Honoring a Ridgway sports legend – Bucky Parisi

Bob Parana - Staff Writer

While I never had the privilege of knowing Robert Leo “Bucky” Parisi it’s been an honor speaking to his friends and researching the life of perhaps the “greatest athlete” to ever come out of Ridgway.

Parisi passed away on July 1 in Butler. Besides being a great athlete he was a successful businessman and innovator. The son of Leo and Nellie (Gavassi), Parisi was born in Ridgway in 1939. The 1957 RHS graduate played football, basketball, and baseball while also participating in the Usher Club, Reel Spinners, and Varsity Club. Baseball was Parisi’s passion. He spent time in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization beginning in 1959 after playing for various area teams and at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) where he received a B.S. Degree in Education in 1962. He earned a Master’s Degree from IUP in 1964. After being drafted into the Army, he played ball for the team based at Fort Jackson, SC.

According to the 1957 yearbook, Parisi’s ambition was to become a teacher. He reached the goal and taught driver’s education at East Allegheny High School where he coached baseball and also at Butler Area High School. He owned several restaurants including the Rusty Nail in Butler, two in Indiana, one in Titusville, and another in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

Parisi’s wife of over 35 year’s Susan (Henderson) passed away in November of 2017. She taught physical education at Butler, was the school’s first girls’ basketball coach, and was named to the school’s Hall of Fame. She was also a successful agent for State Farm Insurance for 27 years.

Parisi began Seniors for Safe Driving which is a highly successful business and he was a member of the Butler Country Club for over 40 years. He was survived by many nieces and nephews.

Long-time friend Judith Manno Stager spoke fondly of Parisi at a memorial service following his passing.

“Bucky had been groomed to be a good cook, to clean up after you cook, to be a good bartender, to be hospitable, to value good friends, to be an entrepreneur, to be tough and stand up for yourself, and to not be taken advantage of. If he was wronged he didn’t dwell on it. He moved on, but he never forgot. He was sweet and pleasant and kind but occasionally arrogant with a perverse sense of humor.

“Bucky’s entrepreneurial parents built a clean respectable establishment (Leo’s Tavern) that included weekend music and dancing where you could take your family. Leo was personable and an excellent businessman who had a good ear and maintained order in his popular bar. Nellie was tiny in stature but you didn’t talk back to her. She was well known for making her homemade dough and sauce to create the first pizzas in the area. Their Sundays would be spent with family evolving around food of course,” she said. “By their example, Leo and Nellie had taught their son how to run a successful business which he used as he excelled at his own entrepreneurial ventures from Indiana to Titusville, from Hyannis to Butler,” she added.

Jim “Bleak” Allegretto was Parisi’s best friend when the two were growing up. He spoke about the bond between the two during a recent phone interview from his home in Virginia.

“In the summertime, we were always doing something and being together. He was such a super kid to grow up with. I don’t even know how we got together. I think we were six or seven years old down at the baseball field and all of a sudden we were buddies and it lasted until he passed. He was a super person and a super athlete,” he said.

Allegretto attended Buffalo University where he played baseball. After graduating from B.U. he received a Master’s Degree from Brockport and spent his career as a teacher and administrator in New York State.

“After college, we lost touch for a while then got back together when we were 55 or so. We had been in touch for the last 25 years. We played golf together in Butler when I could visit. Every time I would see Buck he would give me a big hug and occasionally a peck on the cheek,” he said.

Allegretto spoke fondly of Parisi’s wife Susan (Su). “She was a super person and a good golfer. I know he had a room full of trophies and awards she won. Bucky always liked to show them off. She was quite a competitor herself. When I got back together with him it was her last year or two of teaching and she decided to get into insurance. She was done coaching and made a big decision. She did really well at everything she did and was great at that. She was a wonderful, sweet person,” he said.

Parisi and Allegretto were a dynamic duo on the fields and courts. “He was a catcher and I was a pitcher, he was a guard I was a forward. He was a fullback and I was a quarterback. We went from seven years old all the way through being good buddies,” Allegretto said.

Parisi was a star catcher in high schools and he also pitched. He played for several area teams including the Ludlow Wildcats. “His desire and goal were to play major league baseball and at age 16, Bucky was the starting catcher on the Ludlow Wildcats men’s baseball team earning $50 cash a game for travel expenses, said Stager noting the fee would equate to $481 today and would be doubled if they played Saturday and Sunday. She also credited the elder Parisi for getting his son signed with the Major League club. “Bucky’s education-minded father negotiated a contract to allow him to alternate college with playing ball for the Dodgers.”

Parisi spent the spring and summer of 1959 playing for the Dodgers farm teams in Orlando, Panama City, and Odessa. The Major League club won the World Series that season and was loaded with great players such as Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, Tommy Davis, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snider and was managed by Walter Alston. The team moved from Brooklyn before the 1958 season. He remained with the organization until 1965.

While at Army boot camp Parisi was moved to Fort Jackson to play baseball, according to a tribute story in the Butler Eagle written by John Enrietto.

Allegretto said Parisi always talked humbly of his time with the Dodgers. “He talked about different players that were superstars but didn’t dwell or [brag] about it. He didn’t say much about that other than he played ball and they taught him a lot. It’s funny I didn’t even know he played while in the army until I read an article. That’s the kind of guy he was,” said the lifelong friend.

Golf became Parisi’s passion. When he was 76, he and his Butler best friend Bruce Cummings who was 77 at the time won the famous Ox Roast Tournament at the Butler Country Club in 2015, according to the Butler Eagle. Parisi started the event 35 years ago and ran it for the past 14. He recorded four hole-in-ones during his golfing days – the last in 2016.

“He was a great golfer. When I first played with him I wasn’t very good. He was a natural and taught me a lot. He was just good at everything he did,” Allegretto said.

Parisi who started the first Driver Education Program for the East Allegheny School District, began the Seniors For Safe Driving Organization after retiring in 1994. The organization which also expanded to the eastern part of the state is highly regarded and has helped many older citizens maintain their driving privileges.

Allegretto remembers when his friend began the program. “One time when we got together at his restaurant in Butler he took me to the back. I remember the place was always so organized just like him. There on the back wall was this big plan mapped out for the safety for seniors program. He had such a great business mind which he got from his father. He was always thinking about doing something to help. I have to say he was also a great cook. He learned that from his mother who lived to be almost 100 years old. She was a sweetheart.”

Parisi also dabbled in broadcasting. He called baseball games for Butler and did a sports talk show with long-time Butler broadcaster Jim Lokheiser who told the Butler Eagle Parisi, “was one of a kind.”

Allegretto also had an opportunity to be a guest on the show. “It was a lot of fun. He had a way of saying things and it was a great show,” he said.

Parisi’s lifelong friend spoke about the last time the two met and talked. “I was in Butler in September. We golfed and went out to dinner and had a great time. I said goodbye I’ll see you. We also spoke for a while in November. About a week after he came back from Florida I talked to him and said as soon as this virus goes away I’ll come up and play golf with you. I sure do miss him,” said Allegretto.

“Bucky cherished friends and felt most at home with those of you from the Butler Country Club with whom he felt closest, especially Bruce Cummings and his family who he considered to be his brother along with the family he never had. He felt so honored and felt so fortunate with all the words of comfort from friends when he was ill. He said many times that he couldn’t believe how lucky he was. Today we fondly remember the legacy of our good buddy Bucky. May his stories continue,” said Stager while finishing her speech at Parisi’s memorial service.

With that in mind, the following are a few tales from Parisi’s younger days.

The nickname Bucky

“Leo and Nellie were hardworking first-generation Italian Americans. His parents called him Bobby but when he was four years old and refused to eat the baccala at a Sunday dinner, his uncle told him ‘Va bene, Va bene baccala’ and began calling him “Baccala” which later was shortened to “Bucky”, Stager said.
Baccala is a traditional Italian seasoned cod. According to the Italian-English dictionary, Va bene can be a sarcastic way of saying OK. It’s like agreeing with discontent.

Allegretto laughed when told the story. “I remember back when I was in high school when we were messing around I’d call him Bacala. He never said anything back and he never told the story,” he said.

The game Sockie Ball

Stager spoke at the service about the game which was invented by Parisi and Allegretto. “With no siblings and an overabundance of energy, Bucky sought out friends with whom he could play catch and he possessed a true competitive spirit. He and his best friend Bleak Allegretto invented a “Sockie Ball” game with which they constantly practiced and honed their skills. They stuffed old rags into old socks and twisted them into the size of a baseball and sewed the ends with fishing line to make them durable when hit by a baseball bat. The advantage was that they would not hurt anyone nor usually break anything when used indoors.”

Allegretto fondly recalled the countless hours the two played the game they began when they were seven. “We both had very good arms. We played that for hours. Sometimes we played until it was too dark to see the ball. It’s amazing how much we still talked about that.”

Skipping Catechism

Stager spoke about the time Parisi decided to fib to play basketball.

“Bucky learned good work ethics, good life values, and character from his parents. He was taught to be honest and never lie. Their Catholic faith was important and Bucky learned the fundamentals at catechism classes on Saturday mornings. Sadly, that was also the day for a basketball tournament at the YMCA that Bucky was denied permission from his dad to attend. Before the game, Bucky went to the convent and told the nun he could not attend class that day because his ‘grandfather died’! The nun was so sympathetic and wanted details but Bucky told her it was okay and that he had to go home. Bucky was in the midst of the game when his father appeared in the balcony. Bucky describes that Leo went on the court ‘literally kicking my [butt] out the door to the waiting car. He slapped me around a few times and sent me to my room for the rest of the day’. The next morning Nellie called Bucky to breakfast and he asked, ‘Where’s Dad?’ ‘Don’t worry’, she said, ‘he forgot about it.’ Leo never mentioned it again [to his son]. Bucky learned to not dwell on mistakes and to move on.”

The winning shot

Stager recalls an incredible ending to a basketball game. “Bucky was always a risk-taker. I was present at a Ridgway High School basketball game. [We] were behind by two with three seconds left to play. Bucky dramatically drew a foul and went to the line for a one-and-one. He easily sank the first shot and we were on the edges of our seats knowing that if Bucky tied up the game with his second shot the game would go into overtime and if he missed we would lose. Both teams, held their hands high for the rebound when in true boldness, on his second shot Bucky fired the ball fiercely at the rim, the ball ricocheted directly back to him and he bolted for a layup stunning everyone as the buzzer sounded and Ridgway won the game by one!”

I want to thank Stager, Allegretto, the Elk County Historical Society, and the Butler Eagle for providing information for this tribute which has allowed me to get to know Bucky. Here is a partial listing of Ridgway players from Parisi’s high school career found in The Ridgway Record articles provided by the Historical Society - Robert Nelson, Dick Delhunty, Ferdinand Stenta, John Arminini, Ray Cenni, Frank Varsischetti, Jamie Cousins, Bob Austin, Wesley Wood, Tommy, Billy Brown, Robert Mader, Cliff Wood, Gary Zimmerman, Buddy Buhite, Eddie Galbreath, Larry Shobert, Ron Eckland, Bill Eagen, Ralph Dinardo, Mark Whitaker, Ted Johnson, and Jim Polliard.