The three greatest pitchers [Branch Rickey had] known...were Christy Mathewson...Dizzy Dean...and Ron Necciai.
—PITTSBURGH SUN-TELEGRAPH, FEB. 25, 1959
It was just another minor league Baseball game, between the Bristol Twins and the Welch Miners before 1,183 fans at Shaw Stadium in Bristol, Va., on the night of May 13, 1952. It was just one of the 150 minor league games played that day and the 20,000 played that year and the 900,000 played since the minor leagues were organized in 1901. Nothing much was at stake. Bristol was in first place in the Class D Appalachian League and the Miners were tied for second, but the season was still young. If the game meant anything at all, it was as another tiny stepping-stone in the professional careers of the players involved.
On the morning of the game, Bristol's starting pitcher awoke in the boarding house he shared with some teammates. The passage of time has dulled his memory for details about the day, but he was a nervous sort then and he often suffered restless nights before he pitched. His routine was to eat around midnight, and he tried never to have anything that would upset his ulcer. But it was hard for him to stick to his diet. The diners in this hill town straddling the Tennessee-Virginia border specialized in fried foods. That was all his teammates ate. Often after night games he would sit with them at Jack Trayer's restaurant and order broiled chicken or boiled eggs with cottage cheese and dry toast, while they ordered hamburgers and french fries and—worst of all, for him—ice-cold watermelon for dessert. It was difficult for him to resist. After all, he was only 19. He had always been a careful eater anyway, which was why, despite standing 6'3", he weighed only 165 pounds.
When his stomach bothered him and he couldn't sleep, he would sit on the front porch of the boarding house in the cool night air and watch the trucks and cars go by. Cool weather always eased his suffering a bit. He would try hard to concentrate on the next night's game so he wouldn't notice the burning feeling in his stomach. He hoped the next night would be cool, too.
Ron Necciai (NETCH-eye), weighing all of 230 pounds, comes back from the buffet table at the restaurant in the Ramada Inn near the Greater Pittsburgh Airport carrying a tray heaped with food: roast pork smothered with garlic, boiled potatoes swimming in butter, onions and tomatoes doused with vinegar and a thick piece of double Dutch chocolate cake.
"Isn't it funny?" says Necciai. "I can eat anything now. The hotter and the spicier the better." He pats his stomach and sits down. He has recently lost 30 pounds. He had thought he might have cancer of the colon, so he worried off his excess weight until he found out there was nothing wrong. Now, at 54, he seems intent on packing that lost weight back on his frame. He is a good-looking man with dark skin, black hair flecked with white, and a Roman nose that betrays his Italian heritage. He looks better now than he did as a 19-year-old pitcher with the Bristol Twins in 1952. Then he was just one of those tall, skinny kids, all arms and legs and neck, with a bulging Adam's apple and big ears and an even bigger nose with which, it seemed, his face would never catch up.
"I was always a picky eater," he says. "I used to eat fast and then burn it up with worry. I don't know what I had to worry about. It was just my nature. I worried about everything. I was very nervous, high-strung. When the Pirates sent me to a doctor in the spring of '52, he took some tests and then told me I had an ulcer. 'It's not what you're eating,' he said, 'it's what's eating you.' That was the spring I had the Pirates made."
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.
"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.
Necciai is driving his black 1986 Cadillac past rolling hills that have long since been hollowed out by coal miners. He points to abandoned mines with old equipment rusting orange in the spring sunlight. "They used to operate on 24-hour-a-day shifts," he says. Across the Monongahela River, Necciai's hometown of Gallatin consists of little more than a few row houses and a firehouse. Farther south, running along the river for half a mile, is a junkyard of rusted car parts and steel-mill machinery. "My father and my stepfather both worked in the mills," he says. "Sometimes they were paid in scrip so they would have to shop at the company store. If they didn't, they'd have gotten fired.
"My mother cleaned houses to help out, and sometimes she worked in the mill, too. I had an older brother and three sisters. We were poor. For entertainment I used to walk the railroad tracks, firing rocks at the insulator wires. Whenever I wasn't throwing good for George Detore, he'd tell me to just remember how I used to throw those rocks. That was the motion I should use, he'd say. In the summer there was no Little League or anything, so we played pickup games. Sometimes we swam back and forth across the river just for something to do." He laughs. "The river was so polluted we could have walked across it.
"I owe so much to baseball. Baseball taught me how to travel. It taught me not to be afraid to leave here. I have my own sporting-goods business, Hays, Necciai & Associates, Inc. I'm a sales rep for hunting and fishing equipment. I travel all over the world. My ulcer never acts up anymore. I love my job, my life. Why, if I had it all to do over again. I wouldn't do anything different. I'm not one of those guys who are out of baseball and are always complaining. "What did the game ever do for me?' I got a lot more out of baseball than I ever put into it. They won't have to hold any benefits for Ron Necciai. People still know my name. It's helped me in business. Even strangers are always sending me letters asking for my autograph. They still remember that game. It's almost 40 years ago. That kinda thing has never been done before or since. It's a freak."
In the fourth inning, the Bristol pitcher hit one Welch batter, then struck out the next three, all swinging. The Twins scored another run in the bottom of the fourth, so that when he took the mound in the fifth, he was leading 3-0. Necciai's pitching motion was not much of a motion at all for such a tall pitcher. He did not swing his arms over his head, or turn sideways on one leg and then kick high before delivering. He used a little half-motion, which, in later years would be called a "no windup." He would hold the ball in his glove at his waist, bring it as high as his face and then lunge straight toward the batter. Sometimes he threw his fastball straight overhand and sometimes he swooped down sidearm, like Ewell Blackwell. whipping the ball across his body. In the fifth, he struck out one man swinging and two on called strikes. Bristol scored again in the bottom of the fifth to take a 4-0 lead. In the top of the sixth, Necciai struck out two batters swinging and a third looking. The Twins scored twice more in the bottom of the sixth.
When Necciai began the seventh, Bristol led 6-0, and he had struck out 17. While Necciai warmed up. a Bristol fan jumped out of the stands and walked to Jack Crosswhite, the Welch manager, who was coaching at third base. The fan handed Crosswhite a canoe paddle with a big hole cut in the blade. Crosswhite smashed the paddle against the side of the Twins' dugout in disgust.
Necciai's stomach was beginning to burn badly now. At some point while he was pitching the final three innings—no one can remember exactly when—he signaled for time. To the mound came Detore, who, in turn, called Choo-Choo. The batboy ran out of the dugout with a glass of milk and a black Banthine pill. Necciai
gulped down the pill with the milk and got back to his business.
Necciai struck out the first batter in the seventh. The Bristol fans sang out a chorus of "Eighteen!" He struck out the next batter and walked the third. He struck out the fourth man and the fans cheered wildly, "Twenty!"
When Dunlop, the Bristol catcher, reached the dugout, he asked about the chanting. "What the hell are they doing?" he said. A teammate said, "Ronnie's striking everyone out!"
Ron Necciai was 23 years old when he left baseball in 1955. He took a job in his father-in-law's hardware store in Monongahela, and he and his wife, Martha, had a daughter and two sons. "It was difficult to get myself squared away at first," he says. "I was a wreck. What was I going to do without baseball? I didn't go to a ballpark for over five years. The funny thing is my ulcer stopped acting up about then. It just went away. Maybe I forgot about it. Who knows. I got involved in other things."
The Bristol pitcher took the mound in the top of the eighth with a 7-0 lead. By now, some Welch batters were trying to bunt, if only to avoid striking out. It didn't matter. Not one Miner hit a fair ball in the inning. The fans chanted: "Twenty-one.... Twenty-two.... Twenty-three!"
The cheering picked up again when Necciai returned for the ninth. The first batter, a pinch hitter, lofted a fly ball in foul territory near home plate. As Dunlop circled it, some fans screamed, "Drop it! Drop it!" Dunlop let the ball fall to the ground. He returned to his crouch to catch the third Necciai strike. "Twenty-four!" The next batter struck out swinging. "Twenty-five!" Necciai threw a third strike to the third batter of the inning, but the ball eluded Dunlop and rolled back to the screen, allowing the batter to reach first base. Naturally, there was suspicion in the ballpark that Dunlop had let the ball go purposely, but Dunlop insisted otherwise. In any case, Necciai had his 26th strikeout and a chance to get his 27th.
The next batter dug in. Necciai took the sign and delivered his two-strike pitch. The batter swung and missed. The fans roared.
"That was the first of three no-hitters I caught in 14 days," says Harry Dunlop, now a coach with the San Diego Padres. "But it was the only professional game anyone ever caught in which a pitcher struck out 27 batters in nine innings. I felt like a celebrity after it. I told George Detore, I said, 'George, I called a helluva game, didn't I?' You know what? George just looked at me and said, 'Why'd you call that pitch to so-and-so in the sixth?' "
"George called most of the pitches," says Necciai. "I wasn't allowed to shake him off. I wouldn't dare. I wasn't even conscious of what was going on. I knew it was something different, but I didn't know how different. I mean, it wasn't a perfect game. There was movement. I walked a batter. There was an error. You know, movement. I mean, all I did was strike out 27 batters and not give up a hit or a run. People had been playing this game since eternity, it seemed. I figured somebody must have done this before."
On the day after the game, the Bristol pitcher was a national celebrity. The Ed Sullivan Show wanted Necciai. The club said no. "What would I have done?" says Necciai now. "Would they put me on with a talking dog?" It was just the beginning.
Newspapers from all over the country called to interview him. No pitcher had ever struck out 27 batters in a nine-inning game. The major league record then was 19, set by Charlie Sweeney and Hugh (One Arm) Daily, both in 1884. Now it is 20, by the Red Sox' Roger Clemens in 1986. The most strikeouts previously recorded by a minor league pitcher in a nine-inning game was 25, by Clarence (Hooks) Iott in a Northeast Arkansas League game, June 18, 1941. When Detore learned about this, he was stunned. "Why, I had Hooks Iott on my team at Toledo in 1946," he said.
Dizzy Dean, then a radio broadcaster, congratulated the young pitcher on his achievement. "Ron Necktie," Dizzy said, had done some "pretty fair country pitching." The Associated Press said Necciai "may be the Bobby Feller of the future." A newspaper quoted Detore, who had once caught Feller in an exhibition game, as saying Necciai threw as hard as Feller, but that he more closely resembled Dizzy Dean because he was so loose-limbed. Soon, other favorable comparisons were made. Branch Rickey Sr. put him in a class with Dean and Christy Mathewson. Stan Musial said Rex Barney. And so on. For a while, every young pitching phenom became "the new Ron Necciai." And if that pitcher proved to be a flash in the pan, never fulfilling his promise, then his comparison with Necciai was even more appropriate. Ron Necciai would win only one major league baseball game.
But that night in Bristol, Necciai stood alone. When the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues listed the 50 most famous records in minor league baseball, Necciai's achievement was first. Justin (Nig) Clarke was cited second for his eight home runs in eight at bats in a 1902 Texas League game. Third was the unassisted triple play made by outfielder Walter Carlisle of Vernon in the Pacific Coast League in 1911. Carlisle began the play by catching a line drive while performing a somersault. He had been a circus acrobat.
Eight days after Necciai's performance, the Bristol fans held a night for him. They made him an honorary colonel in the local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. They gave him a $1,000 U.S. Defense Bond and a photograph of himself in a Bristol uniform. The players presented him with a white dinner jacket. "We figured he'd be needing it soon," Dunlop says.
Then Necciai took the mound for the last time at Bristol, before 5,235 fans and Rickey Jr. Rickey had come to Bristol, he said, to see if Necciai was for real. "If he gets through the first inning," Rickey said, "he proves to me he's major league material." That night Necciai threw a two-hitter and struck out 24 batters. After the game, Rickey said to a local sportswriter, "He's a miracle."
Necciai had started four games for Bristol and had twice appeared in relief. He won all four starts, two of which were shutouts. He pitched a total of 42⅖ innings, giving up 10 hits, 2 earned runs and 20 walks. He struck out 109 batters, including 20, 19, 27 and 24 in the four starts. Of the 128 outs recorded, 109 of them came on strikeouts. His earned run average was 0.42.
Shortly after the 24-strikeout game, Necciai was sent up to Burlington of the Class B Carolina League. He stopped off in Pittsburgh first, ostensibly to undergo medical tests for his ulcer, but actually so the Pirates could capitalize on his burgeoning fame. The Bucs, dead last in the National League, needed all the publicity they could get from a visit to Forbes Field by Rocket Ron Necciai. He threw for almost an hour to the Pirates' catcher, Joe Garagiola, who said, "He can throw as hard as anybody in this league. He can throw as hard as Feller if he wants to. He could be the answer to our prayers."
Necciai won his first start for Burlington, before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 3,000 at Graham Park, but struck out only 14 batters. "I hope that people are not disappointed that I didn't strike out 27," he said after the game. He lost his second start 2-1 and struck out 12. He stayed in Burlington for a little more than two months, compiling a 7-9 record and missing several starts because of an ear infection. He still struck out a league-leading 172 batters in 126 innings, set a league record with eight consecutive strikeouts and whiffed four of the six batters he faced in the Carolina League All-Star Game.
On Aug. 6, 1952, less than two months past his 20th birthday, the Pittsburgh Pirates summoned Rocket Ron Necciai to the major leagues.
"I remember my first start vividly," says Necciai as he pulls into the long, winding driveway that leads to his home in the wealthiest section of Monongahela. "There was a lot of publicity leading up to the game. A lot of pressure. The Pirates were so bad they needed a shot in the arm. I got terrible butterflies when I took the mound. It was against the Cubs. They humped me up pretty good. If I hit you between the eyes that night with my fastball, you'd think a mosquito bit you. I couldn't bend it either. Maybe I had lost the confidence I had. Who knows?"
Necciai gave up 7 runs and 11 hits in that game, a 9-5 loss, and struck out only three batters. Afterward, Garagiola said, "He was shaking so bad out on the mound, he couldn't see my signals." A few days later against the Reds, Necciai struck out 5 of the 10 batters he faced in relief. "That was the best stuff I ever had in my life," he says today. "Better even than the 27-strikeout game."
He won his first and only major league game on Aug. 27, 1952, 4-3 over the Braves, giving up seven hits and striking out just one batter in eight innings. He finished the season, his first and last in the major leagues, with a 1-6 record, a 7.04 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 55 innings.
The Pirates were confident that in his second season, Necciai would regain his confidence and blow away big league hitters with the same blinding fastball and exploding curveball he had used in the minors. After all, he hadn't lost his stuff. Ted Kluszewski said Necciai had the best curveball he had ever seen. Paul Waner, a Hall of Famer, saw Necciai pitch one night and said, "Yes, man. I am just as well satisfied I don't have to face Ronnie, especially at night. I am now convinced that this boy can throw harder than Diz [Dizzy Dean] at his best. If I had a chance to start over, I would try to keep away from Necciai."
Despite Necciai's bleeding ulcer, the Army drafted him in January 1953. "Their attitude was, there was nothing wrong with me," he says. "In basic training, they made me eat what everyone else ate. When my pills ran out, I couldn't get any more. Pretty soon my ulcer started acting up. I couldn't hold down food. I spit up blood. In two months I lost 25 pounds. Finally, they gave me a medical discharge."
When Necciai returned to Pittsburgh in April, he weighed 150 pounds. Eager to catch up after having missed spring training, he rushed his throwing one day and felt a pain in his shoulder. "I guess I threw too hard before I was ready," he says. "It was a sharp pain. My arm swelled. I had no strength. I still can't lift things with it. You know, that was the first sore arm I ever had in my life. Imagine. One sore arm and it lasted forever."
The Pirates sent him back to Burlington, but the arm never came around. The club sent him to doctors, who couldn't find the problem, and then they began to wonder if their young, ulcerous pitcher hadn't worried himself into something that wasn't there. "They thought maybe it was in my head," Necciai says. "But it was in my arm all right."
He went home in the middle of the 1953 season to see if rest would cure him. In the spring of 1954, he couldn't throw more than five pitches in succession without intense pain. Cortisone shots didn't help, so he returned home to rest his shoulder for another season.
He began 1955 as a sore-armed pitcher with Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League and then drifted down to Waco of the Big State League. The pain remained. Finally, the Pirates sent him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The same doctor who had operated on the arms of Dizzy Dean and Van Lingle Mungo found the source of Necciai's pain by twisting his shoulder back in just such a way that X-rays could pick up the ripped tissue. "The doctor told me it was the same thing that happened to Dizzy," says Necciai. "A tear in the posterior glenoid." He laughs. "I'll never forget those muscles. Anyway, I asked the doctor to explain what that meant. He said, 'Let me put it this way, son: Why don't you go home and get a job in a gas station?' "
Necciai leads a nice life. The license plate on his Cadillac reads NECTIE. He lives in an expensive, sprawling ranch house tucked far back in the rolling woods of Monongahela. When he's not on the road, he often lunches with Martha. He's close to his grown children and aging mother. Not bad for a boy who grew up poor in a row house in a mill town, many of whose inhabitants are today living on welfare.
"No, sirree," he says, "They won't have to hold any benefits for Ron Necciai."
It took him a while, however, to achieve this state of contentment. "For a long time I couldn't accept the fact that my arm wouldn't heal," he says. "Other guys get a sore arm and it lasts two weeks." His expression becomes pained. "Why the hell did I get one that lasted forever?" He flings his hand in the air, as if to dismiss his complaint. "Aw, I never thought I had the skills other kids did anyway. When I tried hard, it would all go to hell." He taps his head. "Testardo. Rock head. You know, I couldn't even spin a curveball right, at first. Then I wound up with the best curve in baseball." He looks bewildered by that fact, as if even now it surprises him. "Boy, I could sure bend it." He shakes his head in disbelief.
He is in his wood-paneled office now. A messy room. His desk is strewed with papers. He picks one up. "Look at this," he says, "my Pittsburgh contract." It is an agreement by the Pittsburgh Athletic Company, Inc., to pay one Ronald Andrew Necciai the sum of $750 per month for his services. "A lotta money in 1953," he says. Then he begins browsing through a mess of clippings stuck in an old scrap-book as if its possessor did not value them. "Here it is," he says, holding up a yellowed newspaper photo of himself, at 19, in a Bristol Twins uniform. He puts on his reading glasses to better see himself as he was then—a skinny, long-necked boy with big ears and a big, wincing, almost bewildered smile. A nice boy. An ordinary boy who still, to this day, cannot understand the blessing he was given.
"It's a very strange thing," he says. "A freak. I mean, no one else has ever done it." He shakes his head and looks up. "You know, I only began to worry when I began to play baseball."