The Last Hurrah! Ernest Team went to the National Playoffs

On the surface the 1937 season seemed like the R&P Baseball League’s greatest glory!  The championship team, Ernest, carried the league’s banner into the National Amateur Baseball Federation finals in Dayton, Ohio.  No coal town baseball team from the County had ever reached such heights before.  In the minds of the people of the time – and often in their memories today – it was a splendid and spectacular climax.

But looking back, we can see that at the same time other forces were at work which would spell the end for the venerable coal town league.  The coming of unionization to the region in 1933 created new attitudes and new practices which weakened company support for the teams.  The companies cut funds for the teams and no longer provided “hired players” – those exceptionally talented men who were given easy jobs in the mines in exchange for their diamond exploits.  Some of these older stars – “Cofy” Davis, “Stusch” Salva, Arley Shaffer, and Mel “Powerhouse” King – continued to play for enjoyment.  But the team rosters carried youngsters like John Toten, Edward “Huskie” Hess, and Kennard “Ken” Bishop, who were true amateurs.  As the Ernest manager Mel King recalled about 1937, “I played the younger players of Ernest itself.  There were no longer any ‘hired players.’ You could not have asked any more of them.  They played better than most people expected.”

The new labor situation meant other changes, too.  There was no longer time off from work for play.  The McIntyre team suffered an embarrassing forfeit during the 1937 season because they were still working the mine and missed the start of the first game of a double-header.  And, perhaps reflecting the more democratic spirit which accompanied unionization, in 1937 the Ernest team officials even allowed players to elect their own manager.

All these changes helped to make the 1937 season an unusual one.  Organizational problems troubled the league.  Ten teams started the season, but only seven were sound enough to finish.  An unusually large number of lop-sided contests – such as Lucerne’s 25 to 1 trouncing of McIntyre, a league record for scoring – testify to the wide talent gap among the teams. The fortunes of the McIntyre team suggest the turbulent state of the league and the lack of balance.  Barely respectable in the first half of the season, McIntyre reversed itself in the second half to finish comfortably on top, eclipsing more touted teams like Yatesboro, Lucerne, and Ernest.  Amid such chaos, it is not surprising that frustrations mounted.  Controversy clouded the County playoff series between Ernest and Plumville.  Ernest’s “square-shooting” manager Mel King was even rumored to be involved in an alleged bribery attempt of an opposing pitcher.

What unionization began; international affairs finished.  Within four years, America entered World War II.  The war effort drained time and talent from the fields and the league’s decline became irreversible.  Paradoxically, the R&P League, which was an important and vital part of life in Western Pennsylvania for over a decade, did not enjoy national recognition until its declining years.  But, for the moment, the glory of Ernest’s 1937 trip to Dayton hid the weaknesses.

The road to Dayton was anything but smooth for Ernest.  They started slowly – in fact, they did not formally enter the league until close to opening day in mid-May.  Then, only a late winning surge by Ernest and a stunning upset of Lucerne by Coal Run enabled Ernest to gain a one-game advantage over Lucerne and clinch the first-half pennant.  In the second-half race, Ernest stretched its winning streak to eighteen games, but still finished three games behind the McIntyre club.  Thus, despite playing .771 baseball for the year, they were forced into a championship series with McIntyre who had played only .708 baseball.  Still, Ernest fared better than their arch-rivals Lucerne, the defending league champions.  They placed second in both halves of the season and thus were relegated to the sidelines despite playing .750 baseball overall.

Ernest won the championship series over McIntyre, three games to none, but it was not easy.  In the first game, Ernest rallied for a run in the top of the tenth to win 4 to 3.  They scored a run in the top of the ninth to win the second game 2 to 1.  The third game ended in darkness at the end of the fourteenth inning with the score tied 4 to 4.  When the game was replayed in its entirety, Ernest broke open a close 2 to 0 game with three runs in the seventh and two insurance tallies in the eighth for a deceptively easy 7 to 1 victory.  The Indiana Evening Gazette reported that “except for the last few innings of the final contest, the series was the closest and most interesting ever seen since the league was organized in 1928 and re-organized in 1934….District fans will never again witness a deluxe series as presented by McIntyre and Ernest last week.”

Ernest moved another step forward on the road to Dayton in the County championship with Plumville, but while that series was less difficult on the field, it was more fraught with controversy.  The problems began on Sunday, August 14, two weeks before Ernest was to meet Indiana County League champion Plumville.  Ernest manager Mel King hired Lud “Lefty” Smith, an old friend and former teammate from King’s Yatesboro career, to pitch against Revloc in a non-league, Sunday encounter.  This was not an unusual strategy.  King wanted his regular pitching staff well rested and primed for more meaningful league games because they were locked in a tight league race.  By the 19th of August Manager Don Bowser of Plumville was “worried and concerned” over Smith’s stint at Revloc.  Merle Agnello, sports writer for the Gazette, underscored the problem when he wrote, “It must be remembered that Smith is a regular with Plumville…who will meet the R&P League titlist (either Ernest or McIntyre) in a 5-game series soon.”  When Ernest pounded Smith to a 7 to 2 victory in the first game of the series, the ugliness began, with rumors circulating that Ernest had paid Smith to allow the R&P champs to win.  Agnello responded to the rumors with a reasoned article in the Gazette showing that Ernest had acted in good faith, but nonetheless during the rest of the series, Mel King and his team heard the taunts from the Plumville fans about “buying Smith.”

The “Smith at Revloc” controversy proved to be mild compared to the “Smith in Pittsburgh” controversy which also flared up the start of the Ernest-Plumville series.  Lud Smith, “who practically earned his summer living as a member of the Plumville staff,” signed to pitch for Wildwood of the Greater Pittsburgh League in their playoff series with Reston.  Agnello reported, “It was little wonder that Manager Bowser and his townspeople became disgusted – all because Smith decided he could make a few dollars by pitching for both teams.”  Looking backward, Mel King placed the event in better perspective by recalling, “It was still the Depression. Smith had a pretty good-sized family – perhaps four children – and he didn’t have a very high paying job.”

Smith’s double duty was not only against the local league rules, but also apparently against the national rules.  Later, the State NABF commissioner ruled that Smith had been ineligible to pitch for Plumville in the series because he had already pitched for a team engaged in the national playoffs.  Smith’s indiscretion aroused the moral indignation of Agnello who wrote, “It was a shame to see Plumville take it on the chin from such unjust play of Smith.”

“Take it on the chin” is exactly what Plumville did.  In that first game of the series, played on Monday, the 30th of August, Ernest exploded against Smith for four runs in the first inning and added one each in the second and third innings.  It turned out that Smith had pitched on the previous two days for Wildwood in their series.  His efforts for Plumville on the third day fell short.  Agnello summed it up in his “Sportseer” column, “How could he fool himself by trying that foolish ‘iron man’ stunt?”

The Plumville team lost the second game 6 to, and the following morning a demoralized Manager Bowser announced that he refused to continue the playoffs.  Bowser’s statement agreed with what Agnello wrote: “Without his ace hurler his team cannot stand up against the R&P League finalists.”  Late that day the distraught manager relented and sent his charges into the fray behind the rubbery arm of lanky “Slim” Lingenfelter.  The old-timer’s tantalizing slow curves and off-speed pitches baffled the Ernest batters.  The resulting 4 to 1 victory for Plumville kept the Indiana County League champs alive.  Ernest, however, edged Lingenfelter 2 to 1 in a twelve-inning fourth game to wrap up the playoff after “Slim” had pitched hitless ball for nine frames.  Ernest became eligible for the national championship.

By today’s standards the amount of newspaper ink devoted to this series and the controversy was enormous.  It provides one index of the continuing attraction of amateur baseball in the late 1930s.  Yet, by the standards of earlier years, amateur baseball in Indiana County had declined.  The Ernest-Plumville series showed a net profit of only $1.25, a far cry from the approximately thirteen hundred dollars once collected at a single Lucerne-Waterman game in the R&P League.

Ernest now prepared for the trip to Dayton.  Manager King reinforced his regular roster by adding Frank “Whitey” Marken, a catcher from Yatesboro, and Alfred “Zip” Zentner, a pitcher from Lucerne Mines.  Tourney officials made the arrangements for the team.  Steve Cox and Joe Getz, the owners of the Pittsburgh Sport Shop and sponsors of the Federation leagues in Pennsylvania, brought the details to Ernest prior to the team’s departure. Ernest was to be lodged in the Miami, a downtown Dayton hotel.  Their room and board were to be paid by the Federation.  Prior to leaving, Mel King and “Cofy” Davis approached Leslie W. Householder of the R&P Coal Company for a donation to meet other expenses and were given approximately fifty dollars.  The team arranged to borrow cars to make the trip.  Mel King remembers driving a new Dodge belonging to the Ernest tipple foreman Dave Watkins.  “It never ran right again,” Mell mused afterward.  A squad of fifteen players and a few club officials accompanied by sportswriter Agnello left Indiana County on Friday morning, September 11, for the 250-mile trip – a trip they remember today as being extremely long.

Their arrival in Dayton late Friday was much like the season they had just completed, a bit mixed up.  The team reached Dayton too late to participate in the opening parade sponsored by the city’s civic organizations.  Despite their team’s missing the parade, the R&P Coal Company’s sign was somehow carried in the parade.

In Dayton, the Indiana Countians made two important discoveries which made their disappointment at not making the parade seem minor. Mel King learned that the spit ball was outlawed in tourney play.  In effect that sidelined one of their ace pitchers, Arthur “Cofy” Davis, a vintage practitioner of the spitter.  Without his stuff “Cofy” would not be able to contribute much.  Manager King would be reduced to only three hurlers, Vincent “Runt” O’Hara, Alfred “Zip” Zentner, and the young “Ken” Bishop.  A fourth possible pitcher was Leo “Poley” Levitz, but he was not really to be counted on.

Without pitching depth things looked bleak for Ernest in the double elimination tournament.  Unless it rained there would be a game every day.  Mel King asked Steve Cox and Joe Getz why they had not informed him of the spitter ban when they had visited Ernest to decide.  They told him that it was simply a matter that had slipped their minds.  Later, Mel King recalled that if he had known the situation, he could have added such stellar moundsmen as “Stusch” Salva, “Bill” Ruddock, or even Lud Smith.

The second discovery came on Saturday when they arrived at the field assigned for their first game and found that their first opponent would be the Kramer team from neighboring Jefferson County, Pennsylvania.  The two teams played poorly, perhaps with good cause.  Kramer had completed its baseball playoff only the day before.  Ernest perhaps felt the fatigue of the previous day’s trip.  Agnello reported “that the game would have been shameful enough for youngsters of the grades.”  Kramer jumped off to a 6 to 3 lead after three innings.  Ernest closed to 6 to 6 after five and a half innings and took an 8 to 7 lead in the top of the seventh.  Kramer iced the game with four runs in the bottom of the seventh, winning 11 to 8.

Mel King had elected to pitch Zentner inf the first game.  “Zip,” noted for his control, surprisingly walked seven.  King remembers, “It was the only time I saw him get a beating like that.”  Zentner, making no alibis, would later say, “It was just one of those days.”  But there may have been other reasons.  The tourney used baseballs of two sizes, the official National League ball and the smaller official American League ball.  Zentner remembers he “just couldn’t get used to the change in the size.”  The Ernest mound staff was so limited that Manager King really had no choice but to allow Zentner to go the entire distance.  Later the Ernest players would recall that they felt they should not have lost that game to their next-door rivals.  Perhaps this was the biggest disappointment of the tourney for them.

Ernest bounded back in the next day against a “stellar” Akron team.  Vincent “Runt” O’Hara, Ernest’s ace southpaw, pitched “…a beautiful game,” allowing only four hits in a game played on the University of Dayton diamond.  “Huskie” Hess and Mel King each collected two hits for Ernest.  The fact that there 3 to 1 victory was recorded against a pitcher who had been brought in as a ringer – he was then toiling in the Cleveland Indians farm system – made the victory even sweeter.  The game provided one of the most memorable moments of baseball in the entire trip.  One of King’s hits became known as the famous graveyard shot.  It was a prodigious clout that left the playing field and landed among the tombstones of the neighboring cemetery.  There it ricocheted off the first one and then another of the marble markers while the poor Akron outfielder chased it.  O’Hara still recalls that King laughed so hard he could hardly circle the bases, a task made more difficult by his periodic leaping into the air and clapping his hands.  He ended up with only a triple, but Ernest was still in the running for the national crown.

Ernest’s quest for glory ended the next day on Dayton’s Kuhn’s Field.  It was their third game in three days, and the lack of pitching depth took its toll.  The young and relatively inexperienced “Ken” Bishop started.  The even more inexperienced Leo “Poley” Levitz followed him.  “Cofy” Davis, limited to a slow roundhouse curve because of the spitter ban, came next.  A tired “Zip” Zentner finished up.

For eleven innings the pride of Indiana County and a team of “hospitable” southerners from Birmingham, Alabama, traded leads.  Then Birmingham, the home team, pulled off a successful squeeze play to plate the winning tally.  Ernest had lost 11 to 10 and was out of the tournament.  Third baseman “Huskie” Hess still remembers that frustrating bunt.  He was playing too deep because of problems with the grass infield and was unable to make the play from his position at third.  It was an uncommon game with an unusual score to end an unconventional season.

The season did not, however, necessarily have to end for Mel King at that point.  The Birmingham team was so impressed with him that they offered to pay his expenses to stay on and play for them under an assumed name.  King declined, but it might have proved to be an interesting event if he had loaned himself to the Alabama team.  The next day Birmingham played Ernest’s neighbors from Jefferson County.  It would have, without doubt, been difficult for King to disguise himself from the Kramer team.

Interestingly, none of the Ernest players remembers the controversy over the umpiring in the third game.  Agnello reported in the Gazette at that time that “the melee was one of those unsatisfying contests to both due to the rather awkward umpiring.  Time and time again decisions were disputed and reversed; …the work of Umpires Schwartz and Minzler was far from satisfactory.  In fact, umpiring of the Dayton official’s association was criticized throughout the first 3 days of play – a “black eye” to tourney heads.  A couple of decisions caused the downfall of the Ernest team.”  In interviews with the players they never mention it.  If asked about the umpiring, they say that it was fine.  Perhaps it is that the warm memories of the Dayton tourney have over the years cooled this brief moment of dispute.

For the Indiana Countians, however, there was more to the tourney than the games themselves. “Huskie” Hess, the young Ernest infielder recalls that it was his first venture outside Pennsylvania and his first real trip away from home.  His memories are of the stay in Dayton’s Miami Hotel where he and Mike “Suey” Swanlek attempted to crash a dance on Saturday night.  He was also impressed with the large number of baseball fields in the city of Dayton and experienced the strangeness of playing on a field with a grass infield.  He had grown up playing on nothing but the totally dirt diamonds of the Indiana County coal towns.

Mel King remembers that he and some of the team wandered into a large Jewish wedding reception at the hotel and helped themselves to the goodies on the buffet table before being “run out.”  He also recalls the fans asking where Ernest, Pennsylvania was, the good size of the crowds in attendance at the Dayton games, and a couple of carloads of Ernest fans arriving for the Sunday game.  There were also several major league scouts in the stands who might give a young player his big break.  King recalls telling his young shortstop John Toten, whom he remembers as one of the best infielders he played with in the R&P League, to play his ordinary game and not to be nervous because of the scouts.

“Zip” Zentner recalls that the players did not venture much out of the downtown hotel where they roomed two men to a room, but that a few did visit a couple of night spots.  Most of the memories, however, are of baseball.  Overall there is the impression that there was a real feeling on behalf of the team that they went to Dayton to play baseball, that they felt serious about their chances in the tourney, and that they gave it most of their attention.

Merle Agnello’s “Sportseer” column of September 14, 1937, gives some indication of the players’ seriousness and their superstitious nature. “Unfortunately,” Agnello wrote, “I missed the bus transporting the players from the hotel to the playing field Sunday afternoon, and had to hire a taxi to reach the University of Dayton diamond.  Because Ernest won on Sunday, they were determined from having me board the bus today for Kuhn’s field and went as far as to pay my taxi fare to the park! Can anyone imagine such superstition – as much as I wanted Ernest to win, they insisted that my presence was a ‘jinx’.”

Following the defeat, the players and club officials began their trek back to Indiana County.  They arrived the next day following an all-night trip.  While it was a quest for glory ended, a dream not come true, it is still a part of the Indiana County heritage – that trip to the national finals in Dayton.

Blue Spruce History

Located in Ernest, PA is a popular Indiana County Park, Blue Spruce Park. This ever-popular park has some great history behind it, linked to the railroad that ran through town. Because Ernest was also known for its coal mine, the railroad was an ever-important mode of transportation, but the locomotives were damaged by the acid mine water and created a large expense to the railroad. In this area Crooked Creek was polluted by the acid mine water. The solution to this problem was to purchase large quantities of land to protect watersheds to provide a pure source of water. Hence, Cummins Dam was built (also known locally as Cummings Dam with a “g”). The dam was constructed by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway (BR&P) on Getty Run in 1908 and named after an early landowner, J.D. Cummins. The Dam was enlarged in 1912 due to water leaking through the shall rock at the bottom of the lake bed, this caused an inadequate water supply for the railroad. The work in 1912 included capping the existing dam by adding eight feet in height. 

Once the Dam was completed it became a place for people to visit for swimming, fishing, and picnicking.  It is reported that the BR&P Railway even stopped at the nearby Cummings Railroad Yard to allow passengers to disembark the train and take a short walk to the dam to picnic and enjoy the day. 

Cummings Yard was located between Creekside and Chambersville and had a large water tower that was gravity fed by a pipeline from the dam. The Yard had its own volunteer fire company. There was also a collection of houses, on what is the current park property, that housed the railroad yard workers. 

In 1932, BR&P was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad. This railroad hauled coal from the mines and coke from the coke ovens, primarily to markets in Buffalo and Rochester, New York. There was also passenger train service to distant cities and to vacation spots like Niagara Falls. An advertisement from the time offered two 5-day excursion trips to Niagara Falls for $5.00. 

Train Excursion Ad
Advertisement for an train excursion to Niagara Falls

Many people from the area will remember the Hoodlebug, the gas-powered motor car, that ran on the B&O line and offered service between Indiana and Punxsutawney which ran until 1952. The Hoodlebug also transported mail and supplies in a separate attached car. There was another Hoodlebug that ran on the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Indiana and Blairsville. 

The story behind Cummins Dam is not without tragedy. On Sunday August 18, 1940, James Kendrick, a fourteen-year-old from Chevy Chase, drowned on an afternoon outing. A large crowd gathered at the site to watch the four-hour search and recovery of the body. A funeral service was held at the Church of the Living God in Chevy Chase and burial took place at the Greenwood Cemetery. 

It was during World War II that there was a concern during the war that the dam, along with other industrial sites in Western PA, could be blown up. Therefore, night watchmen were employed at these sites throughout western, PA because this region was so important in supplying coal, steel, and industrial products for the war effort. 

The railroad company was always trying to keep people away from Cummins Dam. The property had been posted with “No Trespassing” signs, and vandals were constantly tearing down the old signs down. The company routinely issued notices and published warnings in the local papers requesting trespassers stay off the property. However, people continually came onto the property despite the warnings. 

There was a severe tornado passed over the area on June 23, 1944. There were many trees on the property that were destroyed. The railroad also suffered damage when a railroad caboose car was blown off the tracks near Chambersville. Two B&O employees, David Potts and Lewis Grube, were slightly injured while riding in the caboose. Mr. Potts suffered a head and back injury and Mr. Grube was not seriously injured except for some lacerations of the body. 

It was in 1965 that Indiana County became involved with the site when funds were secured to acquire 377 acres for a county park, 143 of these acres were originally owned by the railroad, by this time it was Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company (R&P). In 2001 an additional 230 acres were acquired from R&P. The park today totals 650 acres.  The park was originally known as Rayne Township Park until Blue Spruce Park was chosen by the Indiana County Park Boar in September 1968. 

Murder in the Park 

Blue Spruce Park again saw tragedy in 1980, as it was the scene of a murder. On January 3, 1980, John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, both 21, picked up William C. Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon at the Edison Hotel in Pittsburgh. Richard Rutherford, 15, also accompanied the group. Mr. Nicholls was an accomplished organist at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon. 

The group traveled in Nicholl’s new sports car to Indiana County. They spent several hours at the Rose Inn, then drove to Blue Spruce Park. Mr. Nicholls was bound and gagged in the vehicle trunk while the others were inside the Rose Inn. As the group drove to Blue Spruce, they gathered rocks from along Groft Road. Once at the park, they pulled Mr. Nicholls from the trunk, shot him in the arm, stuffed cigarette butts down his throat, gagged him with a scarf, placed the rocks in his jacket, and then threw him into the icy waters. It was the next day after Lesko and Travaglia confessed to the murder and told the investigators where the body could be found. The autopsy report revealed the Nicholls was still alive when he was thrown into the lake. 

The story doesn’t stop there, after leaving the park the group headed to Apollo, and on their way they baited Rookie Police Officer Leonard Miller to approach their car by speeding past him several times and running a red light. As Officer Miller approached the stopped car, he was shot and killed. 

Later that day Lesko and Travaglia was apprehended in Pittsburgh and began to tell their story of four murders over the span of eight days. The first victims were Peter Levato and Marlene Sue Newcomer. These murders became known as the “Kill for Thrill” murders.  

You may be asking yourself, how did Lesko and Travaglia find or even know about Blue Spruce Park. As it turns out Travaglia’s father owned a trailer near the park that was used as a summer camp and he had visited it as a child. 

The pair plead guilty to second degree murder in Indiana County and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William Nicholls. They were then turned over to Westmoreland County for trial for the death of Officer Miller. They were convicted of murder and given the death sentence for Miller’s death. In 1981, they began a long series of appeals. Travaglia died in prison in 2017; Lesko continues to appeal the sentence of death. 

In 2009, a book about the crime spree was released, “Kill for Thrill” written by Michael W. Sheetz. 

Lady Umpire 

Also located on the park grounds is an historical marker on the ball field honoring Bernice (Shiner) Gera. She was a native of Ernest, born in 1931 and made baseball history as the first female umpire in the sport. Baseball was not her first career, instead she started working as a secretary and got married. One day she decided that she would like to become an umpire. She discussed and convinced her husband, Steve, of the idea and she enrolled in the Florida Baseball School in 1967.  

For five years Gera was barred by minor league baseball, but won a landmark lawsuit allowing for her to work as an umpire.1 Her first, and only, game as a professional umpire took place on June 24, 1972 in a New York-Pennsylvania League game in Geneva, New York. This achievement thrust her into the national spotlight and opened the doors, not only for other women, but for men previously denied umpiring opportunities because of arbitrary restrictions. 

Bernice went on to work in community relations and promotions for the New York Mets Baseball Club. She was inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall and Fame. She was an outstanding athlete in her own right. As a youth, she was described as a “tomboy” who could play ball as well as most boys. Bernice Gera died on September 25, 1992.

New York State Div. of Human Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, 320 N.Y.S.2d 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 1971).