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Mudville: May 30, 2024 3:45 am PDT

Strike 81

“What’s the big deal?” the two teenagers wondered as people told them what they had accomplished. The battery of pitcher Ron Necciai and catcher Harry Dunlop had won a Class D League game in which Necciai struck out 27 batters.

“They’ve been playing this game for 100 years. Somebody else has done it. And, of course, to find out that nobody had — and no hits, no runs, no nothing, this and that,” Necciai said recently.

“You’re trying to get them out, that’s all,” said Necciai, now 89 and living in Western Pennsylvania, where he grew up.

“We figured somebody had to do it before,” said Dunlop, who lives in California. “Then the Associated Press called and we learned it had never been done.” (Accounts of the game appeared in more than 120 newspapers across the country.)

On a cool night, on May 13, 1952, in Bristol, TN, the pair helped the Bristol Twins beat the Welch (WV) Miners 7-0. Dunlop said he and Necciai looked at the game only as a no-hitter. “Then we got the call, and we thought wow!”

It wasn’t a perfect game. There was a walk, an error, a hit batsman, and a passed ball on a third strike that allowed the runner to reach base. Dunlop said that was the scoring decision, “but the ball hit the very front of the plate and bounced right over my head; it missed the umpire, too,” he said. Necciai punched out the next hitter for his 27th K of the night.

“Ron had great stuff. I’d say his fastball was in the upper 90s. I was a catcher, I knew who threw hard. He had a good breaking ball, an old-fashioned drop, closer to a split finger,” said Dunlop. “He was in deep counts. He must have thrown 200 pitches.”

It’s been 70 years since that game, and with it Necciai and Dunlop have become inextricably linked. “We get a call about once a year from somebody who’s doing a story,” said Dunlop.

But they don’t get tired of talking about it. Both have very good recall of the game after seven decades. You also get a sense of how much they enjoyed playing baseball. And how much they enjoyed their post-playing careers. Necciai and Dunlop are a part of baseball lore, which they both appreciate.

And yet, the historic performance almost didn’t take place.

Dunlop and Necciai were roommates, and Dunlop recalls that during the day they walked around Bristol, and the pitcher was not feeling well. “He had bad ulcers, off and on all the time,” Dunlop said. “He wasn’t sure he could pitch.” During the game, Necciai was taking antacids.

None of their teammates talked about what was happening during the game, until Dunlop started hearing cheers from the fans in the sixth inning. “What’s all the chatter about?” Dunlop asked, and he was told how Necciai was striking out batter after batter.

There’s a myth surrounding the game that in the later innings a batter hit a foul popup off Necciai and the crowd called for Dunlop to drop it so Necciai could strike him out.

“That’s not true!” said Dunlop. “I don’t know where that came from.” (Dunlop did not catch the ball and Necciai struck out the batter.)

Dunlop and Necciai had been teammates for only a few weeks, but the pitcher said he and the catcher had established a good working relationship. He called Dunlop “a quiet catcher,” meaning he didn’t move around too much and didn’t distract pitchers.

The Bristol Herald Courier posted the news of Necciai’s feat on its front page the next day. “Necciai fans 27, Hurls No-Hitter” was the headline. The story by Jimmy Carson began:

“’Rocket Ron’ Necciai wrote Appalachian League History at Shaw Stadium last night as he threw a no-run, no-hit game and fanned 27 batters for a new circuit record and possibly an all-time mark for organized baseball as the Bristol Twins blanked the Welch Minors 7-0 in the opener of a two-game series.”

“The phenomenal pitching of the 19-year old, 6-5, 185-pound buzzbomber from Monongahela, Pa., who was a first sacker a year ago until (manager) George Detore converted him into a hurler, left 1,183 thoroughly chilled spectators practically speechless.”

The Twins were a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, and the next day’s Pittsburgh Press posted a story about Necciai’s effort on the front page of its sports section and advised readers the pitcher would soon be with the Pirates. They were not wrong.

A few days after his complete game no-hitter, Necciai pitched an inning in relief (the team had only eight pitchers, said Dunlop). In his next start, Necciai fanned 25 batters while giving up only two hits.

Dunlop said Necciai was sharper in that game than when he recorded the 27 Ks. He felt better, said Dunlop, and he didn’t throw nearly as many pitches.

Necciai downplays the strikeouts, pointing out it was a D League game and the ballpark’s lights weren’t good, suggesting opposing batters were having a hard time seeing the ball. The Twins playing in the same light collected six hits, including one each by Dunlop – an RBI single that gave the Twins their first run – and Necciai. The game took two hours and 23 minutes to play.

Ron Necciai at his home in Belle Vernon, PA, May 6, 2020. (Photo: Michael Swensen)

Necciai struck out 109 hitters in 43 innings with Bristol. He and Dunlop were later promoted two levels to Burlington, North Carolina in the Carolina League, a Class B League.

Even though he was there less than a full season, Necciai led the Carolina League with 172 strikeouts in 126 innings. In August, he was called up to the Pirates amid great fanfare. The Pirates were mired in last place, and bringing up Necciai was a way to spur fan interest.

By then 20 years old, Necciai posted a 1–6 record with 31 strikeouts and a 7.08 ERA in 54 2⁄3 innings from August 10 to September 28, 1952.

Necciai had started out as a first-baseman, and in his first minor league season did not hit well. But he had a powerful arm; and Detore suggested to Branch Rickey, then running the Pirates, they make a pitcher out of Necciai. Rickey agreed.

After the 1952 season, Necciai was drafted into the Army, before being released on a medical discharge. He returned to play in the minor leagues, but was plagued by his stomach ulcers and a torn rotator cuff. He travelled to Johns Hopkins University to see a Dr. Bennett, who was then the nation’s top doctor for injured pitching arms.

“He told me, ‘son, go home and buy a gas station because you’re never going to pitch again.’ I remember that as well as I remember my name,” recalled Necciai. “I was shocked. You’re young and you think everything’s going to heal.”

For Dunlop, his first foray into professional baseball at Bristol saw him catch three no-hitters in a two-week span.

“Bill Bell threw consecutive no-hitters,” he said, “and I figured, this is going to be easy.”

It wasn’t.

It was an adjustment coming from Sacramento, California to small towns such as Bristol and Burlington, “but I loved it. I never played (in a town) that I didn’t like.” In North Carolina, residents told him he sounded funny. “You’re the ones with the funny accent,” he would reply.

“I loved playing every day, I never wanted to come out. I took a foul tip and split my fingernail. I didn’t want to come out and didn’t tell anyone, so I kept rubbing it (his finger) in the dirt.”

Once he was struck on the chin on a relay to the plate. The ball landed on the seam where the dirt and grass met, and it skipped up and hit him before he could get his glove up. He lost consciousness but wouldn’t come out, even as the umpire complained he was getting blood “all over the baseballs.”

April 9, 1998: Coach Harry Dunlop of the Cincinnati Reds watches the action during a game against the San Diego Padres at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Padres defeated the Reds 6-2. (Photo Credit: Harry How /Allsport)

Like Necciai, Dunlop was drafted into the service for two years. He played several more seasons before managing.

After baseball, Necciai had a successful career as a manufacturer’s representative of hunting, fishing, and shooting equipment. “I traveled the country for 40 years, and I loved it,” he said. “I’ve had a great life, and a great family. I’ve been married for 67 years.”

In 1999, the city of Bristol placed a monument in front of the stadium. On it is a plaque detailing Necciai’s feat. He asked Dunlop to join him for the unveiling of the monument and marker. Dunlop was then coaching with the Cincinnati Reds, and was given the day off. He said he and Necciai started signing autographs in the first inning, “and we never saw the game. We signed autographs until the ninth inning. People were saying that they or their parents had been to the game (in 1952). We must have signed 12,000 autographs.”

Dunlop said he kept a newspaper account of the game. Necciai kept a ball he’d used, but for many years the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum asked him to donate it, and he did. It’s currently on display at the Hall in an exhibit entitled “One for the Books.”

They have remained good friends. When Dunlop was coaching in the majors and his team was in Pittsburgh to play the Pirates, they’d get together for dinner or lunch.

“I owe him a call,” Dunlop said not long ago, and the next day he phoned Necciai.

Dunlop never reached the major leagues as a player; but he managed for 15 seasons in the minor leagues before becoming a coach for several major league teams, the first with the expansion Kansas City Royals. He also coached with the Chicago Cubs, the San Diego Padres, the Cincinnati Reds, and lastly with the Florida Marlins — when an old friend, Jack McKeon, then managing the team, called and asked him to come out of retirement to be his bench coach, which he did for a season.

Unlike most catchers at the time, Dunlop was tall: about six feet, two inches. This, he said, helped him relate to a new generation of bigger catchers, such as Sandy Alomar, Terry Kennedy, and Benito Santiago, and helped their development.

He also authored a memoir, Fifty Years in a Kid’s Game.

Michael Huber is a professor of mathematics at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, and studies what he considers rare events, such as no-hitters, a batter hitting four home runs in a game, or a player hitting for the cycle. Huber has developed an algorithm that enables him to pinpoint within one or two games when the next rare event – a triple play or hitting for the cycle – will occur. Does he think it’s possible another pitcher might again strike out 27 batters in a game?

“We cannot accurately calculate the odds. Every ball struck by the bat would have to go foul. This becomes more than saying not a hit is an out, and not putting the ball into play is a strikeout. Since we cannot accurately predict balls and strikes, finding the denominator would be impossible” says Huber. “I can’t even guess how to determine the possibilities of every at-bat,” Huber said.

“I don’t predict when the next rare event occurs. I give a solid probability of when it may occur. But calculating the odds of 27 strikeouts happening again is near impossible, almost as impossible as striking out 27 batters in a game,” he said.

But striking out 27 batters in nine innings did happen, seventy years ago, when two teenagers pitched and caught themselves into the history books.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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