Briggs hopeful

Shenango Valley Modified Softball League President Ryan Briggs hopes the league will get started sometime in last spring or early summer. 

It’s anyone’s guess as to when the Major League Baseball season will begin, and Shenango Valley Modified Softball League feels the big-leaguers’ pain.

But both are bent on ballin’ in 2020.

“The Shenango Valley Modified Softball League is looking forward to the 2020 season. However as everyone is, we are closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation. We will follow the guidelines established by the state and federal governments, as well as our parent organization, USA Softball,” summarized league President Ryan Briggs.

“As with many recreational leagues -- whether it is softball, golf, bowling, or other similar activities -- our participation rates have dropped over the past several years. Because of that, we have had a later start date the last couple of years, between Memorial Day and June 1. Our target start date remains in that general time frame for now,” Briggs continued.

“We are seeking new teams for the 2020 season and beyond. If it is safe to do so this summer, hopefully more guys will be interested in getting involved and putting together a team or teams. This ‘cabin fever’ may give people a greater appreciation for getting outside, competing and having social interaction. Last year, we had four teams, which included approximately 50 men.”

The league has a storied history. Eric Bombeck, a 3-decade-plus league veteran, compiled a comprehensive history. According to Bombeck’s research, documented on the circuit’s web site,

“The league started as a modified-pitch church league around 1960. ... Tommy Lewis’ team, Wheatland Methodist, won the title in 1960, and the trophy is still in the church. ... Sometime in the mid-to-late 1930’s, modified leagues popped up around the Valley: The Federation of Clubs League, with teams from The Italian Home, Croation Club, Twin City Elks, etc. who played at Pargny Park. According to Paul Kranich, the Federation League started out as a modified fast-pitch league or “Figure Eight” (the motion a pitcher makes as he winds up to release the ball) as it was called it back then. ‘Windmill-style’ softball had caught on nationwide the league switched to windmill after WW II.

Bombeck recalled, “My dad (Robert) said when he was a kid he would go to the Pine Hollow field to watch games, and there would be 500 people or more in attendance ... “

Continuing with Bombeck’s impressive research, “St. Bart’s was an early dynasty in the league and John Goga and Austie Murray pitched well into their 60’s and 70’s (editor’s note: Carl and Bill Juranovich were a pair of standouts from the 1960’s and 70’s). ... and in 1996 dropped “church league status” in order to compete in Amateur Softball Association state tournaments.

“When Bill (Juranovich) was a young man he worked at Sharon Steel,” Bombeck related. “Being a good ballplayer, someone asked him to try out for the Westinghouse Inter-departmental League. In fact, that was the only way you could get a tryout. At the end of the day they said, ‘Okay, you made the team.’ Bill, looking confused, said, ‘But I work at Sharon Steel.’ They said, ‘Not anymore, you don’t.’ He had to take a two-dollar a week cut in pay, but was a single guy and jumped at the chance.”

More recently, Bombeck noted, “ ... In 2010 the last vestige of the old league faded into obscurity when Notre Dame left the league. ... Lynn Saternow’s Notre Dame teams won a lot of titles. Lynn was still pitching, but most players don’t know what a dominant pitcher he was in his day. In my opinion, Lynn goes down as the greatest player in the history of the league, with Jim Kopan a close runner-up.

 “The league peaked in the 

1980’s, with 14 teams playing on fields around the area (including a Grove City area club). (As recent as 2015) we ha(d) seven teams in the (Shenango) Valley, and many players travel to play in the Meadville league, as well as Sharon,” Bombeck continued, noting, “Our current league has a debt of gratitude to those leagues who came before us.

“The Independent League hosted teams from Sharon Steel and Westinghouse, to name a few. There was no inter-league play during the season between these leagues, but they would have a playoff with each of the league’s champions to determine an overall Valley champ.”

Saternow, soon after graduating from Kent State University where he was a wrestling standout, started as a general assignment reporter for The Herald. Subsequently, Saternow has served as sports editor of The Herald for 3-plus decades, and related, “I played in the modified softball leagues from 1964 to 2011. Great times, great rivalries. ... Many of us pitched into our 60’s or even 70’s, like Bill “Whiskers” Jacobson, Murray, Goga and more,” continued Saternow, who added,. “Hank Caputo was one of the greatest who still played infield in his 70’s.”

The 72-year-old Saternow’s sense of humor helped him on and off the field as he related a pair of anecdotes:

“I knew I was getting old,” he recalled, “when I walked into a bar after a game and a woman asked me if I was playing in a ‘Senior League.’ ... While pitching in a state tournament one year, after striking out a few young guys, some woman yelled from the stands, ‘Why can’t you hit that old man?’ I yelled back, ‘Not old; just upper-middle aged.’

“The Church League All-Stars or league champs each year used to play fund-raisers against the Over The Hill Gang, former fast-pitch players like the great Bobby Atterholt, Juranovichs, Reardons, Pi Rossi and more. We put on exhibitions at Westinghouse Park or at Buhl Day for a few years. There were huge crowds and we raised money for the Shenango Valley Special Games.” 

High Street won its 5th consecutive Shenango Valley Modified league championship in 2019. High Street also placed as runners-up at the 2018 and 2019 state Class “B” tournaments.

According to the league’s web site, in 2015, Our Gang’s Lounge won the ASA of Pennsylvania Class B championship. In 2008, Our Gang’s won the state Open/Major championship, while Jergler Investments won the Class “D” title. Coast to Coast won the Class “A” title in 2000, while DSM won the 2001 “A” title. In 2011, Warehouse Sales earned state runner-up honors in Class “D” while Lenbil’s earned runner-up in Class “A” in 2012.

Briggs, who also serves as Western Area Modified Pitch Coordinator for USA Softball of Pa., noted Shenango Valley Modified remains vital: “This year, the league is teaming with USA Softball of Pennsylvania to host the Class B (July 11-12) and Class C (Aug. 1-2) state tournaments at the COG Complex in West Middlesex. This is a tremendous opportunity for the league and the Shenango Valley area on the whole, with teams coming to the area on those two weekends.”

Bombeck summarized, “In my (3-plus decades) I have had the fortune to win two state championships and seven league titles. ... But it’s really about the friendships I’ve made and the good times playing ball over the years. It’s kind of ironic that I am playing ball with some guys whose dads I also played with; even worse now some of those kids have come and gone and I’m still hanging on. As I near the end of my career, I’ve become nostalgic about the game that I love so well.

“ ... Often while I’m standing at 3rd base,” Bombeck wrote, “an old-timer in his 80’s will come slowly walking onto the field and sit down in his lawn chair to watch the game. I’ll smile and and say to the shortstop, ‘Hey, Matt, see that old guy there? I played against him when I was a kid in this league. That’s gonna be me one day soon.’ Matt just rolls his eyes.

“Speaking for all of us who are playing now, thank you to all the old-timers who came before us and established this great sport we all love so much.” 

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