1st World Champions from Ohio remember their title in 1981
By Dave Gorgon
Special to The News-Herald
Ray Bagdassarian still smiles every time he sees the photo of his Boardman, Ohio, team of 13-year-old baseball players who won the first Junior League World Series in 1981 in Taylor.
The photo, on the mantle of his basement fireplace, contains fond memories for Bagdassarian, who managed the team of 13 all-stars, including his son, Ray Jr.
“That was the best time of my life – believe me,” said Bagdassarian, now 67. “That team just couldn’t do anything wrong. That was something. That was something.”
Boardman – the Ohio state champions and USA Central regional champions – arrived in Taylor and went undefeated to win the world title. John Kish pitched two victories, batted .500 and hit two home runs. Teammate Angelo Bianco earned a victory on a three-hitter and hit a homer.
When the boys and coaches returned to Boardman, they were given a parade. Their world championship was front page news in nearby Youngstown, dwarfing a story on a Cleveland Browns game.
The Junior League World Series was founded in Taylor and never left. It’s the big brother of the Little League World Series for 12-year-old players held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
When the World Series started in 1981, it featured four regional champions from the United States. In August, when the series is played for the 25th straight year in Taylor, it will include the 10 best teams from around the world – five champions from foreign countries and five regional champions from the United States.
In 1999, the tournament expanded from 13-year-olds only to include 14-year-olds, a move that more nations to compete with junior level teams.
“A lot has changed” since Boardman won in 1981, said Greg Bzura, the founder and volunteer director since the series’ inception. World Series Field in Heritage Park has expanded several times. The City of Taylor has made improvements to give it more of a stadium feeling. The clubhouse/press box has grown several times. Once, on May 20, 1988, the facility had to be rebuilt from scratch after it burned down during a devastating fire just 93 days before the start of the series. That year has been marked with a historical monument at the site called “A Little League Miracle.”
Bzura will be on hand to greet Bagdassarian and other alumni who make the trip to witness the 25th annual tournament – scheduled for August 14-20, with opening ceremonies set for August 13.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Bzura, who is a Taylor councilman. “I still remember Boardman’s theme song: ‘All the Gold in California.’”
Bagdassarian, who has not been to Taylor in 15 years, said he was not even coaching at the start of the 1981 season and was a last-minute add-on as manager of Boardman’s brand new 13-year-old all-stars. Other potential managers had sons on other all-star teams, so they didn’t want to coach the Junior League team. Bagdassarian said it took five phone calls to convince him to take the reigns of the team.”
In the beginning, “I was thinking we’d win a couple games,” Bagdassarian said.
Instead, the Boardman all-stars won and won and won.
“We went to Cambridge, Ohio, for the sectional tournament and we beat the previous year’s state champs, 13-0 and 16-4,” Bagdassarian said. “I’m driving back and telling my coach (Ed Moore), ‘Uh oh, what the hell do we have here? What is going on here?’”
With seven starting pitchers that were “tough and athletic,” Boardman had an arm up on the competition. In the regional tournament in Indiana, Boardman hit six home runs. The team won 15 straight games and qualified for a spot in the World Series. A lineman with the electric company at the time, Bagdassarian said he ran out of vacation time.
In the first World Series, Boardman defeated USA Western Region champion Bassett, California, 6-2, and then took two games from USA Southern Region champ Richmond, Virginia, 6-1 and 4-0. Bagdassarian predicted Kish would throw a shutout in the championship game. He said the team had so much “heart.”
Perhaps as important as winning the world championship was how well the team was treated during its stay in Taylor, Bagdassarian said.
“Greg and that gang were the best,” he said. “They were the best people I ever ran into in all my coaching years.”
The world championship made the Boardman team “the toast of the town,” their manager said. The fire truck-led parade to celebrate the championship traveled into the ballpark, where Bagdassarian was called upon to make a speech.
“I told them ‘There may not have been a team from Taiwan, but there were teams from California, Virginia and New Jersey and I tell you what, this team here would have taken on any of them. No Taiwan would have beaten this team.’”
Over the years, Bagdassarian returned a couple times to Taylor, serving once as a “grand marshal” of the parade of champions during opening ceremonies. Twenty years after the team won the first World Series in Taylor, the Boardman team got together for a reunion. All but four of the boys who played were in attendance.
“That was nice,” Bagdassarian said. “They gave me that World Series banner that hung over the field all those years. They said, ‘Take it with you.’”
Bagdassarian coached high school baseball and went to a variety of clinics, admitting that he learned a lot more about baseball after he managed the world champions. Five years ago, he retired from the electric company.
Boardman players excelled in baseball and went into a variety of fields. Ray Bagdassarian Jr., who played third base and pitched on the world championship team, and teammate Jeff Pregi now work for Motech. Lou Chiaro, another of the team’s mainstays, is a chiropractic doctor. Bob Slafka owns a glass block business. Mark “Bo” Pelini went on to become an outstanding football player and coach.
Last year, Bagdassarian said, he watched the World Series championship game on ESPN2. He said he saw Bzura standing by a fence.
“It got me thinking about it,” Bagdassarian said. “I wanted to write to him.”
Instead, he will make the 4½-hour trip from Boardman to Taylor.
“I can’t believe it’s been that long,” he said. “I’ll tell you those are the best people I ever ran into in my life. This is the 25th. I’ve gotta come.”
Highlights, history and photos of past World Series appear on the City of Taylor’s web site, www.cityoftaylor.com/worldseries. Inquiries about the World Series can be directed to (734) 287-8836, (734) 374-1447 or TaylorNews@aol.com.