NAUGATUCK — Sitting casually at a borough bistro, they are ordinary gentlemen, sharing stories and a fermented beverage or two, unrecognizable to most. But Naugatuck sports fans know them as members of the town’s most famous team: the high school baseball streak team that won 64 consecutive games between 1970 and 1972.
Naugatuck High baseball tradition did not begin nor end with the streak, but it is possible to trace back to the moment when things got extra special. That moment may have been 50 years ago this month when the St. Francis Grammar School baseball team won the 1967 New England parochial championship.
There were early shock waves that warned fans that something special was coming. In 1964, Naugatuck’s Peter J. Foley Little League won its first ever District III championship. Then in ’67 came the St. Francis nine.
“The story really goes back to 1965 with the basketball team,” said Tony Campbell, the St. Francis catcher who was one of five players on that seventh- and eighth-grade baseball team who also played on the high school streak team. “They weren’t going to do basketball because we didn’t have a coach. And in 1966, they were going to cancel baseball because we didn’t have a coach.”
Both times, the same man stepped forward.
“The basketball and baseball programs were kept alive because of Joe,” Campbell added.
The man was Joe Gallagher, a local plumber and one of those unsung heroes who makes history happen. When St. Francis baseball was on the brink, Gallagher saved it.
“We weren’t just a baseball team,” noted Dave Mowrey, who played shortstop and pitched for St. Francis. “The Gallaghers were like second parents. This is something you could never do now, but we got to all the games riding in the back of Joe’s truck.”
“It was like a cartoon,” added star pitcher Jim Hankey, “the whole team sitting in the back of Joe’s truck, with assistant coach Dave Grande sticking his head out the window like a co-pilot.”
After every win, the team drove to the Pomperaug River for a victory swim.
“We’d come out of that river smelling like I don’t know what,” Hankey said.
Industrial pollution and river sludge could not slow down these guys.
The team went 12-0 in the regular season and won the Waterbury Parochial League title. The state tournament began with a 2-1 victory over St. Mary’s of East Hartford at Colt Park. Hankey struck out 18 batters in seven innings, Campbell tied the game with an RBI single in the fourth inning and Mowrey won it when he singled and scored in the fifth.
The semifinal was back at Colt Park, and St. Francis defeated St. Bonifice of New Haven, 4-1. Hankey fanned 13. Mowrey tripled and doubled.
The big game, the historic game, was next at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Park against St. Cecilia of Stamford. As Hankey described it, “That game was the turning point for everything.”
St. Francis defeated St. Cecilia that day, 3-2 in 20 innings. Yes, 20 innings.
Hankey and Sam Guarino of St. Cecilia pitched all 20 innings of the 3 1/2-hour game. Hankey struck out 21, walked one and allowed six hits, three of them doubles by Guarino. Guarino, who pitched Stamford to the Little League World Series title in 1965, struck out 22.
Mowrey, the Falcon’s No. 2 pitcher, stayed at short and let Hankey roll on.
“In the 14th inning, Joe Gallagher comes out to the mound and says, ‘I’m taking you out,’” Hankey remembered. “Dave says, ‘No, you’re not.’”
“Compared to the bullets (Hankey) was throwing, my pitches would have looked liked softballs,” Mowrey said.
St. Cecilia scored two in the first, then Hankey tossed 19 scoreless innings. St. Francis tied it in the sixth on a two-run double by Mowrey. In the 20th, Hankey scored the winning run. He reached base on an error, stole second and scored on a single by Dick Pistarelli in a walk-off for the ages.
But that was not the end of the story. There was another game to play, for the New England championship, in East Providence, R.I.
On July 1, St. Francis won again, 1-0, over St. Bartholomew of Providence, R.I. The only run scored in the top of the first on a Gray Fratesi double and a Hankey single. The key defensive play was in the third inning when St. Francis right fielder Art Nitowski tossed out a St. Bartholomew runner at home.
Hankey had pitched 26 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in less than a week.
Hankey, Mowrey, Campbell, Fratesi and Bill Hicock were the five St. Francis players who were also part of the soon-to-be-legendary Naugy streak team. But as Hankey noted, all great things have a beginning.
“That St. Francis team was the start of something bigger to come,” he said.