I can only testify to the Mendocino ball players I saw play or played with and against. Being from a sports oriented city like Fort Bragg (nothing to do for a male except fish, sports or chase girls), I can relate to many legends I’ve heard of through my long sojourn growing up in Fort Bragg or “Mendocino Beach,” whatever you want to rename it this year. I liked that nickname for Mendocino around my high school days in the 60s and 70s: we raced cars, trucks, etc. (quasi-sports) but that got boring so we called our township “Fort Drag.”
Back to the legends. In 2001 Fort Bragg had its first All-American in my uncle Charlie Mehtlan. He was a basketball star like Eugene Waggoner of Boonville, and Charlie was also a side-winding Cy Young style hurler. He also led the county in duckhunting every year. Then in the 1930s my father and the Pavoni brothers with my other uncle, the stalwart John ‘Brick’ Cernac, may he let it rest in peace at 101! He was a great four-sport star and could probably drink more vino than me and speak better Roman lingo. Brick was a Fort Bragg Logger star drafted by the San Francisco Seals who spent much of his baseball career playing all over the country for the United States Army. I loved sitting with him at senior lunch recounting Fort Bragg’s Golden years of sports in the 1930s to the 1950s. He knew all about my “wannabe teams” of the 60s and 70s as well.
I wasn’t around in the fabulous 40s with football stars like Hank Hurtmeyer, Chief Bud Richards and baseball hurlers like Bob Bartolini and Fred Hurtmeyer. Of course Fred’s cousin and Navy hero Ron ‘Wiki Monson who went on to a pro bowling career. Me and Tommy Hurtmeyer (football star of the 60s and 70s) once watched Wiki bowl a 299 game in a tournament at the old Noyo Bowl. One wobbly pin kept uncle Wiki out of the record book. He just threw his hands up in the air as if to say, “Oh well — it is what it is.” I’d have probably cried like I’m doing now.
Let’s now turn to two of our most glorious stars from the early 50s. Two more chiefs, in fact: Chief Bob Celeri and Chief Vern Piver. Celeri was blond and full blood northern Roman. How the back alley by the Company Store got named Chief Celeri Street is a Fort Bragg Mystery. (One of many: like how did the Mendoza House on Franklin Street become haunted?)
Chief Celeri was an All-American quarterback at Cal then went on to a fine Canadian football league career. He returned to the United States in around 1972 to coach the backfield of the O.J. Simpson-lead Buffalo Bills.
I played with and against Vern Piver in his twilight years. I also logged with him and he was a #1 timber faller. He refereed and coached many a basketball game and also coached Little League and Fort Bragg high school varsity baseball when his son Tony, a late 70s All-Star himself, was playing. Vern Piver and I played a lot of sandlot basketball at the old Recreation Center in Fort Bragg. He was a fair shot and great rebounder since we didn’t call fouls in that “league.” Vern would usually out hack me maybe 20-5 per game. He was like a panther going for the ball! My one claim to fame was finally getting to pitch against the legend that was Vern Piver. He was great enough to win a couple minor-league batting titles and was on his way to starting on that 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates World Series championship team when a broken leg derailed his pro-career. Those were the days when we had to log in the off season. So in my one pitching glory is that I can say an old time Piver never got a hit off me! Not in the 60s, not in the 70s or later.
PS. If you don’t believe the Mendoza House is haunted just tiptoe behind it at 5 AM. The laundry room light goes on, the washing machine starts all by itself and an invisible person is there for about half an hour. Then the lights go out again!
I must apologize a bit as the last part of the story pertaining to Fort Bragg All-Stars. As you know, Mendocino County has had many others stars around each bend like the Heaths from Ukiah and Waggoners from Anderson Valley. But it’s hard to remember many old-timers not out of Fort Bragg High School. My dad (David B. Giusto) had a rival at Mendocino High in football and track ace Ed “Coyote” Silvera. I had the honor of playing my entire school career with Ed’s boy Randy who tragically died our senior year in a hunting accident. Randy was all league in three sports with a full ride to Chico State when his glorious but short life ended. Anyway, “Coyote Ed” and dad marched together three years running to compete in the California track and field finals at UC Davis. Each year one or both brought home the trophy in the half mile and mile races for Mendoland!
In the last story I omitted a real unsung hero from the 1940s in arguably Fort Bragg’s greatest baseball coach and firemen ever in Victor Romeri. I believe he graduated with my mom and went straight to World War II. He was a D-Day hero at age 18, parachuting behind enemy lines in France in June of 1944. They led my freshman team to the County title. Our last win was a score of 23-2. And the teams we played were stacked with All-Stars. That’s how good a coach Vic was. But he never talked of World War II! Also I omitted our other baseball guru from those “thrilling 30s” in Charles Ballasi who was on his way to the Yankees when World War II basically ended his career. Charlie knew more about baseball (standings, statistics, etc.) than any man I ever met. He could scout a pro prospect at grammar school! He played a lot of shortstop for Pocatello in the Pioneer League. He was next in line to the fabled Yankee infielders like Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon, Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti and Red Rolfe. If it wasn’t for World War II Charlie would had been in the same lineup with Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.
The last story left off with Fort Bragg sports in the fabulous 50s. I forgot for a minute early 50s football great Bruno Cortapassi of Fort Bragg storied B&C Market teams. Bruno some might remember as having a mean lineman glare. He turned that into a full ride scholarship to San Jose State. Fort Bragg also had baseball stars David Mehtlan and L. Weller. Also through the 50s there were three sports stars such as Rudy Alfaro, Butch Piver (later another famous Tiger coach), Gary Dunsing, Billy Potter, and towards the end of the 50s Fort Bragg had future Fort Bragg logger pitching great Ron Souza (who taught me how to chew tobacco!) and Logger coach and Fort Bragg high school football great Bob “Sonny” Richards who actually played in the high school all-star game and was my first Pop Warner coach.
Also in the late 50s I surmise Mendocino had my logging boss Philbrick on their varsity. He allegedly was still playing semi pro football at age 70! The great Jim Thorpe or still giving “kicking exhibitions” in his 70s -- maybe Jerry “Thorpe” Philbrick did it too!
Now we come to my real sports era of the 60s. It wasn’t all hippie beads and LSD. We did get stuck in junior high during the Vietnam war as well as during Khrushchev and his Russian A-bomb scare. But sports seemed to relieve our young brains of these travesties. The early 60s brought in the Brothers Johnson: Mike, Archie and Russell and a new Piver called Timmy. Mike Dunsing had a full ride in three sports scholarship to Humboldt State where he turned himself into a lifetime high school coach.
Fort Bragg High School also had another Mike surnamed Gummerus who in his 1956 senior year averaged about 32 points per game. Just a few points off of what Anderson Valley’s Eugene Waggonner averaged in his four-year high school career before he won a scholarship to Missouri. Gene Waggonner was the best high school basketball player I ever witnessed or played against. The one game I guarded him he was held to about 32 points. I figured I’d done my job keeping him under 40 points!
During the 60s we also had Billy Thurman, Ray Petersen, and my neighbor pal Chris Huber who all also went to Humboldt on basketball scholarships. Chris spent his life, like Dunsing, coaching high school basketball. Thurman ended up a guitarist in Europe and maybe somebody could bring us up to date about the whereabouts of three-sport all California fireballer Ray Petersen. His dad Ray Sr. played pro football and also coached us at the Pop Warner level.
The greatest high school baseball game I ever saw was pitched by Ray Jr. versus three sport all-California Wilburn Hoaglin from Willits High School. They both pitched one hitters in Willits. Fort Bragg’s only hit, a Petersen triple that won the game in extra innings for Fort Bragg.
Willits High in the 60s had two other three sports stars in another pitching ace, Rod Dockins (the second best I ever batted against) and Albert “Butch” Canepa who was originally born in Fort Bragg and studied at UCLA and became a doctor.
You know, in my arena, tennis was kind of considered a sissy or girl’s sport. But believe it or not Chris Piver and Big Jim Brett (from Nello’s Market) and I were tennis stars in high school. Big Jim also starred in track and field as a discus and shotput man. I went on to be the youngest (age 21) player-coach in Fort Bragg city league history. My team was the Coast Hotel Eagles. We did not win many games, but our sponsor old Smokey Ferreira sprang for enough beers to keep our energy level up. We just were a 5-7 man team playing against Waggoner and other ten-man all-star teams!
I have to include the greatest high school varsity basketball game I ever saw played in Fort Bragg’s new gym around 1966. Norman ‘Timmy’ Piver had been a three sport star two years at Fort Bragg high school. However he played his final two seasons with Ukiah High School. When the Ukiah Wildcats came to play our Fort Bragg Timberwolves that year we had a great team. Besides Gummerus we had three sport star and baseball great Jeff Ales, my cousin Alan Urbani, Dave Botsford, and rounding out that fabulous five, my future Lumberjack pal Don Klick. Was that ever the team. The Timmy Piver led Wildcats came to Fort Bragg to beat us in our own new gym. Wrong, Jess Ales scored the winning layup over Piver at the buzzer. Fort Bragg fans went into pandemonium. That game was never more than one or two points different the entire fourth quarter! It was a real two-man show between ex-teammate Piver and Ales. Fate would have it that Jess got the last “dunk” in. And he might have played pro football and Jess was headed to the San Francisco Giants when they both got drafted to Vietnam. That kind of ended their sports payday, but they remain to be the best friends a younger athlete like me could have had. They were always smiles with a “let’s play two” demeanor.
As for Fort Bragg coaches I can only remember the really great ones of my era: Jim Babcock, Jim McCluskey and George Anloe. My dad and his pals talked a lot of coach Andy Anderson and Detroit Tigers ballplayer Pop Marshall who ran the Loggers and the boxing shows. Boxing was quite popular in the 30s with my dad fighting to a 50-1 record in Golden gloves (before they were golden). Nicknamed “Whirlwind Giusti,” he lost his 51st fight and then hung up his gloves. My dad was a smart guy. If you lose your 51st fight who’s to say you might lose all the rest?! There was also my old Yuki pal from Laytonville: World War II Army hero Lt. Douglas Ray. He fought professionally after the war. Two of his opponents were Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta. Laytonville was a quasi-sports mecca also in the 30s to the 50s.
I heard once the Fort Bragg Loggers with my brother John Giusti pitched an 18 inning game against the Laytonville led pitcher Lilburn Hoaglin again. Both those turkeys might still play a bit of semi-pro in their 60s! I once saw Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee pitch three innings of hitless semi pro ball at age 63. I think he lined a base hit too. Remember Bill from the 1975 Boston Red Sox? He and I had a good old gab session because I had just read why he got traded from the Sox to Montreal in the late 1970s. He had called his manager Don Zimmer a “gerbel” for not picking him to start a world series game. Bill also told me about the USC College team he played on. Their lineup was stuffed with future pro stars Dave Kingman, Fred Lynn, and Frank Duffy!
Anyway, Laytonville produced other pro baseballers in Dolph and Douglas (named after Yuki boxer Douglas Ray) Camilli, who played for Brooklyn and LA Dodgers. Dolph Camilli was Brooklyn’s National League MVP in 1941. Doug played on Dodger world champ teams of 1959 in 1963 (caught a Koufax no-hitter) until he was traded to Washington. Pittsburgh Pirate Star Arky Vaughan was a Camelli Ranch neighbor. Also former American League stars Ferris Fain and Don Mossi resided in Mendocino County.
Now about some of the boys around my age that I seemed to play some sort of ball with nearly every day in Fort Bragg sharpening our athletic skills. There were the basketball and baseball star Peloza brothers, Mike and John. Three sports stars Roy and John Perkins, Anthony Piver and Larry Potter. But my class of 1972 was stocked. We had future college football and MVP and home run hitter David Pavioni. Three sport star than Tom Heitmeier, Gary Margison, Gary Romeri, Kenneth Richards and ill-fated Randy Silveira. Margison went on to play college ball at Santa Rosa with Ukiah high football great Alan Martinelli.
The best pitcher I ever faced was my other cousin born in Finland, Eric Mehtlin. He was another three sport star that probably could have made the Giants. He had a knuckleball that was unhittable. He once pitched against future giant Bob Knepper in a Healdsburg tournament. Cousin David Mehtlan once batted against Dodger pitcher Joe Moeller who was traded that time with Camilli.
The best footballer I’ve played with was David Pavioni, and of course my dad would say his greatest teammate was David’s dad Billy Pavioni who named his boy after my dad. That’s how there came to be three Davids. As for the greatest baseballer of my time it was Jason Jacomella who I coached for one season. However, he quit playing ball at age 15 to devote his time to salmon fishing where he was tragically lost at sea. He was so great at baseball (nobody could strike him out and he could play “Golden Glove” at any position), I figure he quit because it was no longer challenging to him. My other great teammate Tom Heitmeier probably was the Buster Posey of our age. He could have been a Giant catcher. He was five-tool, but also quit at age 15 to pursue some “Jim Thorpe Olympic fantasy” in track and field. As an all-league footballer he had injured his knee which dampened his track career. He should have stayed with baseball and could have Gabe Kapler’s job today. Of course he would need me as bench coach to supply him with baseball knowledge and hamburgers.
I have been too long-winded already so to my Mendo legends I can only say bye-bye baby.
PS. Willie Mays is the best and most exciting baseball player I ever saw. If he had played in the same stadiums Ruth and Aaron played in his whole career he would have had the world’s most home runs surpassing Barry Bonds and Japan’s Sadahura Oh. Juan Marichal is the best scuba diver I ever saw, not to mention his great pitching career.