Ninth-inning rally gave Naugy title

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Down to final out, 1970 Greyhounds had a little ‘magic’ left

Naugatuck’s Ernie Bessette rounds third in the seventh inning on the way home to score Naugatuck’s first run during the 1970 state championship game against Stamford Catholic at Yale Field. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

This is the sixth story of a series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in local sports history. This story looks at the 50-year anniversary of the Naugatuck High baseball team’s comeback victory over Stamford Catholic to win the 1970 Class L state title.

In 1969, it was supposed to be the year of the Naugatuck baseball team — that was until a fateful collapse with one out to go in the state final against Lyman Hall robbed the Greyhounds of the Class L championship.

“I really think my sophomore year (1969) was the best team of my four years,” recalled Jim Hankey, a three-year Naugy starter from 1969-71. “It just wasn’t our turn. I was pitching a no-hitter for 8 2/3 innings, and a guy hits a ball through the shortstop’s legs, then I throw a perfect strike when I was walking off to celebrate and it’s called a ball — it was like, you’ve gotta be kidding me.”

But after a summer trip to the 1969 American Legion World Series, the Greyhounds regrouped for the 1970 scholastic season and began what every local sports fan remembers as “The Streak” — the state-record 64-game winning streak that included two state titles.

Most of the season was a breeze for Ray Legenza’s Greyhounds, who were led on the mound by Hankey and John Caneira.

“We had a really good team,” Hankey said. “With John and myself pitching, along with a couple of other good pitchers, we kept mowing them down. We went through the season pretty easily. We beat St. Bernard in the first game, like 18-2, and right there we knew we’d have a good team.”

Naugy finished the regular season 18-0 and cruised into the state final at Yale Field against Stamford Catholic. Some of the ‘Hounds had their own history with several of the Stamford Catholic players, including catcher Sam Guarino, who pitched all 20 innings for St. Cecilia against Hankey and his St. Francis squad in the fabled 1967 state parochial league tournament final.

Members of the 1970 Naugatuck High School baseball team, front row from left, Dave Welch, Len Synkowicz, Tom Somers, Rodger Swiderski, John Caneira, Lou Pisani, Tom Cronen; second row from left, Tony Campbell, Gary Fratesi, Tom Lynn, Ernie Bessette, Bob Mitchell, Bill Hicock, Wayne Palladino, Jim Hankey; third row from left, coach Ray Legenza, Dave Mowrey, Mickey Fortin, Ed Bea, Rich Schiaroli, Steve Thomas and assistant coach Joe Bojko. -NAUGATUCK DAILY NEWS

Hankey recalls the exchange when he first stepped into the box against Stamford Catholic.

“The first time I got up, (Guarino) was catching, so I clicked his shin guards and I said, ‘How’s it going, big guy?” Hankey recalled. “He said, ‘It’s been a while.’ ‘Yeah, three or four years,’ I said. He said, ‘You won’t get so lucky this time.’”

For most of the game, it looked like the catcher’s prediction would turn out to be true. Stamford Catholic pitcher Art DeFilippis, who a week prior had been drafted by the Washington Senators in the second round of the Major League Baseball draft, dominated the Greyhounds lineup to the tune of 6 1/3 no-hit innings.

With Stamford Catholic holding a 3-0 lead in the top of the seventh, Naugy finally staged its first rally when Ernie Bessette and Tommy Somers drew one-out walks and Hankey singled to right to break up the no-hitter and plate Bessette.

Stamford Catholic had scored its three runs off Hankey, who allowed two earned runs on four hits with one strikeout in 5 1/3 innings before Caneira stepped in to replace him. Caneira allowed two hits with a strikeout over the final 3 2/3 innings to give the Greyhounds a chance.

“John came in and did a fantastic job in relief and sat them right down,” Hankey said of Caneira, who had recently been drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and went on to become the second Naugatuck native to appear in an MLB game. “It wasn’t that we were giving up. We knew some magic was going to happen. You saw some guys down after they struck out walking back to the dugout, but I still knew there was magic left in this team.”

Facing a 3-1 deficit in the top of the ninth, Roger Swiderski led off with a walk but was cut down at second on a Gary Fratesi’s fielder’s choice. DeFilippis then induced a flyout by Bessette to move within one out of the state title.

Somers then slapped a ball to third base, where Bob Robustelli, son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Andy Robustelli, made a one-handed stab. But Robustelli thought the ball was foul, so he delayed his throw to first base despite umpire Pop Shortell’s fair signal.

“Pop Shortell was behind the plate and just seemed to factor into all of our comeback wins,” Hankey recalled. “Pop used to say that he had the clicker in one hand and his rosary beads in the other. I believed it. He loved Ansonia first, but he loved the Naugy team. He got to know a number of us and he became a dear friend. He tried to bribe my mom to get me to live with him so I could play football, basketball and baseball for Ansonia.”

With Somers on first and Fratesi on second, Hankey stepped in and delivered his second hit of the game to plate Fratesi and cut the deficit to 3-2. Bill Hicock then drew a five-pitch walk to load the bases, and Dave Mowrey did the same in his ensuing at-bat to plate Somers and tie the game.

“You could tell he was unraveling,” Hankey said.

Naugatuck’s Gary Fratesi, far left walks toward the plate during the seventh inning stretch of the 1970 state championship game against Stamford Catholic at Yale Field. -NAUGATUCK DAILY NEWS

Substitute left fielder Dave Welch followed up with a four-pitch walk to allow Hankey to score with the go-ahead run. Caneira needed just five pitches in the home half of the inning to close out Stamford Catholic, the final out being a pop-up caught by Swiderski at second base.

Naugatuck ended up winning the state title while managing just three hits and striking out 13 times. DeFilippis’ seven walks — four of them in the ninth — proved to be the difference. DeFilippis had entered the game with a 13-0 record and had allowed only four earned runs in 97 innings. Naugy matched that total over the final three frames.

“Beating that team on three hits was unheard of,” Hankey said. “There was a lot of luck and a lot of magic. It just seemed like we weren’t going to be denied.”

The Greyhounds became only the second team in state history to win the state title with an undefeated record, according to the Bridgeport Post. Caneira was the winning pitcher in half of Naugy’s 22 wins.

Like much of the Greyhounds’ successful run in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they enjoyed tremendous fan support at the state final. The Naugatuck Daily News noted that there was “only a small gathering from Stamford at Yale Field” so the “Naugatuck fans set the pace of the game and the constant roar in the ninth no doubt helped DeFilippis lose his composure.”

Naugatuck went 22-0 again the following season with a 9-2 win over Platt in the 1971 Class L final, and the ‘Hounds won their first 20 games in 1972 before finally seeing their 64-game streak snapped by Shelton in the state semifinals.

“That’s really when Naugatuck came together,” Hankey said of the streak years. “That’s when everybody was proud as a peacock, walking down Church Street or meeting someone and saying, ‘I’m from Naugatuck.’ It was unbelievable.”