J. C. Ranelli: A Tip of the Ball Cap
Accepting an interview request while on vacation is all you need to know about former Alabama baseball shortstop James C. Ranelli.
“I’m down at the beach,” Ranelli said, voice muffled over the phone. “I got a beach house. I played golf this morning. I got my grandkids here, my family here. They’re going to go on down to the pool here in a little while and then go on to the beach and right now it’s really really good.”
The president emeritus of the University of Alabama A Club is enjoying the retired life, claiming that he plays golf three to four times a week and splits his years 50/50 between his home in Birmingham and his beach house.
Ranelli grew up in Birmingham, attending John Carroll Catholic High School from 1961-1965. There, he lettered in football, baseball and basketball. Even from his early sports days, Ranelli was all about earning his letters.
After graduating from John Carroll, Ranelli headed to Tuscaloosa to attend the University of Alabama, where he joined the baseball team. He was unable to play his first season as a freshman, but even then Ranelli sensed there was something special about his team and how easily everyone acclimated to baseball at the college level.
“The actual baseball part of it — the ability to play baseball — wasn’t really a very big jump,” Ranelli said. “I mean, I didn’t see it. Our freshman team, we used to scrimmage the varsity team every day and we used to beat ‘em every day pretty much. We had a good bunch of kids.
“It was a bunch of kids — we all kinda grew up together. Out of the starting nine, six or seven were from Birmingham or Tuscaloosa so it was kind of a local team.”
After sitting on the bench his freshman season and being listed as a third baseman — the position he played in high school — on the roster, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer coach Joe Sewell moved Ranelli over to shortstop his sophomore year.
He took to his new position like a fish in water, and was All-SEC at the position in both his junior and senior seasons.
“I hadn’t played shortstop since I was 14 or 15 years old and went back to shortstop and it was kind of my position to be honest,” Ranelli said. “I was really pretty good at it.”
Sewell was reaching the end of his time as coach at Alabama, but he believed in his young shortstop and his teammates. After winning two World Series with the Cleveland Indians in 1920 and the New York Yankees in 1932, Sewell was preparing to hang up his cap. However, he wanted to see his 1968 team to the end.
“It as quite an honor to play for him,” Ranelli said. “He was quite a man and just was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun.”
In 1968, the Crimson Tide won the SEC western division in a single-game playoff over LSU, the first time in conference history that two teams had finished the regular season in a tie. Following a coin flip, Ranelli and his teammates travelled to Baton Rouge to face the Tigers. After defeating them 6-4, the Crimson Tide only had one team in-between them and the SEC title: Florida.
After losing the first game 4-3 to the Gators down in Florida, the team returned to Tuscaloosa, where the Crimson Tide shut out the Gators in two consecutive games, 5-0, 3-0, to win the conference title.
When recalling the victory, what Ranelli remembers most is the emotion that Sewell poured out to his shortstop.
“It was wonderful,” Ranelli said. “It was just exciting. Coach Sewell was so happy. He told me ‘you know I’ve played on world championship teams with the Yankees, I’ve played in the World Series but this is the happiest baseball moment I’ve ever had.’ That was touching for a guy like me. Here’s a guy that played with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth and won a World Series with the Yankees and he said ‘I’m as happy as I’ve ever been on a baseball field.’
“I thought that was quite nice.”
After a brief season-long stint in the MLB with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Ranelli hung up his own cap and put his general business degree to good use.
For 25 years Ranelli worked for Cigna, a global health service company. Ranelli worked his way up the ranks, eventually becoming president of Cigna HealthCare of Georgia and manager of the southeast region. In 1977, he started his own firm and operated it until his retirement.
Throughout his career post-Alabama, Ranelli continued to remain close to Alabama, serving as a member of the A Club, an organization composed of Crimson Tide varsity letter-winners and honorary members dedicated to fostering young student-athletes and making contributions to the university.
Ranelli served as a member of the executive board before becoming president. Now president emeritus, Ranelli is still passionate about guiding young letter-winners towards their goals.
I used to give a speech to all the letter-winners every year at the university and I tell them that ‘this is important for you because there’s not many people that can say they were a letter-winner at the University of Alabama,” Ranelli said. “There’s probably only about 4,000-5,000 people in the world that can say that. It’s an opportunity. One of the things that we’re really doing now is trying to help our A-Club letter-winners with career development both while they’re there and when they’re gone.
“We’re trying to get our letter-winners to understand that you can always be a part of Alabama. Stay involved. Be a part of Alabama. We’ll help you during your career, and that’s what we try to do.”
Today, Ranelli spends his time with his family, including his wife Kathryn, who he married in 1972. The two had a pair of daughters, Staci and Jaime, who are now both married and have given Ranelli and his wife five grandsons between them.
“I’m teaching the oldest baseball now,” Ranelli said. You could almost hear him smiling over the phone. “He’s getting pretty good at it.”