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Ron Necciai:The Man Who Struck Out Everybody
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That magic right armRon Necciai tried for three years to come back from what was basically a torn rotator cuff, which at the time he played was nearly always a career-ending injury.
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Ron Necciai in Bristol, Va., 1952.He was 19, suffering from ulcers, and possessed of one of the finest right arms baseball has ever seen.
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Ron Necciai todayHis fondest baseball memories are of the people he met.
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The big league card.Ron Necciai was called up to the Pirates when he was still 19.
A baseball giant no lesser than Branch Rickey -- the man who broke baseball's color line by bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in 1947 -- called him "one of the three greatest pitchers I've ever seen." What earned Ron Necciai a mention in the same breath with hall of famers Christy Mathewson and Dizzy Dean was a right arm that allowed him to do something no other man has ever done in 150 years of professional baseball. He did it in 1952, in Bristol, Va.
It's tough to get a real handle on what Ron Necciai did in these mountains in the spring of 1952.
Envision it coming over the wire into a big-city newsroom.
--BRISTOL, Va. May 13. Righthander Ron Necciai, 19, has struck out 27 hitters in a Class D game between the Appalachian League Bristol Twins and the Welsh Miners.
Now pick a city -- Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, New York -- and listen in to the reaction in the sports department as the ticker brings in the news.
"Holy [bleep], some guy just struck out 27 hitters!"
"What, in a season?"
"Seriously. Look, it's coming in on the wire. It's that Necciai phenom the Pirates signed, down in the Appy League."
"Gotta be a mistake."
Guys would then drag out record books, just to make sure that never before in the century of baseball that had taken place up to 1952 had a pitcher recorded the 27 outs of a nine inning game via strikeout. Somebody would call down to Bristol, just to make sure something so impossible had taken place.
Then people would start talking about the parallels.
A tennis match with all aces?
Eighteen holes of golf with all holes in one?
Or, more contemporarily: Picking every winner, with correct scores, in the office NCAA-tournament basketball pool?
And what's the parallel in real life?
Perhaps there is none.
And that, one could submit, is why we play sports.
Ron Necciai (pronounced "net-shy") says the magnitude of what he accomplished didn't register much that day.
"After the game, [catcher] Harry Dunlop said, hey, you had 27 strikeouts," Necciai says. "I just assumed it had been done before. It wasn't till the next morning when the phone started ringing that I understood it hadn't."
The odds against what Ron Necciai did that day -- somewhere in the same magnitude as the needle in the haystack, the uniqueness of snowflakes, the grains of sand on a beach -- are made all the larger by the 19-year-old's physical condition that warm Virginia evening in Shaw Stadium, which was torn down within a few years after Necciai's feat, and which is today the site of a dairy plant.
In fact, a severe attack of stomach ulcers while at spring training in San Bernardino, Calif. with the Pittsburgh Pirates was the only reason Necciai was in the minors at all. He was on medical rehabilitation assignment. And the ulcers were kicking in that night, too.
"I really wasn't feeling good," says Necciai. "I figured I was going to throw up."
Roommate Bo Chrisley had heard it all before.
"Yeah, he used to keep me up at night with that stomach of his, eating Melba toast and cottage cheese."
Still, Chrisley, who was in left that May night, says his teammates knew early in the game they were part of something special that night.
"Ron was so fast with every pitch -- fastballs or curves, it didn't matter," Chrisley says. "And when his curve ball broke, it looked like it dropped off the edge of a table. The Miners knew they were in trouble, too, because in the fourth inning they started to try and bunt for base hits. But all they could do was foul the ball off. Ron kept getting better and better as the game went on."
Four of the Welsh batters did reach base on a walk, an error, a hit batsman and a passed ball charged to Twins' catcher Harry Dunlop on a swinging third strike. But 27 outs were recorded that night via strikeout.
Actually, there were four in the ninth, courtesy of Dunlop's miscue, and one batter was retired on a groundout in the second inning.
And Necciai, the man who did what no pitcher has ever done, nonetheless has the classic pitcher's recollection from the game.
"Don't forget," he says with huge mock pride, "I got one of Bristol's six hits that night."
By the next morning Ron Necciai was a celebrity, soon to be the subject of a feature article in The Sporting News.
And while Necciai's accomplishment remains without parallel in baseball history, there was some warning before it occurred.
He had already struck out 20 and 19 batters in back-to-back games, and, in a relief appearance against Johnson City, had come in, in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and nobody out, only to strike out the side, and the next eight in succession, setting the minor league record of 11 in a row.
And in the start following the 27-strikeout performance, before an overflow crowd of 5,000, Necciai finished with a 24-strikeout two hitter, including a record five whiffs in one inning. It would be his last game at the Class D level. In four starts and two relief appearances in the Appalachian League, Rocket Ron fanned 109 batters in 42 innings, gave up only 10 hits, and had a 4-0 record with a minuscule 0.42 earned run average.
The brief Class D performance earned a promotion to Burlington of the Class B Carolina League, where Necciai had seven wins and nine losses for the last-place team, but still posted a league-leading 1.57 ERA. His strikeout binge didn't let up, either -- 172 of them made him tops in that statistic.
At this point, Ron Necciai was beckoned by one of the legends of baseball, Branch Rickey, the man who had set baseball on its ear in his own fashion by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers from the Negro Leagues, forever ending segregation in baseball. Deciding the 19-year-old had nothing left to prove in the minors, Rickey brought Necciai up to the show with the Pirates.
Once again, Necciai would be pitching for a last-place team. The woeful Pirates, dubbed the "Rickeydinks," were en route to a 42-win, 112-loss season, when Necciai arrived, and his own 1-6 record disappointed him. Now 20, Necciai was still excited about his first year in the big leagues. He received encouragement from catcher Joe Garagiola, who couldn't stop raving about the kid from Monongahela, Pa.
There were also kind words from superstar Stan Musial.
"One August evening I was pitching in St. Louis," Necciai says. "I got my only major league hit that night, and after the game was over the Cardinals' clubhouse man came to our dressing room and said Mr. Musial wanted to see me. We were both from western Pennsylvania, and it was a real pleasure meeting him, though I was one nervous rookie, I can assure you. We chatted a while and then he says 'Throw strikes, kid,' in that quiet way of his. 'You've got to throw strikes if you want to stay up here.' The great ones always have such simple advice."
Necciai won his first (and only) major league game August 24th, 4-3 against the Boston Braves, and as the season drew to a close he was already chomping at the bit for the '53 campaign to start. Things, though, changed along the way.
Uncle Sam came calling in January of '53, figuring that baseball players could serve as well in Korea as the next guy. Despite doctors' letters which clearly showed his severe medical problems, Necciai was drafted, but spent as much time in an Army hospital as he did in military training. Necciai was unable to keep any food down when the bleeding ulcers kicked in, and he dropped weight from what had been an already trim 6'4", 190-pound frame. He was discharged in April of 1953, having missed all of spring training.
"I got back to the Pirates as quickly as I could and was trying real hard to catch up physically with the other guys on our team, rushing to get into playing shape," Necciai remembers. Throwing hard and often, he felt pain in his right shoulder.
Nothing to worry about. Just the first sore arm. Happens to every pitcher. Young men play through small injuries. It'll get better.
"Back then, when a pitcher hurt his arm, it was over, barring some miracle," he recalls. "One sore arm, and that was it."
Necciai pitched in six games at Burlington in '53, then sat out all of '54 to try to heal the arm. After a brief try in '55, he gave up.
"I was 23 years old, and it was over," he says today. The injury he suffered was a torn rotator cuff, in the 1950s often not diagnosed as such, but virtually always recognized as a career-ending injury.
Branch Rickey gave Necciai a chance to stay in baseball in another capacity, but the heart of Rocket Ron wasn't in tune with a job absent the competition. He politely declined the great man and got on with his life. It included entering the sporting goods business and finding he had a talent for that kind of work. He wound up a partner in Hays, Necciai & Associates, a hunting and fishing equipment supplier. In February of 1955 he married his high school sweetheart, Martha. A trio of kids (Susan, Mark and Kirk) rounded out the Necciai household over the next few years. And he didn't look back.
"I really didn't pay any attention at all to baseball for the next 20 years," Necciai says.
And while the magnitude of what he did has become far more meaningful to Necciai over the years, he has steadfastly maintained a perspective of thankfulness for what baseball did give him, rather than what it might have.
"No regrets. It was a great time to be young and to play baseball," he says. "I had the privilege of pitching against Leroy 'Satchel' Paige in spring training in 1952, when he was with the St. Louis Browns. Satch was a great character and a master on the mound, and maybe that's where I learned 'Don't look back' (later the title of a biography on Paige). In a game as great as baseball, who could have regrets?"
That outlook has never surprised teammate Bo Chrisley.
"Ron wasn't one to be bitter. One of my fondest memories is watching him sign autographs for folks back in Bristol until his hand had to hurt, standing and talking with kids and grown-ups long after most of us had left the ballpark. That's how he was. If such talent had been mine, I'd probably sit and wonder what might have been, but it wouldn't cross Ron's mind."
And indeed, Necciai truly brushes off the bad break that came his way, the twist of fate that prevented him (and the rest of us) from finding out if he might have become one of the all-time greats.
"Everyone should be so lucky to live his or her dream like I did, even for a short time," he says. "Some folks said that maybe without the injury I could have won 30 games in a season, but why worry about that? It didn't happen."
He pauses, quiet for just a moment.
"Look, baseball gave me so much more than I could ever repay. It's like I gave a nickel and reaped a million dollars in return. The game helped me afterwards in my business, made me competitive, more hard working. I was -- a plain old small-town boy -- to make it to the big cities of the major leagues." He gives an easy laugh, so natural for a man genuinely enthusiastic about life. "Who could ever have asked for more?"
Clearly, Ron Necciai hasn't.
On a May evening 47 years ago a teenager made baseball history, his blistering fastball and knee-buckling curveball carving the name of Ronald Andrew Necciai into the record books forever. Yet his legacy stands far above athleticism.
"He is as fine a person as I've ever known, a class act," Chrisley says, "and a lot more folks than me will tell you the same thing."
Beyond all the strikeout records, the no-hitter, the shot at the majors, that alone may well be the best measure of Ron Necciai's greatness.
Ron Necciai Looks Back:
"Why They Invite Me I'll Never Know" Today Ron Necciai splits his time between Pennsylvania and Florida. He hasn't forgotten the gift baseball gave him, and his perspective on it is a measure of his wisdom.
"My fondest baseball memory is simply all the wonderful people I met, both fans and players," he says.
"I got to know Mr. [Branch] Rickey in 1952 in Pittsburgh even though he was the general manager of the club and I was just a rookie. He treated me very well and was always a man of his word. He also paid me the greatest compliment I was ever given in baseball, saying I was one of the three greatest pitchers he had ever seen."
Necciai says this with a hint of disbelief in his voice as he reveals the comparison.
"The other two were Christy Mathewson and Dizzy Dean, both in the Hall of Fame. Not bad company, huh? He was a wonderful man, and I cannot say enough good things about him."
Necciai also remembers his teammates with genuine fondness.
"I still get together and play golf charity events with former Pittsburgh Pirates Bill Mazeroski, Bob Friend, Frank Thomas and Elroy Face," he says. "Everything's for a good cause, and boy do we have fun talking about the old days," says Necciai, who retired from his sporting goods business in 1997.
"Oh, I still watch baseball, but things have changed. Players are a lot different than we were, you know. We read comic books, they peruse the Wall Street Journal. We played for comparative peanuts but had fun doing it, they make a few million bucks a year and say that no one likes them. It's a lot more complicated now," he notes quietly.
But the love of the game won't let Necciai go.
"Every August, a bunch of former major leaguers gather in Williamsport, Pa. for a game to benefit the Little League Organization. Bob Feller is there, and why they invite me I'll never know," he laughs. "We stress to the folks to let the kids have fun playing this great game. Parents try and force their children into baseball too early, and even in Little League it becomes a 'win-at-all-costs' mentality. For heaven's sake, if you can't have fun playing baseball, don't play!"
27 Ks: The Basebally Stuff
by Kurt Rheinheimer
Ron Necciai's recording of 27 outs in a baseball game via strikeout is without precedent in baseball history. Mention the feat to a baseball fan, and invariably the reaction is that it just can't be true, even though it was for the Bristol Twins in Class D ball in 1952.
And while there is no diminishing what Necciai did, the evening of May 13, 1952 was not without a few of the details that make baseball the multi-layered wonder it is. To wit:
Necciai struck out the side in the first. A great start but certainly not unprecedented. Then, in the second, one of the Welch (W.Va.) Miners grounded out to second. Necciai still had six up and six down at the end of two, with five strikeouts.
As the game progressed and one hitter after the next went down on strikes, more and more players began to realize that the 19-year-old Necciai had a no-hitter going. What really didn't much dawn on people, according to Necciai, was that he was in a position to strike out more people than anyone ever had before.
"People paid more attention to the no hitter," Necciai says. "I hit one guy, I had walked a guy, and there was the groundout. There was some action."
Still, as he entered the seventh inning, Necciai had 17 strikeouts -- on pace for 26 in the game. He proceeded to fan all three in the seventh and all three in the eight, sending him into the ninth with 23 Ks.
The boy they called Rocket Ron struck out the first man. One out in the ninth; 24 strikeouts.
The next hitter struck out swinging. Two outs in the ninth; 25 strikeouts.
The next, and likely last, hitter also struck out swinging. But the third strike was a sharp curveball in the dirt, and catcher Harry Dunlop failed to catch it. By baseball rule, that situation credits the pitcher with a strikeout and allows the hitter to advance to first despite the strikeout if the ball does not reach the first baseman before the batter does. Two outs in the ninth, runner on first, 26 strikeouts.
Necciai then struck out the next man to accomplish what no man before or since has: A nine-inning complete game no hitter with 27 strikeouts. The ultimate pitching performance.