The baseball memories flowed after Johnstown’s Tony Joseph learned that one of his former battery mates had died on Saturday.
Even though they both were local standouts in the 1950s, Joseph didn’t really know Bill Mehalko until he and the Nanty Glo catcher were assigned to the same Decatur, Illinois, team in the Detroit Tigers organization in 1959. Joseph hadn’t talked to Mehalko lately but still was sad to learn of his passing at age 88 at Richland Woods.
One of the pitchers on the locally iconic 1956 Hahn Packing AAABA Tournament runner-up team, Joseph recalled how he and Pete Pekich, another Johnstown hurler who starred on the Hahn squad, each were in Decatur during the 1959 season.
“Pete and I were in spring training and Bill Mehalko was the catcher with us in Decatur,” Joseph said on Monday.
“I didn’t know him and asked him where he was from.
“When he said Nanty Glo, I was surprised and told him Pete and I were from Johnstown.”
Pekich actually pitched on the same Erie Sailors team as Mehalko in 1958. “Locals form Erie battery,” was The Tribune-Democrat headline on a small article on April 29, 1958. The story noted Pekich’s status as “former City Junior League standout,” and Mehalko’s reputation as “batting champion of the Cambria County Industrial League.”
The left-handed Pekich struck out seven batters with Mehalko behind the plate against Batavia in the New York-Penn League contest but was hindered by five unearned runs in an 8-3 loss.
The article also noted the game was played in 32-degree temperature.
Tribune columnist Jim Siehl had written about Mehalko a week earlier on April 22, 1958, in his “Ceilings on Sports” column.
“Bill Mehalko of Nanty Glo, the 1957 Cambria County Industrial League batting champion, is an odds-on choice to open the season behind the plate for the Erie Sailors,” Siehl wrote.
“Mehalko has been a standout during spring training at the Detroit Tigers’ training center for farm teams at Lakeland, Florida.”
Siehl noted that Mehalko’s pro career was delayed because he went into the U.S. Army after high school, and his obituary listed him as a Korean War veteran.
After “fulfilling his obligations to Uncle Sam, Bill began blossoming into a pro prospect in the fast Industrial League. He batted .446 in leading the league a season ago,” Siehl wrote then.
The 1958 article noted that Detroit had three other area players in the organization, including East Conemaugh’s Tommy Yewcic, who played one game in the major leagues with the Tigers; Blough’s Frank Kostro, who played in the majors with the Tigers, Twins and Angels; and Steve Demeter of Homer City. Of course, Pekich joined the organization that same season and Joseph was with the Tigers beginning in 1959.
“Bill Mehalko’s baseball career ended tragically and unnecessarily,” Joseph said, adding that he was injured during a game that probably never should have been played due to rain and “bad conditions.”
Mehalko played 194 pro games in 1958 and 1959. He had 134 hits. During the 1959 season Joseph spoke of, Mehalko batted .258 with 23 doubles, two homers and 38 RBIs.
“Bill got hit in the left eye and they immediately called the game,” said Joseph, who pitched in three minor league seasons from 1959 to 1962 and went 8-5 with 139 strikeouts. “I took Bill home. He had double vision and his baseball career was over.”
After the injury, Mehalko went to work in the local steel mills, according to his obituary. After being permanently laid off, Mehalko and his first wife Betty opened a store in Nanty Glo and operated it until her death. He also was preceded in death by his second wife, Hallie.
Askew-Houser Funeral Homes in Nanty Glo will handle the arrangements. An obituary listing surviving family members appears on Page B6 in Wednesday’s Tribune-Democrat and is on www.tribdem.com.