March 14, 2019

"PRETTY FAIR COUNTRY PITCHING":

KID K: IN 1952, RON NECCIAI, 19, STRUCK OUT 27 BATTERS IN NINE INNINGS: The three greatest pitchers [Branch Rickey had] known...were Christy Mathewson...Dizzy Dean...and Ron Necciai.  (PAT JORDAN, 6/01/97, Sports illustrated)

After two undistinguished seasons, mostly in Class D, Necciai was surprised when the Pirates invited him to their spring training camp in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1952. He had caught the eye of Branch Rickey Jr., the Bucs' farm director and son of the club G.M., the previous season at Salisbury in the North Carolina State League. Necciai had lost his first seven games that year, but on the day Rickey came to town, the righthander had struck out nine batters in a six-hit victory. After the game, Rickey admonished him. "You oughta be ashamed of yourself, playing with these babies," he told Necciai. "Your ability is so superior to theirs you should beat them every time out. Now, if you straighten up your act and win a few games, I'll send you someplace where you can make some real money."

So in the spring of 1952 Necciai was in San Bernardino, but with no expectations of making the Pirates, which was probably why he did so well. "I didn't know why I was there," he says. "I didn't know anything as a pitcher. Just hand me the ball, and I'd throw it." Underestimating his own talent was to be a lifelong habit.

He had seemed to assure himself a spot on the Pirates by pitching five shutout innings against the National League champion New York Giants. On the train ride east after the team broke camp, it dawned on Necciai that he would be starting the '52 season in the big leagues, at the age of 19. He began to worry. He threw up his food. He spit up blood. His weight dropped below 150 pounds. When the Pirates stopped in New Orleans for some exhibition games, Necciai was too weak to pitch in one of them. He was sent ahead to Pittsburgh, where the team physician, Dr. Norman Ochsenhirt, diagnosed Necciai's ulcer. He prescribed a diet heavy on cottage cheese and melba toast, and gave Necciai some black pills--Banthine--which helped neutralize the acid in his stomach. The pills and the diet made him feel better, but he was too skinny and weak to stay with the Pirates. The club wanted to send him to New Orleans of the Class AA Southern Association to regain his weight and strength, but Necciai objected. He wanted to go instead to Bristol, where George Detore was the manager.

The Bristol pitcher was always a little short-tempered on days he was scheduled to start. Little things bothered him, and then his stomach would begin to burn. Sometimes Harry Dunlop, his catcher and close friend, would help Necciai take his mind off his nerves by kidding him about the girls at the local women's colleges. But most of the time Necciai would end up taking one of those black pills. He often ate breakfast alone--boiled eggs and dry toast--and read The Sporting News. He would then sit on a bench outside the Hotel Bristol and while traffic passed, turn to the back pages to check the endless columns of statistics of other low minor leaguers like himself. At noon, when his teammates were probably shooting pool, he might go alone to a movie and lose himself in the darkened theater for a few hours. This day was a cool one, good for his stomach, he thought.

When Necciai got to Trayer's for his afternoon meal, Dunlop was waiting for him. They ate together: the tall, gangling, high-strung pitcher and the slightly shorter, squatter, loquacious catcher. Often Jack Trayer let them eat for free. After lunch they went back to their rooms to pack for the game and set off on foot through town toward Shaw Stadium. Bristol was a nice, friendly town, a town without pressure.

Before the game, Necciai sat in the dugout next to manager Detore to discuss the evening's pitching strategy. Detore told him in a gruff voice how many curveballs he should try to throw for strikes and what he should throw in various situations. Necciai listened and nodded to Detore while watching the sun set beyond the outfield fence, which was painted with advertisements for King's Quality Clothes and Burrough's Home Furnishings and the Bristol Furniture Company.

In many ways, this was the part of the game the pitcher loved most--sitting there, listening to his manager tell him what to do. He liked the way the manager ordered each game for him. It calmed him, took the pressure off. He had only to take the mound and do what he was told. But even more than that, the pitcher just liked sitting there, listening to the gruff, older man who was like a father to him.

"When the Pirates wanted to send me to New Orleans to regain my strength," says Necciai, "I told them I didn't want to go. I said, 'Where's George Detore?' They said he was at Bristol. So I said, 'Then I want to go to Bristol.' I knew if anyone would take care of me, it would be George. He was a fantastic man. Great with kids. Strong, tough, confident. I used to sit next to him on the bench whenever I could. I'd talk his ear off. About anything. Whenever I couldn't do something the way he wanted me to, it used to eat me up. He always calmed me down. I was his fair-haired boy. He made sure I ate right and didn't overexert myself. He mapped out everything for me. How many pitches I'd throw in a game, how many games I'd pitch before I moved up. The time was getting near. I knew the Pirates were going to move me up soon, and in some ways I didn't want to leave George behind. Like I said, he was like a father to me."

"He said that?" says George Detore, now 80, at his home in Utica, N.Y. "I'm flattered. Ronnie was always a good boy, but he was never sure of himself. He never let it out. He kept it bottled up inside. Still, he never complained."

Necciai had signed as a first baseman at a Pirate tryout at Forbes Field in 1950. His first assignment was to Salisbury. Detore, a former catcher with Cleveland, was the manager. "I saw the kid couldn't hit a whole helluva lot," says Detore, "so I made him into a pitcher."

Necciai had pitched briefly at Monongahela High, near Pittsburgh, but his mound career had ended abruptly when he lost control of a fastball and broke a batter's ribs. His coach took him out, and Necciai rarely pitched again until he got to Salisbury. He wasn't successful there, either.

"I walked everyone in sight," says Necciai. He was quickly shunted to Shelby of the Class D Western Carolina League, but after only a few days, he packed up and went home. "I really don't know why I left," he says. "I guess I thought I'd never make it. There were hundreds of D leagues then, and I was just one of thousands of players. Baseball was never really a passion of mine. To be honest, I never did have any passions. Baseball was just something to do. I was just an average kid drifting through, and it didn't seem to make much sense to stay."

Back in Monongahela, Necciai got a job in a steel mill outside of town. He labored beside men who would spend most of their working lives there. That sobered him up pretty quickly. Baseball didn't seem like such a bad life after all, so the next year he again found himself in Salisbury with Detore. After his slow start, the Pirates were ready to release him. Necciai himself was ready to go. He was barely able to support himself on his $150-a-month baseball salary. Detore, however, was not ready to quit on the tall, nervous pitcher. He convinced the Bucs they should keep Necciai for a little while longer, and then he convinced Necciai to stay by making him the team's bus driver for an extra $90 a month. "He was a pretty fair bus driver," Detore remembers. "But he still wasn't much of a pitcher. One game he gave up something like 12 runs in the first two innings. By then, even I was ready to quit on him."

But first Detore decided to give his young pitcher one last try. He put the boy on a warm-up mound one day and told him to throw the ball as hard as he could. Necciai threw a few mediocre fastballs, and Detore threw up his hands in disgust. "Chrissakes, son! Can't you throw any harder than that?" he said.

Necciai nodded.

"Then why the hell don't ya?"

"Because in high school I broke a guy's ribs," Necciai said. "My coach made me promise not to throw that hard again."

Detore was disbelieving, but he told the boy to cut loose one time anyway. As Necciai began his motion Detore started to walk away. Necciai fired. The ball rocketed off the catcher's shin.

"It was a bullet," Detore says. "He had it all along. Then I told him to throw a curveball as hard as he could."

"Watch this!" the pitcher said. The ball exploded straight down just as it reached the plate. Detore was stunned.

"Buddy," he said. "You got it."

"He had a smooth, overhand motion," Detore remembers. "He threw without effort. Now, his curveball he threw different from any other pitcher I ever saw." All efforts at teaching Necciai a conventional curveball had failed. It was only when he was allowed to throw it the way he felt most comfortable that it exploded downward. Instead of rolling his two fingers over the top of the ball to give it downward spin at the point of release, Necciai would fling his curveball with the back of his hand toward the batter in much the way a young boy flips a yo-yo to make it sleep. Only Necciais curveball didn't sleep. It dropped like a duck shot on the wing.

Necciai won four of his last six decisions at Salisbury and then was sent to New Orleans where, inexplicably, he seemed to lose his stuff. He finished the season with a 1-5 record and an 8.45 earned run average. Still, Rickey remembered Necciai from that night in Salisbury and invited him to the Pirates' spring training camp at San Bernardino.

While the Welch Miners were taking batting practice, the Bristol pitcher began to warm up along the leftfield line. After a few throws, Necciai could tell he didn't have his good stuff this night. He told his bullpen catcher he doubted he would be able to go nine. Necciai didn't seem to notice the Welch batters, and if he did, it didn't bother him much. He never pitched against batters in a game. He pitched according to the plan Detore mapped out for him on the bench. Midway through his warmups, Necciai felt a burning sensation in his stomach. The burning got worse as he began to sweat in the cool night air. When he finished, he walked back to the dugout and told Detore his ulcer was acting up. Detore told him to give it a shot anyway. "See how far you can go, son," he said.

Necciai did as he was told. He was starting a professional baseball game for only the 21st time in his life. The fans were still entering the small ballpark, with its slatted wooden bleachers. Some of them were buying hot dogs and popcorn, and others were still settling into their seats by the time Necciai retired the first three Welch batters. He struck out one on a called strike, and two swinging. He walked off the mound to a smattering of applause.

Bristol scored in the bottom of the first when the Welch starter walked four of the first five batters. Necciai retired the Miners in order again in the second inning on two swinging strikeouts and a routine ground ball to shortstop. Bristol scored another run in the second. The first Welch batter in the third reached base when the Bristol shortstop bobbled a grounder. Then Necciai bore down. He struck out the next three batters, two swinging, one looking.

Returning to the dugout, Necciai sat beside Detore and complained that his stomach was burning badly. He was throwing a lot of pitches, he said. It seemed as if every count was reaching 3-1. The more pitches he threw, the more heated he became and the more his stomach burned. The manager told him to hang on as long as he could. He sent the batboy, whom the players knew as Choo-Choo, to the clubhouse for some milk and cottage cheese. Necciai forced it down.

As the fourth inning began. Gene Thompson, the Bristol Herald Courier sports editor, got up from his seat in the press box. He had covered Appalachian League games for almost 20 years, and this game didn't seem much different from any other. Because he had already assigned a reporter to cover the game, he went back to his office.



Posted by at March 14, 2019 12:03 AM

  

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