If you haven’t figured it out, I’ve always loved the game of baseball. While most people think of Youngstown first and foremost as a football town, Youngstown had, and from what I can tell, still has a vibrant baseball life that thrives on summer evenings.
There were Little Leagues when we were growing up, but for most of us baseball was played in our backyards until we were big enough to constantly knock the ball in a neighbor’s yard (or break a window). In my case, we moved next to the old Washington School playground. The asphalt playground was hard on the seams of balls. Soon the cover would fall off to be replaced with a wrap of electrical tape. We didn’t always have gloves. No umpires, no parents. We worked out disputes on our own. Eventually we grew big enough to constantly hit home runs, which often ended up rolling down the entrance ramp of I-680. So the we found a bigger field, either at Borts Field or Kochis Field.
That’s as far as many of us got. I played a couple summers on a church softball team. It was fast pitch. We had a guy, Gary, who was pretty fast and wild, in life and as a pitcher. He was scary and I’m glad I never had to bat against him. He walked a lot of batters, hit a few, and, maybe good for a church league, scared the hell out of a lot of people more effectively than the fire and brimstone sermons.
Usually I played right field, which probably gives you a clue of my fielding skills. My last game was played at first base. I’m right-handed and ended up having a runner barrel into my left hand as I reached for a throw. Afterward, my left thumb was pointing in an odd direction. Coach came out and popped it back in place, or so he thought. I played the rest of the game only to find my thumb was busted. That was the end of my baseball career!
The most talented local players played in some of the Class B teams sponsored by local businesses. We used to go up to Borts Field to watch the games (and girls), running across the street between innings to Zitellos for a cold pop. While we watched, some went further. Youngstown produced a number of Major Leaguers over the years, many who can be found on this list on Wikipedia. One of the most famous was George Shuba who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the first National League player to hit a pinch hit home run during a World Series. He played in three with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But what he was most famous for was breaking the color barrier in professional baseball when he was with Montreal Royals, the Dodgers minor league affiliate, shaking hands with Jackie Robinson as he crossed home plate after hitting a home run, something not done before by a white team mate.
Shuba returned to the Youngstown area after his career. In 2007, Borts Field, where I played and watched so many games and where Shuba had also once played, was renamed the George “Shotgun” Shuba Field at Borts Park. (Shuba gained the nickname “Shotgun” for his powerful line drives to all fields.) He sounds like he was always a class act, who will be remembered as the guy from Youngstown who broke the racial barrier in professional baseball.