The AL Franchise
There was euphoria in Logan on Saturday night as the Helper American Legion team of 2013 won a state championship outright, running the gamut in the losers bracket and coming back to win two games against Cyprus to take the title.
That same euphoria swept a field a little farther south in 1943, for a team with the same name. That year, on their home field, Helper's American Legion team won a state title against Box Elder. The two victories took place in exactly the same week of August, just 70 years apart.
However things were very different then. It was the middle of World War II and baseball was an escape for many from relentless days of worry, fear, rationing and sacrifice as the country fought its way back into the war against the Axis powers.
Yet that summer, a group of boys, almost all of which everyone knew would be bound for the military very soon, at least one of which would see combat in Europe, took the vision of their coach George Pizza and ran with it.
Seventy years is a long time, and five of the nine players who played in that game are now gone. Catcher Lamar Hansen, pitcher Max Pessetto and all the outfielders on the team, Robert Ramsey, Tony Tonc and Joe Rolando have passed away.
Still on the scene are third baseman Tom Migliaccio, shortstop Ken (Red) Dimick, second baseman Arden Aplanap and first baseman Walt Borla.
Helper's American Legion trek began in 1930 and there has been a team with that same name ever since. The 1943 team was the culmination of two other championships in the same decade, one in 1940 as well as in the following year, 1941. In 1942 they made it to the final game but were narrowly defeated by Bingham for the state title.
In those years the tournament was not held in one town, but the games were held on the fields where the teams regularly played. That is why the final championship game in 1943 was in Helper. And interestingly enough, the two earlier championship years final games were also against Box Elder.
In those days of no internet and no television, people listened to the big league games on the radio. News about the local teams were given out by the newspapers in the area and the one local radio station. The papers those weeks were alive with information about a team that would eventually carry the Helper name to Denver to play a team from Nebraska in the regionals.
The game that brought them to the state finals in 1943 was against an old nemesis: Bingham, the team that had defeated them for the championship the year before. In that game Pizza made a lineup change that was somewhat controversial at the time. He took out LeGrande Jones and inserted Walt Borla in his place. As the sports writer for the Sun Advocate put it in his column the next week "...Borla, who had never played the position...played the initial sack like a veteran."
When LaMar Hansen, the first string catcher was injured during the game, the writer went on to say that "...little Jackie Busato took over where he (Hansen) left off. He, with Borla, were the stars of the contest."
The score in that semi-final game was 12 to 5.
"There was a kid on that 1942 team named Jimmy Brown that years later I got to be good friends with," said Borla in an interview on Tuesday. "He was always on Pessetto throughout the game that year. When we lost I told him that we would get him back for that. When we beat them in the semi-finals in '43 I reminded him of that. He didn't say a thing and just walked off the field."
After cleaning up Bingham the team was ready for Box Elder. They beat the team from the northern part of the state 8-6 to claim the title.
The game started out with Helper pounding out five runs by the second inning. Two of those came on an error by Box Elder. It looked good for the Helper team, but in the fifth inning the kids from Brigham City staged a fifth inning rally and tied it up.
But the close of the game was summed up well by the sports writer for the Helper Journal the next week.
"Those title-bound Helper kids just wouldn't be beaten for they went to work in their half of the sixth and pushed across a pair of runs to again take the lead."
Helper's final score came in the eighth inning after Pessetto singled, stole second and scored when Box Elders right fielder dropped a fly ball hit by Ramsey.
With that it was over, Helper owned the state championship and Pessetto got the Otto Wiesley "All-Around Player" award for his pitching and leadership.
The next week, apparently to keep fresh, the team played an exhibition game against Provo. They beat that team 6-5 despite the fact that Provo brought along some older kids that were well seasoned and had played legion ball for many years.
So then it was off to Denver for a game on Saturday, August 14 against a team from Omaha.
"What a time we had on that trip," said Borla. "They put us on a train to Denver about midnight and told us to go to sleep in the sleeper cars. No one could sleep. When the train pulled into Green River we all jumped out thinking it was Grand Junction. We were just so excited."
Instead of going over the pass the train took the south route through Salida and Canyon City.
"They stopped the train under the Royal Gorge Bridge and we all got out and looked at it," said Borla. "It was really something."
They also stopped near an Army training camp just outside of Leadville and a bunch of soldiers jumped on the train and hung on to the outside of it.
"I guess they were going to have a good time in Leadville," said Borla.
The train didn't arrive in Denver until 9 p.m. the night after they left. Officials put them up in a big hotel.
In that same tournament were teams from Colorado and Oklahoma as well.
"We played the game at the Old Merchants Park," said Borla. "Before the game began they introduced each of us and our counterparts over the sound system. So since I was playing first base I went out onto the field. The first baseman from the Omaha team stood there and I looked at him. He was 6'2" or 6'3" and I wondered to myself 'What the hell am I doing here?'"
The Omaha team was a good team and they beat Helper 13-1, ending the Carbon kids hope to move on in the tournament.
The Omaha team capitalized on six errors by Helper and then bunched up 12 hits to beat the Utah champions. Most of the damage took place in the first inning after which Helper settled down and held the mid-west team to only one more run during the rest of the game. That run came in the seventh inning.
When the team returned home the next Tuesday they were greeted by a crowd who assured them that they were still champions in the minds and hearts of Carbon County.
It was a bright spot in a year where American began to turn the tide of the war against the enemy, but still weren't out of the woods.