Rick Britt appreciates the significance of his upcoming induction into the AAABA Hall of Fame.
When Britt accepts the honor on July 30 at the Pasquerilla Conference Center, he will be the first black player inducted into the AAABA Hall of Fame.
“I’m humbled to be selected in the hall,” said the 70-year-old Britt, who played for the former Johnstown powerhouse Hahn Packing franchise and spent two years as a center fielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league organization.
“My understanding is I’m the first African-American to be in there, too. That enriches the honor.”
Britt will be joined in the Class of 2016 by Johnstown’s Dick Burgo, who managed four teams in the AAABA Tournament, including three straight with Monte Carlo from 1970-72;
Johnstown Pepsi-Cola’s Joe Vitko, who went on to pitch in the majors with the New York Mets; and Pittsfield, Massachusett’s Charles Garivaltis, who was the first two-time batting champion in the AAABA Tournament, hitting .625 in 1953 and .483 in 1952.
Former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere will be the featured speaker during the 23rd annual AAABA Hall of Fame event.
Rick Britt, Hahn Packing
Britt batted .333 for Hahn Packing in the 1965 AAABA Tournament. The Packers were eliminated in two games, but Britt appreciated the time spent on one of the top teams in the Johnstown Junior League from 1962 to 1965.
“I played for Hahn Packing, and that was one of the elite teams during that era,” Britt said. “It’s been an experience for me. I’ve been the first African-American on many occasions – as a deputy sheriff in Cambria County, with Hahn Packing and now the AAABA Hall of Fame, which is icing on the cake. It’s a privilege to be here to celebrate with my family and my friends.”
Britt was a star athlete at the former Franklin High School through his junior year, and then transferred to Greater Johnstown, where he also was a standout in basketball and football. He earned the prestigious Point Stadium Award for his work on the gridiron with the Trojans.
“We had one of the elite coaches at that time, Rev. Kenny Keiper,” Britt said of the former Hahn Packing manager and AAABA Hall of Famer.
“At that time, I can remember vividly, I was playing for Franklin High School and he came to scout me. I never thought I’d be on Hahn Packing. I was the first African-American to play on that team. There were a lot of great ballplayers on the team.
“At that time, we were so far ahead of the other teams on account of the coaches we had,” he said. “We had it all on paper. Coming from a small school like I did in Franklin, it was amazing.”
After high school and the AAABA, Britt tried out for the Pirates and played two seasons with the team’s franchise in Daytona, Florida.
“I was there with players like Manny Sanguillen, Al Oliver and Dock Ellis,” Britt said. “I had the pleasure of a tryout at old Forbes Field. I can remember taking batting practice, and I hit a home run to center field in batting practice. That was an honor. It was a dream come true. When I signed a contract I went down to Daytona Beach, Florida. It was amazing.”
After baseball, Britt signed with the World Football League’s Philadelphia Bell in 1975 and played one season until the league disbanded.
Dick Burgo, Monte Carlo
Dick Burgo managed the former ISDA and Monte Carlo franchises during the 1960s and 1970s.
Burgo led four teams to the AAABA Tournament, and his Monte Carlo squads were somewhat of a Johnstown dynasty in the early 1970s.
“We won more championships than anyone at that time,” said Burgo, 81. “Our teams always did well. A number of them went on to play pro ball. A few of them got to the major leagues like Gene Pentz and Pete Vuckovich.
“I had a wonderful time working with them,” he added.
“They were all really good guys and I had good coaches helping me out. I look back on those experiences and recall it was great. The winning, of course, helps.”
Monte Carlo went 3-2 in the tournament for three straight years.
The level of competition at the national level was high at that time, and the local team posting three wins was a significant feat.
In 1970, Pentz, who went on to pitch for the Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros, earned the Most Valuable Player Award, even though Monte Carlo didn’t win the AAABA Tournament.
Vuckovich was a standout at the plate, and especially on the mound, where he dominated. The Conemaugh Valley High School graduate signed a pro contract with the Chicago White Sox and had a successful major league career that included his winning the American League Cy Young Award in 1982, when the Milwaukee Brewers advanced to the World Series.
“A lot of good ballplayers, even besides the guys who went to the major leagues,” Burgo said of the Monte Carlo teams.
“Some went on to play college ball, even some who played in Frederick (Maryland) when I was coaching at the junior college. Some went to the minor leagues. It wasn’t a problem managing them. We got along, the players and the coaches. It worked out great. The fans were good. The umpiring was good.
“It was just an ideal situation.”
Burgo said the hall of fame honor will be shared with those players from more than 40 years ago.
“I was just waiting for this to happen. I’m happy it happened,” he said. “It’s great to know that you contributed to your players, but also that they gave their time to me, the team and the city.”
Joe Vitko, Pepsi-Cola
Joe Vitko was among the most talented –and, at 6-foot-8, most intimidating – pitchers in the Johnstown Junior League during the late 1980s.
Vitko, who played NCAA Division I basketball at St. Francis University before returning to baseball, was part of the Pepsi championship teams that had a fierce cola-war rivalry with Coca-Cola.
The Central Cambria High School graduate used the Junior League and AAABA Tournament as a steppingstone that ultimately led him to the major leagues with the New York Mets.
“Since I found out, I’ve been thinking about it, and I feel like I’m a little bit older now and I’m able to appreciate it more than I would have five or 10 years ago,” Vitko, 46, said of the hall of fame honor. “I’ve been thinking about all the people that had a hand in the success I had in baseball from the time I was 10 years old until I was 25 and stopped playing.”
Vitko joined Pepsi in 1987 for the team’s first local championship and AAABA Tournament appearance. He had a 2.25 ERA in two games in the 1987 tournament.
The next year, Coke defeated Pepsi in the Junior League playoffs, but Vitko was a pick-up player for the tournament.
He struck out 11 batters in two appearances.
The Mets drafted him in both 1988 (38th round) and 1989 (24th), but Vitko played college basketball under scholarship before eventually turning pro in the Mets minor league system.
The Mets called up Vitko in September 1992. He made three appearances in the majors before injuries cut short his career.
“I played in the Junior League when I was 17 and 18, and I started the preseason when I was 19 (before turning pro). I didn’t get the whole four-year experience,” Vitko said. “That first year, being on the Pepsi team and making it to the tournament was really exciting. Just being in the Junior League, the intensity of the game went up.
“Playing for (manager) Dee Dee (Osborne), I think about how intense it was and how much fun it was, too. Everybody was absolutely serious and played their hearts out, but had so much fun at the same time.”
Decades later, Vitko said he appreciates even more the cola wars.
“I remember my second year, we lost to Coke, and that brought back to mind the intenseness of that rivalry,” Vitko said. “Both years, every time we played Coke, that was a different level. They were really good. We got the better of them my first year. They knocked us out my 18-year-old year.
“Those games were fun. Everybody came and left everything on the field for those games.
“Everybody wanted to win,” he said. “Every out was intense the whole way through against those guys.”
Vitko played six seasons in the minors and compiled a 39-24 record with 371 strikeouts and 179 walks.
He debuted in the majors against the Montreal Expos on Sept. 18, 1992, allowing a hit, striking out a batter and walking none.
“I spent a month in the big leagues and got to pitch in three games,” Vitko said. “I look back and realized how many people had a hand in making that possible from the time I was 11 years old. My dad was my coach then.
“Rich Bonini came on with him from 13 to 15. When I was 16, I played for Richie Price, which was a good preparation for playing for Dee Dee. They all absolutely had a hand in making that possible for me to have a chance to play baseball in a major league stadium.”
Vitko’s father, Joe, died in 1991, a year before he made his big-league debut.
Charley Garivaltis, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
A 6-foot, 185-pound outfielder, Garivaltis was among the most prolific hitters through the first decade of the AAABA Tournament.
In 1953, he had only six official at-bats without a hit and his .625 batting average was the second best all-time at the time. Pittsfield went 2-2 in that tournament.
He hit three doubles, two home runs and stole four bases in the ‘53 tourney.
In 1952, Garivaltis batted .483 with a tournament-high 14 hits as Pittsfield won the AAABA Tournament championship by defeating Holyoke in the title game, 9-1. He had five extra-base hits, including four doubles and a home run and nine RBIs.
During the title run, Garivaltis had a tournament-best 11 runs scored, including his steal of home in an 11-9, 10-inning victory over New Orleans in an elimination game.
The fact that Garivaltis injured his ankle sliding into second base during the second game of the 1952 tournament only added to the magnitude of his accomplishments that year.
Garivaltis had a combined 24-for-45 effort at the plate for a .533 batting average in the 1952 and 1953 tournaments.