The beauty of the place is that time has passed it by. Martins Ferry, Ohio, and its sister villages on the banks of the broad and murky Ohio River have the look and feel of 19th-century mill towns, which is exactly what they were. The houses are built of wood, with peaked roofs and grand porches, and the best ones look as if they will stand forever. The others are tumbledown and grimy and so fragile in their decay that it seems a brisk wind might turn them to rubble. But they, too, have somehow withstood the ravages of the decades. A clapboard sign outside one of these teetering structures informs visitors that here stands: MULBERRY INN, BUILT 1868.
Actually, most of Martins Ferry looks as if it were built in 1868, except, of course, for the old Walnut Grove Cemetery at the foot of Fourth Street, where 18th-century gravestones mark the remains of the earliest settlers. Martins Ferry, on the eastern border of Ohio, claims to be the Buckeye State's oldest settlement. This was where surveyor Absalom Martin first marked off the boundaries of a town he called Jefferson. But Absalom left the new town soon after, and it remained for his son, Ebenezer, who transported sheep, hogs and cattle across the river on his ferry, to give it a lasting name, sans apostrophe.
The town is built in layers on steep hills that rise from the riverbank flat-lands where once-mighty steel mills throbbed and clanged night and day. This has long been steel mill and coal mine country. These are tough towns along the Ohio, places where immigrants worked long hours at backbreaking and lung-choking jobs above and beneath the ground. Most of the mines are closed now, the mills mostly shut down, and the towns are suffering from their inactivity. According to the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services, the unemployment rate in Belmont County, which includes, among other towns, Martins Ferry, Bellaire, Bridgeport and Lansing, is at about 11%, as compared with 6.3% for the state and 5.4% for the nation. And the population is declining. Martins Ferry, which held fast at nearly 15,000 for the better part of three decades, is to less than 9,000 now, and it is estimated that the county has lost 7,000 people since the 1980 census counted 82,000. "There is nothing for a young person to do here anymore," say the older folks.
In fact, there never was much for a young person to do in the Upper Ohio Valley—"the Valley" to those who live there—except dig coal or work in the mills. And yet this unforgiving land has raised an astonishing number of top athletes, a number out of all proportion to its population. Old-time Pro Football Hall of Famer Clarke Hinkle was a Valley boy. So were Bob Gain and Calvin Jones, Outland Trophy winners as the nation's best college linemen in 1950 and 1955. Chuck Howley, the Dallas linebacker who is the only member of a losing team to have ever won the Super Bowl MVP award, was another one. Bill Jobko (Ohio State) and Bob Jeter (Iowa), both of whom played in the Rose Bowl and later starred in the NFL, were Valley boys. Gene Freese, a big league infielder for many years, was one. And so was Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz.
May 22, 1988
But there are six Valley boys who stand above the rest, giants in their sports. Two of them are already Hall of Famers; a third has only to wait his requisite five years for induction; and a fourth, grievously overlooked in the past, may yet get his just due. Another would surely have made the Hall of Fame of his sport were it not for one terrible mistake in his life. The sixth, until early this month, was still playing. There are two brother combinations in this distinguished group, and all six grew up within seven miles of one another. Four, in fact, were born in Martins Ferry, and though three different high schools are involved, the schools are only minutes apart by car. Two were teammates and best friends. They all came from immigrant mining families, and they were raised, by today's standards, in primitive circumstances. There were no fast cars in this crowd. No televisions. No rock concerts. Nor, for many years, indoor plumbing. And yet there is not one of them who would trade away the gift of his childhood. They are the pride of the Valley. And they, better than any, reveal the source of its indomitable spirit.
Lou Groza had one of the most remarkable careers in the history of professional football. A three-sport star and an honors student at Martins Ferry High, class of '42, he was recruited by Paul Brown to play football at Ohio State. He played exactly three games for the Buckeye freshman team and then his Army reserve unit was called to active duty. He spent most of the next three years serving with a medical unit in the South Pacific and played no service football. But when Brown became the coach of the new Cleveland Browns of the All-America Conference, he remembered Groza and mailed him a contract. Groza received it on Okinawa, and though he had every intention of returning to Ohio State, the money—$7,500 for the '46 season—and the lure of playing for Brown proved persuasive. Groza was not yet 21, but he signed. He was discharged from the Army in February '46 and reported to the Browns' camp at Bowling Green, Ohio, in July, wearing Army fatigues and carrying all his earthly possessions in a duffel bag.
With no college varsity experience, Groza was obliged to compete with seasoned college, service and professional linemen. But he made the team as a reserve tackle and as a placekicker who could boom kickoffs out of the end zone and hit field goals from as far away as 50 yards. In 1948 he became the starting offensive left tackle for the Browns, and he played there for 12 years before a back injury forced him into temporary retirement in 1960. He returned to the team the following season, strictly as a kicker, and played another seven years before retiring for good in 1968 at age 44. When he quit, Groza was the leading scorer in professional football history, with 1,608 points, and he still ranks third, behind only George Blanda and Jan Stenerud. His extraordinary prowess as a kicker has pretty much obscured the fact that for many years he was one of the finest offensive tackles in the league, All-NFL six times and the league's Player of the Year in 1954. In '74 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And while he was playing, he fulfilled a pledge to his Hungarian-born parents and earned a degree from Ohio State, in '49. He is 64 now, and he has his own business, Insurance Counsellors, Inc., in Cleveland. He and his wife of 38 years, Jackie Lou, herself a Martins Ferry girl, have four grown children and seven grandchildren.
The Grozas live in a fine brick house in suburban Berea. Lou is massive now, dieting steadfastly to keep his weight to something under 300 pounds. He has a big, slightly nasal voice and a bluff, friendly manner. He and his younger brother, Alex, survive their parents and two older brothers.
"We grew up across the street from the steel mill in Martins Ferry," Lou says. "We lived above my dad's tavern, and we all took turns working there. I was big for my age, so I always played with the older kids. We played tackle, without pads, on a place along the river called Mill Field. They dumped ash from the blast furnaces right next to it, at the cinder dump, so it was always dusty there. There was no grass, and when the river would rise the field would first get muddy, then dry and cracked. We'd be filthy after a game, then we'd dive into the river to wash off, and go home. My brother Frank kicked in high school, and he taught me the mechanics of it when I was just a little kid. Pretty soon I was able to kick it over the telephone wires. In high school, I could kick it over a wall about 50 feet beyond the goalposts at one end and over a fence and onto the railroad tracks at the other. I wanted to play fullback at first, until I realized the guy with the ball always attracted a crowd, so I switched to left tackle, and that's where I played my whole career.
"They called Alex and me Dot and Dash, because my dad was known as Big Spot. He was about 6'4" and maybe 325. People were always talking about going down to Big Spot's—although our tavern was called Groza's. My dad played baseball when he worked in the mines, and though he never said anything to us about it, he was supposed to have been a big hitter. Both of my older brothers were high school athletes, and in our family it was just expected that you would play. Each brother, as he came along, was expected to follow the last. When I look back I think how fortunate we were to have had athletics. Alex and I were even more fortunate to get into the big time. You wonder sometimes how these things happen, because for us, nothing was planned.
"I still go back to Martins Ferry for class reunions, but it's different now. When we were growing up, the steel mills were busy and the economy was good. It was an accepted thing to work in the mills. Everyone did. Now, it all seems so depressed there. And the sad thing is that when I go to the cemetery to see my folks' plot, I can't help but notice that a lot of the people I knew as a kid, a lot of people my age, are there too."
Alex Groza was the star center on the best college basketball team of his time, Kentucky's "Fabulous Five"—Ralph Beard, Cliff Barker, Wah Wah Jones, Kenny Rawlins and Groza—which won NCAA championships in 1948 and '49. He was the tournament MVP both years, a three-time All-America, college basketball's Player of the Year in 1949 and a member of the undefeated 1948 Olympic team. After graduation four of the Five turned pro as the core of the Indianapolis Olympians, and in his two years in the NBA Groza was twice all-league and twice finished second in scoring to George Mikan. But he would have only two years. In October 1951, he and teammate Beard were indicted for conspiring to fix games while at Kentucky. Before it was over, the scandal spread to six colleges, and 33 players were indicted. Groza admitted his guilt, cooperated with the investigation, and in April '52 was given a suspended sentence and three years' probation. (Beard, who also cooperated, was given a suspended sentence too, as were most of the indicted players.) Groza was banned for life from the NBA by then commissioner Maurice Podoloff. One of the game's most promising careers had ended in disgrace.
"My father was a strict disciplinarian, and we never got into any trouble as kids," Lou says. "When I heard about Alex—I got a call in the middle of the night—I just lay on the floor and cried. I couldn't believe it."
Alex never begged forgiveness; he simply worked hard to clear his name, and in 1959 he was hired to coach basketball at Bellarmine College in Louisville. "I once made a mistake," he said upon accepting the job. "Now I've been given a second chance." He stayed at Bellarmine for seven years, then continued on in basketball as business manager for the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA for three years and as general manager of the San Diego Conquistadors from 1972 to '75. Since 1977 he has been a regional sales manager of the Reynolds Metals Co. He's 61 now and the father of four. His wife, Jean, is also a Martins Ferry girl. In February this year he returned to his hometown to be inducted into the Upper Ohio Valley Dapper Dan Club Hall of Fame, joining his brother, inducted there 19 years earlier. His speech at the banquet was gracious and touching, with just one reference to "when I stumbled...."
The Alex Groza family lives in a hilltop home above San Diego with a swimming pool and a sweeping view out back. At 6'7" and 300-plus pounds, Alex is even bigger than his brother. The bad part of his past, he admits, "will always be with me," but his exemplary life since has at least put it into perspective. The good part he recalls fondly.
"My two older brothers—John and Frank, both gone now—were my idols," Alex says. "Lou and I played on the same basketball team when I was a freshman, and Lou was the center because I was only 6'1" then. When I look back, I can see that it was the foreign element that excelled in athletics in our town. We all lived out where the mills were, in the north end of town, and we all had this desire to succeed because we had less. On our high school basketball team, we were all foreign kids. It was the same on the football team. There weren't many Smiths and Joneses around. Most of our dads worked in the steel mills and the coal mines. Athletics was a way out of the ghetto, much as it is now for blacks. When I graduated, in 1944, I wanted to go to Ohio State because Lou had gone there, but Coach [Adolph] Rupp spoke at our high school and he offered me a tryout—it was legal then—and a scholarship, so I went to Kentucky. And then I got drafted. I was 6'5" and 167 pounds when I went into the Army, 6'7" and 238 when I got out a year later. Coach Rupp didn't recognize me.
"I loved everything about growing up in Martins Ferry. I firmly believe my own children missed something by not having that small-town experience. The sports teams in our town were a rallying point for the whole community. And the little towns were so close together, there was always a terrific rivalry. I still have friends in Martins Ferry. They were my friends even when I had the trouble. They and my parents stuck with me in that rough time. I'm really very lucky, when I think about it. I'm blessed with a good wife, good kids, a good job, and the way I see it, thousands of good friends, you just can't put a dollar value on a thing like that."
Phil and Joe Niekro grew up in Lansing, about four miles west of Bridgeport, which is two miles south of Martins Ferry, and they shared the same bed in the little house by the creek until Phil, at 19, moved out to play professional baseball. They also shared the outhouse down by the creek and those 20-yard sprints to it through the snow on winter nights. When Phil pitched a 9-6 win over Detroit for Cleveland last June 1, the Niekros achieved their 530th major league victory, surpassing Gaylord and Jim Perry as the winningest pitching brothers in major league history. The record was then extended to 539, with Joe pitching for the Minnesota Twins until, at 43, he was released on May 4. Phil had retired at the end of last season, at 48, after 318 wins in 24 years in the majors, 20 of them with the Braves. His credentials are in order for election to the Hall of Fame—which is incredible for a pitcher who had only 31 wins by the time he was 30. As his old friend, Valley sportswriter Bill Van Horne, of the Wheeling News-Register, has said, "If he'd retired when Koufax did, nobody would ever have heard of him."
In 1979 both Niekros won their 21st games on the same day. It was Sept. 30, and they were the only two pitchers in the National League to win 20 that year. Twice, in '74 with Atlanta and in '85 with the Yankees, they were teammates. In games they have pitched against each other, Joe has a 5-4 edge, and the only home run he has ever hit in the big leagues came off Phil. In his 21st season Joe became the only Niekro to appear in a World Series, pitching two scoreless innings for the Twins against the Cardinals in Game 4 last year.
Both Niekros are knuckleballers, although Joe began his career as a conventional fastball-breaking ball pitcher. Phil learned the knuckler from his father, Phil Sr., before he was nine years old. And when Joe's hard stuff began to fade, Phil helped him adapt to the family pitch. The brothers have stayed close through the years, and they are devoted to their parents. Both married girls named Nancy and both dance the polka.
"Our grandparents on both sides of the family came from Poland," says Joe, "but our parents were born in the Valley. My dad pitched sandlot ball for teams the mines sponsored. He had a great fastball until he hurt his arm, then he switched to the knuckler. I can remember him teaching it to Phil, but my hands were too small then to do anything with it."
"Our dad would come home at 5:00 or 5:30 from the mines, and he'd be black with coal dust," says Phil. "He'd go upstairs and wash and then rest for a while—sometimes he'd just fall asleep on the floor. But he'd always come down and play catch with us in the backyard. I learned to catch his knuckler before I could throw one. Then, when I finally picked it up, we'd play a first-one-to-miss game. Everywhere he went, he took us. There were lots of things he could've been doing besides dragging his kids along fishing. He could've been drinking beer with his buddies, but he spent that time with us."
"There just wasn't that much to do," says Joe. "There was no TV, but we did have a radio. Of course, we played ball all the time."
"The whole area was really sports-minded," says Phil. "We didn't have a car, an allowance or new clothes, so basically whatever we did, we did in that little town. We'd catch minnows in the stream and use them for bait. We'd go rabbit or squirrel hunting, and we had a garden. Whatever we could catch or shoot or grow, that was our meal. My mother would put up 200 cans of tomato juice to last us through the winter. But you know, I wouldn't change that time of my life in that little town for anything. I can't imagine anybody else enjoying growing up as much as we did."
A big kid named John Havlicek lived across the street, Route 40, from the Niekros, above his family's general store. John was just a year younger than Phil, and the two became fast friends, "as close," says Phil, "as two kids growing up together can be. We did everything as a pair." John and Phil played varsity baseball and basketball and, very briefly, football together at Bridgeport High, five miles from their homes in Lansing. "He was just an outstanding all-around high school athlete," says Phil. "The only things I could ever do better than him was catch fish, shoot squirrels and throw the knuckleball."
Havlicek's prowess earned him all-state honors in basketball, baseball and football. He averaged better than 30 points a game his junior and senior years in basketball, and he was a consistent .400 hitter as a baseball infielder. But it was as a football player that he attracted the most notice. In fact, he had more football than basketball scholarships offered to him, and Woody Hayes at Ohio State was a dogged pursuer. But Havlicek decided, almost reluctantly, that basketball was his game. He accepted a scholarship to Ohio State, but as a basketball, not a football, player. On the one hand, Hayes was relieved that at least Havlicek wouldn't be playing quarterback against him for some other Big Ten school, but on the other hand, he was often heard muttering, "The best quarterback in the Big Ten isn't playing football."
Havlicek's choice of sports proved sound. In 1960 he starred on an NCAA championship team that also included Jerry Lucas, Larry Siegfried, Mel Nowell and a feisty guy named Bobby Knight. And in 1962 he was drafted in the first round by the NBA-champion Boston Celtics. Then he did something extraordinary. The Cleveland Browns, recognizing his superior athletic ability, drafted him in the seventh round, and Havlicek, still the frustrated football player, reported to their training camp as Red Auerbach nearly swallowed his cigar. He played as a wide receiver in two exhibition games and was the last receiver cut. Recalling that training camp, Lou Groza, a friend from the Valley days, says, "He had fine skills and he was very competitive, but he hadn't played in so long that the things we did naturally, he had to think about." Still, for six more years the Browns asked him to try again, until they finally concluded he was, after all, a basketball player.
That he was. He played 16 seasons with the Boston Celtics, eight of them on championship teams, and he appeared in 13 All-Star Games. He holds team records for games played (1,270) and points scored (26,395, an average of 20.8 per game). His jersey hangs from the rafters of Boston Garden and he is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. And for the energy and style he gave to the game, he will never be forgotten. "There was always something inhuman about his endurance," says boyhood pal Phil Niekro. "I've never seen anybody so constantly on the go."
"I have exceptional lungs," says Havlicek, now 48 and a successful businessman living in a Boston suburb. "They have to take two chest X-rays to fit them in. I think I developed them back in Lansing. I never had a bicycle when I was young, so I ran everywhere. When I was just five or six, I'd run from one mile marker to another on Route 40. I learned self-discipline back then, too. I went a whole year without drinking Coke—and I loved the stuff—because I was afraid it might affect my lung capacity. I could play two games in one day without wearing down, so the racehorse game never affected me. Both of my parents worked, so I was alone a lot and learned to take care of myself. Everything I owned, I think, came from our general store. My grandfather and my uncles all worked in the mines, and my grandfather finally died of black lung disease, but he was in his 80's. My father, Frank Havlicek, came here from Czechoslovakia when he was 12. My mother, Mandy, is Croatian, but she was born in this country, one of 10 children. They were hardworking people, and they instilled that work ethic in me.
"My father could never understand how anyone could get a college scholarship for playing basketball. He really didn't understand sports at all. I think he may have gone to one football game while I was in high school. He went to some games when I was in Ohio State, but that was because he liked to fly and because he was fascinated with the buildings we played in. He'd never seen anything quite like those big arenas. I never knew if he paid attention to the games at all until [once when the Celtics] lost to Cincinnati. He came to me and said, in his broken English, 'I think they win because they make more free throws.' He died of a heart attack when he was 71, two years after he sold the store. My mother still lives in the Valley.
"What a town we lived in. There couldn't have been a thousand people there. There was one bar, the Melody Manor, and there was the Lansing Sportsmen's Club across Route 40, a home away from home for a lot of the miners. I'd listen to ball games at Cocky Pyle's Texaco station, where they had a potbellied stove. There was one movie theater, and I'd go every night. To my mind, John Wayne never made a bad movie. I was such a fan that Mel Nowell at Ohio State started calling me Hondo, and it stuck. Of course, he also did that because he couldn't pronounce Havlicek. Phil and I used to play bottle-cap baseball, using a fence railing as a bat, outside Cocky Pyle's. Joe was about five years younger, so he was just a tagalong then, but Phil and I have been friends for more than 40 years, and how many people can say that?
"At our house we had a hand pump in the kitchen and an outhouse in the back. We'd take sponge baths every night and then a real bath on Saturday. On Sundays we'd visit both grandmothers, and usually have a flat tire both ways. We'd swim in the strip pits and do a lot of hunting and fishing. It wasn't very sophisticated, but I sometimes think the simpler things are better appreciated.
"It's funny, my wife, Beth, is only two years younger than I am, but it's like she came from a totally different generation. She's from Painesville, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, and her family had all the conveniences we didn't have. My kids can't even believe that I was born in this century. They love it when I tell stories about growing up in the Valley. 'Dad,' they'll say, 'you really are from a different world.' I guess maybe they're right."
To Bill Mazeroski, little towns like Martins Ferry, Bridgeport and Lansing were metropolises. Maz lived in the hills away from the towns, in a place called Witch Hazel. The family home, he says, was a shack without electricity or plumbing. "It was more like a chicken coop," says his old friend and business partner, Bill Del Vecchio. Maz's father lost part of a foot in a mine accident, turned to drink and was gone much of the time. When the young Bill fished the Ohio River, it was not so much for amusement as to put food on the table for his mother, his sister and himself. He went down the hill to the high school in Tiltonsville, just four miles north of Martins Ferry. He was shy and felt embarrassed by his clothes and mannerisms. "The hill people," he says, "had to prove themselves to the town people. You knew you weren't their equal."
Mazeroski proved himself through sports. There, he was a prodigy. "Of all of the great athletes from here," says Van Horne, who has seen most of them, "the only one I'd have said from the start would be a star was Maz. There was just something about him."
"You knew from the time he was 12 he'd be exceptional," says Del Vecchio. "He had that God-given hand-eye coordination, and there wasn't anything he couldn't do. Why, one of the first times I saw him, he was sitting in a chair in his yard shooting bees with a .22 pistol." He was an all-state basketball player who averaged 28 points a game at Tiltonsville High and an all-state pitcher and shortstop. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed him fresh out of high school in 1954, and in his first spring training the next year he caught the eye of legendary general manager Branch Rickey. "Leave that man at second base, no matter what you do," the GM advised manager Fred Haney.
Mazeroski stayed at second for 17 years with the Pirates, setting major league records for double plays by a second baseman for a season (161) and for a career (1,706). He also holds the major league record for seasons leading the league in double plays (8) and assists (9). He won eight Gold Gloves, and in the eyes of many veteran baseball observers, he was the best fielding second baseman who ever played the game. But for all that, he's probably best known for hitting that dramatic home run in the ninth inning of the seventh game to beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series, the only Series ever ended by a home run.
At 51 he's still a shy man, but there is an undercurrent of humor in his manner and maybe just a little sadness. He lives with his wife, Milene, in Greensburg, Pa., about 30 miles from Pittsburgh and 70 or so from Tiltonsville. He has two sons. He owns a golf course in Rayland, near his old home, and is co-owner of a restaurant-bar called Bill's, in Yorkville, just outside Martins Ferry.
"I never knew any of the other guys when I was growing up, although I played against Phil in high school," says Maz. "In fact, I think I hit the first home run anybody'd hit off him, and I was the only pitcher to beat him in 1954, when he was pitching for Bridgeport. He threw that knuckleball even then. But really, I didn't know a soul outside of Tiltonsville. We didn't have a car and there was no way of getting around. All I wanted to do was fish and play ball. And, of course, you had to prove your manhood by swimming the Ohio River. I used to get my basketballs out of that river, too. They were really just bladders that had washed up after a flood subsided. But after I'd carried the coal in, I'd shoot baskets with them till dark. Our baseballs were mostly just tape, too. And I'd bounce rubber balls by the hour off any wall I could find.
"But when I was 13 or 14 years old, the high school coach at Tiltonsville, Al Burazio, took me aside and told me he was going to make a big leaguer out of me. He did, too. I think I learned more from him than I ever did from any minor league instructor. He gave me the fundamentals that got me off to a good start in pro ball. He died a couple years ago, but I'll never forget him.
"No, there's nothing I'd change about growing up, except maybe to have made life a little easier for my mother. But what did I know back then? I was alive and well and playing sports, and that's all that mattered. It seemed weird to me when I finally did have some money. People ask me about the Hall of Fame. Well, it doesn't seem that easy for a defensive player to get in, although I wasn't exactly an automatic out. I had more than 2,000 hits. And I did hit that home run. But I do think the players who could do everything—Mays, Aaron, Musial—are the ones who belong in the Hall. Still, it seems like some one-dimensional offensive players are getting in lately, and if they can, why not a defensive player?
"Anyway, I have one thing. There aren't many people who can say they were the best in the world at something. And I can say that. For a long time there, you see, I was the best there was at making the double play."
Tiltonsville High, a brick building with stone columns at the main entrance, is now called Buckeye South High School, and the teams are called the Rebels, not the Blue Ramblers, as they were in Maz's time. Actually, in Maz's time the school was Warren Consolidated High School, just as Martins Ferry High was really the Charles R. Shreve High School. It's just that nobody ever called either by its right name. They were always just Tiltonsville and Martins Ferry, and forget the fine print. But Buckeye South is a whole new ball game, and from the looks of the trophy cases, it would appear the past there did not begin until the first Buckeye graduating class, in 1973. Maz does not seem to have left much of a mark on the old alma mater.
But he is much in evidence down at Bill's bar, a mile south toward Martins Ferry on Highway 7. Maz is there at the front door, depicted in one of those absurd sleeveless uniforms so much in vogue in the early '60s, and he is inside on the walls, handclapping his way around the bases as the Yankees stand dumbfounded. You can get a drink in Bill's for a buck, and the barbecued spareribs for under five. Del Vecchio's insurance office is just around the corner, next door to a closed-down tanning salon. White-haired and leonine, dressed for business this day in a bright purple sweater and tan trousers, Del Vecchio sits in a cluttered office where he sells services ranging from insurance to hunting and fishing licenses. He has lived in the Valley all his life and wouldn't consider leaving. "There are beautiful people here," he says, "hardworking and honest, the salt of the earth. And as far as business is concerned, I can gauge how the mill down the street is doing by the soot deposits on my doorstep. This morning, for example, I had to sweep a pile of it off. Business is obviously looking up."
At Martins Ferry (or Charles R. Shreve) High, which sits above the town atop Hanover Street, history seems more secure than in Tiltonsville. Dominating a hallway trophy case at Martins Ferry is an enlarged photo of the state championship Purple Rider basketball team of 1941, with its star center, big number 38, Lou Groza, looming large in the front row. Coach Floyd Baker looks on proudly.
Van Horne, who grew up with the Grozas in Martins Ferry, has covered sports in the Valley since 1941. "Oh, we have our horses' asses here, just like any other place," he concedes, "but there's a warmth, a sense of community I haven't found anywhere else. I agree we're not producing star athletes the way we once did, certainly not athletes like the Grozas, the Niekros, Havlicek and Maz, but we still have good high school sports here. It's true that economically we're a little down, but there's hope. We still have the kind of people who pour a lot of energy into whatever they do. That's a quality common to the great athletes we've been talking about. All of them were humble, and hard workers. All of them had a love for their hometowns. None of them has forgotten his roots. I don't buy the theory that these men worked as hard as they did just to escape the mines and the mills. No, they worked hard to become big leaguers, and if that's what you're going to be, you have to get out of here someday."
There is a billboard on Interstate 70 just outside of Bridgeport advising westward travelers that Lansing raised and Bridgeport educated the Niekros, Havlicek and NFL linebacker Bill Jobko. And Bridgeport High has a "Wall of Fame" outside the gym on which hang dramatically enlarged portraits of the same four, as well as of Olympic wrestler Bobby Douglas (now head coach at Arizona State) and Johnny Blatnik, Bridgeport's first big leaguer, a Phillies outfielder for three years in the late '40s. Sadly, there's not much new on that wall, nothing much at all from the last 25 years.
Down the hill from the high school, west a mile or so on Route 40, is Perkins Field, home of Bridgeport's football and baseball teams, where, at one time or another, Lou Groza, the Niekros, Hondo and Maz all played. There is a brick wall at the far south end of the field that had once been the leftfield fence but now, with the construction of new outfield fences, serves mostly as a barrier to the creek beyond. The old fence is a cool 465 feet down the line. "Maz hit a ball that hit those bricks on one hop back when he was playing for Tiltonsville," says Bridgeport baseball coach Steve Wojcik, gazing at the distant wall. "Hit it off Phil Niekro. They're still talking about that around here."
Wojcik, 36, was raised just across the river in Wheeling, so he has a strong feel for Valley tradition, which he conveys eloquently and often to his young charges. Bridgeport was to have played a doubleheader at home this Saturday in mid-April, but a sudden chill that swept through the Valley, dropping temperatures into the high 30's, caused postponement of both games. But some of the Bridgeport players, bundled in sweat clothes, stayed on anyway, to work out informally on the field and in the fieldhouse. Wojcik points to a plaque on the fieldhouse wall, which reads WEIGHT ROOM COMPLIMENTS OF NIEKRO FAMILY, 1983. "Phil and Joe donated $10,000 for that addition to the fieldhouse," he says. "They're a great family, and I never let these kids forget it. At the start of every season, I remind my players of what Phil once said: 'It takes only three hours out of a day to play a baseball game, so that leaves you 21 more to improve yourself in life.' The days are over here in the Valley when a kid could finish school and go right out and get a job in the steel mills or the coal mines, so I tell my students that they better get a college education, because it's a tough world out there."
It is a message his players have taken to heart. "The Niekros have always been kind of my idols," says Kevin Krob, Wojcik's husky senior catcher, inside the fieldhouse. "My grandparents knew their mother real well. We all take pride that they're from the Valley. I get in fights with my girlfriend all the time when I ask her how many famous people have gone to her school. She can't think of any. I know there's been a decline here, and a lot of people have moved out. Still, it's a nice place because everybody knows everybody else. But me, I'm going on to Ohio State."
"All of us have goals to make it in some big school somewhere else," says Jason Lewis, the wiry Bridgeport second baseman. "For me, it will be the Air Force Academy or Notre Dame. You know, with the mills shut down, there's not a whole lot for a young guy to look forward to here. Oh, I know we've got a lot of tradition here. I think everybody in the whole school has an autograph from the Niekros. But what I'm going to do is try to make it out of the Valley just like they did."
He bangs a fist into his glove and heads back out to the frigid diamond. "I don't look down on it here, though," he says. "This is where I'm from." He pauses at the doorway. "And I'm sure that 20 years ago this was a real nice place to live."