Willie Casanova was a standout semiprofessional baseball played in the 1950s who also played and coached football and track and field to a high level. He was briefly associated with the New York Yankees and Calgary Stampeders.
Casanova was born in Windsor on November 15, 1930. He attended Mercer Elementary School and Patterson Collegiate.
In 1946, his first year at Patterson, Casanova made the Senior football team as a halfback. Buoyed by his running and passing, Paterson came from behind to defeat Assumption 17-12 to capture the WSSA title. Casanova was a two-time WSSA football First-Team All-City selection and the 1948 Ontario High School Football Player of the Year as chosen by Canadian High News.
Casanova also excelled in track and field as a sprinter and thrower. He finished his high school career with five WSSA gold medals, including two in the discus and one in the shot put, and one silver medal. At the WOSSA level, Casanova won three discus golds and two other bronze medals. In 1947, he set a WOSSA discus record of 121 feet, 4 inches that stood for 20 years.
On the basketball court, Casanova won four City Championships during his time at Patterson, including the 1946-47 Junior title and Senior titles in each of the next three years. His ’47-48 team also captured the OFSAA All-Ontario title by defeating Ottawa Glebe. In ’48-49 and ’49-50, Patterson fell in the OFSAA semifinals to Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie respectively.
Casanova’s best sport, though, was baseball. A centrefielder, he got his start in the Windsor Mic Mac League. In 1948, his Windsor Cardinals, managed by Gerry Schiller, won the Ontario Baseball Association Junior Championship by defeating Toronto Earlscourt 9-4 and 16-8 in the finals. Casanova batted .396 for the season. The following year, he hit .375 as the Cardinals became Detroit Federation Class “C” regular season champions. The club also won the Essex County Sandlot Baseball Congrett Tournament.
The New York Yankees signed Casanova in 1951, assigning him to a Class “C” affiliate in Amsterdam New York. There, Casanova batted .354, third best in the league, and was named an All-Star. In 1952, he moved up to the Class “B” Piedmont League, where he played for Norfolk, Virginia. Casanova led the league in batting until suffering a leg injury in July. Although his play was affected, he finished the season with a .294 average and made another All-Star team. Casanova moved up to the Class “A” Eastern League in 1953, where he hit .350 for the Binghamton, New York club, earning a call-up to Birmingham, Alabama in the “AA” Southern League. There, he hit .299.
That winter, Casanova met John Metras, a legendary football and basketball coach at the University of Western Ontario. Metras persuaded him to pursue an education, and so he enrolled at Western for the fall of 1954 – just after winning a Senior Intercounty League title with the St. Thomas Elgins.
At Western, Casanova returned to the gridiron, playing two seasons as a tailback before switching to defensive safety for the Mustangs. In 1957, Western were undefeated league champions. Casanova made the All-Star team.
Casanova’s course of study at Western was briefly interrupted when, in 1956, the Yankees offered him another contract, which he accepted. He returned to Class “A” Binghamton for a spell before moving to Class “A” Knoxville, Tennessee, where he played second base under Baseball Hall of Famer Earl Weaver.
After graduating from Western with a BA in Psychology, Casanova was drafted by the BC Lions in 1958. He was traded to the Calgary Stampeders but was the team’s final cut. Casanova decided to retire from professional sports and enrolled at the University of Calgary, from which he would take a Bachelor of Education in 1962.
While living in Calgary, Casanova suited up for the semi-professional Calgary Dodgers between 1958 and ’61 as he began his coaching and athletics administration career. He served as Athletic Director for St. Mary’s High School in Calgary between 1959 and ’63, where he also coached football and track. His football team managed four undefeated regular seasons, two championships, and two losses in the finals. His track and field teams won three overall championships. For three consecutive years, St. Mary’s won more athletic championships than any other Calgary high school.
Casanova also coached the Mount Royal College football team from 1960 to ’62. His ’60 team lost in the Western Canada Junior Finals to the Saskatoon Hilltoppers, which went on to win the Canadian Championship.
In 1964, Casanova became Vice-Principal at St. Anne Elementary Junior High School, where he worked until ’68. During these years, he was also employed as an Assistant Football Coach at the University of Calgary. He took a position as Executive Assistant with the Alberta Teachers Association in ’68, which he held until retiring in 1989.
Casanova passed away on August 9, 2011.
Willie Casanova was honoured at the 2011 WECSHOF Induction Ceremony with the following special “In Memoriam” tribute:
William “Willie” Casanova passed away August 9, 2011 at home in Calgary, Alberta. Willie attended Patterson Collegiate, where he was an outstanding athlete in baseball, football, basketball, and track and field. In 1948, he was selected Ontario High School Football Player-of-the-Year by the Canadian High News publication. Willie’s major accomplishments came as an exceptional baseball player. Centre field was his position. In 1951, he was signed by the New York Yankees to play for the Class “C” Amsterdam, New York team, where he batted .354 and was selected to the All-Star team. Willie also played football for the University of Western Ontario Mustangs in London from 1954 to ’58. In 1957, his team was undefeated League Champion and Willie was named an All-Star.
Willie began his career in football coaching in 1959 in Calgary. He coached high school, college, and university football in Calgary until his retirement. He held a position with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.