By JOHN GORALSKI
The boys leaned off the sides of the gleaming fire trucks to wave at the gathering crowd on the town green. Southington residents lined both sides of Main Street to cheer for their boys of summer as they passed.
The impromptu procession of teenagers from Recreation Park drank in the fanfare that was so well-deserved and so unexpected.
In the summer of 1969, this small group of local boys grabbed headlines during their unlikely run that fell just short of the international stage.
No Southington team—before or since—has come closer to the promised land. The 1969 team’s late summer surge ended just two victories from the Little League World Series.
“The emotion among the fans and parents poured into the community, and the hometown parade was the icing on the victory cake,” said former sports writer Art Secondo, who followed each inning in print and on the radio. “It was a moment in time that those of us, especially the players, would secure in their memories to be recalled forever.”
Nobody could have predicted the storied run when the small group of Southington Southern Little League all-stars met their rookie coach at the team’s first practice at Recreation Park. Sure, they were the best in the fledgling South Little League, but they weren’t even the team to beat in the town.
Smart money would have been bet on the boys from Southington’s northern league…until the South beat them in the district finals. The Southington Southern Little League all-stars were underdogs every step of the way as they dispatched everyone in the district, the state, and the region. They won with blow-outs, comebacks, and one-run pitching duels. They beat teams from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island before finally falling prey to a Pennsylvania power.
In 1969, Little League tournaments didn’t have pool match-ups, so teams couldn’t jockey for position. There weren’t double-elimination safety nets, loser’s brackets, or second chances. It was a head-to-head brawl that left top teams scratching their heads, asking how they lost to this small band of Southington boys that seemed more interested in postgame ice cream and hot dogs than any sort of championship quest.
“At the first day of practice we had no clue about how good we’d be,” said starting outfielder Jack Fager. “We just wanted to play, be good, and have some fun. Then, as time went on, game after game, you know what? We were pretty good.”
Starting pitchers Mike Truss, Steve Kiltonic, and Joe Triompo shouldered most of the load on the mound with Gerry Moss anchoring the team behind the plate. Rick Buzanowski, Tom Carbone, Joe Triompo, Gary Burdette, and Jeff Boislard defended the infield, while Steve Kiltonic, Jim Gugliotti, and Fager roamed the outfield.
But the team boasted depth at every position with utility players like Doug Greaney, Tom Joy, Jim Bailey, and Pat Desorbo playing pivotal roles in nearly every single game.
At the plate, Fager (11-for-17) led a solid offense with a .647 batting average. Moss led the team with three homeruns.
“The real unsung heroes were our utility players,” said Fager. “Everybody did something to play a special part on our success. I’m telling you. It wasn’t just one of the pitchers, us in the outfield, or Gerry Moss hitting homers. This was a great team with great contributors. That’s why were as good as we are.
Opponents never knew what hit them. The locals held on to a scoreless tie against Berlin in the first round until rains swept in, postponing the contest, and making Berlin’s ace ineligible when play resumed the following day. Southington manufactured a run to advance with a 1-0 victory.
“They were tremendous,” Fager said. “That rain saved us.”
It also set the stage for their blue collar style and never-give-up play. They rallied from behind to beat Plainville, 6-4, in the district semifinals. Once again, it took a comeback to clinch a 5-4 victory and the District 5 banner in a cross-town rivalry game. That was a turning point.
“That was the first time we had a big crowd,” said Fager, estimating at least 500 baseball fans circling the field. “The two leagues, North and South, had never met before, and the West wasn’t even close to becoming a league yet. That made it unique. The North had an incredible team, but we came back in the bottom of the sixth and beat them.”
With the victory, Southington was catapulted into the state competition where they blasted Milford’s all-stars, 6-0, to face Simsbury for the title. That’s when Southington’s shortstop, Triompo scooped up his black bat that he just picked up at bat day at Yankee Stadium and drove a late pitch over the center field fence to secure the state title with a 2-1 win.
“He wasn’t really a home run hitter, but he was so good,” said Fager. “He could play anywhere, but on that day he had the biggest hit in the tournament. He vaulted us into New Englands… Now we knew we had something special.”
In the 1960s, teams had to win an extra title before reaching the Eastern Regionals. They had to win the district, the state, and New England. Each bracket was single elimination. As state champs, the locals still had to dispatch a team from Salem, N.H., 2-1, before outlasting a team from Danvers, Mass., 1-0, for a shot at the New England title.
“We were still kind of playing at home,” said Fager. “There were thousands of people cheering for us, not just from Southington. There were people from all over the state that just wanted a Connecticut team to win. There were a lot of Little League fans that showed up because they wanted us to win.”
The Southington kids didn’t disappoint. They battled through six scoreless innings with the boys from Pawtucket, R.I. In extra innings, Southington sidelined their ace to protect his arm, but the Rhode Island pitcher continued to dominate through two extra innings until Boislard managed to make it to first base with Moss standing on third.
Boislard tried to distract the pitcher by stepping on and off the base in a daring dance. Rhode Island countered with a “hidden ball” trick, but when the Pawtucket pitcher stepped back onto the rubber without a ball, the umpire called a balk.
“Moss sprinted home,” said Fager. “Game over.”
That’s when the boys mounted the fire trucks for a victory lap through the downtown. Southington was New England champions…but they still weren’t finished. The locals were thrust into the Eastern Regionals for a chance to reach the Little League World Series and face teams from Canada, Europe, Taiwan, and South America. But it was just business as usual for the locals.
“We weren’t even thinking about Williamsport. It was just one game at a time. Who’s next?” said Fager “We didn’t know anything about the other teams back then. We didn’t scout them. We didn’t know who was pitching. We just went out there and did our thing.”
A 9-0 loss to Williamsport, Pa. in Bloomfield, N.J. ended the unlikely run. On the bus ride back to the hotel, Coach Dan French, a local pastor, an immigrant from Canada, and a first-year coach in the Southington Southern Little League put it all in perspective.
“We were crying. There were a lot of tears, and our coach said, ‘This is the way I wanted us to lose.’ He was so afraid that we were going to lose, 1-0 or 2-1,” said Fager. “If somebody made an error? He would have been devastated for that kid. This was the way to go out.”
Back home, their accomplishments finally settled in. The local squad had done something nobody had ever done before, and they came just a few innings from international notoriety.
Plainville fans invited them to a local parade, and they cheered the team that beat them as Southington rolled through the procession. When the town held their first Apple Harvest Festival parade in the fall, the Southington South All-Stars were celebrated once again.
“This was a stepping stone for the future of baseball in this town, and it was a big plus for the high school,” said former Southington High School coach John Fontana. “They had to be honored because they’re the ones that set the standards for everything that was going on in town with baseball.”
Seven players went on to play for the high school team. A number went on to play after graduation. For almost five decades, local fans have championed that team from 1969 every time Little League all-star teams are assembled in the early summer.
For almost 50 years, local fans have been waiting to see if anyone can duplicate their run. Only a few have come close.
“The timing was perfect for us. It was just a great experience,” said Fager. “This town fell in love with us, and we fell in love with the town. The fans were just incredible. First, it was our parents, but then the whole town wrapped us up. When we got to the states and New England, there was something like 2,000 people at the games. For Little League? That’s something.”
Their success has become the measuring stick for Southington’s youth teams, so it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee selected the 1969 Southington Southern Little League all-stars to the Class of 2017. It will be the first youth team to be inducted into the local hall of fame.
“It is fitting these young men receive the ultimate honor,” said Secondo. “They were honestly just content with being all-stars, most likely never imagining what was to come.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 8, they will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“I’m going to see some guys that I haven’t seen in a long time,” said Fager. “It’s going to be great. My next goal is to get a hold of as many as I can to make sure we can all go.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.