Enigmatic Rocco key to Rams’ first winning season

Mickey Rocco, who played with Portland in 1950-51. (Wikipedia)

By any justifiable metric, statistical or otherwise, Minnesotan Mickey Rocco lives permanently on the Anniston Rams’ roster of memorable players. He hit third in the Rams’ inaugural game. He drove in the Rams’ first run. In his second season in Anniston — 1939, the Rams’ first winning campaign — he led the team in at-bats (585), hits (186), doubles (40), triples (11) and total bases (302), and was second in home runs (18), batting average (.318) and slugging percentage (.516). Doubting his worth, though empirically possible, is nonetheless asinine. 

But some did.

A clipping from The Anniston Star.

“Rocco has two sets of fans in Anniston,” The Anniston Star wrote in the summer of 1943, nearly four years after he played his final game for the Rams. “One set believed he was a punk ballplayer and the other believed him to be a good ball player in a terrible mood most of his time in Anniston.”

That paragraph appeared the morning after Rocco doubled, tripled, scored once and drove in a run in his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians. The Star then stated the obvious: “His opening day in the American League bears out the latter opinion.”

Born in St. Paul as the only child of Italian immigrants, Rocco spent four seasons in the Major Leagues, all with the Indians during the war-depleted early 1940s, and he never replicated the thump of his second summer with the Rams. A few days before Rocco’s MLB debut, Bob Stedler, sports editor of the Buffalo Evening News, used his column to answer a question he claimed was prominent among followers of the International League: Why isn’t Rocco, then with the Buffalo Bison, in the Major Leagues? “The answer,” Stedler wrote, “is that Rocco is an in-and-outer — he hits in terrific streaks and slumps just as he is doing right now.” During one Buffalo series in Toronto and mired in a slump that had tanked his average 90 points, Rocco slammed his bat on the dugout steps, smashed his fist into an iron door and, according to the newspaper in Paterson, New Jersey, told his manager, “I guess I’ll always be a Double A ball player.” What Rocco wouldn’t be was a soldier, given that a persistent stomach ailment protected him from the draft.

A clipping from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The Indians, needing a first baseman and willing to overlook the former Ram’s deficiencies, acquired Rocco in a mid-season trade with Detroit, the Bison’s parent club. “That’s the saga of a hustling firstsacker, who gave up on his big league chances, who was in a horrible slump, low in spirit, but who kept justling — and now finds himself in the big show.” Stedler’s blunt analysis, though, proved correct. Rocco’s career MLB batting average was an acceptable .258; in his best season, he hit .266. But Rocco’s defensive prowess and durability were largely unmatched. In 1944, he led the AL in games played, at-bats, defensive games played (overall and among first basemen), and put-outs and assists as a first baseman. He twice led AL first basemen in fielding percentage — not in his spectacular 1944, but in 1943 and 1945. With MLB rosters again filling with talent following the war’s end, the Indians traded Rocco midway through the 1946 season to the Southern Association’s Nashville Vols, who wanted a left-hander who could challenge the short right-field fence at Sulphur Dell. His last at-bat in the Major Leagues came against New York Yankees. (He grounded out, pitcher to first.) Rocco nearly made the Boston Red Sox’s roster in 1947 and remained in organized baseball through 1953, but he never again played in the big leagues.

Mickey Rocco with the Cleveland Indians.

Everything about the 1938 Rams was new: the franchise, the ownership, the fan base. Though armed with a working agreement with the American Association team in St. Paul, the Rams learned how difficult it was to construct a roster from scratch. That’s how Rocco, a trained violinist who chose baseball over music when he was a teenager, became a Ram. Less than a month before Anniston’s first game in the Southeastern League, the Minnesotan who’d played with his hometown team, the Saints, agreed to play first base for the embryonic Rams. With scouting reports slim and evaluations relying on long-distance recommendations, Anniston didn’t know what it was getting, though. Rocco, The Star surmised in late March, “is regarded as an important addition to the camp.”

The 22-year-old infielder quickly became a regular and excelled on opening day. But youth and spunk, or worse, proved problematic. On May 21, Rams manager Lena Styles erased Rocco’s name from the lineup card between games of a doubleheader at Johnston Field against Meridian. Styles said Rocco, by now a veteran of several minor league seasons, didn’t hustle in the first game. Publicly disciplined and likely embarrassed, the first baseman spent more than a week on Anniston’s suspended list, spurring bleacher rumors that the Rams would move Rocco to another team or release him. They didn’t, though his first season in the SEL nonetheless dripped in disappointment, his batting average a pedestrian .244. A month before the season ended, a baseball fan in Montgomery wrote a letter to The Star’s editor in which he applauded Rocco, compared him to the SEL’s standout first baseman, Joe Dotlich of Selma, and called Rocco “the Gehrig of the Southeastern League.” It was another sign of Rocco’s enigmatic reputation, both public and within his own team. What was he? A punk player, or a player perpetually in a foul mood?

Mickey Rocco with the Nashville Vols.

“There is much room for improvement in his hitting, but his fielding at the initial sack certainly puts him in a class by himself,” wrote J.F. Sedberry. “He never gets ‘rattled,’ and while, as mentioned, his batting average is not so hot, he hits well in the pinches and that, after all, is what wins ball games … If he ever reaches the point where he can maintain a .300 batting average, he will be found cavorting in no man’s minor league.”

The Rams weren’t sure if Rocco would return in 1939, especially since he’d grown up 300 miles from the Canadian border and wasn’t fond of Alabama’s steamy summers. He was fond, however, of Helen Harwell, a young Anniston woman whom he met during his time with the Rams would marry the following fall. His best man was Frenchy White, a Chicagoan who played in the Rams’ infield but never became much of a professional baseball career. Rocco’s mother traveled from St. Paul for the wedding at Anniston’s Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Cleveland’s Mickey Rocco slides into home plate in 1943.

When Rocco decided to sign with the Rams for a second season, he also made a choice that likely altered his career’s trajectory. Choosing speed over size, he adopted a lighter, 33-ounce ash bat with a thin handle that quickened his swing, especially against fastballs. The difference was astounding. A mid-.200 hitter in his first season with Anniston, he became an on-base machine in the Rams’ lineup in 1939 who played an oversized role in the franchise’s 71-70 record. “I didn’t have to press anymore,” he told The Sporting News in 1940. “I found I could swing more freely and loosely. I use it without sacrificing any power. In fact, it adds power and distance to my swing.” His swing rebuilt and his defense outstanding, Rocco rose from Class B Anniston, through Nashville and Buffalo, and on to the American League before returning to the minors. His last season in organized baseball was 1953.

Mickey Rocco in 1973. (Sacramento Bee clipping)

Two decades later, Rocco was a 57-year-old liquor salesman in Minneapolis when he gave an interview to Don Bloom of the Sacramento Bee. Embedded in his 19 years of baseball memories were the SEL’s bus rides he took with the Rams. “I’ll never forget that ride from Meridian, Mississippi, to Pensacola, Florida, after playing a night game,” he told Bloom. “Sixteen players, a manager and a coach — we didn’t have trainers in those days — would load up after a quick snack and ride 260 miles. We’d arrive early in the morning, get off the bus, try to rest and then dress in the hote. We’d sleep while our uniforms were drying, hanging outside our windows — no air conditioning either — and then play another ball game. The visitors never had clubhouses. But the fans were great. They’d adopt the home teams.”

Rocco died June 1, 1997, at the age of 81. He’s buried in Roselawn Cemetery in Roselawn, Minnesota.

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