Lawrenceville's Boys of Summer

    They still speak glowingly about the Sadowski boys back in their old neighborhood in Lawrenceville.

    Twelve of the Sadowski children—seven boys and five girls—lived in a row house at 3628 Mintwood Street, and three of the boys—Eddie, Ted, and Bob—became Major League Baseball players. That’s pretty good for one family, even a large family such as the Sadowski clan.

    The Sadowski Brothers

    Back in 1962 and 1963, more Sadowskis than Joneses played in the major leagues. Another Bob Sadowski played for the Cardinals in his hometown of St. Louis, and then the Los Angeles Angels, but he wasn’t related to the Sadowskis from Pittsburgh. I knew about the Sadowskis then because I was a student at nearby University of Pittsburgh, and Ted conducted baseball clinics in my neighborhood playground that were sponsored by the City Parks and Recreation Department.

    Eddie was a catcher for four years in Major League Baseball. He played off and on from 1960 through 1966 for the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, and Atlanta Braves. He was the last player on the Red Sox to wear Number 8 before it was turned over to eventual Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski. Ted was a middle-relief pitcher for three seasons with the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins. Bob Sadowski played from 1963 through 1966 for the Milwaukee Braves and Boston Red Sox. He pitched the final home opener at old Milwaukee Stadium before the Braves moved to Atlanta. Then, you had to play five years to qualify for a pension; now it’s four years. So none of the Sadowskis ever received a baseball pension.

    Eddie died from Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 62, and Ted died at age 57. Bob’s passing was more recent—in January 2017, at age 79.

    Helen Sadowski

    Helen Sadowski

    That house on Mintwood Street, where it all began for the Sadowski boys, was a two-story red brick house, one in a row of about 40 similarly sized homes, about 15 feet wide without a break between any of the houses. Each house had a basement and a long, narrow backyard, about 20 yards to Cabinet Way, an alley that separated the backyards from Sullivan Field. I visited that neighborhood one idyllic Sunday afternoon and was struck by how much the Sadowski house looked like the one in Glenwood where I grew up. The house even had the same green-and-white Koolvent aluminum awnings and red roses in the back of the house. Those yards are all well maintained.

    “I grew up in the same kind of house that you did,” I told Bob Sadowski during one of our many phone conversations from his home in Sharpsburg, Georgia, several years ago. “Did you have 12 kids in your house?” Sadowski shot back. “I remember us boys sleeping four across a bed. I was the youngest and I was always wearing somebody else’s hand-me-downs. I saw a picture of me at my Confirmation and the sleeves on my white shirt were frayed.”

    Bob Sadowski must have called me every day for two weeks to offer a new story. His buddy, John Enright, a retired Pittsburgh police officer who lived in that row of homes on Mintwood Street, cautioned Bob one day by saying, “The man is writing a magazine story, not a book about you.”

    Enright even drove from the site where the wall remains from Forbes Field to Mintwood Street one day in May to determine the distance between the two places. “It’s exactly 2.4 miles,” said Enright. I had questioned the distance because I had read that their home was two miles from Forbes Field. I thought the distance was greater.

    It was easy enough if you just wanted to walk from Lawrenceville to Oakland to see the Pirates play, but the distance was a lot longer if you dreamed about playing for the Pirates or for any Major League Baseball team some day. When I paid my visit, I saw a plaque on the cement-block clubhouse that certified Sullivan Field as a “Field of Dreams,” a program in which True Value Hardware and Major League Baseball renovated inner-city ball fields across the country in 1997.

    Ed Rakow, another kid in the neighborhood who could walk to Sullivan Field in two minutes, also made it to the major leagues as a pitcher for Kansas City. He and the Sadowski boys all played for Jack Brick, a decorated soldier who was the manager for St. John’s Lyceum and had to get to the ball field two hours before the game to line the scruffy grass field with whitewash.

    As I stood behind the Sadowski house on Cabinet Way and watched a flag football game involving men and women this particular Sunday afternoon, I noted that the batting cage and home plate at Sullivan Field were about 30 yards from the back door of the Sadowski house. I had heard stories about how all the Sadowski boys had played ball there just about every day of the week during their summer break from school. It all made so much sense when I checked out
    the scene.

    The Sadowski brothers were, indeed, Lawrenceville’s answer to the Boys of Summer, those Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s and ’60s that Roger Kahn wrote about in his classic book. Kahn visited the former Dodgers in their homes to recount the days when they were playing and Kahn was covering the team for the Herald-Tribune in his hometown.

    I had heard stories about how their mother, Mrs. Helen Sadowski, used to sit on a stool in that alley behind their house and watch her boys playing baseball. She would bring them buckets of lemonade when they won and just plain water when they lost. She knew something about motivating young men. She was named Mother of the Year in the Greater Pittsburgh Baseball League.

    Her husband, Walter Sadowski, hardly ever watched the boys play baseball. He worked at Crucible Steel in the Strip and he thought baseball and all sports were a waste of time. As he saw it, the boys should be working and earning some extra money. He and his wife were born in different parts of Poland and had immigrated to America. He had to work hard to feed and clothe 12 children. “I knew I didn’t want to work in the mill,” said Bob Sadowski. He started to report to work one day at Crucible Steel but turned around and came home. His mother hugged him when she greeted him at the door. She didn’t want him to work in the mill either. Her oldest son, Leo, was killed in military action in France during World War II.

    His father died when Bob, the youngest, was 14, and the boys and their mother became more closely attached. When the boys played in the major leagues, they used to send their mother part of their paycheck on the first and 15th of every month.

    Their home was located in a mostly Polish neighborhood. Standing alongside the eight-foot-high chain-link fence that surrounds Sullivan Field, one can see the Church Brew Works, a bar/restaurant in a part of the building that was once St. John the Baptist Church. Ballplayers once dressed and showered in the basement of St. John’s and the athletic area was known as St. John’s Lyceum. Teams by that name played in the Greater Pittsburgh Baseball League and in the Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament sponsored by the Dapper Dan Club of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Across Butler Street from there is the Arsenal School. Johnny Unitas played on that 80-yard-long oil-soaked field for seven bucks a game for the Bloomfield Rams before he got a call from the Baltimore Colts and became the best quarterback of his day in the National Football League. Bob Sadowski remembers seeing Unitas play at Arsenal and another short football field under the Bloomfield Bridge. You can find a lot of history in Lawrenceville once you drive out of the Strip past the Doughboy statue.

    As you stand behind the batting cage at Sullivan Field, you can imagine the Sadowski brothers still playing baseball there. They just appear before you magically, as if they’re coming out of the door of their home rather than from a corn field. It helps if you have a vivid imagination—and if you’ve spoken to some of the surviving Sadowskis or to their friends and former neighbors, or seen classic baseball movies such as Field of Dreams or The Natural.

    Bob Sadowski sent me some newspaper clippings and photographs and bubble-gum cards. I recognized one of the stories by the typeface and the layout as one that appeared as the cover story in Pittsburgh Weekly Sports back in 1963. That was a tabloid newspaper that I and Beano Cook (the Pitt sports information director at the time) published. Furman Bisher, then sports editor of the Atlanta Journal, wrote the story, and we had permission to reprint it. Bob Sadowski was pitching for the Atlanta Crackers in the International League at the time. He would later make it to the big leagues with the Milwaukee Braves, where his teammates included Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Del Crandall, Warren Spahn, Johnny Logan, and Chuck Tanner of New Castle fame, later to be the manager of the Pirates’ 1979 World Series championship team.

    Bob Sadowski used to walk to Forbes Field with his brothers or some friends to watch the Pirates play. He remembers what a big deal it was to have his mother and family watch him pitch against the Pirates at Forbes Field.

    “Did Bob tell you that he once struck out Roberto Clemente five consecutive at-bats?” asked John Enright, the ex-city cop who used to stay in touch with Bob Sadowski. “He struck Clemente out three times in a row at Forbes Field, and then twice in a row when they next met in Milwaukee.”

    Bob Sadowski didn’t tell me the Clemente story. He did tell me one about his time as a bat boy for a St. John’s Lyceum team that was playing the Koller Club in a Federation League championship game at Sullivan Field. “There was a pole painted white that was out in right-center field,” said Bob. “We had a short, right-field fence—about 240 to 250 feet at best—so any ball that went over the fence to the right of that white pole was a ground-rule double. If the ball went over to the left of the pole it was a home run.

    “The game was tied going into the ninth inning. It was getting dark, and the umpire said it would be the last inning and then the game would be called,” continued Bob. “My brother, Eddie, or Edgo as we called him, hit one over the fence just to the left of that white pole for a home run. There were about 400 or 500 people at that game, and the men and women all ran out onto the field and mobbed my brother. It was just like when Bill Mazeroski hit the home run to win the World Series for the Pirates in 1960! Only it was at Sullivan Field, right in our backyard. You do know, by the way, that Mazeroski is also
    Polish.”

    I also had a chance to chat on the phone with John “Spike” Sadowski of St. Petersburg, Florida. He pitched for St. John’s Lyceum in the Greater Pittsburgh League. He was a standout fastball-softball pitcher and, on occasion, pitched in softball and baseball games on the same day. He was offered a baseball contract with the Pirates by one of their storied scouts, Socko McCarey.

    Spike said some people thought he was the best athlete in the family, but he had a good job at Crucible Steel and was happy pitching on the local sandlots. He turned down McCarey’s contract offer. “I don’t regret it,” said the feisty Spike. “I’ve enjoyed my life just the same. Lawrenceville was a tough neighborhood. You knew where to go and where not to go. Different streets were boundaries and you didn’t go beyond them. We played sports at fields throughout the city.”

    Another Sadowski, Jim—a nephew of the Sadowski brothers—made it to the major leagues. He became an executive with Hefren-Tillotson’s financial advisory firm. Jim remembered going to games with his dad and watching his Uncle Bob pitch for the visiting Braves.

    Jim starred at Central Catholic High School and even pitched a no-hitter in an all-star game with Hall of Fame Pirates’ star Pie Traynor as his manager. He remembers Traynor telling him as he came into the dugout after the game, “I’ll see you in the big leagues in two years.” He had another sparkling performance for the 9th Ward team against Penn Hills with Joe L. Brown and Harding Peterson of the Pirates and several scouts from the team looking on.

    Jim Sadowski signed with the Pirates in 1969—but as Jim puts it, “I was with them for a cup of coffee.” He pitched a total of nine innings in four games in 1974 for the Pirates and had a 0-1 record. He became a member of the Pirates Alumni and participated in many charitable functions on behalf of the team. No one realized more than he how tough it is to make the majors and actually stay, even if your name is Sadowski. So he’s proud of what he and his uncles managed to do. They were good enough to wear Major League uniforms, and they traveled a long way from Lawrenceville.

    Jim O’Brien is an author and sports historian who has written 29 books in his Pittsburgh Proud series, including Fantasy Camp: Living the Dream with Maz and the ’60 Bucs. O’Brien was the founding editor for 23 years of Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbook. He teaches a class in “Pittsburgh’s Rich Sports History” in the Osher Institute Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Pittsburgh.He is on the advisory board for the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, and has been inducted into the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. His website is jimobriensportsauthor.com.