The summer of 1968 has long been remembered as a turbulent and tumultuous time.
For a brotherly band of teenagers from the Morgantown area, however, those three months encompassed a stretch they have fondly recalled for the past half-century.
Fifty years ago, the Morgantown Colonels American Legion baseball team brought home the prestigious Berks League championship in a memorable 28-9 campaign that saw them finish third in the state.
On Sunday, Aug. 12, a 50th-anniversary reunion of the squad will be held with a picnic lunch at the Colonel Jacob Morgan Post 537, from noon to 5 p.m.
“The thing I remember most about them was that they were a complete team,” said Marty Hassler, the squad’s manager. “They were always helping each other, and it wasn’t about individual things. They always wanted to help one another, whether it was at the plate, on the field or on the bench. It was unbelievable how they got along with each other, like brother playing with brother.”
Morgantown was composed mainly of players from the mid-to-late ‘60s Twin Valley high school squads that were perennial Berks League playoff contenders during the spring.
Right-handers Lenny Smith and Mike Neatock doubled as pitcher-outfielders, with Tom Bachman handling the catching duties.
Shortstop Dave Stanley spearheaded an infield that also included first baseman Bunky White, second baseman Kenny Jackson and third baseman Jim Cook.
Centerfielder Donny Means was a huge asset whether in the field or at the plate — where he hit leadoff and set the offensive tone.
“He was the one,” Hassler said. “If he got on base, nine times out of 10 we’d wind up with at least one run that inning.”
But the Colonels’ ace in the hole was pitcher/outfielder Don Strock, a flame-throwing righty who would later go on to play quarterback in the National Football League for 16 seasons.
Strock attended Owen J. Roberts and basically lived right over the Twin Valley boundary in what is now Norchester territory, but was granted a release by Legion officials, along with Twin Valley High’s other players who lived in Chester County. Strock — who had previously played summer and playground ball with most of the Morgantown players — proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle to help the Colonels get over the top in the traditionally tough Berks Legion League.
“He could really fire the ball,” Hassler recalled. “He was just a natural.”
Outfielders Joe Voelker and Jim Speicher and infielder Jim Martin provided bench depth, along with Jim Geiger, Dean McConaghay, Harold Jackson and Charlie Byler to round out the 16-player roster, with Don Holland serving as Hassler’s assistant.
* * *Heading into the ‘68 season, the Colonels hadn’t exactly proven themselves to be a contender on the Legion front — having won just 18 of their 83 league games over the previous five years.
But with Twin Valley’s high school team having won the Berks League’s Southern Division that spring, there were plenty of reasons for optimism with the addition of Strock and college holdovers Means (who played at Albright) and Cook.
“We had a pretty stacked team,” Neatock said. “And Strock was definitely an ace. You add an ace like that, just like in the majors, it’s going to make a difference.”
Competing in the Berks Legion League’s six-team Southern Division, Morgantown opened the season with a 12-6 win over neighboring rival Birdsboro en route to a 5-0 start. When White hit a dramatic go-ahead two-run homer off Kutztown ace Randy Miller (who had helped Fleetwood to the county high school championship a week before) in the season’s third game (a 5-4 win), it signaled the Colonels would be a force to be reckoned with.
“A lot of guys in that era played baseball or some other type of ball religiously,” said Means, who led the county in hits, runs and stolen bases and was named the Berks League’s outstanding player. “If it wasn’t baseball, it was softball. If it wasn’t softball, it was wiffle ball. Back then, baseball was king and we played some form of it all summer long.
“We were really a good team fundamentally, and that was a tribute to all of our coaching from the time we started playing. We didn’t give away runs on defense, and we ran the bases well.”
Morgantown wound up cruising to the Southern Division crown with a 16-4 league record.
“Foremost, that team could hit,” recalled Ed Williamson, a county all-star outfielder for Shillington in ‘68 who would later coach the Governor Mifflin high school team to 272 wins and three Berks titles in a 21-year tenure. “One through nine there were no easy outs, but obviously that team could pitch and play defense too. I do remember Strock: he threw over the top with plus velocity and was tough to hit because of the downward angle of his fastball.”
In the four-team Berks playoffs, the Colonels outlasted North runner-up Kutztown in a best-of-three semifinal series.
Morgantown took the opener 3-2 in 10 innings at home when Stanley’s bomb over the buildings in right field plated Voelker with the winning run as Strock went the distance.
After falling 4-0 in Game 2 at Kutztown, the Colonels broke open a 1-0 lead with a four-run seventh in Game 3 on the way to a 5-2 win that earned them a berth in the championship round. Means had a two-run single, Bachman had an RBI triple and Stanley delivered a sacrifice fly in the big inning, and Strock struck out seven to get the win.
In the best-of-three Berks championship series, Morgantown swept traditional power Gregg Post in two straight games.
First, the Colonels racked up 13 hits off highly regarded Keys ace Jim Conroy in a 4-1 Game 1 win highlighted by Smith’s 3-for-5 effort and Strock’s 11-strikeout, five-hitter.
Then they clinched the title as Neatock — featuring a high-leg kick, 12-to-6 curve and the occasional sidearm delivery — didn’t allow an earned run over 8.1 innings in a 7-1 victory. Strock went 3-for-4 with three RBI as the Colonels broke open a one-run lead with two runs in the fourth and three more in the seventh.
* * *From there, it was off to the best-of-three sectional semifinals. The Colonels came out strong in a 10-0 rout of St. Thomas highlighted by Strock’s one-hitter with 13 strikeouts. Neatock went 4-for-4 with a home run and four runs scored and Means was 3-for-4 with a double, two runs and two RBI.
After falling 5-3 in Game 2, Morgantown came up clutch in the rubber match, as Cook’s tie-breaking two-run single in the top of the ninth gave the Colonels a 4-2 victory. Neatock struck out nine on a six-hitter and Strock was 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly.
Then came the best-of-three Section 3 finals against Northeastern, whose star player was future Philadelphia Phillie Gregg Gross. The Colonels earned a two-game sweep by showcasing the quality and quantity of their pitching staff.
In the opener, Strock struck out seven on a six-hitter and also went 3-for-4 with one run in a 3-1 victory.
Then in Game 2, Smith had his signature knuckleball dancing — firing seven innings of six-hit shutout ball — before Strock escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the ninth to nail down a 2-0 victory in which Cook was 2-for-4 with one RBI.
“The thing about that team is that everybody got along, and everybody could play,” Smith said. “We enjoyed it; we had fun. But we wanted to win, and there was no quit in us.”
That never-say-die attitude was apparent in the Pennsylvania Eastern tournament at Coplay, which the Colonels opened by rallying from four runs down in the seventh for a 9-6 victory over West Chester. Strock struck out 10 on a complete-game effort and Stanley was 3-for-4 with two runs for Morgantown.
Morgantown then showed its grit in what wound up a stretch of four games in less than 32 hours.
Tied with Coplay in the second round with threatening weather approaching, the game wound up having to be replayed. After falling 12-1 to Coplay in the “replay,” the Colonels found themselves down 6-2 before storming back for a 7-6 victory over Schuylkill Haven to earn a spot in the eight-team state tourney.
Smith tossed five innings of six strikeout, two-hit shutout relief and Cook had the go-ahead RBI single in the top of the ninth.
* * *Morgantown opened the state tournament (also at Coplay) by defeating Pittsburgh Hazlewood 6-2 in the opener, with Strock striking out 11 on a six-hitter and Smith going 3-for-4 with two RBI.
The Colonels fell to the losers bracket after an 11-3 loss to Fallsington in their second game. Then they trailed Towanda 3-0 after a half-inning before their lineup broke loose in an 13-7 victory highlighted by White (3-for-5, three RBI, two triples) and Stanley (3-for-4, three RBI).
But with Morgantown running low on pitching, Coplay broke open a 2-1 lead with a four-run fifth and pulled away for a 9-1 victory that ended the Colonels’ season at 28-9.
Fallsington wound up beating Coplay 2-1 for the state championship.
* * *A good chunk of the ‘68 Colonels squad wound up remaining in the area. Smith would marry Lana Hassler (Marty’s daughter and the team’s batgirl), who became one of the best female athletes in Twin Valley history. Their son Brad was a star pitcher on Twin Valley’s 2009 District 3-AAA champion team and the Raiders’ 2010 PIAA semifinalist squad.
Means’ son Scott also was a stalwart for the Twin Valley and Birdsboro Legion squads in the early ‘90s.
Neatock taught and coached for the better part of three decades in the Twin Valley district, and Hassler (also the Raiders baseball coach at the time) wound up being a longtime athletic director for the Raiders and coached their 1977 softball team to the state title.
Strock would matriculate to Virginia Tech before embarking on an NFL career that included 14 years with the Miami Dolphins and one-year stops at Cleveland and Indianapolis from 1974-1989. He is perhaps best remembered for his performance in one of the greatest games of NFL history, rallying the Dolphins from a 24-0 deficit before they fell 41-38 in overtime to the San Diego Chargers in an epic January, 1981 divisional playoff. Strock, who would later go on to be head coach at Florida International University from 2004-06, resides in Florida.
“The amazing thing is that it’s been 50 years, but there are only two guys from our team photo that aren’t with us anymore: business manager Harry Shirk and Dave Stanley,” Hassler said.
“It was just a great year,” Means said. “Probably the best year of my life.”
One that still resonates strongly for the Colonels some five decades later.