BRISTOL, Va. — Another pitcher may tie “Rocket” Ron Necciai’s 67-year-old record but none will beat it.
On May 13, 1952, Necciai set a professional baseball record with 27 strikeouts in a nine-inning no-hitter, a 7-0 Appalachian League victory over the Welch Miners. Necciai, a lanky 6-5 righthander, became an overnight sensation following his unparalleled feat and followed up the gem with a two-hit shutout in which he struck out 24 more batters – two hits allowed, no runs and 51 strikeouts in 18 innings.
“Remember, that (27-strikeout) game was in May,” recalls Necciai (pronounced net-SHY) , but it was not my first game. We played a full season then – over 100 games – in the Appalachian League.”
He averaged more than 15 strikeouts per game, once had 11 straight Ks, fanned five in one inning against the Johnson City Cardinals and had an Appy League Earned Run Average of 0.42. Of such stuff are legends made.
In major league history (1869—2019) only Roger Clemens (twice), Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood, and Max Scherzer have totaled 20 strikeouts in a game. Tom Cheney had 21 in a game for the old Washington Senators in 16 innings.
“Just tell it like it was, don’t embellish what happened and let the people decide what they think about it,” says Necciai, a modest native of tiny Gallatin, Pennsylvania, a town of about 100 people. Necciai’s heroics caught the keen eye of Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Branch Rickey, who promoted the fireballer to nearby Salisbury, N.C., and he was soon called up to the majors to pitch for the Bucs.
It was an amazing story for a boy who, like many, wanted to escape work in the Pennsylvania steel mills. Necciai’s story has an amazing resemblance to that of his own hero, Stan “The Man” Musial, who grew up in nearby Donora and went on to become a hall of fame performer for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Necciai began his minor league career as a first baseman but his manager, George Detore, convinced him his future was as a pitcher. Musial started as a pitcher but his manager, Dickie Kerr, made him an outfielder after an arm injury. Both started in the same league, however, as Musial broke in at Williamson in 1939 when the affiliate was still in the Mountain States League. When Necciai joined the loop, it had become the Appy League.
Both players played against Bluefield. In Musial’s rookie year, Bluefield was known as the Blue-Grays and played at Cain Field on the East End. When Necciai played for Bristol (called the “Twins” because of the two Bristols of Virginia/Tennessee) Bluefield had moved to Bowen Field.
Necciai recalls, “We rode the bus to Bluefield when we played and we stayed at the Matz Hotel, right across from the railroad yard. I am not sure why we didn’t ride the train but it was probably cheaper to take our bus, like we did to all the other games.”
Welch had its park at Blakeley Field, now the site of the Welch Armory. The Miners were affiliated in ‘52 with the old Boston (now Atlanta) Braves and played in the Appy League for 19 seasons with a variety of owners.
The stars aligned in early May when the Miners traveled to play at Shaw Park on Euclid Avenue on the Gate City Highway (Rt. 58) in Bristol. The site, now a factory, has a plaque commemorating the game that made Necciai a celebrity – something he still does not quite agree to.
“I have had a great life,” says the 87-year retired sporting goods representative, “and baseball was a big part of that. It opened doors and I have a fine family, a good career, but that game was what it was. I am grateful for the good things that came my way but that night I was working hard as a pitcher just trying to win a ball game. I don’t look back and wonder what might have been. I got on with my life and did very well. Baseball was fun while I was a part of it.”
Necciai had a blazing fastball and what he called a “drop” curve and notes that he was still trying to learn pitches like the change up.
“I had what some people call a ‘double joint’ and so I could spin my wrist and that caused the ball to really drop when it got near the plate. In fact, I threw a lot of pitches that hit the dirt. That was true on the night of all the strikeouts, too,” he recalls.
Necciai’s catcher, Harry Dunlop, agrees.
“That night we were both concentrating on the game. I guess we thought about getting some strikeouts, but not that much. Ron could throw really hard but not all the pitches were in the strike zone. We went deep into the count on several batters so it was busy for both of us,” said Dunlop. “It was fun but not always easy to catch when Ron was pitching. I am sure he threw as fast as anybody in the majors today and then he also had that big curve ball.”
Necciai, concentrating on his work, did not pay a lot of attention to the scoreboard and after the game passed the halfway point, one of his teammates pointed out what was happening.
A teammate asked, “Do you guys know what it is going on? You’re striking everybody out. I heard him but I just went back out and got to work.”
It was hard work for the Miners, who had 17 swinging strikeouts. Although some fans recall that Necciai threw a perfect game, that was not the case. One Miner reached on an error, one was hit by a pitch, another walked, and in the ninth, one of Necciai’s drop pitches caused Dunlop to have a passed ball. Necciai entered the history books by striking out the last man. Overall, he had 3 strikeouts in innings 1-8 and fanned four in the ninth.
“People still call, send cards and letters, ask for autographs and interviews,” he said recently. “It makes me feel good, after 67 years, people still remember.”
Necciai was called up to the major leagues and won one game in a six-week stint (a 4-3 triumph over the Braves) before ulcers and a torn rotator cuff prematurely ended his career.
“That was some game,” laughed Dunlop in an interview. “I got 27 assists, which I guess is in the record books, too. Nothing like it before or since. I am sure Ron threw 100 miles an hour at his best but we didn’t have a radar gun. The state police did but they were not at the game.”
Those who were never forgot the night Ron Necciai struck out all 27 outs in the victory.