It is a very collectable item, a rare antique.
“I don’t know if it was specially made or factory made, but the fact that it’s 75 years old and still in excellent condition, and we’re using it is a wonderful thing.”