A summer to remember

Naugatuck made run to American Legion World Series 50 years ago

Players from the Naugatuck American Legion baseball team line up before an American Legion World Series game in Hastings, Neb., in 1969. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVES

Editor’s note: This is the final story of a short series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in Woodland and Naugatuck sports history. This story looks at the 50-year anniversary of Naugatuck Post 17’s run to the 1969 American Legion World Series.

Local sports fans of a certain age know about what’s affectionately and concisely known as The Streak — the 64-game winning streak amassed by the Naugatuck High baseball team from 1970-72 that included a pair of state championships.

But before The Streak started, there was the summer of ’69 — and a trip to the American Legion World Series.

Naugatuck’s Jim Hankey took a no-hitter into the ninth inning of the 1969 Class L final at Yale Field, but the unbeaten Greyhounds couldn’t seal the deal. Lyman Hall sent the game to extra innings, where it was eventually called for darkness with a 2-2 score after 15 innings. CIAC rules mandated a new game be played, and Lyman Hall pulled a 3-1 upset in 10 innings.

In a quick turnaround, Post 17 started its American Legion baseball season with mostly the same roster as the one that had suited up for the ‘Hounds.

“It took off from there,” Hankey says. “Everybody was saying that we never should have gotten beat (in the high school state final), so we’d have to do something on the Legion team.”

Post 17, which was coached by Steve Mastrianna with the watchful eye of the legendary Ray Legenza not far away, benefited from the addition of two 19-year-old players: outfielder Gene Massa and pitcher Steve Dibble.

“Gene brought his leadership,” says John Caneira, one of the team’s star pitchers who later became the second Naugatuck native to reach the majors. “He was in college, the rest of us were in high school. It was the beginning of our maturity. We didn’t realize it at the time. It was the point we started gaining some experience.”

Other key players included pitcher Phil King, catcher Vic Zollo, first baseman Dave Yackowski, second baseman Roger Swiderski, shortstop Gary Fratesi, third baseman Ernie Bessette and center fielder Tommy Somers. Massa, who usually played left field, led the club with a .514 batting average in Zone 4 regular-season play.

“We had decent players on our team, but I don’t think we realized how good we were until we made it to the World Series,” Massa says. “We weren’t cocky. I think the mentality when you played for Coach Legenza — he kept you very humble and wanting to win, but not bragging about it. That was sort of the thing we had on the Legion team. He couldn’t be our coach because he was the high school coach, but his presence was there.”

Naugatuck earned the Zone 4 title with a 13-3 record, clinching a state tournament berth with an 8-6 comeback victory at Stratford on the final weekend of the regular season.

Post 17 cruised through its early-round games of the state tournament, picking up shutout wins over Torrington (4-0) and Ridgefield (7-0) before beating Middletown, 7-3, and Bristol, 4-2, to reach the tournament finals.

Facing Middletown again at Palmer Field, Post 17 stared down a 2-0 deficit entering the seventh. With the bases loaded and one out, Swiderski, who led off the inning with a triple, scored on a wild pitch. Moments later, Bessette blooped a soft liner over the shortstop to plate Zollo and Yackowski with the tying and winning runs.

Hankey finished a complete-game victory by scattering five hits and four walks with six strikeouts to earn tournament MVP honors and send Post 17 to the Region 1 tournament in Keene, N.H.

“We were like, why stop here? Let’s do as much as we can to keep this going,” Hankey says.

In Keene, Post 17 picked up wins over Plattsburgh, N.Y. (5-0), Manchester, N.H. (5-3), and Lynn, Mass. (5-2) to reach the finals of the double-elimination tournament. Lynn edged Naugy, 2-0, in the first game to force a winner-take-all final.

In a twice-rain-delayed game, Post 17 routed Lynn, 11-2. Fratesi, Massa, Yackowski, Bessette and Somers all contributed two hits apiece, while Hankey was masterful all around. He was 4-for-5 with two runs, and he tossed a complete-game four-hitter with eight strikeouts.

Hankey attributed much of his pitching success to the team behind him.

“As a pitcher, I felt so comfortable knowing I had a great team behind me,” Hankey says. “Something that you might be afraid to throw, I wasn’t afraid to throw. If you can hit my best, then hit it. Fortunately, guys didn’t hit it too much.”

There wasn’t much time for Post 17 to celebrate. Naugy’s bus left Keene at 1 a.m., and by 10 a.m. they had to leave Naugatuck to catch a flight to Nebraska for the World Series.

“We were excited, but I think it took the wind out of our sails,” Hankey admits. “We didn’t catch a break to absorb it and relax and get energized.”

For Massa, there was an additional obstacle — the World Series bled into the first few days of September, and he was a sophomore on UConn’s football roster.

“I was supposed to go to football preseason, so Coach Legenza had to call one of my assistant coaches to tell him that I wasn’t going to be there for the start of the preseason,” Massa recalls. “I don’t think they liked that too much. But I couldn’t abandon the team I started with. There was no way. I think it hurt me a little bit as a potential starter at defensive back. I did play eventually, but I think they held it against me.”

Naugatuck was by far the smallest town represented at the Legion World Series in Hastings. Other teams included Cincinnati, Colorado Springs, Colo., Portland, Ore., West Palm Beach, Fla., Towson, Md., Fargo, N.D., and Bartlesville, Okla.

Post 17 went 1-2 to finish sixth in the tournament, losing to Cincinnati, 7-3, and West Palm Beach, 4-2, but picking up a 1-0 win over Fargo on the strength of Caneira’s five-hitter.

“In New Hampshire and Nebraska, it was a case of trying to understand where you fit in,” says Caneira, who later became a three-time All-American at Eastern Connecticut State and pitched parts of two seasons with the California Angels. “It’s one thing to play other towns in Connecticut, and you play them routinely, so you sort of know where you stack up. Once you start playing Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and then Cincinnati and Fargo, it was an eye-opener. It was like, how good are we?”

Fifty years later — hard to believe for those involved — the memories are still vivid.

“Who ever thought that some kids from the borough of Naugatuck would end up in the American Legion World Series in Hastings, Nebraska?” Hankey says. “We were like little kids walking around the field, the mecca of Legion baseball. I was living in a dream. Everything just fell into place.”

“When you don’t expect something to happen like that, it was so fulfilling when it happened,” Massa adds.

“I consider it like a family experience,” Caneira says. “These are the kids you grew up with. You saw them almost every single day. We all shared in the same thing. We experienced a lot of things for the first time — flying to Nebraska, that was the first time most of us had done that. It was part of the growing-up process. It has nice warm place in my heart.”