BY STEVE BARLOW
Editor’s note: There have been other great high school sports winning streaks over the past half-century, but none carry the mystique that surrounds the 64 straight games won by the Naugatuck High School baseball team from 1970 to 1972.
This is the start of a five-part series on the Naugatuck 64-game streak, an unforgettable moment in Connecticut high school sports history.
NAUGATUCK — It happened a half-century ago and may never be repeated in Connecticut.
The Naugatuck High baseball team’s 64-game win streak, which mesmerized the state and enthralled the borough 50 years ago, is unlikely to reoccur for one big reason: The CIAC now mandates seven-inning games.
“You couldn’t have the streak today because our games were nine innings,” said Tom Somers, centerfielder on the 1970 Naugy team.
Time after time during the seemingly endless streak, Naugatuck rallied in the eighth and ninth innings to pull out victories and keep the magic alive. The Greyhounds had more lives than a black cat.
There were plenty of reasons why the streak — which came to a close in a 4-2 loss to Shelton before 6,000 fans at Yale Field in the 1972 Class A semifinals — did happen.
First and foremost was Ray Legenza, the exacting taskmaster of a head coach whose laser-focused preparation had his team ready for anything.
“We were really prepared to play,” said Tom Keating, shortstop on the 1972 team. “He was unbelievable. We would be on the bus headed to games, and he would give us carrots to eat so we would see better.”
Coaches need material to mold, though. Another reason was the talent produced by the borough’s youth leagues and elementary school teams.
And don’t overlook the groundswell of support from the community itself. Hundreds of fans packed the Greyhounds’ games, with some businesses in town closing in the afternoon so workers could cheer on the team.
“The whole town was buzzing,” said Keating. “Naugatuck gave us so much support. Every game felt like a championship.”
But it wouldn’t have reached the point it did — one win shy of the then national record of 65 set by Waxahachie, Texas — if not for the cardiac kid efforts of the Greyhounds … and, yes, a little luck, too.
There was the 5-4 win over Stratford in the 1971 Class A semifinals when Naugy rallied for three runs in the ninth.
And in 1972, as the streak lengthened, the Greyhounds kept pulling games out of the fire: a 12-inning win over Hamden, a 15-inning win over Notre Dame-West Haven, a 15-inning win at Ansonia, a Class A quarterfinal win over Simsbury with the tying run cut down at second base on a steal attempt for the final out.
A couple of close calls stand out, though.
In the 1970 Class A final (the CIAC had only three divisions in the state tournament then), Naugy was down 3-1 to Stamford Catholic and its ace, Art DeFillipis.
With two outs and one runner aboard, Somers hit a bouncer down the third base line to Stamford Catholic third baseman Bob Robustelli, who fielded the ball cleanly, but never made a throw.
Robustelli was sure it was foul, but umpire Pop Shortell, the iconic Ansonia superfan, ruled it fair. Somers reached first safely. After surrendering a hit, a tired, rattled DeFillipis walked three batters to lose, 4-3.
“When the game was over, there were the third baseman and the pitcher rolling around on the mound. They got into a fight,” Somers recalled. “He was yelling at him, ‘Why didn’t you throw it?’”
And then there was the closest call of all, known in local lore as the Arline game.
The streak was at 53 when Naugy came to Municipal Stadium in ‘72 to face Wilby flamethrower Jim Arline, one of the greatest athletes Waterbury ever produced.
Arline struck out 21 batters that night, and Wilby was up, 4-3, in the top of the ninth with two outs and Greyhounds at second and third. At the plate was Bill Grabowski.
“His ball was jumping,” Grabowski remembered. “I had a 3-2 count, and I barely got the bat on the ball and hit a little foul ball to the first baseman. I thought the streak was over.”
It should have been, but it wasn’t. Wilby first baseman Bill Matzkevich dropped the foul pop, and the streak still had air to breathe. Grabowski proceeded to walk and so did the next batter (Arline’s 13th of the night) and the game was tied. Naugy then won it with two more runs in the 11th.
This time, there were no teammates brawling after the final out.
“I asked Arline years later, ‘How’d it feel to see him drop that?’” Somers recalled. “He said, ‘That’s baseball.’ There was no animosity. Some guys might have had resentments, but he was a great guy and a great athlete.”
The Greyhounds finally ran out of miracles June 6, 1972, in the state semifinals against a Shelton team they knew well and which knew them well.
“Of all the teams, we had to play Shelton,” said Bernie Palmer, centerfielder on that team. “We played this team probably eight, nine, 10 times in the preseason. We always practiced against them.”
The Gaels were coached by a Legenza disciple and friend, Joe Benanto. After five scoreless innings, Shelton drew first blood with two runs in the top of the sixth. Naugy answered with two in the bottom of the frame, but Shelton scored a go-ahead run in the eighth and an insurance run in the ninth that is disputed to this day.
The Gaels scored in their last at-bat on a fly ball down the right field line that several players insist went foul. The umpire’s view, though, was obstructed.
“I stood up and I might have blocked his view because that thing was about a foot foul when it landed down the first base line,” said catcher Greg Mencio.
With the extra cushion on the scoreboard, Shelton set down the Greyhounds 1-2-3 to advance to the state final. The Gaels would go on to win three straight state titles.
“We never lost hope because there were so many games that we could’ve lost and didn’t, especially that Wilby game,” Grabowski said. “It wasn’t meant to be. We were on the fringe all season, so it wasn’t unexpected.”
So ended a streak that will, in all likelihood, never happen again.
“It was an outstanding accomplishment,” star pitcher Jim Hankey said, “nothing we thought we would ever be able to do.”
Republican-American sports writer Roger Cleaveland contributed to this story.
BY STEVE BARLOW