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Rocket Ron and His Still Never Equaled Feat

While searching recently for some tidbit of information needed for a project, I happened across an amazing accomplishment by a player for a minor league baseball team in Tennessee, a feat that has to this day never been equaled.

One day in May 1952, a pitcher for the Bristol Twins did something that got him a quick ticket to the major leagues. His accomplishment seemed to be a harbinger of great things to come in his baseball career. It even caught the attention of the legendary Branch Rickey, the man who signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers, desegregating baseball. His feat even had the experts comparing him to Christy Mathewson and Dizzy Dean. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues called his deed “the greatest individual performance in the history of baseball.”

Western Pennsylvania native Ron Necciai had signed a professional baseball contract right out of high school when he was barely 19 years old. He was assigned to the Class D minor league team in Salisbury, N.C., where the manager told the young first baseman that he was going to be a pitcher. Necciai did what he was told, but he admitted to the manager that he was a bit nervous. When he had pitched in high school, he had broken a batter’s ribs when a fast ball got away from him. Ever since, he had preferred not to pitch. But he would do what he was told.

His prospects for a successful pitching career didn’t look very good at first. In his first two games in the minors, Necciai walked six batters in three innings; he also surrendered seven runs. In another game, the opponents scored three runs without his getting a single out. Necciai was ready to throw in the towel, but the coaches prevailed upon him to give himself time.

He went to spring training in 1951. That’s when hard-to-impress Branch Rickey saw him pitch and sent him back to Salisbury, where he promptly lost seven straight games and again was ready to quit. But the manager offered to pay him an extra $90 a month to drive the team bus. After a pep talk by the coach and a chewing-out by Rickey for not throwing harder, Necciai stayed and won the next four games he pitched. The Pirates sent him to their AA team in New Orleans. And in spring training the next year, they had him pitch against the defending world champion Giants, and he pitched five shutout innings and that against such legends as Alvin Dark, Monte Irvin, Sal Maglie, Eddie Stanky, and Bobby Thompson.

Necciai’s pitching seemed to be improving, but his health wasn’t. He had a nagging pain in his stomach and was losing weight and vomiting blood. Doctors diagnosed bleeding ulcers, prescribed medication, and put him on a strict diet. The pain persisted. He asked the team to send him down to Bristol to get back into shape, and they did.

Necciai started the Opening Night game for Bristol, striking out 20 Kingsport Cherokees in a two-hit shutout. His next start was against the Pulaski Phillies, 19 of whom he struck out, and he beat them 7-4. A few days later, pitching in relief, he faced 12 batters and struck out 11 of them. The media began calling him “Rocket Ron.” (George Stone later wrote a book about him using the nickname as his title.)

Then came May 13 and the game against the Welch (WV) Miners. Necciai started the game despite not feeling well. His manager noticed that he didn’t look well either. But Necciai took some medicine and by game time said he’d do his best. And with his first pitch of the game he began to throw strikes. There were some errors, some dropped foul balls, a wild pitch, and a hit batsman, so it was by no means a perfect game. But there were also strikeouts. A lot of them. But Necciai wasn’t feeling well. In fact, between the fourth and fifth innings, he threw up in the dugout. Nonetheless, he kept pitching, and the strikeouts kept coming. By the end of the eighth inning, he had amassed 23 K’s. But he wasn’t keeping track; his mind was on the pain in his gut.

In the ninth inning, the first two Miners struck out, one swinging and one looking. The third batter came up and swung wildly at the third strike, but the ball squirted past the catcher for a wild pitch and went to the backstop, allowing the batter to reach first. Necciai had no idea was what happening; he just wanted to get the game over with so he could get something for the pain in his stomach.

The fourth batter of that inning also struck out. Necciai had struck out an unprecedented  27 batters in a nine-inning game, a feat that had never been done before. And it has never been equaled. Seventeen batters went down swinging; ten batters were sent back to their dugout on called third strikes.

Necciai was a relief pitcher a few games later, and he struck out the first eight batters he faced. In his next start, he struck out 24 while giving up only two hits in his third shutout in four starts. When the final stats of the season were calculated, Necciai had struck out an average of about 23 batters for every nine innings he pitched.

On August 6, the big team called him up to help them salvage something from a terrible season. As a Pirate, he faced the Chicago Cubs on August 10, and they pounced in the first inning, tagging him for five hits, including two doubles, and scored five runs. He ended up surrendering seven before the manager mercifully removed him for a pinch hitter.

Yet, the next night he came on in relief and pitched three no-hit/no-run innings, striking out five. But he gained only one win the rest of the season. And then he was drafted into the army. He injured a shoulder muscle and never managed a comeback. His baseball career was over after less than a month in the majors.

Necciai landed a job demonstrating sporting equipment at shows for outdoorsmen. He got married and had three kids. His ulcers suddenly vanished. He gained weight. When he retired, he moved to Florida, where the Bradenton Pirates had him throw out the first pitch at a spring training game on March 3, 2016.

Necciai’s career didn’t last long. But he wasn’t bitter, and he often said, “I gave baseball a nickle and got a million dollars back.” And he holds an enviable record that even Nolan Ryan couldn’t touch: he struck out 27 batters in one game. You can’t do better than that.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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