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February 28, 2012

Giant killers: New Castle’s 1970s-era Iron Dukes to take their place among softball royalty

NEW CASTLE — They were called the Iron Dukes — a name that conjures up Babe Ruthian images.

But when the slo-pitch softball legends from New Castle showed up for tournaments throughout the country 40 years ago, they didn’t look the part.

“People thought we’d be giants,” said Anthony “Bercie” Guiliano, who stood 5-foot-7 and weighed 165 pounds. Guiliano and his teammates weren’t giants, but they played liked them.

“It was crazy,” said Lou Quahliero, who played and later managed the team. “People would ask for autographs and have pictures taken with us.”

Taking their name from beer companies that sponsored them, the Iron (Iron City) Dukes (Duquesne) came to epitomize the words on their jerseys. Iron — as in what is used to build things that endure; and Dukes, which connotes a sort of nobility. After a change in sponsorship in 1973, they played as the F.A. Cray Iron Dukes.

What they did decades ago still stands as a testament to their toughness. They officially will become softball royalty Saturday in Grantville, Pa., near Harrisburg. That’s when the Iron Dukes, who won six consecutive state titles from 1970 through 1975, will become the first slo-pitch team inducted into the Pennsylvania Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame.

It will be a double honor for John “Juggo” Frank, who will be the third player from the team to be installed. Guiliano, the leadoff hitter and star pitcher, was the first selected in 2000, followed by No. 2 hitter Freddy “Bull” Ryan in 2003. Coincidentally, Frank was the team’s No. 3 hitter.

WHO THEY WERE

Longtime softball commissioner Guy Demaio of New Castle said the Iron Dukes were in a league of their own. “They played the game in a special way,” said Demaio, a member of the ASA National Hall of Fame and an aficionado of the sport.

Demaio said Guiliano was a master at placing the ball with his bat and his arm. “He got on base 90 percent of the time and once had 13 consecutive hits in a tournament.”

Quick wrists were a key to Ryan’s success, according to Demaio. “He always seemed to get the sweet spot of the bat on the ball.

“And Frank was the most efficient at getting runners across the plate.”

Joe Cangey was the original manager. Other players included Anthony Aven, Buster Cubellis, Bill Columbus, Albert Gabriel, Jack Hannon, Ken Hudson, Randy Huey, Allan Joseph, Jack Leone, Lou Lombardo, Chuck Masters, Ralph Morella, John Pierog, Jim Popovich, John Quahliero, Joey Short, Chuck Stone, Ron Querriera and Ed Yerage.

Most of the Dukes grew up in Mahoningtown. “Eighty percent of us lived within a mile of each other,” said Lou Quahliero.

“They were a bunch of little guys from New Castle,” said Demaio. “But they made a habit of beating teams with big players from big cities.”

The Dukes were rated in the top 10 teams in the country by the United States Softball Association and beat four national champions. Compiling a record of 180-5, including 108 wins in a row in league play, the Dukes also won 29 tournaments and finished second eight times. They won the Mid-American tournament in Louisville, Ky., in 1971.

Quahliero said even opposing players were fans. One player told him following a tournament in Petersburg, Va. that they were the best team he’d ever seen.

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