No Place like Home for Barbetta
by Cate Murway
“Baseball was, is and always will be to me the best game in the world.” Babe Ruth
Unlike football and basketball, "the national pastime" sport of baseball, the ultimate team game of individuals, can be played successfully by people of average height and weight. Baseball originated before the American Civil War [1861-1865], speculated to have derived from a British game called rounders, a humble contest played on sandlots.
The first professional baseball league was born in 1871.
Baseball really developed its USA status in the 1920s, having become quite a “rollicking game” when George Herman Ruth Jr., “Babe Ruth” [1895-1948] led the New York Yankees to several World Series titles. “Bambino” became a national hero on the strength of his way-off-the-charts home runs.
“The game's epic feats and revered figures, its pieties about racial harmony and bleacher democracy, its artful blurring of sport and business — all of it is bunk, tossed up with a wink and a nudge. Yet we love both the game and the flimflam because they are both so . . . American.”
Excerpt from 'Baseball in the Garden of Eden' by John Thorn.
Yeah. Baseball. This is OUR game. Baseball nostalgia has a cutting edge with its charm of today and a heaping good measure of an echo of a bygone age.
Just ask Navy veteran and Navy baseball team catcher/ baseball/basketball athlete, Frank Albin Barbetta BHS ’50. He has just been named, and most justifiably, a “BIT Baseball Legend” at the Bridgeton Invitational Tournament during its 50th anniversary celebration at Alden Field on July 30th.
The Jerry Alden Field, named for a former local sports play-by-play announcer/ parks and recreation director who passed away in 1993, was carved out of a farm in the 1950’s. This annual Bridgeton summertime event has always been much more than just a collection of baseball games.
While Bridgeton offers the nostalgia of old heroes and old-time country baseball, it also features a number of innovations. The designated hitter has been a part of the tournament since its inception and, was a model for the American League's DH rule.
Sometimes the best part of baseball today is its yesterdays.
Frank was the very accomplished owner of the Philadelphia Stars [first dubbed the Bensalem AA] for 15 years, a semi-pro baseball team that graced the fields, consisting of some of the best Bucks County ballplayers in the area, who played against the most prestigious semi-pro teams on the East Coast. He corralled talents like Steve Frey [Montreal Expos]; Bristol Borough’s 2011 Fall Classic “Person of the Year, Jeff Manto, BHS ’82 [NY Yankees draftee]; and George Riley [Chicago Cubs]. The games were contested in the Bristol Memorial Field. For Frank, there really is no place like home. He is also a founding member of the Bristol Alumni & Athletic Association [BAAA], formerly the Bristol Senior Athletic Association and he was one of those honored at the 12th Annual Scholarship Golf Classic last September.
“Baseball is in his blood,” his daughter Francine confirmed.
Coincidentally, Frank shares his birthday with “Mr. Baseball”, Robert George "Bob" Uecker, a retired American Major League Baseball player.
“I had a fun childhood. I never got in trouble. We started playing ball with a tennis ball and a broom stick on Logan Street behind Jefferson Avenue.” He never took baseball for granted and always played his heart out to win.
Frank was a bat boy for his late older brothers, Gene, Fred and Bert’s, teams. His sister, Mildred “Millie” gave him his first glove, a catcher’s mitt. He earned the title “All Bucks County Catcher” in 1950.
“I wanted boxing gloves but she never bought them for me. My brother Gene was a boxer but my mother didn’t know. He used the name Gene ‘Couti’ so my mother wouldn’t find out. I made money setting up chairs for the boxing matches. I always gave my mom the money.”
His parents Josephine [Resignola] and Nicholas were both born in Italy and they married 11.19.1909 at St. Ann Church. His father worked long tedious hours building and repairing railroad ties and tracks and he died when Frank was only 5 years old. His mother was left to raise him and his siblings on Jefferson Avenue “next to St. Ann School. We had a team on every corner. Each factory had a team, Rohm & Haas had a team, Kaiser had a team. Junior Field was an umpire. He gave us everything, bats, balls and he had the best hotdogs and hamburgers in his store right near St. Ann’s Club.” He smilingly recalled 2 scoops of Breyer’s ice cream for 8 cents, hotdogs and hamburgers for 15 cents.
He reminisced, “Junior called me ‘Steinbrenner’ right before he died.”
Not many people owned a car back then. Frank used his black and white bike to get around town. His first car was a Catalina, “I bought it right out of the showroom at Reedman’s in 1953 for $3500. It was beautiful two-tone green.”
His baseball passion continued with his semi-pro teams.
Jeffrey Paul “Jeff” Manto, BHS ’82, a NY Yankees draft pitched for Frank’s Bristol Stars in 1981 while he was a junior in HS. “It was ‘unlimited’, no age restrictions, so I was playing with a bunch of older guys. It was an honor and scary at the same time.” Jeff and his wife, Denise attended the Bridgeton ceremony. “It was a great event honoring a great man. Frank Barbetta put his heart and soul into the sport, not only for Bristol kids but for the kids in the whole Bristol area.”
It was David Elden “Dave” Hitchner who coordinated the Bridgeton 50th Anniversary activities and invited the guests for the celebration. Dave had been an executive committee member of the Tournament for the past 8 years.
“Frank was among the selected former major league players since he was such a great support in the ‘80s. We wanted to let the fans appreciate him and thank him for his 15 year contribution.”
Frank had his three incredible teams, the Bensalem AA in 1979, the Bristol Stars from 1980-85 and his Philadelphia Stars from 1986-91 compete in the Bridgeton Tournaments. Dave, who worked the press box and scorekeeping at that time, confirmed, “Frank’s teams were extremely competitive; no question they were prepared to play. They could easily win the tournament today. He scouted out the best players in the area!”
Dave had pitched and loved baseball so he became involved with the Bridgeton group in 1967 when they started, running solely by volunteers. He and his wife, Mary, who had been the official scorekeeper and total supporter all along, celebrated their 50TH anniversary last Sunday. Their sons are baseball enthusiasts as well. Jamie coached at the Francis Scott Key School in MD and in the Littlestown, PA area and Matthew has run the NJ baseball camp ‘T.E.A.M.’ for 25 years.
“This is my last year”, he shared. Baseball seems to have gone on the wayside in their area and the Tournament may change venues to showcase younger, local college players in South Jersey.
Fifty years can change the look of a field.
“The dynamics have changed. The community has changed.”
But “Legend” Frank Barbetta was recognized at The Bridgeton Invitational: America’s Most Innovative Baseball Tournament’s 50th Anniversary celebration.
His semi-pro baseball teams competed against the semi-pro teams from throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, including the Washington Blacksox and incredibly talented NY teams from Long Island and Brooklyn, and teams from Cinnaminson, NJ.
The tournament's rigorous format, about 32 games played over two weeks, demands nightly doubleheaders.
Frank burst out with memories! “Bridgeton is a two week elimination tournament. We won the first week and we got a nice, big trophy! It was like a minor league field, phones in the dugout, lights; we were used to playing in Bristol. The games were broadcast on the radio.”
Everything for Frank from then on became “all about Bridgeton”.
His team fielded outstanding area players. Villanova athlete, Mike Neill, ‘a former Bristol Stars clothesline hitter who hardly ever struck out’ also the 1990 MVP, helped the USA baseball team win its first Olympic Gold Medal over Cuba in 2000. His lineup included Phillies pitcher, Chris Short, Bensalem HS standout, John Blasczyk and Pennsbury HS athlete, Mike Barnes [Pittsburgh Pirates], all top notch players.
A few Tournament players were still young enough to dream of a professional career but most of the rosters are filled with older players who were standouts in high school and college, a number of players who "went away" and "came back" after a stint in the minor leagues, and occasionally a former major-leaguer. Frank strove for organization and predictable order, carefully following his plan for his team to travel and compete with any team that would be involved in the Bridgeton Tournament.
He had the discipline to make that plan work.
“Out of twelve years in the tournament we won first place two times, second place once and third place four times, so we won seven times in twelve years.”
There were huge crowds and Hall of Famer celebrities attended the games. “Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Steve Carlton and Pete Rose and Joe DiMaggio came. Every other night there was a celebrity and they all came, no charge.” The Phillie Phanatic always attends to make things enjoyable for even the youngest of fans. David Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic made an appearance for the BIT 50th!
This Legend and his wife, Elaine [Trzaska] Barbetta have been married for 61 years. It looks as if one just can't get this game out of one’s blood, as sports continue to run in their family. Even their daughters, Francine, who has always been and still remains their cheerleader, and Andrea, as a youngster, who was the team ‘bat girl’.
“Baseball is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility."
Albert Goodwill Spalding [1850-1915], American pitcher, manager and executive in the early years of professional baseball, and co-founder of A.G. Spalding sporting goods company.
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