It was a much simpler time, a time when young boys filled their summers by riding their bikes to Sunnyside Field and spent all day playing baseball. Their parents were elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the boys were alone.
Far from it. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, scores of young men from Stanton Heights, most of them Jewish, were under the watchful eyes of the Smizik brothers, Frank and Bob, who helped hone their sports skills as well as shape their characters.
After almost 50 years, about 80 of those men who played in the Pony and Colt leagues of Stanton Heights reunited at the Original Hot Dog Shop (The “O”) in Oakland on Sunday, Aug. 13, to reminisce, catch up and to pay tribute to the Smiziks, their coaches, mentors and the founders of the leagues.
“A bunch of us had talked about this for the last five years,” said Arnie Reichbaum, who organized the reunion along with Michael Steinberg and Bruce Simon, owner of The O. “We decided to do it before it was too late.”
Reichbaum, who is president of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Western Pennsylvania, tracked down the men who decades ago played as 13- and 14-year-olds in the Pony League, run by Frank Smizik, and the Colt League for 15-to-17-year-olds, run by Bob.
“Most of these guys are Peabody grads,” Reichbaum said, noting that they now range in age from 57 to 68.
Thy played from about 1963 to 1973, and while most of them grew up in Stanton Heights, the leagues included a handful of guys from Bloomfield.
“I was the pitcher for the team’s championship in 1968,” said Bill Leja, carrying a box of trophies into The O. “I was one of the only gentile kids that played for a Jewish organization. Those were great times.”
Frank Smizik, now 80, had a career as a school principal, serving the Pittsburgh Public Schools as well as Community Day School. Bob, 75, began his career as a teacher, then became an accomplished sports writer, working for the Pittsburgh Press, then the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Smiziks had a reputation for running a tight ship, and the emphasis on discipline “molded a lot of guys,” according to Reichbaum.
“Both of these guys literally brought everyone up from a young man to adulthood and taught them values that they would use the rest of their lives,” said Rick Miggantz, who had come to the reunion to pay tribute to the Smiziks, as well as reconnect with old friends.
The second floor of The O was crammed with men, hugging, laughing, and sharing old photos and trophies.
“I haven’t seen Dave Levy in 20 years,” said Leonard Silk. “I haven’t seen Jeffery Pittler in 40 years. It feels great. People seem to be doing very well. The Smizik brothers were great coaches in baseball and basketball. They are wonderful guys. I learned a lot of basics about sports and sportsmanship from Stanton Heights baseball.
“But it’s a day gone by,” Silk continued, “those days when you used to ride your bike to Sunnyside Field and play baseball all day. I think it’s different now. A lot of people still play baseball, but it’s not riding your bike to the field anymore. It’s parents driving. It’s not the same.”
While most of the guys who showed up at the reunion still live in and around Pittsburgh, there were those who made it a point to come from Ohio, Florida, Connecticut and California. And while the vast majority of celebrants were men, there was one notable female guest, Ida Steinberg, 92, and mom to three Stanton Heights ball players: Michael, Kenny and Ricky.
“I used to do the transportation for all of them,” she said. “Everyone here remembers me. I love every one of these boys dearly. I’m just overwhelmed.”
In fact, Ida Steinberg was one of the only parents who saw fit to provide transportation to the young men. Reichbaum recalled missing the bus one summer for Emma Kaufmann Camp to play in an all-star game, and his mother opting not to drive him to camp afterward. That’s when Mrs. Steinberg stepped up to the plate.
“I was 11 years old on Frank’s ‘All Star Team,’ and I was scheduled to go to EKC. Back in the day, you didn’t miss your all-star game. But the bus for Emma Farm left on Sunday and the game was on Sunday. Ida Steinberg drove me to Emma Farm on Monday; my mom wouldn’t do that.”
Back in those days, most parents did not even attend the boys’ games, recalled Bob Smizik.
“It’s changed for the better and the worse,” he said. “When I started coaching, parents did not come to the games. I remember once we had to forfeit a game because we couldn’t get a ride to the game out in Ohio Township. There were no parents who would drive, so we had to forfeit. Over the years, parents became more involved, but never to the point where they interfered. My brother and I never had a problem with parents out in Stanton Heights. It was great. They appreciated what we were doing.”
Although Bob Smizik had a hard time recognizing some of his former players at the reunion, “I have a very good mental image of them,” he said. “I can tell them stories about themselves — if they wanted to hear them.”
Smizik launched the Stanton Heights Pony League in 1963 after coaching Little League for four years and starting the All-Star Team, which is now called a “travel team,” he said. In 1969, he helped his brother start the Colt League team.
“It was a very difficult situation,” he recalled. “We were a small community, I refer to it as a ‘one-school community.’ Everyone went to Sunnyside School. We were competing against much larger communities, and we were primarily a Jewish community. It was a real big challenge to overcome some of those obstacles we were facing.”
Nonetheless, the Stanton Heights teams saw a lot of success.
“The first two years were not very good,” Bob Smizik said. “I was learning, they were learning. The third year, we had our first winning season. The fourth year, the sixth year, and the seventh year, we won the championship of the league. That was about 22 communities — Shadyside, Ninth Ward, Tenth Ward, Aspinwall, Ohio Township, I could go on and on. So, it was a big accomplishment. It was a big deal to win the championship of that league, and we did it three times in four years.”
Many of his Stanton Heights players went on in life to achieve professional success, Bob Smizik said. “And that makes me feel good. I had nothing to do with that; their parents did. But I still feel good about it.
“When I started coaching, I was a full-time student at Pitt, I worked 40 hours a week in the summer for UPI in Pittsburgh — that was a wire service — and my life progressed. I graduated from Pitt, I started teaching school. I taught school for four years and still worked for the Pittsburgh Press, but I never let my work interfere with coaching my baseball team.”
Prior to the party at The O, about 25 of the guys met up at Sunnyside Field to throw a ball around, and practice batting.
“Nobody got hurt,” quipped Reichbaum.
“This is truly amazing,” said Frank Smizik, surveying the room. “I think it says a lot for Stanton Heights baseball in the ’60s. It’s heartwarming for me, and it taps off all that we’ve done.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.