Take me out to the ball game
If there were a competition for the world’s greatest sports fan, Joe Gross of Sharpsville would be a major candidate. He recently celebrated his 100th birthday by reminiscing with his family about his love of sports and the events he has witnessed during his lifetime.
Joe was born on March 25, 1906, on Wallace Avenue in Farrell. When he was about nine years old, a severe infection spread from a tooth into his jaw. The doctors told his mother that if he didn’t have surgery immediately, he could die. His family didn’t have any transportation, so his mother balked at the idea of walking to Buhl Hospital. She convinced the doctors to do the operation in her home.
The doctors put Joe on the kitchen table and dripped ether down his throat. They removed part of his jaw and sewed him back up from ear to ear. Amazingly, he recovered completely, but with severe scars on his face.
“When I went back to school, the kids were always hanging around me wanting to know what was wrong with my face,” he said.
After eighth grade, Joe refused to go to high school because of the way the other kids kept bothering him. He spent some of his time hanging around the Messina Produce Company to learn whatever he could. When he was 15 and still to young to work, he fibbed about his age so he could get a job at the tin mill in Farrell. He worked there until it closed down. He had various other jobs until he got hired as a stock room manager by GC Murphy. He worked his way up the ladder to become store manager. He continued with GC Murphy until he retired.
Even though he didn’t go to high school, Joe became one of Farrell High School’s biggest sports fans.
“I became interested in sports in 1920 when I saw Farrell High play in the old chicken coop,” he said. “I call it the chicken coop because they had chicken wire fencing around the floor.”
When the new gym was built about 1939, he picked out his seat before the building was completed. He bought a season ticket, and renewed it every year for more than 60 years. He rarely missed a Farrell basketball game in all those years, and still attends several each year – for free. After giving so much support for so many years, he goes as a guest of Farrell High School.
Joe’s interest in sports went far beyond high school basketball. In 1922, when he was just 16, he organized and managed an independent basketball team called the Murdoch A.C. Within a couple of years he organized several more basketball teams, including a Class A team, the Farrell Merchants.
“We won the Class A Championship in 1925-26 by defeating a tough Buhl Club team,” he said.
He also worked with his brother Marion in the formation of independent baseball and football teams. They played teams like the Youngstown Eagles and Jenning Billiards from Niles, Ohio.
On May 18, 1927, Joe married Lucille Zappa, then honeymooned in New York City. They lived on Fruit Street in Farrell, next to St. Ann’s Church, for about 20 years. Lucy was a cook for a while at the Villa Nova Italian Restaurant, and worked at Kay’s Gift Shop in the Hickory Plaza. Joe and Lucy had two sons, Peter in 1930 and Ben in 1932, and one daughter, Elizabeth (Cookie) Davis in 1940.
After getting married, Joe turned from being active in sports organization to just being a fan. But what a sports fan! His memories include some of the greatest events in sports, from high school level to the pros.
He was present on December 28, 1954, for possibly the most famous Farrell High School game ever. Wilt Chamberlain’s Overbrook High School team was invited to the Farrell Lions Club Christmas Tournament. Chamberlain scored 33 points, but Farrell won, 59-58. The game ended Overbrook’s 26 game winning streak. It was Farrell’s 76th consecutive home victory. The game is listed by the Pennsylvania Basketball Hall of Fame as one of the most memorable in the history of Pennsylvania basketball.
Years later, ESPN wanted to talk with someone who had been at that game. Joe Gross got the honor, and was interviewed on air.
Joe was also a huge fan of major league sports. He attended baseball games in Forbes Field, Three Rivers, the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Griffith Stadium in Washington, and Municipal Stadium and League Park in Cleveland.
In 1927 Joe was at the game in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field when Chicago Cubs shortstop Jim Cooney caught a line drive, stepped on second before the runner could return, and tagged the man coming from first base – one of only twelve unassisted triple plays in the history of major league baseball.
He saw Babe Ruth play in the Elks Field in Masury, Ohio.
“In a museum in Baltimore, I saw the bed where Babe Ruth was born,” he said
He was in Washington’s Griffith Stadium in 1941 when the New York Yankees played a double header against the Washington Senators. In the first game, Joe DiMaggio tied the record for the longest hitting streak. In the second game he broke the record. His streak ended 18 days later after 56 games. It is considered by many to be the only unbeatable record in baseball.
In 1956, Joe was in Cleveland when they honored Bob Feller for 20 years with the Indians. He saw Roberto Clemente play four games of the 1971 World Series, when the Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles to become world champions. Clemente was killed in a plane crash 16 months later.
He has seen nearly all of the major league baseball teams, and many of the greatest baseball players. Besides Ruth, DiMaggio, Clemente, and Feller, he has watched Mel Ott, Whitey Ford, Brooks Robinson, Lou Gherig – in fact, too many to list. He met major league catcher and broadcaster Joe Garagiola and got his autograph.
From the time Joe and his family moved to Sharpsville in the late 1980s, they were active members of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. He was honored as Man of the Year at the Father-Son Communion Breakfast about 2000. For many years, Joe was Head Usher. He still holds that title, although he has given up the actual role.
In June, 1994, Joe and Lucy received a papal blessing from Pope John Paul II on the occasion of their 65 wedding anniversary. Lucy passed away the next year, in June of 1995.
With his passion for sports, Joe Gross has to be one of the greatest fans of the 20th century.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007