By Andrew Petyak and David Burcham
New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
It’s been 40 years since the fanfare. The car trip to South Gate. The Labor Day tournament.
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.”
LAWRENCE COUNTY STARS
Some Lawrence County athletes went away to play sports in college after high school. For those who didn’t or for those who had already earned their degrees and had returned to the area, softball became the game of choice.
“We were in the midst of a trend,” Chuck Cook said. “The trend was you don’t hardly have any people playing baseball (in the area), and you have a lot of guys who are really good athletes who are playing softball. Then, you see crowds going to these games and watching.
“We knew we were on the right track because it’s something that you like, you have a lot of really good athletes participating and you’ve got a gang of fanfare. In fact, the games that we were playing, they were on the radio broadcasting and there was even boxscores in the New Castle News. You can see nationwide what has happened over the years with softball on TV and everything.”
In their inaugural season, the Dukes posted a 32-2 record that included 1971 Lawrence County Slo-Pitch Softball League regular season and playoff crowns. They finished sixth in the USSSA tournament in Louisville, Ky.
Croton followed with a 30-4 mark in 1972, capturing another league regular season and playoff title.
As the popularity of the sport increased, fans began to pack Gaston Park and Progressive Field in droves, usually to catch a glimpse of their local high school stars of yesteryear. The women’s division saw a surge in popularity, too, with Stan’s Auto becoming the best of the bunch.
Nothing put fans in the seats more than the rivalry between the Croton Dukes and Cray’s Iron Dukes. Both teams featured past high school stars and sandlot standouts. The Iron Dukes, members of the ASA, had big names like former New Castle High players Anthony Aven, Allan Joseph and Lou Santangelo, all past members of the Croton squad. For the Croton Dukes, there were the Lambos, who were multi-sport athletes for Laurel; Kenny Hudson, who had a brief stint in the Kansas City Royals minor league system; Mickey Annarella, an All Tri-county selection for Union in football; and later, Anthony “Monk” Laurenza, who was an all-state football player for New Castle. Laurenza would earn a scholarship to play for the University of Miami (Fla.). å
During tournaments cars jammed the entrance to Gaston Park, backing up traffic nearly three miles.
“What was ironic, I lived right in the Gaston Park area,” corner infielder Ed Yerage said. “On nights of softball games, I couldn’t find a parking spot on the street I lived on. It was a congregation of people being entertained by some special athletes.”
Despite an intense rivalry, the two teams generally got along with each other off the field.
“It was a good rivalry. Each team had respect for the other,” John Lambo said. “Guys like (the Iron Dukes) Freddy Ryan, we’re friends to this day.”
PATH TO DETROIT
Only 39 teams made it to the USSSA’s Eastern Division Class A finals in Southgate, Mich., in 1973. You could have the best softball team in the region, but exposure in big tournaments and wins against top, out-of-state foes is what ultimately got you an invite to the tournament. From there, the top eight teams, two each from the Midwestern, Eastern, Western and Southern divisions, played in the USSSA World Series the following spring.
“You have to be good enough to get invited,” Chuck Cook said “Naturally, our commissioner (the late Pete “Figo” Carvella), he could see that we had an outstanding team because we’re winning the Lawrence County league and we’ve got tremendous athletes. Just about everybody wants to play with us because we have three sets of uniforms, when we travel, we’ll pay for gasoline, we’ll even pay for half of your hotel room. We’re also going to big cities and meeting the best players and beating a lot of them.”
With help from Carvella, the Croton Dukes, Iron Dukes and Stan’s Auto earned a trip to Southgate.
“A lot of people would think it’d be uncommon to have three teams from this little town,” Chuck Cook said. “We were five miles away from each other and had 20,000 people. That’s a pretty big feat in the softball world.”
At Southgate, Croton rolled through the competition. The Dukes didn’t swell scores to lopsided decisions, instead they had close, low-scoring battles, including a 5-3 victory over World-Wide Movers in Cudahy, Wis., and a 4-3 triumph against Ulrich Athletic Club of Louisville.
The physically undersized Dukes’ brand of softball, based on fundamentals and speed, won over the Southgate crowd. Some even changed allegiances from their hometown favorites, Dino’s Pizza, Bryant Walker and Snyder’s Masonary, in favor of the Pennsylvania boys from a steel town.
“I just remember fans going ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’,” John Lambo said. “In our first game, I was the leadoff batter and hit the ball to the shortstop. By the time he picked it up and looked, I was already at first base. We played Robert’s Lounge and they were stunned. They were like ‘who are all these little guys who are kicking butt up here?’ ”
Included in the team’s five-game winning streak was a triumph over Dino’s Pizza, the champion of the event the previous season. The 8-4 win advanced the Dukes to the finals, where they’d have to wait for their opponent from the losers’ bracket.
“It’s always in my head, I remember us scoring 87 runs on 92 hits with no errors in six games,” Dan Cook said.” Base hits, base hits, base hits. That’s how we outplayed everybody.”
A heat wave swept through Southgate on that Labor Day weekend. The temperatures turned up even higher when Dino’s Pizza made its way out of the losers’ bracket for a much-hyped rematch against the Dukes in the finals.
“Their pitcher, Cal Carmen, was a wise guy,” Chuck Cook said. “He was chirping at us that we weren’t going to beat him that second game He was a well-known guy, an all-world player a couple times. He thought he had us.”
The score was 9-9 after six innings. Croton broke the game open with five runs in the seventh as the Dukes took home the title with a 14-10 final. The game ended with a fly ball to left fielder Cotelesse.
“The best moment of that weekend was when we recorded that final out,” Yerage said. “All the pressure that goes along with being part of such an accomplishment leaves your shoulders.”
“We were all running around like little kids,” Spigler said. “I remember telling Danny to pull down the banner in the left field. We all posed for a picture. That brings back at lot of memories.”
“It was amazing. We were signing autographs. You’d thought you were a professional,” Larry Lambo said. “I was 20 and I thought, oh my God, somebody is asking me for an autograph. It was an awesome time.”
Shortstop Randy Huey was one of many stars for the Dukes, leading the team with three hits, scoring three runs and driving in one in the title game.
The victory gave starting pitcher Carl Pia his sixth win of the tournament. Pia also hit .750 with two home runs in 20 at-bats. He was 2 for 3 with two runs in the championship game, leading to MVP honors and an All-World selection for the tournament. Huey and Mickey Annarella also earned All-World recognition.
“It was our weekend. It was my weekend,” Pia said. “I was in the groove that weekend. The few outs that I did make were all line drives. I never hit the ball so well.”
Croton wasn’t the only team that had success in Michigan. Stan’s Auto earned the women’s division championship while the Iron Dukes (4-2) placed sixth in the men’s division. The double championships by Croton and Stan’s is the only time a men’s and women’s team from the same city has won titles in the same season.
A police escort greeted the Dukes upon their return to the New Castle city limits.
Dukes’ fandom ran rampant throughout the county. More than 200 people were on hand at a banquet for the team at Troggio’s Restaurant. Carvella served as toastmaster for the event as the Dukes received individual awards, while team honors were accepted by president Rocky Rico. The Dukes also received various commendations, including one from the Senate, House, state Sen. Tom Andrews and New Castle Mayor Francis Rogan.
“No one expected it. That was a surprise,” Spigler said. “There was a sign coming into town that said ‘Home of the World Champion Croton Dukes.’ It was nice. It was a sense of pride.”
That following spring, Croton traveled to San Francisco to compete in the USSSA World Series. Having waited months for this moment, the Dukes were more than thrilled to finally be on their way west.
“It was the only time in my career that I’ve played in anything like that,” said Anthony “Monk” Laurenza, who joined the team for the 1974 season. “It was a beautiful stadium and everything was first class.”
However, the trip would end in disappointment as the team went 0-2, losing the opening game to Capitol before being eliminated by the Bay Area Bombers.
“They beat us 14-6,” Chuck Cook said of that final game. “Of our six runs, two of them were homers. Of their 14 runs, nine of them were homers. Our shortstops were 5-foot-8, 5-9 and 160-pounds. Theirs was 6-6 and 200. Our first basemen were 6-0 and 205, they were 6-6 and 250. We’re squeezing for runs, they’re saying we don’t care if you get three, because we’ll get six.”
That wasn’t Croton’s style, but the trend continued and today’s game features lumbering power hitters, less-than-stellar fielding and lopsided scores. A slugger blasts a home run, trots to first base then heads to the dugout.
Many former Dukes can’t even bear to watch.
They prefer to remember a time when they revolutionized the game, changing its perception from a lazy man’s sport by dazzling spectators with sleek fielding, station-to-station hitting and fundamentals.
(So, what are the Croton Dukes doing today? Find out where they are now in Monday's print edition of The News.)