By John Goralski
At 16 years old, Phil D’Agostino sat on his front porch and cried as two men destined to be major league general managers walked away with his dreams. D’Agostino’s mother still stood guard at the front door, and his father never left the kitchen table.
The scouts had come with a contract for Southington’s future chief of police, but D’Agostino’s parents never let them in the door.
“I remember her standing in the doorway, and saying, ‘No. No way. He can’t play. He’s got to work,’” said Lou DePaolo, a childhood friend. “That was the immigrant style. You had to work, and baseball was just a game. It just broke him up. I sat with him on his outside steps. I tried to comfort him, but he just cried…”
It might seem ludicrous by today’s standards to let a major league contract slip from your fingers. But as young men traveled overseas to fight in World War II, it was a decision that D’Agostino’s parents never questioned. Since it took both of their signatures to enroll their son in the minor leagues, the scouts were forced to return to Brooklyn empty handed.
Baseball’s loss was Southington’s gain. After trying his hand at construction and other pursuits, the young D’Agostino traded his baseball mitt for a badge, and the rest was history.
Still, the debate lingers on…
“Had he had the opportunity, I think he would have been a very good ballplayer,” said DePaolo. “How great I don’t know, but I’m sure that he would have been good. Whenever you matched him up against the teams he played, he was outstanding. The guys that he played with were all good ballplayers, but he always stood out.”
D’Agostino grew up in the 1930s, and Southington was yet to be known for anything other than baseball. These days, the town boasts the distinction of being the only community in the state to graduate a pair of World Series champions. Last year, Southington was the only town in Connecticut to boast two players in the major leagues.
It was D’Agostino that set that standard in the 1940s.
Former sports writer and Southington native Art Secondo remembers overhearing conversations as a child, and D’Agostino’s name was always mingled amidst a long list of football stars. Lewis High School was a football powerhouse, knocking off big schools as if they were midget teams. Local sports fans championed NFL players like Jack Zilly, but D’Agostino began to turn the conversation.
“In that era, it was all about football,” said Secondo. “Everybody would talk about the football players. Nothing else really mattered, but Phil was an exception. He came before Mike Mauro and all the rest of those great guys in baseball. He was the first to get a lot of attention for baseball, and everybody used to say that he was such a natural athlete.”
The Southington shortstop was described as a jackrabbit on the bases with a shotgun arm. He could go to his left and his right. He could hit and run the bases. It was no surprise that the Brooklyn Dodgers wanted to snatch up the Southington phenom. D’Agostino was one of the best in the state.
“Phil D’Agostino could do it all,” former Lewis High School coach Joe Fontana told The Southington Observer when D’Agostino was inducted to the high school baseball hall of fame in 1983. “He could hit, field and run. We had some great teams in those years, and Phil was a major reason.”
Nobody would have known if to speak to him. D’Agostino built a baseball diamond in the back of his parent’s house. He taught all three of his sons to play the game and sat quietly on the sidelines as they fought their way onto all-star teams. He loved to watch the game. He could quote statistics on almost any player in the major leagues, but D’Agostino rarely spoke about his own days on the diamond.
His sons learned about their father when old timers would approach them in town.
Pat D’Agostino remembers hearing the comparisons each time he drove a long ball past the outfielders at Recreation Park. “I’d hit one all the way to the trees, and I remember people saying, ‘You hit like your dad,” he said. “I never knew how good he was, but I can remember him hitting that ball in the back yard. It would go way, way out to the outfield.”
Pete D’Agostino remembers searching through old scorebooks from the Southington Police Department’s softball teams, and his father’s statistics were always some of the best.
“My father never bragged or told us any big stories about how he hit,” said Pete. “We’d always hear from some of the coaches or the older guys about how good our dad was. They’d always tell us how good of a shortstop he was. They’d always say that he could have played for the Yankees, but he never really pushed us to go out for the team or anything. He never bragged about himself.”
D’Agostino let everybody else do the bragging, and he let his own performance do the talking. He was known from driving long homeruns onto the house at the back of Pexto Field during Southington pick-up games. He batted over .300 in each of his seasons at the high school, although most of his exploits are lost to history because coverage of the war and rationing of resources made high school baseball articles scarce in the 1940s.
Still, his legend grew. Even today, the former Chief of Police is known more for his stolen bases than for catching people stealing. That’s why it’s no surprise that members of the selection committee selected D’Agostino to be inducted into the Southington Sports Hall of Fame.
He will be inducted posthumously in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf on Thursday, Nov. 8.
“He would have liked this. It would have brought a smile to his face,” said his son, Pete. “My mother’s really excited about it. It’s an honor.”
For tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335.
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