BY STEVE BARLOW
Editor’s note: There have been other great high school sports win streaks over the past half-century, but none carry the mystique that surrounds the 64 straight games won by the Naugatuck High baseball team from 1970 to 1972.
This is Part 4 of a five-part series on the Naugatuck 64-game streak, an unforgettable moment in Connecticut high school sports history.
NAUGATUCK — For Ray Legenza, it was all about the details. None was too small.
At the first practice each spring, the legendary Naugatuck High baseball coach would start by devoting time to, of all things, socks. He would give a tutorial on how high the Greyhounds should wear their garnet hosiery.
“You had to pull them up a certain way, up to the knee,” related Bill Grabowski, a pitcher for Naugy from 1970-73.
But Legenza wasn’t simply obsessed with how it looked sartorially. There was a method to his madness.
“He didn’t want the umpires calling those low pitches strikes,” Grabowski continued. “That’s how far he took it.”
A native of Enfield who played baseball and football at UConn, Legenza arrived in 1953 in Naugatuck and began employing the drill sergeant style of coaching he had learned in the Army with his schoolboy teams.
In 23 seasons, his teams won four state titles and 13 NVL championships and might have won even more except Naugy left the league for a half-dozen seasons in the mid-’60s.
When he retired as baseball coach in 1976 to concentrate on his job as vice principal, Legenza owned a record of 361-80, a mark of 105-2 during the 1969 to ‘73 seasons and, of course, the legendary 64-game win streak within that span.
His teams won because of talent and, yes, some luck, but mostly because of preparation he drilled into them. Legenza’s Greyhounds never beat themselves because of his constant attention to detail.
“He made you have to think,” Grabowski said.
In the middle of a game, Legenza would turn from the action to grill a bench player about the count at the plate or the number of outs. Woe to the player who didn’t know the answer.
“If you didn’t know,” said Kevin Cyr, second baseman in 1971, “he sent you behind the dugout to do pushups and sit-ups.”
Practices were rehearsals for game situations. A runner on third, one out, a grounder to second … what are you going to do?
“Every day at practice was a game situation,” said star pitcher Jim Hankey. “We did offensive situations, pepper, extended pepper, pitcher situations. We went over all the game situations, and then we played that way, too.”
On bus rides home, players would be called to the front to sit next to Legenza, who would quiz them about why they swung at a certain pitch or admonish them for missing the cutoff man on a relay.
The coach also gave players, especially pitchers, baseball homework.
“He would have me go over the key moments of the game and what my high points and low points were,” Hankey said. “Like 0-2 to a certain batter, I should have went with a brushback pitch or put a curve outside. It would be detailed, and he would grade us.”
And if a player couldn’t bunt, a player didn’t play.
“My dad did not suffer poor play at all,” said his daughter, Sharon.
A coach built in the mold of the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi, Legenza was a demanding task master.
“You couldn’t argue with him. Even when he was wrong, he was right,” said Tom Somers, a fleet outfielder for Naugatuck from 1968-70. “That’s what my old man told me, ‘Don’t try to argue with this guy.’” Somers recalled an exhibition game against Shelton before the 1970 season. After he lined a double, his helmet fell off as he scampered from first base to second.
After standing up at second, Somers walked back to get his helmet, but failed to call timeout before leaving the bag. The second baseman tagged him, and Somers was called out.
“I said, ‘Come on, it’s a scrimmage,’” Somers said. “Well, here comes Legenza running out. He’d put his arm around you and squeeze you by the neck. We get to the sidelines and he says, ‘Aren’t you the same guy who’s flunking biology?’ I said, ‘Gee, Coach, I’m not taking biology.’ He says, ‘Well, you should be.’ How do you argue with the guy? He’s never wrong.”
Legenza looked for any edge his team could get, no matter how small.
Base runners were instructed to lead off from first base a few inches nearer to the infield than most runners.
“It gave the illusion you were closer to the bag than you were,” Grabowski explained. “Who ever thought of that?”
Away from the diamond, Legenza was just as demanding. His evening phone calls to homes to make sure players were observing his curfews were legendary, but he didn’t stop there.
The coach would cruise around the borough on the prowl for any players out too late.
“Stop, drop and roll” is the name of a drill for people in a burning room. It had a different meaning for Legenza’s Greyhounds, some of whom liked to hang out at a local drive-in called the Farm Shop.
When Legenza’s vehicle would pull in the parking lot on a Friday night, a lookout would shout a warning “and we would stop, drop and roll under an automobile so he wouldn’t see us,” Somers said with a laugh.
For players who broke the curfew, the punishment was simple: You didn’t play. In those days, when rosters were full, Legenza always had someone on the bench ready to take a wayward regular’s place.
“Athletes get away with a lot now that my dad didn’t let them get away with,” his daughter said.
Sharon was the oldest of three daughters and one son who shared a house with not just Ray and their mother, Ruth, but a grandfather and an uncle who had Down syndrome as well. “It was a busy house,” Sharon said.
She noted that her father pushed his players in other areas besides baseball. Ruth’s brother, Tommy Kopp, played on one of Legenza’s early teams, went on to UConn and eventually signed to play in the Minnesota Twins’ farm system.
“Dad pushed him and made him study,” Sharon said. “He always said he wouldn’t have gone to college without Dad. He wasn’t the only one. Dad cared about his players more than anyone imagined.”
Ironically, Legenza, who died in 2007 at the age of 80, wasn’t comfortable with the winning streak he oversaw.
“It was kind of strange,” said Sharon, who was 13 when the streak ended 50 years ago. “It got so much publicity. Kids would ask him for his autograph. But he was always very low-key about it.”
Perhaps that’s because Legenza had another goal in mind besides simply winning. It was part of his philosophy of life. “He was a tough taskmaster,” Sharon said. “But it wasn’t whether you won or lost, but were you doing your best?”
THE STREAK (PART FOUR): Legendary Legenza orchestrated incredible three-year run
BY STEVE BARLOW