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Parochial school baseball hits 100 years

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Father Richard Zajac and Umpire Jim Kelly hold the Cy Williams Cup, presented to the winners of the Parochial Baseball Association. Parochial baseball is celebrating 100 years of catches and camaraderie.

Parochial Baseball has been in Buffalo almost as long as the majors have been around. This year marks the 100th season of the league that pits private elementary schools against one another for the Williams Cup.

It’s an anniversary that almost didn’t happen. Father Richard Zajac, commissioner of the league, still has the 50-year-old newspaper clipping announcing that the diocese would cancel the games due to rising costs of equipment and a lack of interest.

Umpire Jim Kelly watches as the St. Stephen’s pitcher winds up in a game against St. Amelia’s. The Parochial Baseball Association hosted the game at Brighton Park.

“When that happened, for all intents and purposes, the Parochial Baseball League ended at the 50-year mark,” he said. “That prompted Jack Jerge to call an all-points bulletin to anybody interested in coaching to come to a meeting at the bottom of St. Martin School to see if something could be done to resurrect the league or to keep it alive.”

“I was coaching St. Martin’s at the time,” Jerge recalled. “So, I got together with a couple guys and we put out a memo to all these parishes that we were having a meeting to try to keep parochial school baseball alive. So, we had the meeting at St. Martin’s, about 40 guys showed up and we took it from there.”

Despite the diocesan belief that football was the more popular sport, Father Zajac and Jerge knew over a thousand kids who still wanted to enjoy the national pastime.

They were able to secure the Knights of Columbus Nash Council and Father Baker Council, both from South Buffalo, to assume sponsorship of the program. Jerge, Paul Quagliana, Fran Cleary and Father Zajac himself were chosen to be directors. They kept approximately 70 schools involved in eight leagues.

The rest is a colorful story. Within five years the Knights of Columbus stopped sponsoring the league. Cleary was able to get the AMVETS Post 45 to take over sponsorship, funded by bingo games. But, when bingo ceased, so did their sponsorship. Just about that time, one of the coaches Ed McGrath died unexpectedly. In lieu of flowers his family requested donations to the Parochial Baseball League. The $8,000 in donations pretty much secured them financially.

“And we’ve been kind of running on our own ever since using the franchise fees to take care of whatever bills we might have with umpiring and baseballs, diamond rentals and all the other assorted things,” Father Zajac said.

Some of the notable players over the years include kids who went on to play in the big leagues.

“Billy Scherrer is probably our most famous alumni of the program. He actually pitched for St. Amelia’s back when we resurrected the league in ’71. He went on to play major league baseball (including the Detroit Tigers during the 1984 World Series).”

Then there was Tom Ryan, who played for St. Mark’s. “Tom is probably the greatest high school athlete ever to play in Western New York. And sadly, he hurt himself one year. Otherwise he probably would hold all the records. (Professional basketball player and Olympian) Christian Laettner was never a great baseball player, but he did play for Precious Blood in Angola. His father, George Laettner, used to coach the team,” Father Zajac said.

St. Amelia’s runner slides into home to give the Tonawanda team a run. (Photos by Patrick J. Buechi)

Joe Emminger, now supervisor for the Town of Tonawanda, played for St. Amelia’s way back in the earlier years. Mike Buczkowski, president of the Buffalo Bison, played second base under Father Zajac at Assumption.

What has kept Father Zajac so determined to keep baseball alive in the Catholic schools?

“Well, baseball is a great teaching tool for learning how to play together, learning how to communicate with each other, learning the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” he said.“I still see a lot of those kids are now adults and it was, and anytime they come together, they’ll remember the year that St. Ambrose won the champion. People talk about those old games as though they’ve just happened. So, I think it’s good. It’s a thrill that kids have playing for their school.”

Now down to 15 varsity and 10 JV teams, the 100th anniversary banquet won’t be quite the party it once was.

“We had a little ceremony at Brighton Park the day after Labor Day,” Father Zajac said. “We invited three people to throw out the first pitch. One of them was Joe Emminger. He’s the superintendent of Tonawanda. So, he’s a big wheel. Mike Buczkowski because he’s the head of the Bisons. And then we invited Don Biggie, the winningest coach in parochial baseball history. He coached St. John the Baptist to … I don’t know how many titles. He still misses it he told me.”

The league also had T-shirts made and 100 baseballs stamped with “PBA 100” to give out to the kids.

Father Zajac offers kudos to the Buffalo Parks Department and Olmstead Parks for the work they do on the diamonds late in the year. The season runs through September and October. “If it wasn’t for the city of Buffalo and Olmsted Parks, we’d have a hard time trying to finish the season and they’ve been kind enough to work diamonds way beyond the call of duty. So, I salute them for that.”

Click here to see 100 years of champions

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