"I still go back to Martins Ferry for class reunions, but it's different now. When we were growing up, the steel mills were busy and the economy was good. It was an accepted thing to work in the mills. Everyone did. Now, it all seems so depressed there. And the sad thing is that when I go to the cemetery to see my folks' plot, I can't help but notice that a lot of the people I knew as a kid, a lot of people my age, are there too."
Alex Groza was the star center on the best college basketball team of his time, Kentucky's "Fabulous Five"—Ralph Beard, Cliff Barker, Wah Wah Jones, Kenny Rawlins and Groza—which won NCAA championships in 1948 and '49. He was the tournament MVP both years, a three-time All-America, college basketball's Player of the Year in 1949 and a member of the undefeated 1948 Olympic team. After graduation four of the Five turned pro as the core of the Indianapolis Olympians, and in his two years in the NBA Groza was twice all-league and twice finished second in scoring to George Mikan. But he would have only two years. In October 1951, he and teammate Beard were indicted for conspiring to fix games while at Kentucky. Before it was over, the scandal spread to six colleges, and 33 players were indicted. Groza admitted his guilt, cooperated with the investigation, and in April '52 was given a suspended sentence and three years' probation. (Beard, who also cooperated, was given a suspended sentence too, as were most of the indicted players.) Groza was banned for life from the NBA by then commissioner Maurice Podoloff. One of the game's most promising careers had ended in disgrace.
"My father was a strict disciplinarian, and we never got into any trouble as kids," Lou says. "When I heard about Alex—I got a call in the middle of the night—I just lay on the floor and cried. I couldn't believe it."
Alex never begged forgiveness; he simply worked hard to clear his name, and in 1959 he was hired to coach basketball at Bellarmine College in Louisville. "I once made a mistake," he said upon accepting the job. "Now I've been given a second chance." He stayed at Bellarmine for seven years, then continued on in basketball as business manager for the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA for three years and as general manager of the San Diego Conquistadors from 1972 to '75. Since 1977 he has been a regional sales manager of the Reynolds Metals Co. He's 61 now and the father of four. His wife, Jean, is also a Martins Ferry girl. In February this year he returned to his hometown to be inducted into the Upper Ohio Valley Dapper Dan Club Hall of Fame, joining his brother, inducted there 19 years earlier. His speech at the banquet was gracious and touching, with just one reference to "when I stumbled...."
The Alex Groza family lives in a hilltop home above San Diego with a swimming pool and a sweeping view out back. At 6'7" and 300-plus pounds, Alex is even bigger than his brother. The bad part of his past, he admits, "will always be with me," but his exemplary life since has at least put it into perspective. The good part he recalls fondly.
"My two older brothers—John and Frank, both gone now—were my idols," Alex says. "Lou and I played on the same basketball team when I was a freshman, and Lou was the center because I was only 6'1" then. When I look back, I can see that it was the foreign element that excelled in athletics in our town. We all lived out where the mills were, in the north end of town, and we all had this desire to succeed because we had less. On our high school basketball team, we were all foreign kids. It was the same on the football team. There weren't many Smiths and Joneses around. Most of our dads worked in the steel mills and the coal mines. Athletics was a way out of the ghetto, much as it is now for blacks. When I graduated, in 1944, I wanted to go to Ohio State because Lou had gone there, but Coach [Adolph] Rupp spoke at our high school and he offered me a tryout—it was legal then—and a scholarship, so I went to Kentucky. And then I got drafted. I was 6'5" and 167 pounds when I went into the Army, 6'7" and 238 when I got out a year later. Coach Rupp didn't recognize me.
"I loved everything about growing up in Martins Ferry. I firmly believe my own children missed something by not having that small-town experience. The sports teams in our town were a rallying point for the whole community. And the little towns were so close together, there was always a terrific rivalry. I still have friends in Martins Ferry. They were my friends even when I had the trouble. They and my parents stuck with me in that rough time. I'm really very lucky, when I think about it. I'm blessed with a good wife, good kids, a good job, and the way I see it, thousands of good friends, you just can't put a dollar value on a thing like that."
Phil and Joe Niekro grew up in Lansing, about four miles west of Bridgeport, which is two miles south of Martins Ferry, and they shared the same bed in the little house by the creek until Phil, at 19, moved out to play professional baseball. They also shared the outhouse down by the creek and those 20-yard sprints to it through the snow on winter nights. When Phil pitched a 9-6 win over Detroit for Cleveland last June 1, the Niekros achieved their 530th major league victory, surpassing Gaylord and Jim Perry as the winningest pitching brothers in major league history. The record was then extended to 539, with Joe pitching for the Minnesota Twins until, at 43, he was released on May 4. Phil had retired at the end of last season, at 48, after 318 wins in 24 years in the majors, 20 of them with the Braves. His credentials are in order for election to the Hall of Fame—which is incredible for a pitcher who had only 31 wins by the time he was 30. As his old friend, Valley sportswriter Bill Van Horne, of the Wheeling News-Register, has said, "If he'd retired when Koufax did, nobody would ever have heard of him."
In 1979 both Niekros won their 21st games on the same day. It was Sept. 30, and they were the only two pitchers in the National League to win 20 that year. Twice, in '74 with Atlanta and in '85 with the Yankees, they were teammates. In games they have pitched against each other, Joe has a 5-4 edge, and the only home run he has ever hit in the big leagues came off Phil. In his 21st season Joe became the only Niekro to appear in a World Series, pitching two scoreless innings for the Twins against the Cardinals in Game 4 last year.
Both Niekros are knuckleballers, although Joe began his career as a conventional fastball-breaking ball pitcher. Phil learned the knuckler from his father, Phil Sr., before he was nine years old. And when Joe's hard stuff began to fade, Phil helped him adapt to the family pitch. The brothers have stayed close through the years, and they are devoted to their parents. Both married girls named Nancy and both dance the polka.