St. Rita's Church & Sons of Italy Softball
Few teams in any sport in Tacoma have had the long history and continuity of players as the softball teams of St. Rita's Catholic Church and the Sons of Italy. In a thirty-year span, the core of the teams began as the St. Rita softball squad in 1958, was transformed into the Sons of Italy teams about ten years later and then returned to the St. Rita's banner in the late 1980's.
In 1958, St. Rita's Church was headed by a sports-minded priest, Father Anthony Baffaro. He asked an 18-year old parishioner, John Messina, to form a softball team to play in the Tacoma Church League. John did not have to look very far to pick up his players. They all lived within walking distance of the church on So. 14th and Ainsworth.
The youngest players, Joe (Ross) Munizza and Tony DeRosa, had to wait until their Stadium High School baseball season was over, in order to play. The oldest, 35-year old Pete Rettura, was in the middle of a distinguished career with the post office. The players were all Italian, married to Italians, or lived in the Italian section of Tacoma, such as the DeRosa brothers (Joe and Bob), Al Rettura, and the late John Storino. Many names, not yet mentioned, are familiar: Natalizio, Minniti, Doria, Maruca, Rovai. But they also included Dickson, Kelly, Norris, Paul, and Zadow, as well as half-breeds like Ken Schwab and Tony Winmill.
In its first year, St. Rita's made it to the Church League Fast Pitch (there was no other speed in 1958) finals, only to lose a heartbreaker by one run. The highlight of that season was playing the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church team, the reigning league champ. It was a well publicized battle between the Greeks and the Italians. Field One at Peck Field had standing room only. The Italians won, 9 - 7.
St. Rita's continued in the Church League for three more years, winning virtually every title. At the beginning of the 1962 season, Metro Parks Athletic Director, Steve Orfanos, also a player on the St. Nicholas team, mandated that the team move to the City League, the strongest softball league in Tacoma. He believed St. Rita's was too good for the Church League and would have more fun in the City League. The young team embraced the challenge and moved up. They were the only team in the league without uniforms. They played in their jerseys, caps, and jeans.
It its first year in the City League, St. Rita's was guided by John Messina and the fiery, late Sam Minnitti. That year the team won the post-season tournament and qualified for the regional championships, the top two teams of which would go the national tournament in Stamford, Connecticut. As a big underdog, St. Rita's drew the number one seed, Auburn Elks. The Elks won in extra innings, 1 - 0. The bitter pill to swallow was the fact that St. Rita's outhit the Elks, 11 - 3, and stranded nine men on base. Still, led by the pitching of Joe DeRosa and Pat Kelly, the team went on to place third and established itself as a regional power. However, after four years, the players quit or scattered to other teams. They would return to the fold in 1970 as a slow pitch team.
St. Rita's played slow pitch softball for two years and then came under the sponsorship of the Tacoma Lodge of the Sons of Italy. The team enjoyed great success on the field and traveled a lot to play in out-of-town tournaments. It became so popular and so many wanted to play on the team that it expanded to a "B" team and then even to a "C" team. New sponsors were needed. The "A" team became Pete Lovely Volkswagen and the "C" team became Melody TV. All teams jointly made extra money sponsoring dances and Reno Nights, and all played under the Sons of Italy mantle.
The top quality athletes played on the "A" and "B" teams, but the "B" team simply could not beat the "A" team, until a regional tournament, in which the Sons of Italy beat Pete Lovely and knocked them out of a state tournament berth. Thereafter, the teams played in parity.
Soon the wives wanted to get in on the act. A ladies' team was formed and called the Purr Pets (the English spelling of the Italian word for "meatballs"). The women had fun for quite a few years. Also, for a couple years the Sons of Italy sponsored a co-ed team.
New faces appeared on the three men's teams. Jerry Macaluso, Mike Turner, Mike Thompson, Denny Smith, the late Jim Thaut, Brian Van, John Mazzuca, Denny Anderson, Mike Zenk, Dan Thurston, Don Falk, John Cologerou, Darrel Prentice, John Bilski, Roger Schlosstein, Pat Furman and his dad, Ron, Dave Bufalini, Frank Messina (John's brother), Tony DeRosa, Jr., Robert LoFranco, Sonny Achziger, Don Martelli, Jim Lavick, John Moceri, Pat Manza, Terry Johnson, and the departed players, Ed Colleran and Bob Maguinez. Sets of brothers played a major role: the Mannings (Dood, Morry and Dave), the Viafores (Rich, Bruce and Pat) and the Lewises (Russ, Denny and Greg). There were many others, too, who made appearances on the teams, too many to list here.
In 1985, St. Rita's re-appeared in the Church League, and played four more seasons. This came about because of a rule change allowing men to play on a regular team and on their church team also. The new team drew players from all three slow pitch teams, as well players from others teams, like Dick Marzano and Kevin Smith. Members of the church who played on no other teams joined too, such as Don Greco, Tim Eakin, Jim Catalinich, Tom Stucker, Joey Guzzo, and George Baird .
What started out as fun became very serious. St. Rita's qualified for the national church tournament all four years the team was in existence. In 1985, the team went to Midland, Texas. It won a game but lost two. The highlight of that tournament was the late Jim Aquino, age 70, getting a base hit - that had to be a record.
In 1986, the team traveled to the nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There again, it won one and lost two. The highlight of that trip was driving to the family homestead farm of Greg Lewis' grandmother, and John Messina's grandmother -in-law, in the Ozark - Ouachita mountain range. The players were treated to a feast of real southern cooking and learned the art of "leaning." Those who went can tell you what that is. The next week the little weekly newspaper in Shady Point, Oklahoma, had a story on the Catholics who visited Gussie Goff's home.
In 1987, again a repeat of 1 - 2 in the national tournament in Gadsden, Alabama. The highlight of that trip was taking an earlier flight out of Atlanta on a red-eye that was deadheading an aircraft to Sea-Tac without passengers. The players had the plane to themselves, seats to stretch out on, unlimited free drinks, and pretty flight attendants to take care of them.
In its last season, 1988, the church team once again qualified for the nationals, but declined to go. It was apparent that most teams were not just collections of guys who attended the same church, but recruited athletes. That took a lot of fun out of the game.
By the 1990's, those who had been associated with the various St. Rita's-Sons of Italy teams had hung up their cleats. They left behind a memorable legacy of fun, camaraderie and athleticism in Tacoma softball history.