A-K Valley HOF inductee Paganelli has storied baseball past

Saturday, March 23, 2024 | 6:09 PM

Every Sports Hall of Famer has stories about the great plays they made or a number of championships they won.

For Fred Paganelli, who grew up in Natrona Heights and will join the A-K Valley Sports Hall of Fame in May, his sports life was filled with many memories, championships and friendships.

His favorite, and earliest, memory was one he didn’t realize had happened.

In Paganelli’s final year of Little League in 1960, he was an all-star, and his team was district champ. In the all-star game, his team squared off against Bob Moose, and he slapped a line-drive home run off the future Pittsburgh Pirates hurler.

“That was when I was 12,” Paganelli said. “It wasn’t until 15 years later when a friend of mine, Ed Wygonik, brought it up. He said, ‘You know that pitcher you hit a home run off of was Bob Moose?’ It was funny because I never put that together for that long.”

It would turn out to be a great start to a terrific baseball career as a player in high school at Har-Brack, in college at Point Park and as a coach at Highlands High School.

“I was fortunate enough to play for some outstanding coaches from Little League all the way up,” Paganelli said. “They taught us the game and how to win. Of course, playing on good teams also helped.”

Paganelli hit .353 as a senior in 1966 when Har-Brack was Section 3A champions.

“We were a pretty good team my senior year, but we lost our first playoff game 5-4 to Kiski Area in an extra-inning game,” Paganelli said. “They would go on to win the WPIAL championship that year.

“We also had a good team in ’65,” Paganelli said. “We were 8-1 and faced Arnold, who had an identical record, in the final game of the regular season. They beat us and went on to win the WPIAL championship.”

Paganelli also saw success on the Lower Burrell Legion team. In 1965, it went 30-5 and was state champion. In 1966, it was Westmoreland champion, falling to Kittanning in the playoffs.

One game from his time in Legion ball that stays with Paganelli was a doubleheader at Forbes Field.

“It was amazing to go there and to play,” Paganelli said.

Paganelli was awed by the roof in right field that players such as Babe Ruth and Willie Stargell were able to hit the top of or even over.

He was caught staring by a friend on the opposing team.

“Dave Thompson caught me gawking,” Paganelli said. “He yelled, ‘You can look, but you’re not going to do it.’ ”

Paganelli was learning the outfield at the time and was taken aback trotting out to center field and seeing a batting cage.

“It put me in my place pretty quick,” Paganelli said. “Firstly, I couldn’t even see the ball from the pitcher to the hitter because the mound was so high. I had to move to the left or right to see. Then I have this batting cage in the field of play. But when I saw the 457 sign, I was praying no one hit a gap shot between me and the left fielder. Neither of us was hitting the cut-off man from that distance.”

In his sophomore season at Point Park, Paganelli was coached by former Pirate Frank Gustine, who brought a change to Paganelli’s approach at the plate.

“I had decent power as a left-handed hitter,” Paganelli said. “He didn’t want me pulling the ball, told me to take the outside pitch the opposite way. It was a help for me in my struggles with left-handed pitching.”

Given his connections to the Pirates, Gustine took the team down to Bradenton, Fla., where they played against some rookie teams and a Hispanic team.

“We got to see players at that caliber of baseball,” Paganelli said. “We learned a lot about how the business side of baseball worked in just talking to some Double-A players. It was something new, different and an overall great experience.”

Paganelli played on playoff teams in 1969 and 1970 and hit .357 in his college career.

“That was the first time the school made the NAIA playoffs in baseball,” Paganelli said. “We blew it my junior year. We won the first two games but then fell in the third.”

Paganelli graduated from Point Park with a degree in elementary education and was a teacher at Highlands for 34 years.

He was a JV coach in 1971 under head coach Ed Schmitt.

“When Ed found out I was being inducted, he called me,” Paganelli said. “He said, ‘Hey Freddy, it’s pretty neat that there’s three head coaches from the same school district in the Hall of Fame.’ He was also quick to point out that it took me longer than it took him.”

When it came time for Schmitt to retire, Paganelli talked to the superintendent of Highlands, Dr. Nick Staresinic, who was the head coach before Schmitt.

“I went to see him and got a great letter of recommendation from Coach Gustine,” Paganelli said. “I was lucky enough the way things worked out.”

As head coach of Highlands baseball from 1985-2000, Paganelli won five section titles (1988, ’91, ’92, ’94, ’96), and his teams were second-place finishers in the WPIAL four times (1989, ’93, ’95, ’97).

“(The players) were the ones who did it all,” Paganelli said. “Those were a lot of good baseball players, good kids. I just wish they could have won a championship. Out of those nine teams, there were six times we played a team that either won the championship the year prior or was the runner-up.”

After retiring from coaching in 2000, Paganelli taught for another three years before officially retiring and doing what his wife always wanted: opening a bed and breakfast.

“We bought a large farmhouse out in Boggsville,” Paganelli said. “We lived there for three years, ran the bed and breakfast for 10 more. We retired from that and stayed in the country another three before moving back to Sarver.”

Sports taught Paganelli a lot about life. It showed him to have confidence in what he was doing and that he had to have a plan.

He credits everything he has in life to baseball.

“When I sit back and reflect,” Paganelli said, “So much came to me through baseball. Making the Point Park team allowed me to avoid the steel mill, afforded me some scholarship help in my sophomore year to earn my degree and, had I not made the team, I never would have met my wife in college.”

Paganelli is still in shock knowing he will be inducted into the A-K Sports Hall of Fame. He said his inclusion is humbling.

“I can’t believe I’m being enshrined,” Paganelli said. “When I look at the pamphlet they send you and see the names of the people who have gone before — Chet Foster, the Modzelewski brothers, and my buddy Dave Thompson — it’s really special.”

If you’re going

What: 53rd A-K Valley Sports Hall of Fame induction

When: 7 p.m., May 4

Where: Pittsburgh Shriners Center, Harmar

Tickets: $40

Contact: Larry Lutz, 724-822-3695; Fred Soilis, 412-736-1809; Bill Heasley, 724-882-3079


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