Saturday, December 4, 2010

HALL OF FAME CITY

      It's neither Cooperstown, New York nor Canton, Ohio, but few towns the size of the Gem City can claim that five professional hall of fame athletes once called the ball fields of Toronto, Ohio home.
      Receiving his first shot of professional football here at the old Kaul Field was Wilbur "Fats" Henry, an All American lineman from the College of Washington and Jefferson.  "Those were rough and tumble days," the late Tom McKelvey said about the 1920s.  "Doc Kilgus was the owner of the Toronto Tigers and was trying to build up the team with outside players.  One of those was Fats Henry, fresh out of college."
      Henry would go on to play and coach for the Canton Bulldogs, and in 1926, he brought up Toronto native John Comer for one game.  Wearing number 3, Comer carried the ball once for one yard, giving him the distinction of being Toronto's first professional football player.
       Henry is both a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the National League Hall of Fame.
       The Gem City athlete to next join the professional football ranks was Clarke Hinkle, after whom the high school stadium is named.  Carl Snavey, his coach at Bucknell University said of the Lackawanna Express, "Without a doubt, the greatest defensive back I have ever coached."  Hinkle became a three-time All American at Bucknell and then went on to play with the Green Bay Packers from 1932 to 1941, a period this fullback-linebacker became the NFL's all time leading rusher with 3,860 yards.
      In 1964, the NFL enshrined Hinkle in Canton and the NCAA in 1971.
      Two decades later, continuing the proud gridiron traditions of Toronto was Don Sutherin, a 1954 graduate of THS.
       Sutherin, of course, is best remembered for kicking the winning field goal of the 1958 Rose Bowl for Ohio State, but, locally, he and fellow classmate George Deiderich have the distinction of being the only two future professional football players to have paired at THS at the same time, from 1949 to 1953.  During their senior season, the two future Canadian Football League players performed on a squad that produced four wins, four losses and one tie.
      The New York Giants drafted Sutherin as a defensive back in 1959.  He played for the Giants part of that season and then played with the Pittsburgh Steelers the remainder of the year and the 1960 season.  Sutherin then took his talents north to the Hamilton Tiger Cats and played in the CFL for 12 years, participating in eight Grey Cups, his team winning four.
      By the time he retired, Sutherin held 18 CFL records.  He was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 1992.
      Toronto contributed to the Baseball Hall of Fame, as well.  Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop Honus Wagner often brought several teammates to barnstorm against local clubs.  He also played for the Toronto Athletic Club.
      In The Era of Elegance author Walter M. Kestner wrote, "Wagner, in the twilight of his years of his career, played in Toronto where he alternated with Lawrence Hughes on the all star team managed by Doc Kilgus."
      Kilgus also recruited for the all star squad Boston Red Sox outfielder John Bates and Chicago Cub catcher Tom Needham, both from Jefferson County.
      One hall of fame athlete who did get away from the Gem City was Rollie Fingers, whose father George played for Class D Williamstown in the Mountain State League in 1938.
      The Fingers family resided at 601 Clark Street.  Around when Rollie was ten years old, father George, fed up with working at Wheeling Steel in Steubenville, decided to move the family to California.
      Rollie went on to play 18 seasons in the major leagues, pioneering the role of closing pitcher while recording 341 career saves.
      He was inducted into Cooperstown in 1992.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

RETURN TO THE CORNER MARKET

1935  Advertisement from old Victory Market

Melhorn Dairy sold not only its own products, but also that which you purchased on the typical corner market of the period. 

Barnum's Stores, Fourth Street, early 1900s
      The corner market, like penny candy inside glass counters, has long disappeared from Gem City neighborhoods, but has left sweet memories and a rich history.
      With the development of Toronto during the late 1800s came the arrival of the neighborhood market, its numbers increasing as the town expanded southward, peaking during the 1950s and 1960s when nearly 8,000 people inhabited the river town.  As many as 20 small markets were in business during that period, usually family owned and operated, the family often residing in the same building that contained the store.
      From Romey's, Karaffa's and Brem's in the north end to Calabrese's and Didd's at the south, a Toronto resident could walk within a few minutes to purchase bread, milk, lunch meat and other daily groceries.  One street, Federal, had three such stores-Frank's, Wasyk's and Smitty's--on three successive city blocks.
      "Most families had only one car back then," said Mike Swaykus, who was owner and manager of the former Mike's Market, where now sits the empty Olive Branch.  "While the father worked, the kids or mother could walk to a store to get whatever they needed."
      Karaffa's Store, catty-corner from the present Tucker's Tavern, was the small grocery with which the Swaykus family dealt when Mike was growing up.
      "My family had an account there," Swaykus said.  "I remember my mom would call Karaffa's and order a pound of bologna, a rump roast or a bag of potatoes, and Joe Karaffa would deliver them to our home on any day of the week.  My mom would always settle the bill on pay day.  That kind of thing is a thing of the past."
      Handshake accounts and home deliveries are two childhood memories for Liz Fedash, who lived on the 900 block of Loretta Avenue, where Katz's was the neighborhood grocer from the 1930s to the 1950s.
      As a teenager during the late 1940s, Fedash cleaned the Katzes' upstairs apartment and worked filling orders at Calabrese's, then located at Pierce and Wentworth.
       "Katz's was like a general store," Fedash said.  "They sold produce, meats and penny candy.  They were really nice people.  Many times my mom needed milk on Sunday, and they would open the store for us.  You don't get that kind of service today.
       "When I went to pay my family's bills, regardless of how much we paid, Mr. Katz would always give me a bag of candy," she continued.  "The Katzes would always send us gifts on Christmas, which I thought was especially nice since they didn't celebrate Christmas because they were Jewish."
      Friendliness was also a familiar trait with the Calabrese family, for whom Fedash worked filling orders.
      "They took call-in orders.  They sold meats and produce and beer by the cases and delivered all over town," she said.
      Vince Exterovich, who grew up on Sixth Street during the 1930s and early 1940s, described McClane's on the same street as "a very small store where you could buy some canned goods and bread."
      He also mentioned Russell's on Findley, north of the old Roosevelt School and and the Victory Market on downtown Fourth Street.  "They were very friendly," Exterovich said of downtown store owners.  "They would always speak to me."
      Just north of downtown was the old Ralph's Golden Crown Store, which the Swaykus family purchased in 1976 and renamed Mike's, a store with a name that reflected the first-name basis values of the traditional corner market.
      "I can honestly say at one time I knew half the people in town by their first names," Swaykus said.
      He attributed the demise of the corner market to the ownership of more than one family vehicle and the competition with franchise markets.
       "The small grocer started declining in town during the 1970's," he said. "Families could then drive to look for better prices."
      Mike's, the last corner market in town, went out of business in 1998.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

THE OLD TORONTO POOL


Looking east from Little League ball field.
Add caption
Baby Pool, circa 1956
     In the mind's eye, the best way to lap around the old Toronto Memorial Pool would not be performed by swimming around its white-walled basin.
      Rather, it would be by padding barefoot along the gritty, puddled concrete deck, past the powder-blue sliding board, past the white wooden lifeguard chairs, past the buoyed rope separating the shallow and deep sides of the topaz water and then onto the high and low diving boards, the stroll enriched with the shrieks and laughter of children, the piercing whistle of a teenage lifeguard, the coconut aroma of Coppertone suntan lotion mixed with the pungent taste of chlorine while the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" blares from a transistor radio.
       The stroll back in time is nearly complete when the aluminum ladder of a diving board is ascended, the fiberglass bows and catapults, and a "kerplunk" resounds and soon follows is the well angled geyser of a can-opener, drenching the few fully clad adults leaning upon the white railing of the spectator section, the lap finished, the water receding and receding--swept away with the waves of nostalgia.
      For a little more than three decades, the Toronto Memorial Pool provided local youths with their primary source of summer recreation and social activity and, years later, still fresh memories.
      John Romey, longtime recreation supervisor and civic leader in the Gem City, grew up during the 1950s, putting in plenty of recreational time at Memorial Park.
      "The old pool was exactly the same as the one at Marland Heights in Weirton," he said.  "Identical.   There were two levels.  The bottom level was for women and men to change clothes, the same level the present pool is located.
       "It was fun, exciting for a kid," continued Romey.  "We had pretty good crowds.  People came to view as spectators."
       Being a longtime recreation supervisor, Romey pointed out that many laws regarding the operation and maintenance of a municipal pool have changed, including one from a period that did not shine so brightly in the Gem City.
       "Way back in the beginning, it was segregated," Romey said about the town's swimming pool.  "I could never understand it.  That was a part of segregation those days.  It was not unique to Toronto.  It was part of the times."
      African-Americans were granted access to Memorial Park Pool only on Tuesday.  Segregation ended at the public facility around 1966, two years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
       A lesser change occurring to the park, Romey recollected, was the positioning of the Little League ball field, which sits approximately 30 feet in elevation above the current Olympics-style pool.  In 1951, the first year of junior baseball in town, Romey played catcher for Kaul Clay.
       "Home plate was where the concession stand now is," he said.  "Below left center was where the pool stood.  It was always a dream for me to hit a home run into the pool.  Of course, I never came close."
       A decade and a few years later was the era another longtime Toronto resident, Mark Rebres, fondly remembers.
       Rebres said that a typical summer day started out walking with friends Paul Morris and Tommy Lang from their Clark Street homes to the pool, their suits rolled up in towels, and then participating in morning swim lessons.  They would return home and walk back to Memorial Park to swim again.
       "You picked up wire baskets with numbers from behind the counter," Rebres said upon paying the ten-cent admission fee.  "You had to walk on the wet, cold, musty concrete all the way around and step into a little tub of water right before you took the steps to the pool deck."
       Rebres said that the pool and its lifeguards had their own peculiar rules.  "You were supposed to be able to swim the width of the pool before you were allowed to go off the dives.  You would get yelled at by lifeguards for hanging on the ropes separating the shallow and deep ends."
       Clinging on to happy pool memories of the period is Karen Walker, who lived a Frisbee's throw away from the pool on Jefferson Street and walked from there to work at the concession stand.
       "I remember all the kids coming up to the concession stand," Walker said.  "It was penny candy.  You could get a lot for your nickel then."
       During that time, the Trenton Street-based Melhorn's Dairy provided many of the pool's refreshments, including banana Fudge Sicles and blueberry, cherry, root beer, orange, lemon, lime and even licorice Popsicles.  "Fudge Sicles were seven cents.  Popsicles were a nickel," Walker said.  "Kids would ask you at the beginning of the day if they could pick up papers around the playground so that they could get ten cents worth of candy.   It's hard to believe what you would do for ten cents back in those days."
     Besides working at the concession stand, the 1971 Toronto High School graduate spent plenty of time at the pool level.  "That was a hangout," she said about evening swim parties. "The big thing was whether you got  thrown in with your clothes on."                                                                                                     Traditionally the old pool opened on Memorial Day and closed on Labor Day, but on closing day the park staged its biggest events of the swimming season and sponsored races, diving competitions and stunts, the crowning of Little Miss Lions and dances at the tennis court.
       "You would have to go hours before so that you could get a seat," Walker said about the pools Labor Day festivities.  "Some people would be sitting on top of the monkey bars."
       The last year for operation of the old Memorial Park pool was 1980, being replaced the following year at the same site by the current Olympics-style model.
    
  

Saturday, January 9, 2010

TORONTO'S FIRST PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYER

      Many men would give their souls to play just one game in the National Football League, but it was the heart of Toronto Tiger legend John "Hook" Comer that gave him that single opportunity.
      During the first quarter of the 20th Century, football players participated for the love of a game with crude equipment and often with equally crude treatment.  Those playing for semi-professional teams, such as the Toronto Tigers, supplemented their primary jobs at the local clay works with a few extra bucks against such notable teams as the Akron Silents, Bradley Eagles, Dusquesne Apprentice and various Ohio Valley clubs.
      "Those were rough and tough days the way they dressed and talked," said Tom McKelvey, who watched many semi-pro games during their heyday in the Gem City.  "I remember before one game the Toronto coach had his players diving into a mud puddle by the old home plate to practice recovering fumbles."
      Out of the most physical and punishing era of football emerged one athlete, John S. "Hook" Comer, standing 6'3" and weighing 180 pounds.
      "My father told me Hook Comer could kick the ball almost the length of the football field," John Petras Jr. said.
      "They said he could throw the football 100 yards," McKelvey said.  "Of course, that's probably exaggeration."
      What isn't hyperbole was Comer's athleticism.  Some old timers said he was equally gifted at running, kicking and passing.
      In his "Era of Elegance," author Walter M. Kestner gives this account of Comer: "As I recall the football of that era was much larger in diameter that that used today and consequently was much harder to throw.  However, John Comer or Big Hook as he was called could grasp the ball and throw it with extreme accuracy.   On one play particularly called the Formation A, Dave Ferris would lateral the ball to Hook, who would then throw a pass down field to Goose Mundy or Jim Condrim with a touchdown usually resulting from the play."
      Accounts by both Kestner and McKelvey attest that the early Toronto Tiger teams consisted of local talent, but around 1920 Doc Kilgus, club owner, wanted to increase the talent pool in the Gem City.
      "Doc Kilgus brought in guys from out of town to build up the team," McKelvey said.
      Often these athletes were collegians playing under aliases for money to maintain their amateur status  One such athlete was Pete "Fats" Henry, an All American tackle from Washington & Jefferson who played on the same side of Kaul Field with ringers and the few remaining legitimate locals, such as Hook Comer.
       Henry would go on to play with the Canton Bulldogs in 1920 and, as player-coach in 1926, he brought up fullback John "Hook" Comer, now 36 years of age and well past his prime.  Wearing number 3, Comer played but one NFL game, carrying the ball once for one yard alongside 38-year-old Jim Thorpe.
      The Bulldogs that year finished with one win, nine losses and three ties--the worst record in the fledgling National Football League.
      In 1963, Henry was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, one year before Toronto and Green Bay legend Clarke Hinkle was enshrined, arguably giving the Gem City two members in Canton.
       Comer went on to become a well respected policeman in Toronto, serving with Hinkle's brother Les.  He died in 1950 and is buried in Toronto Union Cemetery, not far from other Gem City legends, such as Clarke Hinkle and Pick Nalley.