MONONGAHELA, Pa. -- It was reminiscent of a comet streaking across the heavens, glowing in spectacular brilliance, and then suddenly falling into the vacuum of space. A classic moment, however brief, for Ron Necciai that singularly distinguishes him in baseball history yet lamentable because of a vast potential that went unfulfilled.
This tall, gangling right-handed pitcher, still a boy, had struck out 27 batters in one nine-inning game. His fastball was explosive enough to set a catcher's mitt on fire; the curve, which he delivered with an unorthodox style, tumbled out of his hand with wicked devastation.
It was a deed preserved in the record books, perhaps for perpetuity. Date: May 13, 1952. Place: Bristol, Va. An Appalachian League game between the Bristol Twins and Welch Miners. What this 19-year-old son of a Monongahela steel-mill worker did reached epic dimensions.
In more than 2 million professional games, from the minors to the majors, going back to 1871, no pitcher had ever consumed 27 batters via strikeouts until Necciai (pronounced NETCH-eye) accomplished this apex of perfection.
"It wasn't something I had chosen to do," he says. "I didn't realize what was happening. I wasn't aware I struck out everybody."
Necciai had been close to being released the previous season by the Pittsburgh Pirates from their farm club in Salisbury, N.C., but a patient manager named George Detore asked for more time to make a final assessment.
Necciai was making $150 a month, but Detore got him another $90 if he would drive the team bus.
Branch Rickey Sr., astute yet cautious, was bold enough to say he ranked Necciai, off his natural ability, with two Hall of Fame pitchers, Christy Mathewson and Dizzy Dean. A former major-league catcher and coach, the wise Clyde Sukeforth, long a Rickey associate, claimed Necciai had the "liveliest fastball he had ever seen."
In the 27-strikeout performance, the 6-foot-5 youngster walked two and hit one batter, and a fourth reached base on an error. Catcher Harry Dunlop, later to manage for the Orioles in their minor-league system and subsequently a coach for the San Diego Padres, wasn't aware Necciai was striking out the side until the sixth inning when he heard the crowd counting off numbers, tabulating the rising totals.
Frank Sliwka of Baltimore, a pitcher for the Welch team, observed what was happening from the opposing dugout. "It was something to see such a great event taking place in what you might say was an obscure ballpark," recalls Sliwka. "That was 46 years ago, and I remember so vividly how hard Necciai was throwing. You don't forget something like that."
The next day, most sports editors, but not all, played the story for what it was worth -- a momentous achievement that had people talking on street corners, in offices and at factories. They wanted to know more about Ron Necciai.
It came to be known that he had a severe stomach ailment, ulcers, that bothered him during his adolescent years. He wasn't able to eat regular food because of the ongoing digestive problem. In fact, during the late innings of the all-strikeout, no-hit, run game, manager Detore had the batboy carry a glass of milk and a Banthine pill to Necciai, who was in obvious pain and wasn't sure he could continue.
In his next start, to show his peerless effort was no fluke, he delivered a two-hitter, striking out 24, and was promoted two classifications to Class B Burlington of the Carolina League -- where he was 7-9 but led the league in strikeouts with 172 in 126 innings.
Meanwhile, the Pirates, struggling on the field and at the gate, decided to call Necciai to the parent club. He was nervous, just a kid who began the year in Class D, coming all the way to the majors. He won only one game and lost six the rest of the way, but he was impressive, causing the Cincinnati Reds' Ted Kluszewski to classify his curve as the best he had ever seen.
Necciai's curve, indeed, was most unusual. He rolled the ball out of his hand, directly toward the plate instead of spinning it off his index and middle fingers. Pat Jordan, a pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves' system who became an author, described in a Sports Illustrated story the way Necciai released the curve resembled the hand motion a boy used in making a yo-yo "sleep."
During a visit, Necciai pulled up his shirtsleeves and showed us the inside of both elbows. They were unusual, almost convex. "I was born this way," he said. "They are called long joints." But what appeared to be a mild deformity never bothered his throwing.
After the eventful 1952 season, draft board doctors said his stomach condition wasn't serious enough to keep him out of the military. Then he got another call. It was an officer at Fort Eustis, Va., asking him if he'd like to play for the base team. He answered in the affirmative and, incredibly, a chauffeur-driven army car showed up to transport citizen Necciai to basic training on the day of his induction.
But in three months, he was in bad shape. His weight slipped to under 150 pounds and he received a medical discharge. The draft board was wrong. Chow-line meals had compounded his problems and made him unfit to be a soldier.
Necciai got back to Monongahela, a clean mill town no longer rolling out carloads of steel, but the Pirates were in training rTC camp, so he decided to work out at Forbes Field. "I guess I rushed myself, trying to make up for lost time," he said. "My arm started to swell. I had hurt it badly."
The club sent him to doctors at Duke University Hospital, to the University of Southern California Hospital and then to Johns Hopkins, where he was examined by the noted orthopedic specialist, Dr. George Bennett.
"He told me I had the same problem as Dizzy Dean and Van Lingle Mungo," Necciai said. "Then he quietly suggested I ought to go get a job outside of baseball. He knew my arm was ruined."
Necciai went to work in his father-in-law's hardware store and then became a representative for hunting and fishing equipment. He excelled as a salesman, earned a good salary, raised a daughter and two sons with his wife of 43 years, Martha, and now enjoys the free time of retirement, playing in celebrity golf events around the country. His ulcer problems cleared up after he left baseball.
He remembers dressing between Murry Dickson and Ralph Kiner in the Pirates' locker room and also the afternoon when the clubhouse man from the St. Louis Cardinals came over to the Pirates' dressing quarters and said, "Stan wants to see you." So, via a special invitation, he had a visit with Stan Musial, a couple neighbors from the "Mon Valley" back home.
There are no regrets or hard feelings expressed by Necciai. An injury decided his destiny. He was subsequently set to join Rickey when he outlined plans for the Continental League, but it never came into being. "I want you to be with me in some capacity," Rickey said, which was a testimonial to Necciai's intellect and integrity.
What he contributed on that long-ago night in Bristol has been voted the most impressive accomplishment in the annals of minor-league baseball. The Hall of Fame recognizes the achievement with a display.
Twenty-seven strikeouts, the full legal limit. A maximum for nine innings. Ron Necciai still stands alone.
Pub Date: 8/23/98