A wonderful tale straight from the heart of America That Was.
BELLE VERNON, Pennsylvania—As Ron Necciai recalls, the first two batters both went down in strikes. The third guy got lucky—sort of. The ball got away from the catcher, who quickly got the batter out at first.
It was May 13, 1952, a cold, damp Tuesday night for 1,100 people at Shaw Stadium in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Necciai was pitching for the Bristol Twins, a Pittsburgh Pirate-affiliated Appalachian League farm team, against the Welch Miners.
The gangly 19-year-old from Gallatin, Pennsylvania, had no idea he would not leave the mound again that night. Nor did he know that his name and what he did in that game would be forever etched in baseball history books.
“The thing is, the game didn’t really stand out in any way when I was on the mound. I mean, I hit a guy, had a couple of walks and an error or two,” he told the Washington Examiner from his home, just eight miles south of the house he grew up in.
What the right-hander from a smoky coal town along the Monongahela River did not point out until prodded was that he struck out 27 batters in nine innings.
“I didn’t realize that 27 guys had struck out until after the game was over,” he recalled. “George Detore, who was the manager, came up to me and said, ‘Do you realize what you did?’ I said, ‘No. No. Why?’ And then he said, ‘Well, you struck out 27 batters.’ And always being a wise guy, I said, ‘So what? They’ve been playing this game for a hundred years. Somebody else did, too.’ Come to find nobody else ever did before or after.”
“I guess I lived a lifetime of baseball in one night,” said Necciai.
The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues called the 27-strikeout game “the greatest individual performance in the history of baseball.”
And he did it while battling a bleeding ulcer that had him throwing up blood in the dugout before the game and drinking glasses of milk between innings to drown the heat that was burning his insides.
It is a record that has never been broken.
His 1952 minor league season on the mound remains one of the most dominant ever. In his next start a few nights later, he struck out 24. He got called up to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates in August 1952 and played until the end of the season. By the time he was 22, he was done in by a torn rotator cuff, something doctors did not know how to repair back then.
There are no stats for the speed of his pitches since there were no radar guns back then. But the legendary Branch Rickey (the famed baseball executive who signed Jackie Robinson) measured it perfectly: “I’ve seen a lot of baseball in my time. There have been only two young pitchers I was certain were destined for greatness simply because they had the meanest fastball a batter can face. One of those boys was Dizzy Dean. The other is Ron Necciai. And Necciai is harder to hit.”
The author of this fine piece misses on only one particular, when he proposes that the real beauty of baseball is in its slow, languid pace. But to my way of thinking, the real beauty of the game is in one simple, unavoidable fact: the pitcher on the mound can stall and lollygag to his heart’s content; the batter can step out of the box to tap his cleats, tug his crotch, and generally fumblefart around as long he may like. But sooner or later, come hell or high water, the eternal truth remains: the pitcher is going to have to heave that pill, and the batter is going to have to either swing or take.
There is no way around it, none at all. The confrontation MUST be resolved, and WILL be resolved. Ain’t no passing the ball around well outside the lanes to run out the clock on a slim lead as in basketball; ain’t no snapping the ball for the quarterback to fall on, milking seconds as the resulting pileup gets sorted out. There is the pitcher, there is the batter, and the better man in that singular moment will eventually out, no matter what else may or may not happen.
And THAT, my friends, is what they call baseball.