New Castle News

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September 2, 2013

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

(Continued)

NEW CASTLE — 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.”

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