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September 2, 2013

Championship Reflections: Forty years ago, the Croton Dukes changed way softball was played

NEW CASTLE — It’s been 40 years since the fanfare. The car trip to South Gate. The Labor Day tournament.

The improbable.

The Croton Dukes were champions, staking their claim to softball glory with the 1973 United States Slo-pitch Softball Association Eastern Division Class A title.

It’s been four decades, but to team manager Chuck Cook, it seems like only yesterday.

“What we did, we changed the game in our era. We were baseball players who went to softball,” said Cook, who also manned right field. “Before our generation got into it, softball was a lazy man’s game. You had big guys that would hit the ball far, but they couldn’t run and couldn’t field. We were playing softball just like baseball — we were hitting behind the runner, playing good defense. We could win games 6-4, 7-5, 3-2, where other games were 25-24, 23-22, 26-18.”

The Croton Dukes were indeed something more than your typical softball team. They oozed competitiveness, strived for perfection and took to each game with a desire to not only win, but dominate.

“It was fun, but if we don’t win, it ain’t fun,” Cook said. “Some teams played to have a good time and get drunk.”

The Dukes won with a blend of technique, skill, fundamentals and most importantly, speed.  

“If we had a 4x100 relay team, it would have been our outfield,” left fielder Buster Cotelesse said. “Chuck Cook, Bob Cook, John Lambo and me were probably the four fastest guys in New Castle at the time.”

Sponsored by the Duca Degli Abruzzi Club on Croton Avenue in New Castle, the Croton Dukes were started by a collaboration between the team’s general manager and Chuck’s brother, Norm Cook, and then-vice president of the club, Jackie Prioletti, in 1971.

“That was the best thing that ever happened to us. If it weren’t for Norm Cook, we wouldn’t be there,” his cousin and the team’s catcher Gary Stone said. “All the guys that I played ball with, they’re all the greatest guys I ever was with. It was the best time in our life.”

The team was largely a family affair. Along with Chuck and Norm, there was brother-in-law Bob, who played center field and helped manage the team; cousin Billy, who handled second base; and the youngest, Dan, a valuable reserve. With few exceptions, every member of the team, whether it be the Lambos, the Annarellas or the Stones, was related by blood or through marriage. The general rule was, if you got too old to play, got married, or became too busy with life, your brother or cousin would step into your role.

“All of us were from Croton and we knew each other and we grew up together,” infielder Edward “Skip” Spigler said. “We knew everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, if there was one. That made us successful. We had that ingredient that the rest of them didn’t have. There were teams out there that had semi-pro players who were recruited, but they didn’t have the right mixture that we had.”

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