John Stratton’s depth of history with the Stratford (Raybestos) Brakettes stretches all the way back to the team’s inception in 1947.
Stratton recently completed his 39th year when the Brakettes won their 29th national women’s fast-pitch softball title. The Brakettes put together a very normal season for them — going 52-3. It was the seventh consecutive Women’s Major Softball National Championship.
But, in order to understand Stratton’s almost life-long involvement, you have to go back to 1947, to an era where girls and young women were just emerging into sports.
As a 5-year-old boy growing up in the blue-collar city of Stratford, Stratton played Little League baseball and happened to be at Raybestos Memorial Stadium, which was located directly behind the plant on Ferry Boulevard, for an afternoon practice with his father, Cliff.
“My father said to me, ‘Do you want to stay on and watch the girls play softball tonight,’” Stratton said. “I thought to myself, girls playing softball? Then I imagined my overweight aunt or my mother playing, and I said to myself I’ve to got see this.”
What Stratton witnessed that night quickly convinced him that yes, the ladies could play. He soon became the team’s first bat boy and official foul-ball chaser.
“Softballs were expensive and most teams just didn’t have enough of them,” he said. “You had to bring that ball back. And, pitchers got used to a certain ball and they wanted to continue throwing it.”
As he grew into a teenager, Stratton’s love of softball did not diminish a bit. He continued playing baseball through high school in Stratford and later went on to the University of Bridgeport, earning a degree in physical education.
Along the way, he developed as a pitcher and became a very good softball player.
“Our family never had much money, so I wasn’t able to get involved with any of those early travel teams,” he said. “I worked seven days a week, first at a pharmacy and then in factories. You made 50 cents an hour for pharmacy work and a dollar an hour in factory work.”
While his athletic career was unfolding, so were those of the Raybestos’ teams. The plant fielded a men’s team, called the Cardinals and a women’s squad, the Brakettes.
At first, almost all of the players were local. That changed in 1956 when Bertha Ragan Tickey came in from California.
“The Brakettes were always good,” Stratton said. “With Bertha and Joan Joyce of Waterbury, they became sensational. Bertha came from California where they had winning and championship teams. She told the local players that it was really a mind-set. She and Joan turned this team around.”
Behind Tickey and Joyce, the Brakettes won their first national title in 1958 and put themselves on a dominant path which has driven them into the newest era. As the influx of players progressed, housing was needed.
It leads to the story about how John met his wife, the team’s catcher at the time Rosemary (Micki) Machietto.
“The plant had a big house down on the beach in Milford,” Stratton said. “Many of the players lived there during the season. One day and buddy and I went out to play golf and we met Bertha and a friend of hers at the course. We played together and Bertha invited us back to the house. I met Micki that night at a card game.”
Stratton’s attentions were then drawn stronger to the team. He worked as an assistant and further improved his pitching style by getting lessons from Cardinals’ pitcher Johnny Spring.
“There isn’t anybody in this game, either past or present, who was as good as Johnny Spring,” Stratton said. “He had every pitch. He worked with both Bertha and Joan. Their games got even better.”
Good, young college players from around the country gravitate here every year in early June once their spring seasons have been completed. Stratton still teaches the game the way he feels it needs to be played.
“You always play for one run at a time because historically, softball is a pitcher-dominant game,” he said. “Get a runner on, move them over with the bunt. Even move them to third if you can; the odds of scoring a run from third, even with two outs, is 60-40.
“You’d be amazed how small the pitcher’s strike zone gets with a runner on third. The catcher tends to get anxious, too. If a ball gets by her, you have a great chance of scoring a run.”
He always gets kids who want to play the game through the summer.
“Some never get tired of playing,” he said. “Or, they might be in a college program which doesn’t have a winning record. One thing the Brakettes do is win.”
The team ran through two seasons recently without a loss. Playing for a national title is always a strong possibility.
Stratton also finds good players from Connecticut. Most were stars in high school and have gone out of state to play on the college level. This year’s team featured Shelton’s Brittany Lampert, Milford’s Dani Kemp and Monroe’s Tatum Buckley, All three were key components to the success of the team.
Lampert, who plays at Concordia College in New York, has turned into an offensive weapon.
“She came to our team three years ago and has just worked and worked to get better,” Stratton said. “Brittany has developed into a very good offensive player and she can cover ground in the outfield.”
“Dani is one of the best all-round athletes that I’ve seen,” Stratton said of the Foran High All-Stater now playing at Stony Brook. “She’s a terrific catcher, can play in the infield (usually at shortstop), and has great range in the outfield. We’ve been working on her hitting, and it’s getting better.”
Buckley, now at Florida Atlantic, plays for Joyce.
“Tatum has not only helped as a pitcher, but she’s become one of our better power hitters, Stratton said. “She reminds me of Joan Joyce, who wanted to bat as much as she wanted to pitch. We’ve worked with Tatum to get her to hit the ball hard to the right side. She has strength, but before she pulled everything. Now she’s able to drive the ball into the gap in right center.”
When Raybestos closed its doors in Stratford and moved to Crawfordville, Ind., things began to change. Memorial Stadium, built for the team in 1947, was abandoned.
The men’s team was moved to Franklin, Ill. The women ended up at Frank DeLuca Hall of Fame Field, located adjacent to the since-departed Avco-Lycoming facility in the Lordship section of Stratford.
Brakettes General Manager Bob Baird and Stratton were given trademark rights, the power to make all decisions, and became owners in 1996. They have been able to secure financial help through private benefactors, first Dave Carpenter and most recently Pat Sanders.
“We do what we can to produce revenue,” Stratton said. “We sell souvenirs and have a refreshment stand at the field. All of our games are broadcast on the internet so we’re able to sell advertising.”
Stratton, at 75, doesn’t plan on slowing down. He can distinctly remember when it all started for him back in 1947. At this time, he’s not about to tell you when he will depart it.
“I’m afraid if Bob and I let go of this, it would end and I don’t want to see that,” he said. “Some people tell me I’m in a rut. I enjoy every minute of being there. I’ve met so many wonderful young women along the way. Some pass through and they’re gone. Many remain on and lasting friendships are made.”