On a gentle spring evening in the mountains of Virginia in 1952, 18-year-old catcher Harry Dunlop (Sacramento) became part of baseball history.
On that May 13th evening in Bristol, Dunlop was on the receiving end of the greatest pitching performance imaginable. Ron Necciai, a 19-year-old nugget with a promising right arm, accomplished what no pitcher had ever done and has never done since.
Pitching for the Bristol Twins, Necciai struck out 27 batters and pitched a no-hitter, beating the visiting Welch Miners 7-0 at Shaw Stadium. From that day on, Necciai would be known as “Rocket Ron.”
Dunlop, who served on the coaching staff of the Florida Marlins, Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres, is often asked to relive that record-breaking night. He told The Sacramento Bee in an interview in 2011, the stories that have been printed over the past 60 years have been embellished so much that sorting fact from fiction is even hard for him.
“Almost every year some sportswriter somewhere calls Ron and then calls me and asks about that game,” said Dunlop from his home in Elk Grove. “No matter how many times I tell the story none of them ever gets it right.”
Still, Dunlop said telling the Ron Necciai story never gets old.
“We knew striking out that many batters was an accomplishment, but never thought of it as anything more than that,” Dunlop said. “We figured somebody must have done it before. We were kids. We didn’t know any better. Not until the next day when the media and everyone made such a big deal about it did Ron say, ‘We must have really done something.’”
The only reason Necciai was even in the minor leagues in 1952 was because he suffered from severe stomach ulcers. He was often seen spitting up blood at spring training in San Bernardino. His 6-foot-5 frame was used to carrying 230 pounds. However, his illness took a huge toll on his body and pounds quickly came off.
Instead of pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was sent on a medical rehabilitation assignment to Bristol of the Class-D Appalachian League, the rock-bottom of all minor leagues.
Dunlop described Necciai as “short tempered” and that “every little thing bothered him. It didn’t take much for that stomach of his to act up. He was what mama would call a worrywart.”
Necciai said calling him a worrywart was being kind.
“I worried about stuff that hadn’t happened yet,” he said in 2011 from his spring home in Anna Maria Island, Fla.
Dunlop and Necciai were roommates and before the game that historic night, the two had lunch at Traylor’s, a well-known local eatery in Bristol. Often owner Jack Traylor would let the two eat for free. It was noon and Necciai’s stomach was already acting up.
Dunlop said he tried to take Necciai’s mind off his ailment by “kidding him about the girls at the local colleges.”
By game time, Necciai’s stomach was really churning and he wasn’t sure he could pitch. Bristol manager George Detore told his young pitcher to give it a shot and see how long he could go. Necciai had five strikeouts through the first two innings.
Necciai was so overpowering that by the fourth inning batters began to bunt hoping to just get the ball in play. The best they could do, however, was foul the ball off.
By the sixth inning fans began chanting with each strikeout – “15, 16, 17.”
Oblivious to what was going on, when Dunlop returned to the dugout he asked what all the commotion in the stands was all about. He was told that Necciai was striking everyone out.
“Even at that time, I didn’t know Ron was on his way to setting a record,” Dunlop said. “Ron was one of those guys who didn’t get batters out one-two-three. He always threw a lot
of pitches. I was concentrating on doing my job, and keeping track of strikeouts wasn’t part of that job.”
By the seventh inning, Necciai’s ulcers were burning big-time, so badly Detore sent the ball boy out to the mound with cottage cheese, milk and Banthine, a medication used to treat stomach disorders.
“You’ve got to remember this was the 1950s, not yesterday,” Necciai said. “That was pretty much the treatment at that time.”
Despite his discomfort, Necciai’s strikeout total rose and the chanting from the stands continued – “18, 19, 20.”
Necciai began the ninth inning with 23 strikeouts. The first batter was a pinch hitter, who lofted a pop-up in foul territory near home plate. According to articles in the local newspapers, while Dunlop circled the popup the fans screamed for him to drop the ball. Some reports said the first baseman said to drop it. Other reports suggested he did it on purpose.
No matter, Dunlop was unable make the play and the ball dropped to the ground untouched.
“No way in the world did I intentionally drop that ball,” Dunlop said. “Why on earth would I ever let something like that happen? I was 18 years old and trying to prove I was a ballplayer. Besides, I’m not that smart. And, to set the record straight, no way was our first baseman or the fans yelling for me to drop it.
“I just flat missed it. I was never any good at catching pop fouls. In fact, I never caught a pop foul before I played in the minor leagues. Playing at Sacramento High School and on the local diamonds, the backstops were right behind home plate and had those screens that extend up and toward the playing field. I never got a chance to catch one. I was so bad, I spent my first year in the minors practicing an extra hour each day just catching foul balls.”
The thought of someone suggesting a ballplayer would miss a ball on purpose upset Necciai.
“I can’t imagine anybody ever dropping a ball on purpose,” Necciai said. “How do you even know what’s going to happen with the next batter. Doing something like that could
change the whole game. If a player ever dropped a ball on purpose in pro ball he’d be in big doo-doo. All Harry and I ever wanted to do is get the batter out.”
After the botched play, Dunlop returned to his catching position and Necciai registered his 24th strikeout. The next batter struck out as well. The third batter of the inning struck out, but the ball got past Dunlop. Again, there was suspicion that he did it on purpose. Dunlop insisted otherwise.
“Ron wasn’t easy to handle,” Dunlop said. “His curve ball was so good and dropped so much that many of them hit in the dirt before I could catch them. I was always on my knees trying to block the ball. On that two-strike pitch, the batter swung and the ball clipped the corner of the plate and bounced up over my head. I never touched the ball at all.”
Necciai praised Dunlop for his ability to catch and call a game.
“He’d put the sign down and never move a muscle,” Necciai said. “He was a great catcher. He had to be to catch someone like me who threw lots and lots and lots of balls. No one will ever accuse me of being a control pitcher. Ask any catcher who caught me. I had to be the hardest guy in baseball to catch. When I was scheduled to pitch, the talk was who is going to box with Necciai tonight.”
At the game was Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey, a man with a keen eye for talent and one who wasn’t afraid to buck the system. The legendary Rickey, who was responsible for tearing down the racial barrier in Major League Baseball by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, was so impressed he called Necciai “a miracle.”The final batter struck out for number 27. Four Miners’ batters reached first base during the game on a walk, error, hit batsman and a passed ball.
Rickey was there for Necciai’s next start and told the media, “If he gets through the first inning, he proves to me he’s a major leaguer.”
Necciai threw a two-hitter and struck out 24, including a record five strikeouts in one inning. His performance earned him a promotion to last-place Burlington-Graham of the Class-B Carolina League. There he was 7-9, but he did lead the league in ERA at 1.57 and strikeouts with 172.
With Rickey announcing the 19-year-old had nothing more to prove at the minor-league level, Necciai finished the year with the Pirates, who lost 112 games that season. He was 1-6 with 31 strikeouts in 54 and two-thirds innings.
Rickey said there were only two young pitchers before Necciai that he was certain was destined for greatness simply because they had the meanest fastball a batter could face. One was Dizzy Dean. The other was Christy Mathewson.
While Necciai’s May 13th no-hit, 27-strikeout performance was stunningly unexpected, there were already signs that Necciai’s arm was special.
In leading up to that special night, he struck out 20 and 19 hitters in back-to-back games, respectively. And, in a relief appearance with the bases loaded, he struck out the side and then the next eight batters to set an Appalachian League record of 11 in a row. In four starts and two relief stints with Bristol, Necciai was 4-0 with a 0.42 ERA, gave up 10 hits and had 109 strikeouts in 42 innings.
“He had great stuff,” Dunlop said. “He was a bulldog. He never gave in to anyone and threw as hard as anyone I’ve ever been associated with. He had the speed of Tom Seaver and the movement on the ball of Bruce Sutter. I thought he would set the world on fire.”
Necciai never looked at himself that way.
“I don’t think I was that good,” Necciai said. “I never did and never will.”
Despite his medical condition which saw his weight drop below 150 pounds during the 1952 season, Necciai was drafted into the Army in January of 1953. He spent as much time in a hospital as he did with his military unit.
Necciai was discharged three months later. As a result, he missed spring training and the regular season. In his rush to return to the Pirates, he developed a sore arm. Diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, he missed the entire 1954 season.
Necciai played in 10 more minor-league games in 1955 before his career sadly ended.
Dunlop and Necciai enjoyed playing for Detore because he always talked to his pitchers and catchers after each game, going over what they did right and what they did wrong. An excited Dunlop looked forward to Detore’s evaluation after the game.
Dunlop said: “After this one, I figure he’s going to come up to me and say I did a great job. Butsac instead he says, ‘I guess you thought you caught a great game tonight. What pitch did you throw to the second batter in the fifth inning? When you can tell me what pitch you called to every hitter in the game and why, then I’ll tell you that you caught a helluva game.”
Dunlop’s resume boasts more than just that historic game. Between May 13 and May 26 of that year, he caught three no-hitters. After Necciai’s gem, he caught back-to-back no-hitters by Bill Bell, who struck out 20 and 24 batters, respectively. Bell, who was killed in an auto accident in 1962, added a third no-hitter on August 25.
“I caught three no-hitters in my first 14 professional games and had more putouts than our team combined. I thought this pro game was going to be easy. It went pretty much downhill after that,” Dunlop joked.
Dunlop spent 50 years in baseball. In 14 years as a minor-league player from 1952-1969, he hit .276 with 20 home runs and 292 runs batted in. In 13 years as a minor-league manager from 1958-1993, he had an 894-794 record. He also was a minor-league field coordinator in 1988-90 and spent 21 years as a major-league coach with the Kansas City Royals (1969-75), Chicago Cubs (1976), Cincinnati Reds (1979-82, 1998-2000), San Diego Padres (1983-87) and Florida Marlins (2005.)
After his coaching career, Dunlop authored a book appropriately entitled: “50 Years in a Kids Game.”