Who had area's best golfers?
That was the original idea behind the formation of this amateur league.
Editors note: The Penn-Ohio Golf league begins its 61st season April 2 at Sharon Country Club. Through the years almost every top amateur golfer in the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys particpated in this early spring league. Former league president Frank Bellino has compiled a five-part history on the league which begins today and run each Sunday until the season opener.
Part 1: The Formative Years 1946-1957
The Penn-Ohio Golf League is starting its 61st consecutive season this spring, pitting the best amateur players in Pennsylvania against their Ohio counterparts.
The league is unique in that over thirty golfers compete, without handicaps, unlike practically every other golf league in the United States.
It all began with an idea from the former Sharon Herald sports editor Johnny Pepe and New Castle News sports writer Charles "Bugs" Walthers who wanted to settle the question once and for all: Who are better, golfers from Youngstown, Warren, Sharon or New Castle?
After a series of meetings the new league was formed with Walthers voted the league's first president and Frank Bitenz the secretary. Dr. Frank "Chips" Bellino, John Lucas, Larry Carelly, Fred Palmer and Len Norcia were voted captains of Youngstown #1, Sharon, Youngstown #2, New Castle and Warren, respectively.
The following year, Walthers stepped down and Dr. Bellino became president where he served for the next twenty-one years.
At 11 am on a cool, cloudy day on May 5, 1946, the five captains teed off in the first group at Mahoning Country Club with practically the whole league watching. Thus the league was born.
By the end of the day Youngstown had taken the lead with Andy Santor capturing medallist honors with a 73 followed by "Chips" Bellino and John Miladore with 74.
It is hard to compare golf scores in the 1940's with the ones today.
The golf courses were easier but the equipment was not nearly as good. Everyone had persimmon woods, forged-blade irons and simple blade or mallet-head putters.
The golf balls didn't travel or spin the way they do today.
Most of the golf courses in the area were less than 20 years old and with the exception of Mill Creek they were wide open because of the lack of trees.
Also, most courses at the time didn't have an irrigation system; however, because the league was played in the spring, it didn't matter much.
The lineups for the five teams read like a Who's Who of local golf. Every good player in the area wanted to be on a team.
Many of the players throughout the years have since become members of various halls of fame.
Youngstown had the strongest team as they won the first five titles. Their team consisted of Bellino, Andy and Bill Santor, Joe "Ramsey" Battafrano, Jim "Zombie" Lucarell, and Steve Pipoly.
Youngstown's other team didn't lack talent either. Besides Carelly their top players were Frank Kovach, Vic Sabonis and Jim Pipoly. Warren featured long-hitting Len Norcia and Hugh Antonelli. Sharon was led by a fine player by the name of John Lucas. He was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense type who was both feared and loved by his teammates.
Sharon's number two man was the legendary Frank Bitenz, an outstanding well-respected golfer and person. Then there was New Castle that featured the Palmer family with Fred being the best of the group.
Youngstown's one-two punch consisted of "Chips", a finesse player with a great short game and Andy Santor, a strong, powerful player with the heart of a lion. Those two, Bellino and Santor teamed up to win virtually every best ball in the area over the next thirty years and they added a fierce element of competitiveness that helped raise the bar in the Penn-Ohio battles.
Following World War II, interest in golf was increasing and in an age before television, spectators would walk the course with the players much the same way they do in professional golf tournaments today.
Spectators followed play
It was not unusual to have 20 to 30 spectators at a Penn-Ohio golf match. And so it was, that first year ended with Youngstown capturing the title by a whopping 136 points. In 1947, they changed the scoring system but the results were still the same. Youngstown won again.
The streak came to an end in the league's sixth year when the Boulevard Tavern, Youngstown's number two team, squeezed out a narrow victory and emerged from the shadow of its "Big Brother", Youngstown's Jimmy Livingston Enterprises. Boulevard was led by Vince Leskosky (Leslie), an Ohio Publinx Champ and Tom Jones, an Ohio Amateur Champ along with Lou Bubola, Steve Pipoli, Norm Parucker, and Vince Phillips rounding out the team.
There was hope around the league that the reign of Jimmy Livingston's team was about to end. But it was not to be, as Livingston Enterprises won the next two years before Boulevard captured the title again in 1954.
In 1955 an unusual thing happened. Sharon's Slovenian Home snapped Youngstown's dominance by capturing the first of many titles by the narrowest score of (14-5-1) to Livingston's (13-5-2). Key players that year, besides Lucas and Bitenz were George Bebic, George Lucas, Rich Savko, Alex Chroback and a talented young player by the name of Ed Seginak.
The next two years Livingston's won again but in 1957 it was against three teams, instead of four, as the Boulevard dropped out of the league.