By JOHN GORALSKI
A hush descended upon the crowd as a young Bobby Valentine leaned off first base in the opening round of the 1968 postseason. The Rippowan High School coach didn’t need to signal a steal. Everybody knew it was coming. After all, Valentine had out-run every young gun in the state, and he had never been caught.
But Dave Walstrom didn’t flinch. Why would he? For two seasons, the Blue Knight catcher had been perfect behind the plate. No errors. No passed balls and certainly no steals. He wasn’t worried about the future major leaguer. Nobody stole on the Southington arm.
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Fans found out during that middle inning standoff on the Southington High School diamond. As the ball left the pitcher’s hand, Valentine took off for second…
“He is the only guy that ever threw Bobby Valentine out,” said former Blue Knight coach John Fontana. “The ball was just waiting at second base. Walstrom was freaking unbelievable.”
State historians still clamor around Valentine, often calling him the best all-around athlete that the state has ever seen, but Southington fans aren’t so quick to concede. Walstrom was as shifty on the football field. He was just as dangerous on the hard court. In the one head-to-head battle between the two multi-sport champs, Walstrom’s arm beat Valentine’s speed. It was no contest.
“Dave Walstrom was probably one of the best all-around athletes that we’ve ever had at the high school,” said his former high school coach. “He was good at football. He was great at basketball and baseball. I think that, if you gave him a golf ball, he’d be your best player. If you would fish with him, he’d come back with the most fish. He was an unbelievable athlete.”
As hard as it may be to believe it, Walstrom didn’t come from a long line of tested athletes. His father wasn’t an athlete. Neither was his mother or sister, but Walstrom learned about sports from his uncle, Willie Mongillo, during backyard games of catch. It didn’t take long for those lessons to spill over into neighborhood games.
When he was old enough, he joined midget football. He started out as a 9 year old lineman but graduated to running back when coaches noticed his speed. In the Little League he started out as an infielder. But when Southington split into two Little League programs and the new league needed someone behind the plate, Walstrom volunteered to fill the void.
“I wanted to try it all,” he said. “I just wanted to play, and they needed somebody to catch. I didn’t want to play out in the outfield because I’d fall asleep out there, but I knew I could play infield…or catch.”
That’s the way he did it. He would volunteer for any position that was needed. He’d play wherever coaches would put him, and he’d quickly rise to the top. By the time Walstrom arrived at the high school, he was already a well-established three-sport athlete.
Walstrom credits the town’s youth leagues and coaches. “This town is great at promoting kids as athletes,” he said. “If you are a kid in town, and you want to be an athlete, you will have a chance to learn with some great ones. Once you get to the high school, it’s a different story as you try to take all those teams and bring them down to one, but it’s a great town. I loved it.”
Once again, Walstrom rose to the challenge. As a sophomore, he worked his way onto the varsity football team, mainly with the special teams unit during Southington’s historic 33-game unbeaten streak. The following year, when senior co-captain Vinnie Clements was the featured back, Walstrom—or “Hondo” as he was nicknamed by his teammates—settled into the wing back position in Joe Orsene’s single-wing attack. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry (387 yards, 3 touchdowns) as Southington’s secondary runner.
Walstrom brushes off his early success. “I’m sure that everyone was keying on Vinnie,” he said, “so when they gave it to someone else, I’m sure that they were just as surprised that it wasn’t Vinnie with the ball.”
His teammates, however, weren’t so quick to brush it off.
“We didn’t do much passing back in those days. We did a lot of running, usually up the middle, and Dave was so athletic. It was good to work with a runner that was that good. Really,” said Walstrom’s former center and former state representative Bruce “Zeke” Zalaski. “He was agile. He could spin off a tackle like no tomorrow, but he was really quick, too. He had really good hands to hang on to the ball, and I can’t remember him ever fumbling.”
When Hondo got a chance, he made the most of it. When Clements was hurt and Southington found itself with a deficit late in the game, coaches turned to Walstrom on a last gasp reverse from midfield. The junior back broke through the defense, out-maneuvered the secondary, and out-distanced all but one defender in the final ticks of the clock.
When the buzzer sounded at the end of the play, Walstrom had powered his way 49 yards on a desperation final play that came within a few inches of scoring the go ahead touchdown. By sheer will power, Hondo almost kept the streak alive one more week.
“Not only was he a great football player, he was great at every sport. Racquetball, golf, there’s nothing that Dave doesn’t excel at,” Zalaski said. “I know that, as a football player, he was really unstoppable. He helped us, many times, to get the yardage for those undefeated seasons.”
In his senior season, Walstrom shouldered the entire backfield burden as the featured back. Once again, he averaged over 5 yards per carry (5.3) as he led the Knights in carries (110), yardage (587) and rushing touchdowns (7) despite suffering an injury that shortened his season.
The injury might have also been the only thing that ever slowed Walstrom, keeping him off the basketball court as a senior. In his junior year, he earned a varsity letter as the basketball team’s sixth man, scoring 118 points with a career-high 15 point performance in a game against Rockville. As a senior, he was forced to watch from the sidelines as Southington struggled along without him.
“I broke my foot in the second to the last game of football against Rockville,” he said. “I missed the Thanksgiving Day game, and I missed all of basketball, but—as important as it was to me—it wasn’t as important as being able to play baseball in the spring. That was my true love.”
And it was baseball where he shined the brightest. In his senior season, Walstrom led the Knights to their second straight Central Valley Conference title and the team’s second straight trip to the semifinals. He posted his second straight perfect season behind the plate and finished second on the team in batting.
In his final two regular season games in 1968, Walstrom went 9-for-9 with nine extra base hits. At the time, he was tied for second place in the national record book for consecutive extra base hits. At the time of his graduation, Fontana had called Walstrom the “finest catcher” he had ever had, and 10 years later the coach listed Walstrom as the catcher on his 1977 “Dream Team.”
He protected the plate like a shortstop, and his throws to second base were more accurate than most pitchers…and faster. In two seasons as the Southington High School catcher, Walstrom didn’t make a single error. He had no passed balls, and didn’t allow a single stolen base. That’s more uncommon than a Southington ace pitching a perfect game.
“He was like a shortstop playing catcher. I tell people that all the time. He was unbelievable,” said Fontana. “He was a tiger, and he just hated to lose. If the pitcher got a little wild, he’d run right out there to the mound. He didn’t wait for me. He couldn’t stand it. He just wanted to get every guy out.”
At the plate, he was just as formidable, leading off the Knights with a .360 batting average as a junior and with a .370 average in his senior season.
“I want to be remembered as somebody that played hard all the time,” he said. “I definitely always wanted to win.”
That’s why it was so surprising to Southington fans when Walstrom walked away from the game after graduation. Fans expected to go on to play in college, but Walstrom decided to enter the workforce. Then, in 1974, the former Knight popped up on the radar on the diamond at Mattituck Community College.
In 1976—after almost a decade since his high school graduation—Walstrom exploded onto the scene at Western Connecticut State College for his final two years of college eligibility, and he helped lift the Colonials to the NAIA New England Region title with a .310 batting average and an .825 fielding percentage as an infielder.
As the captain the following spring, Walstrom improved his batting average to .376 and led the team in runs (25) and homeruns (7). He finished tied for the most doubles (9) and finished second on the team with 27 RBI. Most of his high school teammates had already hung up their cleats for good, but Walstrom hadn’t missed a step.
“I can’t imagine going back to college 10 years after high school graduation and playing college baseball, let alone hitting over .300,” said current Colonial coach John Susi. “I know that field conditions in the 70s and the 80s were pretty bad. They didn’t really have a field on campus, so they played on high school fields. They were using town fields and built a field behind the hospital one year. They were under a lot harsher conditions than we are now, so I would say that anyone who could hit over .300 in those years was really doing an excellent job.”
But those that knew him weren’t surprised. Just a few years after finishing his collegiate run, officials inducted the former catcher/infielder into the Southington High School Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, as a member of the second induction class.
“I’m honored. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been reading the names of all the people that were going in and wondering if I was going to get in, too,” he said. “I was in the baseball hall of fame, but this is bigger. Now, we’re dealing with all of the athletes in this town—football, baseball, basketball, track, and swimming. I’m very honored by this.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, Walstrom will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9640.
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.