Fan support helped carry ’69 Legion team

Over 200 borough fans welcomed home the Naugatuck American Legion baseball team from the American Legion World Series in 1969. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVES

Ask some of the key players from Naugatuck’s 1969 American Legion baseball team about their favorite part of Post 17’s run to the American Legion World Series, and one common answer emerges.

“In Connecticut for the state championships, we had more than 1,700 people come out just from Naugatuck,” says Jim Hankey, the MVP of the 1969 state tournament. “It was a magical, magical time. It was like everybody who lived in Naugatuck wanted to go to the game.”

The borough has a longstanding reputation of supporting its Greyhounds as they pursue championships — routine crowds of 10,000-plus for Thanksgiving football games against Ansonia through the 1990s, more than 5,000 for baseball state finals in the 1960s and ’70s, and even a thousands-strong base that traveled to Mohegan Sun for the Class L boys basketball final four years ago.

But Legion baseball? That was something different.

It really was the only game in town for the summer, and Post 17’s supporters went everywhere. From nearly 2,000 borough fans watching the state championship clincher in Middletown to more than 400 in Keene, N.H., for the regional final, and even a couple hundred in Hastings, Neb., for the World Series — the players loved it.

“It was amazing,” says Gene Massa, the team’s veteran presence. “We had truly great fan support. Especially when we played in Middletown, that stadium was filled. At that time, Legion baseball was the game to play. Now there are so many baseball organizations involved, but the fans were phenomenal.”

Even John Caneira, who pitched professionally for five years, looks back and realizes how unique Naugatuck’s fan support was.

“I think maybe I took it for granted,” Caneira admits. “Fifty years later, looking at what happens in sports today — the idea of having thousands of people at a high school or Legion baseball game, you don’t see that hardly ever. We were all wrapped up in the moment. The support was incredible. I’ve done enough sightseeing across the country, and that sort of support is unusual.”

Hankey says that the throng of Garnet and Grey faithful made a difference on the diamond.

“When we saw our fans out there yelling for us, you’d better believe that motivated us,” Hankey notes. “That was the 10th person on the team for us. You can’t believe how much that helped us in close games.”

That’s also part of the reason Hankey feels a little badly for today’s young athletes. His nephew, Nate Deptula, helped Post 17 reach the Southern Super Regional finals of this summer’s state tournament — with far fewer people watching.

“I went to several games for him this year,” Hankey says. “My sister was with me, and she couldn’t believe that a handful of fans — Naugy was rich in tradition, so only having like 15 people go to a game, I look at it and ask, where are the fans? I understand that back then life was much simpler, but what about the people from Naugatuck?”

The spring of 2022 will mark the 50-year anniversary of the end of Naugatuck’s 64-game high school winning streak, and Hankey hopes to plan a commemorative weekend that will include a chance for younger athletes to hear about the borough’s rich baseball past — and perhaps a permanent reminder at Legenza Field to keep the history alive.

“I still think the kids in town need to know what a great time this was and what a great feat the players of Naugatuck High School and the American Legion teams put on the field,” he says. “It was magical being a part of this team. I wouldn’t change anything in the world of being part of this.”