Fayette County has a rich baseball history. The Fayette County League and the Big Ten were bastions of great baseball. Fayette County also had some brief but interesting periods of professional baseball.
The Uniontown Coal Barons were in the Pennsylvania–Ohio–Maryland League (1906–1907), Pennsylvania–West Virginia League (1908–1909 and 1914) and in the Middle Atlantic League (1926, 1947–1949). From 1947 to 1949, they were affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They captured two championships in 1906 when they finished 56-42, and then again in 1909 when they posted a record of 63-48. James Groninger guided the Coal Barons in 1906 and Frank Sisley was at the helm in 1909. Uniontown also had banner seasons in 1907 when they went 64-43 and 1908 when they were 68-41 and lost in the league finals. Uniontown also fielded teams in 1914 and again in 1926.
In the early years one of the interesting characters connected with the Coal Barons was Groninger.
Groninger’s Wikipedia page and West Virginia University records and several articles in the Pittsburgh Press paint an interesting portrait. Groninger played college baseball starting in 1903. He was the captain of West Virginia’s 1906 team.
He was a multi-sport athlete at West Virginia and also served as captain of the West Virginia Mountaineers basketball team. Groninger received his law degree (Bachelor of Laws) from West Virginia in June 1906. He remained in Morgantown, West Virginia as the coach of the school’s baseball team.
He also served as the manager of the Uniontown Coal Barons in 1906, leading them to a Pennsylvania–Ohio–Maryland League championship. He later served as the president of the Class-D Pennsylvania–West Virginia League in 1908 and 1909. After retiring from baseball, Groninger became a lawyer.
Alex Pearson who managed Uniontown for one season in 1907, was a baseball lifer. Pearson was known as the “Grand Old Man of Baseball” in Beaver County. His semi-pro and professional baseball career spanned 42 years from 1894 to 1936. He was inducted into the Beaver County Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.
The 1907 team that Pearson managed had four pitchers that reached the major leagues: Casey Hageman, Abe Kruger, Roy Withrup and Lou Schettler.
William E. Akin in The Middle Atlantic League, 1925-1952: A Baseball History, chronicaled that Uniontown fielded a professional baseball team again in 1947. Uniontown had a franchise in the Middle Atlantic League in 1926, but it didn’t have enough capital and drew poorly. A new ownership group headed by Harry Isabel, manager of Pittsburgh Brewing Company, Joe Petko and Lloyd Humbert got the old Speedway Park in Hopwood ready for baseball.
The ownership group also convinced the Pittsburgh Pirates to transfer their farm team from Oil City to Uniontown. In 1947 the Coal Barons posted a record of 53-72 and finished seventh in the MAL. In 1948 they went 77-49 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In 1949 they finished 55-83 and in seventh place.
Five Coal Barons players eventually made it to the major leagues: infielders Jack Merson (Uniontown 1947) and Milt Graff (1949), catcher Jim Mangan (1949) and pitchers Cal Hogue (1948), and Chuck Churn (1949).
Churn was signed as an amateur free agent by the Pirates before the 1949 season. He joined the Uniontown Coal Barons of the Class C Middle Atlantic League in 1949 for his first crack at pro ball
“It was kind of strange at first,” Churn said in a Memory Lane article. “I caught a bus and met their bus in Winchester, Virginia and we went to spring training in Huntsville, Alabama. They got a prison there and that was my first trip away from my small rural town. I enjoyed it and then we had to ride the bus back to Uniontown and it was a school bus, I guess not like they have now. It was one that had seats with arms and it was kind of uncomfortable, but I enjoyed all of it and felt I was very fortunate to be there.”
The 19-year-old Churn didn’t do so well, going 7-12 with a 6.31 ERA in his first season.
“It was a different experience for me,” Churn recalled. “I always thought my control in high school was pretty good, but I guess when I got into pro ball it wasn’t as good as I thought it was.”
Churn, who passed away in 2017, had fond memories of Uniontown.
“I can remember I had a room with another boy, Joe Allen Tendall from near my hometown,” Churn said. “He signed the same time that I did and we had a room at Mrs. Bartholomew’s and that was on Main Street down close to the VFW. Our contract said we were to get $5,000 if we stayed with any club affiliated with the Pirates on June 15. Well they kept me and they let the other boy go.”
California, Pa.’s Tony Segzda, who passed away in 2019, pitched three seasons for the Uniontown Coal Barons. In 1947 he went 3-7 with a 5.35 ERA. In 1948 he posted a record of 11-6 with a 4.34 ERA, and in 1949 he was 2-6 with a 7.50 ERA.
“We played at the old speedway,” Segzda explained in a Memory Lane article. “We had decent crowds, and I enjoyed it, I enjoyed my time pitching in Uniontown. It wasn’t a very good team and my record reflected that. I was part of a bad team.”
New Salem’s John Burns also had a stint with the Coal Barons.
“I started minor league baseball in 1948,” Burns recalled in a Memory Lane story. “I had a tryout at Bailey Park in Uniontown. I went in and they signed me to a contract. Uniontown was playing Niagara Falls at Uniontown, and they called us in and wanted to see what we could do. They wanted to sign me and brother Glenn. I had already signed with Pittsburgh and Glenn did sign with Niagara Falls. I was sent to spring training down at Bartow, Florida. They had a lot of guys and they were cutting them left and right and I was assigned to Greenville in the Alabama State League.
“If it was a small town it was a Class D league and if it was bigger it was a higher classification. Uniontown Coal Barons were in a Class C league.”
In 1948 at Greenville in 123 games Burns batted .304 with two home runs.
“At that time I had signed for $150 a month,” Burns said. “A lot of times my parents would send me money. My dad he liked baseball.”
In 1949 Burns started the season at Greenville.
“I was back down there and I played there until about June,” Burns remembered. “I was batting .368, so the Uniontown Coal Barons wanted a player and they sent me up to Uniontown.”
Burns played in 51 games for the Coal Barons and batted .367. He wound up the 1949 season playing in 12 games at Class B York, Pa. He hit .154 for the White Roses.
Another interesting piece of Coal Barons’ trivia: Pitcher Jack Bumgarner, the older brother of actor James Garner of The Great Escape and The Rockford Files, won 16 games as a 21-year old pitcher for the Coal Barons in 1948. He later changed his name to Jack Garner and made numerous television appearances.
The Coal Barons folded during the winter of 1949-50. Professional baseball never returned to Uniontown.
George Von Benko’s “Memory Lane” column appears in the Monday editions of the Herald-Standard. He also hosts a sports talk show on WMBS-AM radio from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.