Pittsburgh really is a “City of Champions,” and not just when it comes to pro football and hockey.
Since 1922, the area has crushed the competition in another sport, producing more title-winning players than any other area in the United States. And, now, two South Side boys are “shooting” to keep the legacy alive.
Earlier this week, Ben and Sam Eddings packed up their bags and hit the road for Wildwood, N.J., where they’ll shoot marbles as contenders representing Allegheny County in the boys division of the National Marbles Tournament.
The Eddings boys are champs of the 2013 Allegheny County Marbles Tournament, which jelled the first weekend in June. A sibling rivalry in every sense of the word, the brothers were pitted against each other in the final round of the competition; Ben, 14, won the first-place trophy, and Sam, 11, won second-place.
At nationals, Ben and Sam will face off against other marble players (or, “mibsters,” as they’re called in the sport) who’ve won 2013 regional titles in their own counties, cities or states. The four-day competition is for youth between the ages of 8 and 14, and has divisions for both boys and girls.
Held annually during Father’s Day week, the National Marbles Tournament celebrates its 90th anniversary this year—and, looking back at the history of the event, it gives Pittsburgh something to celebrate, too.
In the past 89 years, 36 National Marbles Champions have hailed from Pittsburgh, many of whom have the same last names or sprouted from the same roots.
“Marbles seems to be a family thing,” said Allegheny County Marbles Program Coordinator and Coach Ed Ricci, in reference not only to the Eddings brothers but also to his own clan.
Mr. Ricci is grandson to the late Walter J. Lease, Jr., who was key to the success of competitive marbling in Allegheny County. It was Col. Lease who, in 1975, petitioned the county to pick up the marbles program after the City of Pittsburgh dropped it due to budget constraints.
Twenty-seven boys went to nationals under Col. Lease’s tutelage, and one marbles ring was saved. Col. Lease rescued the marbles ring from being demolished after Leslie Park closed. He moved it to city land on St. Michael’s Street, in the South Side Slopes, anchoring it just outside his daughter’s back door, where it has remained for more than three decades.
This ring on St. Michael’s Street is where the Eddings boys have practiced since each was recruited for the sport.
Both were recruited while students at Phillips Elementary School, a site the Allegheny County Marbles Program visits yearly to introduce kids to marbles and find shooters for its tournament.
Recruiting takes place beginning in March each year, and continues through the first week of June, right up to the county tournament. Players are pooled from various locations throughout Allegheny County, such as schools, parks, malls and Boys & Girls Clubs.
“We go out to different locations, set up the ring and spread the word,” Mr. Ricci said. “The kids compete against each other, and we recruit the winners to play in the tournament.
“We give (those who qualify) a T-shirt, a bag of marbles, a letter of acknowledgement and a lot of encouragement… The responsibility to practice is theirs. They have to do it on their own time.”
The coach explained approximately 250 kids qualify for the tournament annually, but only 50 – 80 typically show up for the event.
Those who do show up, show up to a three-day competition, consisting of elimination rounds that wean the lot down to eight players per division, who compete on the final day of the tournament. The top two players from each division are then invited to represent the county in the national tournament.
Ben has been to the tournament four times already, and said he hopes his fifth time is a charm. At 14 years old, this is the last year he’s eligible to compete, and he’d like to go out with a bang.
“It would be great to win my last year,” the eighth-grader said, “but if it’s not me (who wins), I’m cheering for my brother.”
Sam, who’s competing at nationals for the first time, had similar things to say about Ben: “I’d like to win, but I’d like to see Ben win, too, because it’s the last year he can play in the tournament.”
Also about his big brother, Sam said Ben has helped him master the sport by showing him moves and giving him tips on how to shoot when in a bind.
Accompanying the boys on their trip to nationals is their father, Jeff Eddings, one of the founding pastors of Hot Metal Faith Community Church in South Side. Even though Pastor Eddings has made the trip to Wildwood before, he said this time is special because he’s taking both sons to compete.
The Eddings’ 2011 trip was a special one, too. Though Ben didn’t come home with a trophy, Pastor Eddings came home with a great idea.
“Things were crazy (at the national tournament). It was amazing and strange,” said Pastor Eddings. “I thought to myself, ‘Someone should document this.’”
And that’s exactly what he went on to do.
From then to now, the pastor worked in conjunction with Point Park University graduate and film-maker Justin Dixon—and a team of other artists and creators, including film editor Bobby LaValley, musician Matt Very and animator Denman Rooke—to create a documentary chronicling the experiences of three mibsters on their journey from Pittsburgh to Wildwood.
A rough cut of “Mibsters” showed at the national tournament last year, though the film wasn’t officially opened until 2013. It premiered at the Heinz History Center on May 18, at an event attended by upwards of 200 people.
Copies of “Mibsters” can be purchased online at http://www.mibsters.com, or by contacting Pastor Eddings via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Marbles Tournament ends on Thursday. To see if the either of the Eddings boys got the gold, visit http://www.nationalmarblestournament.org, and check back with The South Pittsburgh Reporter.
Allegheny County boys marbles champ Ben Eddings has advanced to the semi-finals in the boys division. The national semi-finals will begin at 8:00 a.m. June 20, and the finals will immediately follow.