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The baseball legend of Smokey Zerla’s throw

May 20, 2009
Times Leader
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The picture of Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad Depot in last month’s issue of Prime Times reminded Lyle Zerla of Dillonvale how his cousin, Jim, threw a baseball over several buildings in that village. This probably was written in the late 1930s and appeared in The Times Leader during a time when its telephone number in Martins Ferry was 78. The writer was W.H. McWilliams, who also wrote a column as Hi Waters. Jim Zerla, known for his prowess as a baseball player, is deceased, and his widow, Emma, still lives in Dillonvale.)

SMOKEY ZERLA of Dillonvale stood on the mound of as hot a ball game as ever came down the road. It was July 4, 1910 and William Howard Taft over in the White House sweltered too, as the burning July sun curled the leaves on the cherry trees along the Potomac.
William Howard Taft has been gone these long years and other presidents have taken his place and some of them also have gone forever. But Smokey Zerla? Smokey is STILL here and still playing ball.
Well, he might not be PLAYING ball at least in the way he used to buzz ‘em across countless times in the past, but he’s still THROWIN’ ‘­em.
But therein hangs a tale!
In all his long and colorful career, Smokey Zerla was never bested when it came to throwing a baseball. Many a big league batter found THAT out in the past. Smokey Zerla’s name will long stay in the Eastern Ohio baseball Hall of Fame.
That is, he was not bested until this week! He found a guy who could throw a ball harder, farther and more accurate than he could!
                                 * *  * *
THE STORY is that over in Dillonvale was the First National Bank, and behind that another building, and then a freight shed. Smokey, years and years ago, once hurled a baseball over the whole shootin’ match. It was a heave that no other ball player ever equalled. Although many of them tried, Smokey hung on to his laurels come Democrats or Republicans, New Dealers or Stand Patters.
But this week Smokey’s son, Jim Zerla and one of the fastest short stops in the minor league in Eastern Ohio, who plays with the strong Dun Glen nine, casually picked up a baseball and said, “Pap, I’m going’ to crack that record you’ve held so long. ... I’m going to toss this ball clear over the bank, over the freight shed and into the vacant lot beyond!”
“You’ll never do it, son!” Smokey said. “You’re good, but not THAT good!”
Mayor Olszeski had traffic stopped along the streets of the famous old town. Citizens came out and stood around to see the ceremony ... because ceremony it was ... Smokey Zerla’s record was about to be challenged!
 * * * *
JIM ZERLA seized the baseball firmly. He leaned over backwards like an elm that had been blown to windward over the years. A set look spread over his face like an Indian chief dueling with his savage enemy. One foot stuck up in the clear Dillonvale air like a horse week in autumn. His arm suddenly snapped forward like a turtle’s neck after a fly.
The ball sped forward and upward like a pigeon leaving the ark after 60 days inside. It disappeared faster than the family budget under Hoover as the crowd cheered and roared. “Send for a messenger!” yelled the Mayor.
A messenger stepped forward. “Trail that ball,” said the Mayor, wavin’ his arm like Nero fiddlin’ from the portico centuries ago.
The messenger returned. “Smokey has fallen!” he shouted. “The ball is 79 feet further than his record!”
Thus it was that Smokey Zerla’s son, Jim, edged his Pap from the Hall of Fame over at Dillonvale this week ... a record held firmly since the William McKinley administration. Youth -- Marches On!!
And Mayor Olszeski, head bowed a little, motioned to the Chief of Police, “Chief -- have the traffic move on -- Smokey Zerla’s record is no more!”
                                         By W.H. MCWILLIAMS








Article Photos

THE?W&L E depot was a proving ground for hurlers in the Dillonvale area. The task of tossing a baseball over the building was often tried but seldom accomplished.



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