One Man, One Game, 27 Strikeouts

Ron Necciai, who went to high school in the same town, Monongahela, Pa., as standout NFL kicker Fred Cox and Hall of Fame legend Joe Montana, struck out more men in a single professional game than any pitcher ever. Pitching for Class D Bristol in the minor leagues on May 13, 1952, he went the distance, firing a no-hitter and accounting for 27 outs on strikeouts (with 17 batters going down swinging). However, in this oddity, there were more than 27 outs recorded–for example, after one strikeout, the batter reached first safely when the catcher couldn’t come up with the ball cleanly. Only 1,183 fans were in attendance.

In his two starts before his historic 27 K outing, Necciai had set (briefly) a club record with 20 whiffs then followed that up with 19 more. Still on a roll, in his first start after the 27 strikeout performance, 24 more batters went down on strikes for an incredible 51 strikeouts over two games, or 22 1/2 K’s per game. This would be his final start at Bristol and it resulted in his third shutout over his last four starts.

Not only that, but between the 19 and the 27 strikeout showings (which, by the way, was just his 21st game as a pro), he relieved once, retiring 11 of the 12 men he faced via whiffs. He accomplished all this at the age of 19! His record, seven K’s more than the major league record for a nine inning game, still stands even though decades have since passed.

Actually, his very first game after the 27 K contest featured him coming out of the bullpen–this time he fanned all eight men he faced. He truly was a strikeout machine.

MISC.  In the record setting outing, Necciai allowed one walk, hit a batter, and saw one opponent reach via an error…The 6′ 5″, 185 pound Necciai felt sick when he took to the mound that historic night, but clearly overcame that issue…He posted an ERA of 0.42 and he recorded 128 outs with an incredible 109 coming via strikeouts at Bristol…Arguably, only control problems and health issues kept him from being a big league star.

Pirates G.M. Branch Rickey heaped praise on Necciai. One quick quote–  “The greatest all around pitcher I ever saw never was a major league regular.” Necciai once reflected, “There are has-beens and never-wases. I’m a might-have-been. I lived a lifetime in one night.” For more on what Rickey said, including his evaluation of Necciai’s blazing fastball, and more on Necciai in general, go to:  https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ron-necciai/

The sources for the above paragraph were a story by Paul Jayes, “A Moment of Glory He’ll Never Forget,” from the April 19, 1983, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and SABR, an excellent organization and resource for avid baseball fans.

Despite Necciai’s terrific 27 strikeout achievement, one he is reminded of by fans and friends almost daily, and one he says he does not tire of discussing, he has remained modest. In an interview I conducted with him about four years ago, he joked that at the major league level he had nothing to do with the reporters. “I was too lowly—they wouldn’t speak to a scrub-beanie like me when there were so many other guys in that league who were great.” Maybe so, but great is a fitting word to describe what Necciai accomplished with his untouchable all-time record.

WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? I wonder how many readers of this blog put either a) a lot  b) some  c) very little OR  d) no stock in the WAR statistic? If you locate my blog from March 7, 2020, you might be tempted to, based on one glaring instance, place no credence in the stat. Briefly, Jim Leyland pointed out that an obscure player, Darwin Barney, had a higher WAR than Miguel Cabrera the year the Tiger slugger won the Triple Crown!

Babe Ruth & Western Pa. Football: June 2020

First of all, I’m asking for a favor because if I don’t get more “followers” by the end of this year, I will probably discontinue my blogs. So, if you could pass the word to sports fans who you know and suggest that they sign up to follow this site, that could help. Thanks.

TRIVIA: Johnny Sain, one half of the pitching duo that led the Boston Braves to the ’48 pennant (remember the famous “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” quote?), is the answer to a very obscure trivia question–who was the last man to pitch against Babe Ruth and also the first one to pitch to Jackie Robinson in the majors (1947). The Ruth at bat is the tricky part because that took place during a fund raising game for the armed forces in 1943. Not wanting to humble the bloated, out of shape Ruth, Sain threw pitches out of the strike zone. Ruth walked, was lifted for a pinch hitter, and never appeared again in uniform during a contest according to Sain.

Pittsburgh fans may know that Ruth’s last home run in the majors came as a member of the Braves at Forbes Field and that he blasted the first ever homer over the right field roof which loomed high above the playing field. Nobody had hit one over that target in the park’s first 26 seasons to date. The Pirate who served up that home run was Guy Bush. Somehow the aging Ruth mustered his old bat magic that day (May 25, 1935) and hit three home runs, but (contrary to what is sometimes portrayed) he did not retire after that barrage. He went on to play uneventfully in five more games, going hitless over 13 plate appearances, wrapping up his career after, I believe, grounding out as a pinch hitter against the Phillies.

For my Pittsburgh/Western Pennsylvania readers: The book Pittsburgh Sports presented an extremely impressive stat about the Steel City vicinity and how it produced so many great football players: “In the early 1970s the Pittsburgh area . . . ranked highest in major college recruiting” with Allegheny County ranking #3 in the entire nation. Then, remarkably, when based on per capita stats, FIVE of the top 11 counties in the country were from the southwest portion of Pennsylvania. They were– Beaver County at #2; Westmoreland (#6); Washington was 7th best; Fayette ranked 8th, and Allegheny stood #11!

That reminded me of something from my book America’s Football Factory about football in the Pittsburgh area–at one point almost exactly one out of every four modern era quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame were from that region: Blanda, Unitas, Namath, Kelly, Marino, and Montana. That is an unbelievable, defying-all-odds statistic.

In a 1975 ranking, the Philadelphia area boasted they had nine of the top 100 Pennsylvanians in the state’s high school football history, and the south-central part of the state produced 15. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh area was responsible for 38 (31 from the WPIAL).

Babe Ruth, His Daughter and New Info

As far as I know, most (maybe all) of the info here on Babe Ruth and his daughter has never been in print before. For a long time I didn’t know that Ruth’s second wife, Claire, and slugger Johnny Mize were first cousins. So, between her husband and cousin, she was associated with 1,073 home runs!

MY STORY:  When I was writing the life story of Ruth, simply entitled Babe Ruth: A Biography, the curator of the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore told me that Ruth’s daughter Julia was living in a suburb of Phoenix. It turned out she lived not only in the same town as a good friend of mine, but only about two block from him. I immediately decided to try to accomplish two things–paying my friend a visit and get first hand information on Ruth from Julia. When she agreed to speak to me at her house, it was time for a trip from Ohio to Arizona. It turned out to be one of my favorite interviews/experiences as a writer. Julia passed away not very long ago, on March 9, 2019, having lived a long, memorable life—lasting until the age of 102.

INFO FROM THAT VISIT: This next story is actually from Julia’s son Tom Stevens who was visiting her the day I sat down for the interview. This tale shows that much of the legend of Ruth and many of his superhuman feats were true.

One day Tom ran into the then oldest living member of the Hall of Fame, Joe Sewell.  “He was wheelchair-bound, but he played with Babe in the 30’s.  He was a third baseman with the Yankees [1931-33] in the twilight of Babe’s career.

Stevens related, “He had a twinkle in his eye while he was telling [of the time] he was the last one in the locker room and Babe came in, almost stumbling, late for practice, for infield and shagging flies.  The first thing that would come to people’s mind was that he had been out partying or something like that, but he wasn’t— even he couldn’t do that forever, particularly at his age at that time.  He’d long ago given that up anyway. My grandmother wouldn’t have stood for it; in a lot of ways she was one of the best things that happened to him; she brought him up short, so to speak.

“Anyway, he [Sewell] was just about to go on the field, and by this time Babe was getting dressed and he said, ‘Hey, kid, can you give me a hand getting dressed?  There’s something wrong here and I can’t figure it out.’  He had put his pants on backwards.

“What had happened was his knees were so shot by that time in his career he was in continual search for painkillers.  With prescription drugs, some of them don’t necessarily agree with you too well.  Apparently that was what happened in this case.

“So he [Sewell] proceeded to tell the story of how he helped him get dressed and then went out onto the field and Babe followed along afterwards.  In spite of all that, he put two out and went 3-for-5, I think, and had five or six RBI. Not too shabby a day.

“At that point Joe Sewell looked up at me and said, ‘Son, your grandfather was a baseball god.’”

FROM JULIA: Julia feels most proud of being Babe’s daughter not because of what he accomplished on the field, but rather “just for him being the person that he was and for being such a wonderful father.  There aren’t a lot of stepfathers, which, of course, he started out as, who adopt the children that they are a stepfather to.  He treated me as if I had always been his and I never knew another father.   Boy, I’m telling you something, I just thought, and I still do think, that I was the luckiest girl in the world to have him adopt me; he was just so wonderful.”  

She said she didn’t even care that he was a superstar ballplayer.  “Absolutely.  It wouldn’t have changed what he was.”  In fact, Babe “pretty much left it [his accomplishments] on the field.  He really didn’t talk much about [games].  One thing he would say would be if they lost a game.  He’d say, ‘I think we could have won that game if such and such a thing had been done, if they’d removed a pitcher’ or something like that.  Outside of that, he didn’t really bring the game home.”

Even if, say, the Babe had hit three homers in a game, he didn’t discuss it.  As Julia note, “It wasn’t as if he hadn’t done it before.  When he hit the last three in Pittsburgh, Mother was with him.  I wasn’t, but I thought it was great.  To me it was Daddy and that was the kind of thing that Daddy did.

“I, along with Mother, do wish that he had retired after that, but when he made a promise, he kept it no matter what, and he had promised Judge Fuchs that he would finish the particular [road trip] until they got back to Boston— that was when he handed in his retirement.”

If you enjoyed this blog and want more about Ruth and his relatives, add a comment here and I’ll run some additional material.

FINAL ITEMS: A famous story (perpetuated by several movies on the Babe) has him visiting a hospital to see a sick boy named Johnny Slyvester. He promises the boy that he’ll hit a homer for him the next day. Well, two things: 1) part of that story is true, but a whole LOT of it was manufactured/embellished by Hollywood. 2) it was not at all unusual for Ruth to promise young fans that he’d hit a homer for them. One book I read said that, in fact, he “usually” made this promise to sick kids.

He truly was great with kids, but why does Hollywood have to distort things? I am always skeptical when I see “based on true events” associated with movies because I know that means some of the material is embellished for dramatic effect AND I also know that means I have NO idea what is true from the movie and what isn’t. Therefore, I go away skeptical about almost everything in the movie at times.

Quick Stan the Man Info May ’20

We, especially those of us raised in Donora, Pa., know a lot about Stan Musial and his greatness. However, from time to time I stumble across a new fact or stat about him such as:

Did you know he was the only N.L. player from 1930-1996 to post a slugging percentage of .700 or better? OPINION: As far as I’m concerned he’s still the only one to do that from 1930 through today. I say that because the others to top .700 were men I call cheaters, McGwire and Bonds, or Larry Walker. I mention him because I dismiss a lot of the stats and feats of those who had Coor’s Field as their home park. The best a fellow Donora native did in this category was an impressive .674 by Griffey Jr (who once led his league in slugging). Musial, by the way, led the N.L. in slugging six times.

Stan was the first N.L. player to cop three MVP Awards. One source states he was also the first N.L. star to reach the $100,000 plateau for salary. He is still the only man with 400+ HR with fewer than 700 strikeouts–he hit 475 homers and fanned just 696 times. He drew 1,599 walks over his 22 seasons. He averaged just about 30 strikeouts per year–compare THAT to today’s totals for star players. Nowadays who can hit for average like Stan, with a lot of combined double/home run power, yet hardly ever whiff? NOBODY. As a 22-year-old in 1943, he had 700 plate appearances and struck out a career low of 18 times! That’s about 2 1/2 strikeouts per every 100 times he stood in the batter’s box.

P.S. On Walker. Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? I wonder. He was very good, but great? From his first full season, 1990, through 1994 spent as an Expo, he led his league in one statistic one time. His RBI totals in Montreal were 51, 64, 93, 86, and 86 and his highest home run output was 23. Then in his first two full seasons in Colorado, he hit 36 and 49 HR with 101 and 130 RBI. The first year he led the league in slugging he actually had a higher percentage on the road than at home. However, in ’99 when he again led the league, he slugged .879 in the thin air of his home park to a mere .519 away! What a startling disparity!! Leave a comment if you have an opinion on this.

Talking Baseball KDKA Radio

The Larry Richert KDKA program I was supposed to be on a few weeks back is now saying, barring something unforeseen, that I will be his guest this coming Sunday, the 26th, at 2:30 to discuss 1960: When the Pittsburgh Pirates Had Them All the Way and Wits, Flakes, and Clowns on baseball’s funniest, most colorful characters. If you live outside the area KDKA (1020 AM) reaches, you can listen in live by using the app or the website for Radio.com (so I’m told). I think if you type in KDKA radio on a search engine one option you’ll see is “Listen Live” for Radio.com Thanks!

Here are two quick funny sample story from the Wits book:

Kirby Higbe, a player from a long time ago, had a strong fear of flying. On one flight, Brooklyn teammate Pee Wee Reese tried to console him, saying there was no need to fret because when a person’s number is up, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the air or on the ground. Higbe refused to be placated. “Suppose I’m up here with a pilot and my number isn’t up, but his is.”

This one is an oldie, but just in case you never heard it, here goes–

Hack Wilson was a notorious big drinker (and a big slugger–his record 191 RBI in a season still stands Chicago Cubs manager). Wilson once said, “I’ve never played drunk. Hung over, yes, but never drunk.” And Al Drooz wrote, “Hack Wilson batted right-handed and threw right-handed, but he drank equally well from either side.”

Wilson’s manager, Joe McCarthy, was trying to preach to him the folly of drinking whiskey. In order to demonstrate the point that whiskey would damage both Wilson and his career, McCarthy dropped a worm into a glass of water. He then extracted the not too happy, but still alive worm and then dropped it into a glass of whiskey. The worm soon died. McCarthy broke into a smug little smile, and asked Wilson if he had learned something from this experiment. Wilson replied, yes, “It means that if I keep on drinking liquor, I ain’t going to have no worms.”