Italian Club season one for ages
Memories fade with time, but by any measure the 1967 American Italian Club baseball season was remarkable.
Many would ultimately go on to play sports in college and several played baseball professionally.
They went undefeated during the Spokane American Legion league season and compiled a 33-4 record overall. For 43 years they stood as the last Spokane American Legion baseball team to qualify for the regional tournament. This year, with Spokane as host, the Blue Devils became an automatic qualifier for the five-day, eight-team, seven-state event at Gonzaga University.
American Italian earned it. Even though slated to be the host team for state that year, AIC won the Area playoffs over Wenatchee to assert its worth.
After sweeping state, the players traveled to Helena, Mont., where they ultimately suffered half of their season losses. One was a heartbreaker, 3-2 to Klamath Falls, on a misjudged fly ball that ultimately propelled the Oregon team into the American Legion national championships, where it finished second.
Unlike today, Spokane’s Legion league was made up of teams from individual high schools and they still used wood bats. AIC represented Gonzaga Prep’s City League champs.
The coach was Ernie Pupo, a colorful individual whose storytelling ability and background is itself the stuff of a novel. A native of Canada, Pupo said he had pro baseball aspirations until injured in a factory explosion. He discovered Spokane in the late 1940s while visiting his parents and eventually set down roots.
The avid golfer who qualified for two National Publinx tournaments befriended another golf fanatic, the late Billy Frazier, the Gonzaga Prep football and baseball coaching legend.
“Bill and I always played golf together four days a week,” said Pupo, now 88 and in later years an area restaurateur. “I had a cart and he always made sure he played with me.”
One day while golfing, Pupo said Frazier hinted that he should coach the Bullpups’ American Legion team, which in 1965 was down to 11 players and struggling. After some cajoling, Pupo agreed.
After a look-see, Pupo kept only four of the 11 and set about building his program with youngsters.
“Ernie was a hoot and being Italian, very theatrical,” backup catcher Bob Hess said. “He had a story for everything and just got the most out of players.”
“ ‘Big Ern’ was a great coach,” said his nephew and pitching standout Joe Pupo. “He hit and ran, squeezed and knew how to motivate kids. We played with attitude and knew we were going to win games.”
The players Pupo chose were for the most part speedy and athletic. Three years of steady improvement led to big things.
“The (1967) state tournament was to be in Spokane and though I didn’t tell the kids, I said we’d win it,” Pupo said in a July interview. “I guarantee it.”
Second baseman Ted Carl said that it was more a line drive-hitting squad for average throughout the lineup, more than one with power. Shortstop Jim Corcoran, he said, provided the most home run pop. The pair had range and provided a terrific middle-infield defense.
“We could play, but Corcoran and Carl were unbelievable,” said Don Ressa, the AIC third baseman. “They could really turn a double play. It was unbelievable how good they were.”
Corcoran, who took his life nearly three decades ago, batted .412, later played at California and was a rising star in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization until injuries scuttled his career. “He was the best athlete I ever coached,” Pupo said.
Carl played for a time at Washington State. Ressa, the longtime baseball coach at University High, ultimately played baseball at Whitworth.
Longtime Gonzaga Prep educator Phil Kuder played first base. Among the outfielders, rightfielder Bobby Polaski – another college player and future professional – and the late Mike Aquino, in center, had the speed that enabled them to play shallow yet chase down fly balls.
“Polaski,” Joe Pupo said, “was a hitting machine. He was like Pete Rose.”
Rick Destefano caught and the five-pitcher staff was keyed by Pupo, a junior who went on to pitch at Santa Clara and now lives in Las Vegas, and Bob’s older brother, college freshman Tim Hess, who was later joined by Ressa at Whitworth.
Joe Pupo’s strengths were his breaking ball and determination to win, players say, although he quipped, “I maintain I threw 95 mph and there were no radar guns to prove me wrong.”
American Italian Club went 20-0 in the Legion league and its only regular-season loss was an exhibition game against Richland. The team took on Wenatchee in district and, after losing the opener 5-3, came back 5-2 and 12-6 to sweep the team out of state.
At the Spokane Fairgrounds (now Avista Stadium), American Italian Club beat Vancouver, Upper Valley and Meadowdale – the latter 4-1 on No. 9 hitter Kuder’s two-run double and sacrifice fly.
Then it was on a train for 10 hours to Helena and time for the poker games that entertained AIC teammates on the road.
“We rode with firefighters who were fighting forest fires in Helena,” said Carl, now in management with Wendy’s Hamburgers in Spokane. “I still remember coming home and playing acey deucey cards with the conductor and train people.”
Ernie Pupo said AIC was the Cinderella team in Helena until he handed the ball to Reid Drexel in the opener against Alaska and Spokane won 16-0.
“The fans fell in love with us,” he said.
But the next day, nursing a 2-1 lead against Klamath Falls, Spokane was beaten by a long fly ball. It was a game, Ernie Pupo said, that his nephew hit a ball off the top of the fence and instead of going out, came back in for a triple. The dispiriting loss, Pupo said, led to a season-ending loss against Lewiston, a team AIC had beaten twice during the year.
Their accomplishment stood time’s test for nearly five decades.
“No one has duplicated it,” Carl said. “It was cool.”