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The three greatest pitchers [Branch Rickey had] known...were Christy Mathewson...Dizzy Dean...and Ron Necciai.
It was just another minor league Baseball game, between the Bristol Twins and the Welch Miners before 1,183 fans at Shaw Stadium in Bristol, Va., on the night of May 13, 1952. It was just one of the 150 minor league games played that day and the 20,000 played that year and the 900,000 played since the minor leagues were organized in 1901. Nothing much was at stake. Bristol was in first place in the Class D Appalachian League and the Miners were tied for second, but the season was still young. If the game meant anything at all, it was as another tiny stepping-stone in the professional careers of the players involved.
On the morning of the game, Bristol's starting pitcher awoke in the boarding house he shared with some teammates. The passage of time has dulled his memory for details about the day, but he was a nervous sort then and he often suffered restless nights before he pitched. His routine was to eat around midnight, and he tried never to have anything that would upset his ulcer. But it was hard for him to stick to his diet. The diners in this hill town straddling the Tennessee-Virginia border specialized in fried foods. That was all his teammates ate. Often after night games he would sit with them at Jack Trayer's restaurant and order broiled chicken or boiled eggs with cottage cheese and dry toast, while they ordered hamburgers and french fries and—worst of all, for him—ice-cold watermelon for dessert. It was difficult for him to resist. After all, he was only 19. He had always been a careful eater anyway, which was why, despite standing 6'3", he weighed only 165 pounds.
When his stomach bothered him and he couldn't sleep, he would sit on the front porch of the boarding house in the cool night air and watch the trucks and cars go by. Cool weather always eased his suffering a bit. He would try hard to concentrate on the next night's game so he wouldn't notice the burning feeling in his stomach. He hoped the next night would be cool, too.
Ron Necciai (NETCH-eye), weighing all of 230 pounds, comes back from the buffet table at the restaurant in the Ramada Inn near the Greater Pittsburgh Airport carrying a tray heaped with food: roast pork smothered with garlic, boiled potatoes swimming in butter, onions and tomatoes doused with vinegar and a thick piece of double Dutch chocolate cake.
"Isn't it funny?" says Necciai. "I can eat anything now. The hotter and the spicier the better." He pats his stomach and sits down. He has recently lost 30 pounds. He had thought he might have cancer of the colon, so he worried off his excess weight until he found out there was nothing wrong. Now, at 54, he seems intent on packing that lost weight back on his frame. He is a good-looking man with dark skin, black hair flecked with white, and a Roman nose that betrays his Italian heritage. He looks better now than he did as a 19-year-old pitcher with the Bristol Twins in 1952. Then he was just one of those tall, skinny kids, all arms and legs and neck, with a bulging Adam's apple and big ears and an even bigger nose with which, it seemed, his face would never catch up.
"I was always a picky eater," he says. "I used to eat fast and then burn it up with worry. I don't know what I had to worry about. It was just my nature. I worried about everything. I was very nervous, high-strung. When the Pirates sent me to a doctor in the spring of '52, he took some tests and then told me I had an ulcer. 'It's not what you're eating,' he said, 'it's what's eating you.' That was the spring I had the Pirates made."
After two undistinguished seasons, mostly in Class D, Necciai was surprised when the Pirates invited him to their spring training camp in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1952. He had caught the eye of Branch Rickey Jr., the Bucs' farm director and son of the club G.M., the previous season at Salisbury in the North Carolina State League. Necciai had lost his first seven games that year, but on the day Rickey came to town, the righthander had struck out nine batters in a six-hit victory. After the game, Rickey admonished him. "You oughta be ashamed of yourself, playing with these babies," he told Necciai. "Your ability is so superior to theirs you should beat them every time out. Now, if you straighten up your act and win a few games, I'll send you someplace where you can make some real money."
So in the spring of 1952 Necciai was in San Bernardino, but with no expectations of making the Pirates, which was probably why he did so well. "I didn't know why I was there," he says. "I didn't know anything as a pitcher. Just hand me the ball, and I'd throw it." Underestimating his own talent was to be a lifelong habit.
He had seemed to assure himself a spot on the Pirates by pitching five shutout innings against the National League champion New York Giants. On the train ride east after the team broke camp, it dawned on Necciai that he would be starting the '52 season in the big leagues, at the age of 19. He began to worry. He threw up his food. He spit up blood. His weight dropped below 150 pounds. When the Pirates stopped in New Orleans for some exhibition games, Necciai was too weak to pitch in one of them. He was sent ahead to Pittsburgh, where the team physician, Dr. Norman Ochsenhirt, diagnosed Necciai's ulcer. He prescribed a diet heavy on cottage cheese and melba toast, and gave Necciai some black pills—Banthine—which helped neutralize the acid in his stomach. The pills and the diet made him feel better, but he was too skinny and weak to stay with the Pirates. The club wanted to send him to New Orleans of the Class AA Southern Association to regain his weight and strength, but Necciai objected. He wanted to go instead to Bristol, where George Detore was the manager.