“It wasn’t a team that was loaded with a lot of standout players. It was a team of what you might call….average to above average players that put their collective talents together during a magical history-making season.” Ray Wells
THOMASTON – Billy Rado is about as far away from Thomaston High School as you can get. From Boynton Beach, Fla. a touch more than 1,300 miles as the crow flies and 50 years as the clock ticks. He is generations apart and a life’s mercurial personal journey removed that has taken him from 28-years old to a racquetball- spry 78.
But time and distance are always neutralized to a large degree by the special, that championship season. That moment that never escapes you even as todays give way to the relentless march of tomorrows and life’s path takes you to new places.
And so it is with Rado. A Naugatuck native and Connecticut basketball legend, Rado spent a scant three years teaching at Thomaston High School. It was a short stop on a long, twisting continuing road. But he had that season. Not in basketball, his sport of fame as a player, and where he was a successful coach. But in baseball.
Ask Bill Rado about that 1970 Berkshire League title baseball season. I did. It ripped away time and distance.
“The Thomaston Golden Bears. First-ever championship,” he said with a pride that all those miles and all that time can’t take away. Yeah, Rado could coach baseball too.
Winning any title is special but that first one takes on all the wonder of doing what has never been done before. Thomaston High had never won a baseball title according to the town’s now-defunct newspaper the Thomaston Express. There were basketball and soccer titles but in a town with a solid baseball pedigree no school baseball crowns.
Throw in a first-ever state tournament qualification and this was a very big deal. The Bears were feted with a banquet at the Lake Plymouth Inn with former New York Yankee Spec Shea the guest speaker. There were trophies and jackets. You don’t forget and half a century later, the glow still emanates.
There was a baseball story to the 1970 Bears and a more than few side stories (Isn’t there always?). The 1960s era will never be described as smooth nor was this title run. During the season, the Thomaston Board of Education voted not to renew Rado’s teaching contract. After significant parental pressure, the decision was reversed. Rado would move on regardless and it proved to be his last season. While the issue simmered, the Bears kept their focus on the field. Still, the turmoil hovered over the season.
The Bears were not a league favorite to begin the campaign with the Waterbury Republican dubbing the squad as a team to watch. Woodbury was the top choice of many. The truth be known it was a team with some talent but not overwhelming talent. Led by pitchers Ray Wells and Phil Benedict and outfielder Jim Gobin, you respected the team but did not fear the team.
But if the Bears weren’t great (14-7 overall, 11-3 BL), they were gritty. Sparked by the pitching punch and hitting of Wells (.350) and Benedict (.302), the fine defensive play and hitting of Gobin (.327) and some clutch bats, the team got on a roll winning eight of its last nine league games and last four in a row to earn a tie for the title with Woodbury, who lost two games in the final weeks.
“I guess you could say we didn’t fall under pressure or we didn’t recognize we were under any,” said Wells. “
Rado used a unique system of splitting the pitching with Wells often pitching the first four innings (you needed five innings to get credit for a victory) and Benedict the final three frames. Wells would go on (with Gobin) to earn BL All-Star honors while posting a 3-4 mark while Benedict was 8-1.
“Having the two pitchers split games was something I learned from coach (Ray) Legenza at Naugatuck,” explained Rado. It got more pitchers involved and the arms lasted longer.”
Title-tie assured; the Bears thought the BL season was done The Bears thought wrong.
“I asked the players if they wanted to have a playoff with Woodbury and I think they voted to accept the tie,” said Rado.
“I don’t recall us voting but we had never won a BL title before and sharing a title was better than losing it,” said Wells’ of the team’s thinking.
A third matchup with Woodbury also figured into the thinking.
“We had beaten Woodbury, 2-1, the first time but they crushed us the second time around, 12-1,” remembered Wells. “Could the memory of the defeat have had anything to do with not wanting to meet them in a playoff game? It might have….but I don’t know for sure. “
In the end it didn’t matter. School Principal Herbert DeVeber notified the team that league rules said there was to be a playoff game. Due to the timing, the game was played after the state tournament.
In the state tournament, Thomaston, seeded seventh, drilled Bethel, 7-2, in its opener with Wells and Benedict splitting the pitching duties and Wells contributing a two-run triple. The Bears dropped a tight 5-4 decision to No. 2 Cromwell and were eliminated in the second round. Meanwhile Woodbury was ousted in its opener.
The playoff was game was played June 16 at Shepaug Valley with Wells going against Jay Nichols. Catcher Dan Vigeant put the Bears ahead in the fourth when he singled and eventually scored on an error. Wells was superb and the 1-0 lead held up until the seventh. Woodbury sent the game into extra innings when Nate Chatfield tripled and scored on a squeeze bunt.
Wells saved the game for Thomaston in the frame when he covered first base on a bunt with a runner on second. The runner tried to score and he threw a perfect strike to Vigeant for the third out of the inning.
The Bears settled matters in the eighth inning. Goblin walked, stole a couple of bases and scored on Vigeant’s bunt single for a 2-1 lead. Vigeant stole second and came home on a wild pitch. The Bears would add two more runs, highlighted by and RBI double from Benedict.
In a rare move, Redo went the distance with Wells and he didn’t disappoint, closing down Woodbury in the bottom of the inning. He scattered six hits during the game.
“The day before the game we were practicing like we had already lost,” said Redo. “I told the team to get out of here. It was like we lost before we played. But boy did they come out to play the day of the game. They were motivated. “
The euphoria of the victory almost came undone on the ride home. The idea came up to drive through Woodbury to celebrate. Whose idea it was has produced some differing versions through the years. Not everybody was in favor of the suggestion but one undeniable fact was that bus driver Helen Dew was having none of it.
Dew was a towering figure in her own right with a crop of fiery red hair, a mouth that roared, and a long-time love affair with Thomaston athletes. The Bears drove home. There was no ifs, ands or buts. Things got testy on the bus, not all players in agreement. Dew decided the matter and the bus went home. Another story for another time.
So, the Bears went home as champions. There was little celebration that night according to Wells. But the accomplishment was front page headlines in the local paper, there was a party at Rado’s house several days later and of course the banquet with appropriate swag.
The players of that Golden Bears team are nearing 70-years old now. Some have passed on. But the really important number is 1970. Half a century ago they made history. They still smile, they will always remember. No matter where life’s travels have taken them and what life has thrown at them at one time they were teenagers in a small town that did a very big thing. They were champions.
They hit .239 as a team and they had only three players that hit over .300. They lost seven games. They weren’t great. They didn’t have to be. They were the best that is enough.
For Wells, Benedict, Gobin, Vigeant, Phil Byrnes (1B), Brian Saunders (SS), Howard Barks (3B), Ron Pronovost (2B), Jody LaMay (RF, 1B) and the rest of the team, the smiles will always be lifelong.