Derby History Quiz
Derby's "Iron Men" - 1937 State Class "B" Champs
1st row left to right: Smokey Goldson, Anthony Pepe, Pokey Goldson, Fred Cavagnuolo, Al Tiano, Louis Cesaroni
The 1937 Derby High School Football team was not only one of the best in Derby history, but also one of the most interesting. Their road to the state Class "B" championship and beyond was interesting to say the least. Their season began and ended with ties, and they won everything in between. They only gave up 13 points and 2 touchdowns all year.
The opening game was a harbinger of things to come as Derby tied a powerhouse Hillhouse team 0-0. Hillhouse would go on to be named state co-champions at the end of the season.
Derby's run through the season was not without controversy as one of its players was declared ineligible following the Milford game. Some suggested that someone from Ansonia had stirred up the controversy over the Derby player's age so that he wouldn't be able to play in the remaining games - including Ansonia. The Housatonic League ruled the player eligible for the game in question, but he did not finish the season as his birthday in the middle of the season made him ineligible for the rest of the games. Relations with Ansonia, already strained from previous years, deteriorated further because of the controversy.
Ansonia was having an equally impressive season as Derby led by Bubby Natowich who some see as the greatest player in Ansonia High history. Ansonia opened their season with 6 straight wins and steamrolled their opponents by a score of 190-12 (including an 80-0 pasting of Shelton) before losing a very controversial game to the other State co-champion Stamford 12-6. Prior to the Stamford game, there was serious talk of a post season game in Miami, Florida.
Ansonia fans were irate by a call in the game with Stamford that they said cost them the game. They even produced photographic evidence that they said showed that Natowich had been inbounds in the end zone when he caught a pass from Panky Skerlick that would have given them at least a tie. However, there was no provision in C.I.A.C. rules for reviewing a referee's decison and the results stood.
The Ansonia/Derby game was scheduled for the next Saturday - November 13 - but it rained - and that's when the controversy began as the two schools argued bitterly over a make-up date. Ansonia did not want to play on Sunday, and Derby refused to play on the following Saturday as they said they were looking for another game that day - and did announce a game with Harding High School. Derby offered to play during the week, but Ansonia officials wanted the Saturday date because of the anticipated large crowd.
Some suggested that Derby "owed" Ansonia the Saturday date because in 1936 the two teams had played at Island Park in Derby with Derby receiving all of the gate receipts except for a $100 guarantee for Ansonia. The 1937 game was to be played with the same agreement, but with Derby receiving the $100 guarantee and Ansonia keeping the rest of the receipts.
Letters from both towns filled the pages of the Evening Sentinel questioning each other's motives and opening up the checkered sportsmanship of earlier games. Derby announced that it would play Harding on the 20th, and the Ansonia/Derby game looked dead. However, Derby did not play Harding, and a front page article in the Evening Sentinel on Monday, November 22 announced that the schools had reached agreement earlier in the day to play on Saturday, December 4. Thanksgiving games with Shelton and Naugatuck seemed like an afterthought, but Derby topped Shelton 14 - 0 and Ansonia routed Naugatuck 38 - 6 to set the stage for the big game on December 4!
The game more than lived up to its billing as one of the largest crowds to see a game up to that time (9,000 locally estimated though the New York Times reported 13,000) showed up in Ansonia. Derby's incredible defense and Ansonia high powered offense neutralized each other and the final score was a 6-6 deadlock. What made the game so remarkable was that Derby's starting "11" proved to be its only 11 as there wasn't a single substitution made the entire game!
Derby's score came in the second quarter as the smaller Derby team drew first blood on a 45 yard pass from Al Tiano to Mike Balko. Natowich evened the score for Ansonia with a three yard run in the third quarter and set a state record for scoring in a season at the same time. The play had been set up by a screen pass from Natowich to Albie Yuravich a play earlier that Derby fans argued had been an illegal play!
Four days later, Hillhouse (the team Derby tied 0-0) and Stamford (the team that beat Ansonia 12-6 on a controversial call) were named state co-champions. and shared the S. Paul Waskowitz trophy symbolic of the state championships. Derby was named unanimously as the State Class "B" champion. Sal Ferrara of Derby and Natowich were named to the All state team.
Town officials and citizens were so happy with the team, that arrangements were made to seek a post season game in Florida resulting in an invitation from Winter Park High. Ambitious fund raising schemes were well underway when it was suddenly announced in the Evening Sentinel that Winter Park had withdrawn the invitation.
A number of reasons were given, but there was some suspicion in Derby that the real reason was never stated. Frank Saldamarco who played on the team and provided the names of the players in the picture above gives us a glimpse of the true reason. The players were called to a meeting with Coach Ryan in which they were told that not all of the players could make the trip. The players were given the opportunity to vote, and to their credit they voted that they would not go if all the players could not go. This was an era when segregation held sway throughout the South, and Derby's Goldson brothers were Black.
Those who donated to honor the players with the trip to Florida did not demand their money back, and instead the players were rewarded with a trip to New York city for a great dinner and a Joe Louis fight!
Derby has had many great teams down through the year's, but the story of the 1937 Class "B" State Champs takes a back seat to none!
We want to thank Mary Pepe, daughter of Anthony Pepe (#27 in the photo), for providing the photo for this quiz and Frank Saldamarco not only for his help, but also for being a part of this great story.
Correct answers were received from: Marc J. Garofalo, Ann Searles, Millie from Ansonia, Mary Seuss, Jim Bartlett, Thomas Lenart, Nick from Terryville, Ken Dupke, Jack Skelding, Joe Dedo, Fred Grant, Linda Coppola, Adam Coppola, Lynne Anglace, Randy Ritter, Thomas A Francione, Frank Sladamarco (#54 in the photo!), and Joe Melewski.
To see our earlier quizzes and learn more about Derby's unique history, click here.