Marbles Champs Roll Back to Pittsburgh
Saturday, July 7, 2007; 4:25 PM
PITTSBURGH -- Mark O'Mahoney was like a kid again, crouched on the floor with an aggie cocked in his thumb and aiming at one of 13 target marbles arranged in an "X" at the center of a 10-foot circle.
He's 59 now and hadn't played marbles since he was 13, when he won the National Marbles Tournament in 1962. But his shooting skills appeared not to have faded Saturday as he joined a reunion of marbles champions from the Pittsburgh area, home to more national champions _ 31 since 1927 _ than any other part of the country.
"It keeps the kid in you," said O'Mahoney, a Pittsburgh native who came from his current home of Marietta, Ga., where he is a locksmith, to attend the reunion at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.
"Spin and speed. That's what it's all about," he said as he demonstrated.
The rules of ringer, the version of the game played in the national tournament, are straightforward: Two players compete, and the first to knock seven target marbles out of the ring wins. Players use shooter marbles of one-half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Shooters are often called aggies because many were made from agate. They can also be made of glass, marble or other stone, but not metal.
O'Mahoney said he won his tournament just three weeks after having a cast removed from his shooting arm; he had broken his wrist while horsing around. That earned him a mention in Sports Illustrated.
No one is sure why the Pittsburgh area has produced so many stellar "mibsters," as marble players are known. Pennsylvania as a whole has produced 66 national champions, with more than a dozen coming from the Reading area since 1968, said Debra Stanley-Lapic, who won the 1973 girl's championship at age 14 and now coaches and directs the Berks County Marbles Program.
She thinks the game has been more or less a tradition in both areas. "It becomes like a family thing," said Stanley-Lapic, whose 11-year-old daughter, Whitney, hopes to follow in her footsteps with her own championship.
"It's a lot of fun. It requires a lot of talent that isn't used anymore _ or at least I don't think it is," she said.
Dick Ryabick won the 1943 tournament, which was held in Ohio, and recalls being rewarded with a bike and baseball bats and gloves.
"When I won in '43 _ this is crazy _ they had a parade (in downtown Pittsburgh). They had a band, they had police on horses," said Ryabick, 77. "They gave me a key to the city. That was crazy when I think about it."
Ryabick said he and his brother played on a canvas ring in their attic. They won "bucketsful of marbles between the two of us" from other players, he said.
What happened to all of those marbles?
"Well, we had slingshots," he said.