Field at Morgan Avenue and Garwood Street was once site of many athletic events
by Jack Weber
A little-known monument stands at the southeast corner of Garwood Street and Morgan Avenue. The small bronze plate attached to a short concrete pillar represents a time forgotten. The memorial reads “Dedicated to an era of Goat Hill athletics 1914-1927” and lists John Hallman as manager and Lou Skelly as president.
The tiny shrine, which has a large rock behind it and is flanked by two large bushes, may be mistaken by motorists who pass by as a piece of landscaping left over from the time when Morgan Elementary School sat on the site, but two local men keep its legacy alive.
For many years, Bill Koch has maintained the monument as his father Robert did before him. Meanwhile, Nick Streza, who has lived down the street from the site since 1937, keeps several pieces of memorabilia and shares his stories whenever he can.
“That rock came out of the ground here somewhere,” said Streza. “They rolled it up here to the corner and it’s been here ever since.”
Streza, who turns 93 in December, was a member of one of the last groups of youth who grew up in the shadows of Morgan Engineering to play for the Goat Hill Athletic Club, mostly baseball and basketball, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“Our basketball team would play anyone,” said Streza, pointing out his teammates from old photos. “We played teams like the Akron Goodyears, the Youngstown General Fireproofers, and we always played in a big tournament held in Sebring. But the group I played with was carrying on a tradition that started long before us.”
Goat Hill Athletic Club, which naturally took on the mascot of the goat with the colors purple and gold and sometimes wore gray, took its name from a section of the city known as Goat Hill. The heart of the Goat Hill District, as explained by former Alliance Safety-Service Director Paul Giovanini in a 1978 interview found at alliancememory.org, was from Forest Avenue to Liberty Avenue and Summit Street to Auld Street.
“It was called Goat Hill because there were a lot of Welsh people in the area, and they were called goats because that was what their people were known for in Wales, raising goats,” said Streza. “So the name stuck.”
However, there were many more ethnic groups represented in that part of the city, as evidenced by landmarks such as the old Romanian Church on Grant Street that is now home to the Grant Street Church; the Verhovay Aid Association, a Hungarian club on Webb Avenue, which is now the home of the William Penn Club; three Italian clubs that are still in operation, including The Dante Club, the Roma Club and the Christopher Columbus Society; the Transylvania Society, a Romanian club that is now the Cantell Elks, and the Saxon Club, which was a German club that is no longer standing.
And all those groups of people intermingled on the athletic fields located in the Goat Hill district between Forest Avenue and Morgan Avenue along Garwood Street.
“When it came to playing ball, stuff like that didn’t matter,” said Streza. “We all played together and what did matter was winning. At that point, we were all goats.”
In its heyday, the Goat Hill athletic field was the place to go to watch baseball games in the summer and football games in the fall. There was even an occasional soccer match held on the site, a rarity for its time, but a real likelihood as European immigrants brought the game to America from their homelands.
And the area looked much different than the large sparse field dotted with a few trees that it is today.
There was even a concrete pool at the site at the turn of the century. However, it was filled in by the city shortly after John Rampelt, a Forest Avenue boy, drowned in it on Aug. 27, 1919, exactly one month shy of his sixth birthday. It was believed to have been the second drowning at the pool. “Not many people know about that,” said Streza.
Of course, the area was better known for its athletic field.
“There used to be bleachers along where the first base baseline would have been up to Morgan Avenue, about five or six stacks of them,” said Streza, noting he once saw a player hit a home run that nearly hit some houses on the west side of Morgan Avenue, well over 500 feet. “And sometimes, when there was a good game going on, people would stand all around the field.”
Baseball and football teams from all over the region would come to face the Goat Hill squads, which according to newspaper accounts won more often than not. And according to written accounts, the site was a premier athletic facility that once hosted an Alliance vs. Canton McKinley high school football game when there was a scheduling conflict at Hartshorn Stadium, now known as Mount Union Stadium.
“They say Jim Thorpe played a football game here once,” said Streza, referring to the 1912 Olympian who later played football for the Canton Bulldogs. “There were some pretty good teams that would come through here back then. It was primitive pro football, but they came here to play and the Goat Hill guys would travel all over, too.”
Streza and his teammates, which he called the third generation of Goat Hill athletes, didn’t need big names like Jim Thorpe to draw them to the ball fields. They had guys like Larry Russell, a member of a group known as the Goat Hill Juniors, to look up to.
To Streza and his friends, Russell and his teammates were local celebrities. To Bill Koch, Russell was a living legend.
“That was a name that I would hear a lot growing up,” said Koch, noting he knew Russell in his later years. “He was a man out of his time because he was so big. Not fat, but very tall, with broad shoulders and very strong.”
Streza, who was coached by Russell and later worked with him at Alliance Manufacturing, said he once saw Russell pick up a full 55-gallon drum to move it.
“All those guys that were playing back then were good athletes,” said Streza. “But it wasn’t like it is today. They didn’t give out scholarships so they could go to school, but I’d bet if those guys were living and playing today, they’d all be Division I or close to it. Instead, their athletic abilities got them jobs in the shops because each shop and many of clubs around here had baseball teams, and softball teams and basketball teams, and they all wanted to be the best, so they’d offer these guys jobs so they could play on their team, and some of them played on two or three teams.”
Streza said he was lucky enough to have been a bat boy for some of the Goat Hill teams.
“The kids in the neighborhood would go to the baseball games and if a bat would get a crack in it or break, those guys would throw it off to the side,” said Streza. “Well, one of us kids would go and grab it up. We’d glue it back together or put screws in it. That was good enough for us.”
MAKING IT BIG
“Nobody had any money back then,” continued Streza. “We were lucky if we had a couple balls and a bat to get a game started. That’s why so many of these guys were good athletes. They had some natural ability, but all they had to do all day was play sports and so they got real good at it.”
A few even turned that honed athletic talent into professional careers. Brothers Tony King and Charlie King grew up down the street from Streza and went on to become the first brother duo to play on the same NFL team — the Buffalo Bills in 1967.
The pair had gone to Purdue, the same university as Len Dawson, who quarterbacked the Kansas City Chiefs to victory in Super Bowl IV and earned the game’s MVP award. The Hall of Famer grew up near the intersection of Webb Avenue and Summit Street and was well known on the Goat Hill field as a youth.
“Lenny used to deliver papers,” said Streza. “We’d be out playing basketball at night and he’d stop and want to play. We’d have to tell him to go deliver his papers first and then come back and play.”
John Streza, a cousin of Nick, was a minor league player for several years and a manager for eight seasons. He went on to serve as a scout for the Cubs and the Angels for 16 years.
END OF AN ERA
As times changed, the Goat Hill Athletic Club evolved into a social group that would meet at least once a month at a bar owned by Jokey Beltz on the corner of Cambridge Street and Webb Avenue. The bar was also occasionally visited by a few members of the Cleveland Indians when they had an off day, including Mike Garcia, Al Rosen and Bob Lemon, according to Streza.
“I remember eating there as a kid,” said Koch. “There were always pictures of ballplayers on the walls. Somehow Jokey got to know these guys and they’d come down every once in a while.”
And the area that was once a beloved athletic field was eventually taken over with Quonset huts — of which one still exists on Forest Avenue — for soldiers returning home from World War II in the late 1940s and then in the 1950s as the site of an elementary school which has since been torn down.
All that remains today are some memories, a few snapshots and a well-kept memorial on the corner.
“There have certainly been a lot of changes,” smiled Streza. “Us goats didn’t have a lot growing up around here, but we had good times.”