Ringgold High School graduate Michael Brantley, Joe Montana’s favorite receiver on an excellent Rams football team, went on to attend Indiana State. There he played recreational basketball against Larry Bird.
The future Hall of Famer had transferred from the University of Indiana to play for Indiana State, but, as Brantley recalled, “Back then when you transferred, you had to sit out a year. So when he transferred, he sat out and he used to come to the arena all the time to play with us.”
Bird left the larger Indiana basketball program for two reasons. First of all, said Brantley, “Bobby Knight, Indiana’s coach, was hard to get along with. And Bird was a small-town guy. He just wasn’t used to that big campus there.”
As a young man, Bird was unassuming, said Brantley. “He was in a couple of my phys-ed classes. He was real quiet, low key.”
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A 2017 Baseball Digest article had some words of praise for Donora’s Ken Griffey Sr.
The story featured major leaguers who, although selected late in the draft, went on to stardom. It mentioned men such as Trevor Hoffman, the No. 2 man on the all-time save list, and strikeout king Nolan Ryan, who was chosen as the 295th pick (12th round) in baseball’s first draft back in 1965. Another player destined for Cooperstown, Mike Piazza, went to the Dodgers in the 62nd round — nearly 1,400 players were picked before him.
As for Griffey, in 1969 he went in the 29th round as the 682nd pick. The article stated, as Valley residents have long realized, that Griffey “had an outstanding career,” and listed key stats such as his 2,143 hits, 152 homers, and his 200 stolen bases. The story touted his longevity, 19 seasons, his being a three-time All-Star, and his eight seasons hitting .300 or better.
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Fred Uhlman, Sr. was a star pitcher/first baseman for Charleroi High who made it to the minors and later became an award-winning big league scout. He recalled his first spring training camp which he spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1949.
“We went clear out to San Bernardino, California,” Uhlman said. “We stayed at the California Hotel and instead of giving meal money out, they fed you lunch at the ballpark and you just signed for the evening meal in the hotel. They put me at the same table with Stan Rojek, Wally Westlake, and Danny Murtaugh who was a second baseman at that time.”
While some veterans didn’t want to spend time with young players, Uhlman recalled some friendly, helpful established players. “Westlake was a great guy. Murtaugh was like a father to me.
“The first night at dinner they ordered steak and shrimp cocktail and I had never heard of shrimp cocktail. They said, ‘Aren’t you going to order the shrimp cocktail?’ And I’m not kidding, I said, ‘I don’t drink something like that.’”
At their insistence, though, Uhlman tried it and liked it. In fact, he enjoyed it so much he began ordering it every morning for breakfast, blissfully signing his name to the tab.
“After about a week and a half, Bob Rice, the traveling secretary at that time, called me in and said, ‘Fred, are you eating shrimp cocktail for breakfast?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ He said, ‘Usually it’s just for dinner, but go ahead if you want.’”
It was enough to make Rice scratch his head and veteran pitcher Kirby Higbe take to calling Uhlman “The Shrimp Cocktail Kid.”
Uhlman also reflected back to the days when he played for the Cougars, and Valley fans responded to great high school pitching match-ups just as Pirate fans did when a game featured a marquee of, say, Vernon Law versus Sandy Koufax. Uhlman noted big drawing cards of the day included Tony Segzda of California, Brownsville’s Ed Roebuck, Jesse Leach from Monongahela, and himself
“That’s what it was all about in our section then,” said Uhlman.
During a 2013 interview, Uhlman proved to have the gift of foresight, saying one of the most promising and talented upcoming stars was Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, then just coming off his rookie season. “He is something else on the defensive end and he’s only 20-years-old. He’s a definite Gold Glove candidate.”
Once again, Uhlman was correct. Machado won his first Gold Glove that year in his first full major league season. In 2019, Machado signed a 10-year contract with the Padres — the team Uhlman’s son works for as an Assistant General Manager — calling for the astronomical salary of $300 million which included a signing bonus of $20 million.
Over the years, Uhlman got to see many standout fielders. When he was working for Cincinnati, one stood out.
“Brooks Robinson made great plays,” he noted. “In 1970 when the Reds were playing Baltimore, Brooks just killed us.”
He was referring, of course, to Robinson’s dazzling plays at third base to go along with his robust .429 batting average which helped the O’s take the World Series in five games and earned Robinson the Series MVP Award.