The Deer Head Inn and Deer Head softball tournament were institutions in Rockland County for more than two decades. The tournament, based at the Deer Head Inn field in West Nyack, was widely regarded as one of the most prestigious circuits in the New York metropolitan region. If you played well, your reputation was embossed in gold in the eyes of the greater softball community.
The Deer Head Inn was a bar and restaurant purchased by Vic Alfieri Sr. and his brother-in-law, Ernie Capobianco, in 1958. They operated the establishment until 1987, when it was sold. The Deer Head tournament, held at the field behind the Inn, was started in 1966 by Jack Cuff of Clarkstown and taken over by Vic Alfieri Jr., his father and uncle in 1968. The invitational tournament attracted anywhere from 50 to 75 teams from throughout the tri-state area in a given year, with a high-water mark of 88 teams during its heyday in the 1970s. The tourney ran from mid-July to mid-October on one field, although at one time an extra field was acquired from the Town of Clark- stown near its sanitary landfill – the inelegantly named “Dump Field” – to enable 12 or 13 games to be played per day. In fact, that field was favored by former Yankee farmhand and Haverstraw legend Jo Jo Mackey, whose slick infield play for the Orange Lantern team impressed Vic Jr. enough to merit a Gold Glove award. “You played great in the games in front of me,” Vic Jr. told him. Mackey replied, “Yeah, but I made six errors at the Deer Head field!”
Mackey was just one of dozens of high-caliber players to grace the Deer Head tournament during its 31-year run from 1966 to 1996. Howie Pierson of Piermont, like Mackey an ex-minor leaguer (with the Phillies) and fellow County Hall of Famer, once hit a ball that cleared the trees beyond the left-field fence, a prodigious blow that eyewitness Vic Jr. says “probably landed in the swamp somewhere in the Hackensack River. He must have hit it 400 feet or more.”
Among the many other talented players who made their mark at Deer Head were former Yankee infielder Phil Linz, Rockland Softball Hall of Famer Don Kastner – a speedy outfielder with a patented diving catch – infielder Bob Tortorello, and profes-
sional players Art Lopez, Jim and Pete Bouton, and Al Benza.
When the discussion turns to teams that competed at Deer Head, Apollo 12 stands at the pinnacle. The year 1968 was a turbulent time for race relations in America, and Rockland was not immune from the tensions. However, Vic Jr., then in his first year as tournament director, felt that having an African-American team in the tournament would be a step toward fostering closer relations in the community. With the blessing of his father and Uncle Ernie, he recruited an all-black team sponsored by the Drift Inn, a bar in Nyack.
“I had graduated from Nyack High School and knew the history of the area,” Vic Jr. says. “I felt that what was happening at the time in Nyack wouldn’t translate into any [negative] action on the ball field. It was a different world on the field of play; things would not spill over.” Vic Jr.’s assessment was accurate. The Drift Inn team, which became known as Apollo 12, won the tournament a few years later and added three more championships for a total of four, a record never broken. The team was managed and sponsored by Ted Davis and Bo Welsch, who like Vic Jr. are members of the Rockland County Softball Hall of Fame.
The roster of marquee teams at Deer Head is long and distinguished, but any grouping of top-tier clubs in the tournament must include Orange Lantern, a multiple-time champion, Camp Hill Day Camp, Holt Landscaping, Tumble Inn from Haverstraw, Andy’s Men’s Wear and Modern Auto Body, among others. Leo’s Ivy Shop, a team of predominantly Hispanic players from Haverstraw that Vic Jr. recruited, triggered a trend at Deer Head in the early 1970s that caught on around softball diamonds throughout the country, he says. Leo’s players were aggressive base runners, running all-out to first, taking the turn toward second and frequently stretching singles into doubles. At that time the short fielder was normally positioned behind second base or as a fourth outfielder, but teams at Deer Head started moving their short fielder to directly over second base to try to thwart the swift Leo’s base runners. Thus was born the “over second-baseman” – an innovation that quickly spread as the need arose on playing fields everywhere.
Vic Jr. remained the primary tournament director until 1988 when he was elected a town judge in Clarkstown. He stepped down as director because judges were prohibited by law from raising money for charity, and the tournament was a charitable fund-raiser. The tournament was taken over in 1988 by Vic Sr., Ernie, Bob Augat and Tony Milewski. Augat immediately came up with the idea for sponsor signage on the outfield walls and the tournament generated $10,000 in signage that first year, Vic Jr. says. Generous sponsorship by OTB also enabled Deer Head to contribute more toward its charitable beneficiaries, the most notable of which were ARC, Jawonio, Venture, and Rock- land Friends of Autistic Children.
The tournament continued until 1996, when the property was sold and the field developed for residential homes. Vic. Sr. is deceased, and Ernie Capobianco is in his 90s but “still active,” Vic Jr. says. Vic Jr. has been a Rockland County Court judge since 2006.