Jaywalking: Proud champs have dwindled

Monday, June 26, 2017

The 75th anniversary of Turners Falls High School’s fabled 1942 state-championship baseball team proved bittersweet.

Beginning with the 15th anniversary back in 1957, members of the state championship-winning team got together every five years to remember their 5-4 win over Arlington High School on June 20, 1942 at Fenway Park in Boston.

The tradition came to an end this season.

I fielded a phone call from Virginia Kostanski last week. She called to say she was disappointed that there was no story on the 75th anniversary of the state title. I told her no one had reached out to tell us about the traditional meeting and it was then I learned that there would be no gathering, as many of the remaining players had passed away since 2012.

I was at the French King Restaurant in Erving on June 8, 2012 to break bread with several of the surviving members of the 1942 team. It turned out to be the final gathering, and I was fortunate enough to have been the catalyst for many of the stories swapped that afternoon.

I imagine that after 70 years, many of the stories told by former players like Walter Kostanski, Ray “Gump” Zukowski, Paul Whiteman and Mike Mileski had been well-told. How many times over the years do you think Zukowski talked about roping a double off the Green Monster to plate Kostanski with the game-tying run in the eighth inning? In those days, there was one state baseball champion, not several in different divisions.

It was when they learned that I knew little about the game that the members perked up. It was their chance to share their story with someone new, and that they did. By the time I left, I had learned all about the game through the men who had played it.

Unfortunately, there were no more stories being swapped over the past week. Father Time put an end to that. Many of the men I sat with five years ago have since passed away.

John “Jack” Bassett, who was unable to attend the 2012 gathering due to his declining health, died a few months after the team got together, passing on Aug. 27, 2012 at the age of 86.

For a couple of years after that, it looked like celebrating 75 might be a possibility, but three members of the team passed in 2015. Outfielder Mike Milewski passed away on April 13, 2015 at the age of 90. The very next day, the oldest remaining member of the team passed away when George Richason, who was an assistant coach in 1942, died at the age of 99. Two months later, the team said goodbye to another member when pitcher/outfielder Kostanski passed on June 15, 2015 at 91.

First baseman John Togneri, who also was unable to attend in 2012, passed away one week after Kostanski, on June 22, 2015, at 90. Theodore “Chucky” Mucha, another outfielder on the 1942 team, passed away on Jan. 22, 2016 at 91, and outfielder Whiteman was the most recent member to pass, dying on March 11 at 93.

Those men joined teammates Tanny Bourdeau, Artie Burke, Ken Hilliard, Billy Martin, Ed Mleczko, Everett Niepp and Harvey Welcome, and coach Earl Lorden in the afterlife.

I spent time Sunday night reading all the obituaries. Nearly all of the obituaries mentioned that the deceased was part of Turners Falls’ 1942 state championship team. It was a gleaming badge of honor that these men wore with them in passing.

The only survivors from that team are Zukowski and George Bush, who turns 91 in October. I reached out to Bush late last week. He was a 15-year-old reserve infielder on the state-championship team, and we spent 15 minutes or so talking about that unimaginable season.

And since the players are no longer able to get together and share the story of their fateful day at Fenway, I figured I would pay honor to them with one final tale. It’s something akin to what the former priest at Our Lady of Czestochowa in Turners Falls, Father Charles DiMascola, used to ask family members of deceased people to do. He would always ask people to go to Mass the weekend after someone passed away in place of the deceased. So take a few minutes and join me in remembrance.

Turners Falls had some very good baseball teams during that era under Coach Lorden, who later went on to coach at UMass and has the current baseball field named in his honor. The 1937 team lost a 5-4, 12-inning decision to Lynn English in the state finals, and the 1940 team came up short to Belmont, 6-4, in the championship game.

The 1942 Turners team became the third team in six years to play for a state title. Turners went 9-0 in the regular season, which was shortened due to World War II. That record earned Turners a spot in the WMass tournament.

Kostanski pitched a two-hitter in a win over Amherst in the first postseason game, and Burke pitched the semifinal game against West Springfield, which Bush said was the toughest win of the WMass tournament, as Turners scored four runs late to earn a 5-2 victory.

That sent the Powertown to the WMass finals, where it faced Springfield Classical, and Kostanski threw another gem, striking out 12 and allowing just three hits in an 8-4 victory.

Turners met a 15-1 team from Arlington in the state finals and fans could probably sense that they were in for quite a game early on, as the teams battled through four scoreless innings to start. Arlington, nicknamed the Spy Ponders back then after a pond in the city, got on the board with one run in the fifth, then scored three more times in the top of the seventh to take a 4-0 lead.

Turners rallied to tie the game in the eighth inning thanks in part to Zukowski’s double off Fenway’s Green Monster, something he recalled when we met five years ago.

“When I was at second base the umpire said to me, ‘That’s a real big-league hit, son,’” Zukowski said.

That set the stage for Harvey “Henic” Welcome’s ninth-inning heroics when he belted the game-winning triple to send Turners Falls off with the 5-4 victory.

When we spoke in 2012, Mucha recalled arriving back in western Mass. at 3 a.m. after a long train ride from Boston.

“We rode the first truck all the way over from the railroad station in Greenfield,” Mucha said. “When we got into Turners, they turned on the sirens and we paraded through town. Even though it was 3 a.m., there was a very large gathering out celebrating the win.”

It’s a victory that still resonates through the town and is commemorated at Fenway Park thanks to a brick purchased by 1982 Turners Falls graduate Brian Miner, who presented it to the team in 2012. When Fenway celebrated is 100th anniversary, the Red Sox sold bricks at the park and Miner bought one. The brick is located under the right-field concourse near Gate C in the Dwight Evans section of bricks, and has the date and score of the championship on it.

It was a fitting tribute to the team in what was to be their final gathering.

Gone but not forgotten: the Powertown Boys of ’42.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.