Through the ages, Wangaratta cricket has thrown up an outstanding array of wicket-keepers, all of them artful, agile and acrobatic. But my favourite, Billy Fitzgerald, was among the best of them all.
Solid as a rock, ‘Fitzy’ held court behind the stumps for nearly four decades, and was as identifiable at Tarrawingee as the Plough Inn Hotel, where he was known to knock the froth off a pot or three after a hard day in the field.
Born at Tarra, he came of age just as the curtain was coming down on World War II.
He played cricket and footy for the local sides, and when he left school , walked into a job at Canny Carrying Company, where he was still working 50 years later.
In the early days he drove a little red Bedford truck which ‘picked up’ from the railway station.
He’d take three months off to go shearing, and then he’d jump back into the driver’s seat.
So, as you can see, he didn’t mind a bit of hard yakka.
Bill virtually grew up with Brian Canny and they became the best of mates. And when the next generation of the Canny family moved into the business , Fitzy was a revered figure to them.
He loved trucks, the feeling of power that oozed from them, even the smell.
He was right at home in the cabin, knew every inch of the Hume Highway and when he would alight from the truck (clad in his regulation khaki gear) you knew this was the face of Canny’s.
Bill was a fair footballer, with a strong pair of hands and played his part in Tarra’s first-ever flag, in 1953.
Tarrawingee was in the Ovens and King Cricket Association when Bill first pulled on the ‘keeping gloves, but switched to the WDCA in the mid-50’s. The Bulldogs were a close-knit lot who played the game in terrific spirit.
Some of them, including Ken Stewart, Harry Bradley Alec Broster, Leo Devery, Ken Kneebone and Fitzy, played together for years and were joined by others, like Jim Stone, ‘Mulga’ Smith, and later, Graham Broster and Barry Crawford.
They were ultra- competitive, and remained eternally cheerful, despite copping plenty of hidings.
They always had a fair attack, and most of the time, ‘Fitzy’ would stand up on the stumps, even to the quickest of them. He specialised in leg-side stumpings and he and his mate Jimmy Stone combined to claim many a victim.
Legend had it that Bill would drive his truck all night, climb out of the cabin and buckle on the pads.
“No, that’s not quite right”, said Jim Stone. “He’d have two or three pots at the Sydney pub when he got back from Melbourne. I’d pick him up and he’d have a cold bottle on the way out to Tarra, then he’d buckle on the pads ! ”
“He reckoned he wouldn’t be able to sight the ball otherwise.”
Bill opened the batting in club cricket and was particularly strong on the off-side. He would pulverise anything short and if he could get his square-cut going, would make runs in a hurry.
He usually opened with Alec Broster, a technically-correct, patient player, who loved to caress the ball.
Bill was usually a good foil for him, as he could drive with great power, and on the dry Tarrawingee ground, the ball would race to the fence. You usually tried to attack his leg-stump.
‘Fitzy’ first represented Wangaratta at Melbourne Country Week in 1960 and was regarded as the city’s number one glove-man throughout the sixties.
By the time he’d been to the last of his eight trips to Melbourne, he was at least 20 years older than some of his team-mates.
As the elder statesman of the team, he was extremely popular and often bore the brunt of the practical jokes of us young ‘whipper-snappers’.
His most embarrassing moment in sport came at Melbourne Country Week, during the 1967 Provincial Group Final.
Wangaratta had set sail after a substantial Euroa total, and with duck-opening getting under way the following morning, there was more on the mind of WDCA President Clem Fisher than the cricket.
He realised that he required cartridges. He also needed someone to drive him into the city, and who better than Billy (the most experienced driver of all), who was pencilled in to bat well down the list.
Things were going well when they left, but they didn’t bargain on a dramatic batting collapse, and when they arrived back at the MCG, the innings was over.
The score-book showed : “W.Fitzgerald, absent, 0”, and the next morning, bold head-lines in the Sun newspaper described, in graphic detail, the chain of events.
But a month or so later, ‘Fitzy’ achieved his career highlight.
Tarrawingee had enjoyed a season out of the box and won its way into its first WDCA Grand Final since 1904-’05.
Bill drove his tanker back from Melbourne and had no time for any ‘shut-eye’ before heading out to face a hostile United attack. He produced a wonderful knock and was in control for most of the day.
The crowd were fully aware that he had never scored a ‘ton’, and, as he nudged into the ‘nervous nineties’, one suspected that even the United bowlers were willing him on to three figures.
Disastrously, he was dismissed for 99 when he tried to hoik a long-hop from spinner Terry Hogan over mid-wicket.
The Tarra innings concluded on 226 and United, thanks to 151 from their skipper John Welch the next week, pushed past its target.
Bill played three seasons with Socials in the Sunday competition after he left Tarra, then spent another 3 years with Ovens.
He scored his maiden century for Socials in a Final and was rewarded for his effort with a greyhound pup.
Full of promise after it trialled well and won a race at Albury, the dog was a rank disappointment to its expectant owner.
Bill was in his mid-fifties when he packed away his cricket gear for good and invested in a set of golf clubs.
A loyal, good-natured, ‘salt of the earth’, talented, hard-working, true-blue Aussie, Fitzy had made an outstanding contribution to Wangaratta’s sporting life when he passed away in the early ’90’s.
2 thoughts on “FITZY – THE GENIAL GLOVEMAN.”
KB am I able to contact you about an old photo I am trying to locate who the players are? One is my father John Hodgkin the other not so sure. Possibly Glenrowan player?
Hi Andrea, sorry for late reply. Feel free to send a message through my Facebook inbox- look for the KB On Reflection page. Thanks for taking the time to read the blog.