First Posted: 4/2/2013
They came of age in the late 1930s and early ’40s in Parsonage/Panama Street/Drummond Street area in Hughestown where, with some of them not yet in their teens, they formed a neighborhood baseball team, called it the Red Devils and played games against neighborhood teams from the Junction, South Pittston and Fourth Ward.
Today, the oldest of the surviving Red Devils are well into their 80s, the youngest in their 70s. Eight of them — Nicholas Dardes, Rinaldo Lucarella, Bernie Babonis, Bob Bitali, Mike Delconte, Mike Sabetta, Dr. Nicholas Ruggiero and Joe Potenza – still hold the club together. They have monthly meetings where they plan trips to ball games and military and historic sites and Christmas and summer parties. Up until four years ago, they played an annual Old Timers’ game.
They pay dues these days, too, though more than the nickel a week they paid in in the early ’40s; nickels they earned picking vegetables at the Martinelli and Cremard farms, coal from culm piles and doing other chores as they could find them. Somehow, they made time to pick rocks and spread dirt to maintain a decent ballfield in Gilmartin Park.
Dardes, 88, considered the founder and leader, and Lucarella, 84, a founding member, were two of those boys. They were nicknamed “Streaky” and “Rene” and some of their early teammates were “Coongie” Traglia, “Acres” Di Buono, “Smokey” LaFratte, “Shablo” Litzi and “Buster” Concert. As other players came along, they came with nicknames, too, like “Deger” Degerolomo, “Buzzy” Bosco, “Chi Chi” Galasso, “Rochester” Traglia, “Potatoes” Potenza, “Nippy” Nowakowski and “Ace” Brogna.
The Parsonage Street area had been a hotbed of baseball even before the Red Devils. There had been coal breaker, Sunday School and neighborhood teams in the area since the early 1900s. Hall of Famer Bucky Harris got his start for the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Sunday School team just a block up from Parsonage.
In 1914, a Parsonage area team called the Pittston Crabs played games against teams representing town sections like Maltby in Swoyersville and Parsons and Lee Park in Wilkes-Barre. That year, two brothers from Parsonage were arrested for shooting two men following a dispute over a $100 bet on a game between the Crabs and the Exeter Stars.
Lucarella can remember watching his father pitch for another Parsonage area team in the mid-1930s. “I was 5 or 6 and I went to games with my father, Louis Lucarella, when he pitched for the Friendship Club,” Lucarella said.
During World War II, while Dardes and many of the Devils served — including John Debbieri, who was killed in action — Corey Gagliardi kept the Devils together by coaching a team of younger boys.
After the war in 1946, the Red Devils petitioned Luzerne County Court for incorporation as an official non-profit organization and on March 10, 1946 it was so ordered by Judge Frank Pinola. Legit, the club opened a clubhouse and pool room on Parsonage Street where members were adept as raising money with dues, raffles and dances as they were at playing ball.
The Devils fielded teams in the City League and won two consecutive championships in 1946 and ‘47. Within a few years, they were fielding three different teams, one each in the City, Suburban and Anthracite leagues, winning multiple titles in all of them and earning the nickname “Club of Champions.”
The Red Devils also entered basketball teams in the YMCA and Dupont Community House leagues, and for one season, fielded a football team.
The winning in the baseball leagues was in no small part thanks to Dardes, one of four Devils to play minor league baseball. A take-no-prisoners competitor and a lay-down-the-law manager, Dardes once made the team’s catcher walk from Duryea back to Hughestown in full gear after the catcher blew a game with a bad throw.
The Red Devils lasted until the early 1960s when the club disbanded, the victim of changing times and the growing popularity of softball. By the end, over 100 men had played for the Red Devils.
There’s a Red Devil wall display at the Pittston Library which includes the team’s charter and plaques listing the names of living and deceased Red Devils. There are over 50 names on each plaque.
In 1994, the Red Devils called for a grand reunion at Convention Hall and over 40 members showed. Since then, they have met regularly. In 2010, 13 Red Devils, many life-long Yankee fans, were introduced on the field at PNC Park before a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees game. Lucarella, with Dardes standing by, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. During the game, about 100 friends and family joined the Devils for a party in the right field pavilion.
Dr. Nicholas Ruggerio, current Red Devil president and one of four Devils to become doctors, tells the story of how the Red Devils always had the best full uniforms and jackets, much to the consternation of the Reverend Turco, pastor of the Presbyterian Church on Parsonage Street who couldn’t abide the club’s name, especially after he got a look at their jerseys with a devil’s head on the front and jackets with a devil’s head on the back.
“I remember,” Dr, Ruggerio said, “the Reverend saying ‘Now, if one of you is hurt and I kneel to pray over you, I’ll see a devil facing me on your back and then if they turn you over, there’ll be a devil on your front, too.’”