No section of what is now the City of Greater Sudbury was likely more impacted by the rise to prominence of the sport of fastball, particularly through the fifties, sixties and into the seventies, than was the outlying community of Capreol.
And while the glory days of the summer pastime pre-dated much of Matthew Del Papa's youth, he was not immune from the stories, the tales that would be bandied about, all part and parcel of being raised in a family that was front and centre in so much of what happened athletically in the northern railway town.
Two years in the making, “Capreol at Bat: The Fastball Years” captures a great deal of the flavour of that glorious era, one in which anyone associated with fastball in Ontario, nay, perhaps North America, was keenly aware of the diamond powerhouse that were the Capreol Mazzuca's (and a handful of other variations of this team).
The book would be the ninth that Del Papa would pen, mostly fiction, some short stories, and certainly not all that related to sports. Then again, the final product is not always what the author originally envisions.
“I wasn't planning on doing a baseball book,” Del Papa recalled recently, as we shared a coffee and took a walk down a memory lane that conjures up far more vivid recollections for folks perhaps a decade or two older than either Matthew or I.
“I wanted to do a novel,” he continued. “My plan was to do a novel, based on some of the stories I had heard, and adding in some supposition and some twisting. I spent about two years doing research, and about a year into it, I realized that the novel was a non-starter, so I completely shifted my focus to the non-fiction, a history of fastball, and continued with my interviews.”
The end result is a very manageable read, a comfortable intertwining of re-writes of sports section newspaper clippings from the time, married nicely with the in-person reminiscences of those who were central characters to the chronicles of fastball in Capreol, and are still around to share their side of the story.
“I knew a little bit, but it was all kind of a blur,” acknowledged Del Papa. “Finding the clippings and pinning down the dates helped set it in my mind a little better. The biggest problem I had is that people tend to exaggerate when they re-tell. Sometimes, they have been telling the same story for so long, they actually forget the truth.”
“The best thing, for me, was having two to three guys together,” Del Papa continued. “They start feeding off one another. It was fascinating.”
The lure of nostalgia has been around as long as I can remember, and likely always will. In the case of this particular narrative, those tales date back to a time not all that far removed from the turn of the 20th century. “The interesting thing about fastball in Capreol was that it was actually hardball that started first in the 1920's or so,” said Del Papa.
“Boxcar McDonald was the big pitcher in Capreol in that era. But hardball eventually died, and softball kind of grew out of that. There was a town league, apparently, during World War II. It was fairly big at that point, but it really blossomed in the late forties and early fifties.” And beyond.
“Most of the earliest Capreol players I could find were railroaders, guys who lived in town, working with the railway. It wasn't until a little while later before the team actually started to bring in guys to fill specific needs on the team.”
At its peak, fastball in Capreol merged elements of both local and out-of-town talent. For every homegrown hero, for every Ezio Bevilacqua in the fold, there was a Metro Szeryk to be imported to northern Ontario. What started amidst humble enough settings soon transformed as the place to be on any given summer evening.
“There was what we call the “old field”, up by the railroad tracks at the top of the hill,” explained Del Papa. “That would routinely have several hundred people on hand. The rumours, and we can't confirm a lot of this exactly, is that they would draw a couple of thousand people for the big Metro/Ezio duels. Cars would be lined up, around the back of the outfield, and people would be sitting on their hoods, watching the games.”
That era would lead directly into a stretch where Capreol could more than match up with any similar sized community in the province – and they had the banners to prove it. In 1957, the Capreol Legion would win their first ever OASA (Ontario Amateur Softball Association) Division “C” Championship.
Beginning in 1959, the Capreol Hotel Mazzuca's would capture three consecutive titles. By the time 1968 rolled around, the team could claim bragging rights no less than on eight separate occasions in a span of 13 years. “For these guys, this was the equivalent of major league baseball,” Del Papa noted. “It was life or death.”
“I didn't realize how fierce the fastball was.”
Small wonder then that when the sport gave way to other pursuits, the hard core remnants of a time that was now passing by had little patience for the next phase of diamond options, with slo-pitch gradually overtaking fastball through the 1980's and beyond.
“My grandfather used to get so mad watching guys that were 18, 19, 20, guys that were pretty good athletes, playing this game where they could all go up and hit a home run,” said Del Papa. “It just seemed like there was no challenge to it. He would lament the glory days of fastball, when you were facing the guy with the 80 MPH fastball, or the sinker, or the up-shoot.”
The guys that are the very fabric of Capreol at Bat: The Fastball Years, a book well worth the time, from start to finish.
For further information on the book, or to obtain a copy, kindly contact Matthew Del Papa at “firstname.lastname@example.org”