SABR

Rico Petrocelli

This article was written by Ron Marshall.


One of the most popular players to ever play for the Boston Red Sox, Rico Petrocelli will always be remembered for his familiar "Fenway Stroke" that sent many an opposing hurler's offerings into the net atop the Green Monster in left field. Although he was not physically imposing at 6-0, 175, he hit 210 lifetime home runs (including a then-league-record for shortstops - 40 in 1969) and his career total of 773 RBIs place him comfortably in the Red Sox top 10 in both categories. A two-time All-Star shortstop and veteran of two World Series with the Red Sox, Rico agreed to move to third base in 1971 to help fill a void in the Boston infield and enable the Red Sox to acquire shortstop Luis Aparicio. His 1976 season was his final one; Rico played in 1,553 regular-season and 17 postseason games in his 12-year career. He still holds the club fielding record for a season at two different positions in the infield, effectively tied for the shortstop mark with Vern Stephens (1950) and Rick Burleson (1980), and at third base as well.

Americo Peter (Rico) Petrocelli was born June 27, 1943 in Brooklyn, NY, the youngest of the seven children born to Attilio and Louise. His father and cousins ran a shop specializing in sharpening tools used in the garment district. Rico developed his love for the game at an early age. At a time when there were three major league teams in New York, he was inspired by all of the great teams and players. As a youngster he was an avid Yankees fan, with his father taking him to both Yankee Stadium to see Mickey Mantle and the Bronx Bombers and to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Petrocelli started playing basketball at the age of six, but didn't play organized baseball until he was 12. By the time he started high school he was proficient at both sports, and would become an all-scholastic in both basketball and baseball at Sheepshead Bay High. When his family realized that he might have a chance at a professional career, he was allowed to concentrate on his athletic career full-time instead of getting a job to help support the family. His four older brothers all worked to bring in extra money, allowing him to pursue his dreams of becoming a pro baseball player. It was a sacrifice he has never forgotten.

A pitcher and a power-hitting outfielder in high school, he was considered a top prospect and a dozen scouts followed his progress his senior year. But while pitching in the city championship on an extremely cold day in 1961 he felt something snap in his right elbow. The scouts quickly disappeared until only four (Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston) remained. The Red Sox were the first team to invite him to a workout after the injury, a gesture which made a favorable impression. He and his family made the trip to Boston and after a successful workout, stellar Red Sox scout Bots Nekola (the same scout who signed Carl Yastrzemski three years earlier) signed him.

Rico started his professional career in 1962 with Winston-Salem, North Carolina in the Carolina League---batting .277 with 17 home runs and 80 RBI, but struggled in the field at his new position (shortstop), committing a league-high 48 errors. He was promoted to Reading in the Eastern League in 1963 and batted only .239, but he hit19 homers and drove in 78 runs. The Red Sox brought him to Boston at the close of 1963, and the 20-year-old made his major league debut September 21 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park. In a portent of things to come in the future, Rico drove a Lee Stange offering off the fabled Green Monster for a double in his very first at bat. The hit earned a standing ovation from the sparse crowd (only 6,469 in attendance) and would become one of his favorite memories.

By 1964, Petrocelli had been designated as one of the club's top prospects and was sent to the Red Sox Triple AAA affiliate in Seattle. He managed to hit only .231 and, homesick and depressed over his poor play, began to doubt his ability. At the suggestion of his teammate Billy Gardner he tried switch hitting, and when the Red Sox named him their starting shortstop at the start of the 1965 season he was encouraged to continue the experiment by then Red Sox manager Billy Herman with disastrous results --he hit only .174 through the first 20 games and the switch hitting experiment was quickly scrapped. Red Sox coach Pete Runnels suggested he use his natural ability to try and pull the ball more to take advantage of Fenway's inviting left-field wall. Rico would spend the rest of the season refining his "new" swing, steadily producing results. He hit his first major league home run June 20 against lefthander Gary Peters of the White Sox, and ended with 13 for the season.

His balky right elbow hampered his throwing for most of his rookie year and the problem persisted into the 1966 season, eventually landing him on the disabled list for the first time in his career. To add insult to injury Petrocelli was not a favorite of Herman. The "old-school' manager had little patience for his brooding and insecurities, and made life miserable for the young Sox shortstop. The situation came to a head when Petrocelli left the team in the middle of a game to tend to a family emergency. Herman demanded he be immediately suspended, but cooler heads in the Red Sox front office prevailed. Instead, he was fined the then-hefty amount of $1,000, but it did little to calm the conflict between manager and player. Things were finally resolved when Herman was fired in September, but even with his tormentor gone he felt sure he would either be traded or sent back to the minors.

In 1967, new Red Sox manager Dick Williams took a different tack with Petrocelli. He brought longtime Red Sox minor league coach Eddie Popowski to Boston as the new third base coach and gave him the locker next to Petrocelli. The good-natured Popowski had managed Rico at both Winston Salem in 1962 and at Reading in 1963, and helped to build the young shortstop's self-esteem with daily pep talks. Williams also helped Petrocelli to mature as a player by giving him the responsibility of being the leader of the club's young infield. Both moves resulted in giving him new-found confidence, and he blossomed as a player. He drove in the first run of the season with a single in the Red Sox 5-4 win over Chicago on opening day and later added a three-run homer for good measure. He earned the starting nod at shortstop for the American League in the All-Star Game, and finished with a solid all-around season batting .259 with 17 homers and 66 RBI.

Petrocelli was a central figure in the famous Red Sox-Yankees brawl at Yankee Stadium on the evening of June 21. Both benches cleared after the two longtime rivals exchanged beanballs, then Petrocelli and Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone got involved in some friendly verbal jousting. The two were friends who had grown up in Brooklyn together, but somehow things escalated quickly into a full-scale battle. It took a dozen Yankee Stadium security guards, including Petrocelli's brother David (who pulled Rico out from under a pile of Yankee players), to help restore order. The fight was recognized as a defining moment that helped to bring the '67 Red Sox together as a team. Boston fashioned a league-best 60-39 record from that point on, winning the pennant on the final day of the season after a 5-3 win over the Minnesota Twins. It was Rico's catch of Rich Rollins' pop up that was the final out in Boston's "Impossible Dream" pennant, a catch that would become one of the signature moments in the long history of the franchise.

Petrocelli had little success at the plate against the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals through the first five games of the 1967 World Series. Extremely run down by the long season, Petrocelli had a Vitamin B-12 shot prior to Game Six and proceeded to hit two home runs---a feat accomplished by only one other shortstop (Alan Trammell) in a World Series game. His second homer was one of three hits by the Red Sox in the fourth inning, a World Series record that still stands. Although the Red Sox lost Game Seven to the Cardinals, the future seemed bright for both the Red Sox and Petrocelli.

The success of 1967 soon dissipated as a series of injuries doomed the defending American League champions to a fourth place finish in 1968. Petrocelli's batting average plummeted some 25 points as the chronic problem with his right elbow flared, causing him to miss 39 games. Rather than continuing to brood over his misfortune he took on a new positive attitude that winter. He changed his diet and gave up ice cream to help prevent the calcium deposits in his elbow from reforming. He also exercised his arms and wrists in the offseason. By the start of 1969 he felt stronger than at any time in his career, and the results were very evident. He began hitting home runs in bunches while hitting well over .300 for most of the first half of the season. He excelled in the field as well, threatening the record for consecutive games without an error by a shortstop by going 44 straight without a miscue. He would finish the season with a .981 fielding percentage, which remains the record for a Red Sox shortstop.

In July he was the overwhelming choice as the starting shortstop for the American League in the All-Star Game--his second such selection in three years. At the time he was hitting .309 with a remarkable 25 home runs. In the last year prior to the All-Star vote being returned to the fans, he earned more votes from his fellow players, managers, and coaches than any other player in the league. With the Red Sox out of contention since midsummer, his quest to break the American League record for home runs by a shortstop (39, by the Red Sox own Vern Stephens in 1949) became the big story in September. The record-breaker came on the evening of September 29 against the Washington Senators' Jim Shellenback at RFK Stadium. He finished the season with 40 homers and 97 RBI while hitting .297. His .589 slugging percentage was second only to Oakland's Reggie Jackson in the American League.

Rico showed that 1969 was no fluke when he came through with another solid season in 1970. He hit 29 homers and knocked in 103 runs, becoming the first Red Sox shortstop to crack the 100-RBI barrier since Stephens in 1950. He also played in a career-high 157 games, showing his injury problems were a thing of the past. Over the winter, Red Sox general manager Dick O'Connell told him the Red Sox had a deal on the table for future Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio, but in an ultimate show of respect O'Connell told him he wouldn't make the deal unless Petrocelli would be comfortable moving to third base.

Rico readily endorsed the deal as being beneficial to the team and agreed to make the change. He reported early to spring training and worked for hours with former Red Sox All-Star third baseman Frank Malzone---the results were nothing short of amazing. Petrocelli set a major league record for third basemen with 77 straight games without an error. He also led the league in fielding percentage with a scintillating .976 mark (still the team record). He continued to produce on offense at a healthy clip, hitting 28 home runs and knocking in 89 runs while leading the team with what the Red Sox calculated as 12 game-winning hits. Between 1969-1971 his 97 home runs and 289 RBI were the most by any Red Sox player.

Although his power output dropped significantly in 1972 (only 15 home runs) he continued to drive in runs at a consistent pace, leading the Red Sox with 75 RBI despite hitting only .240. He was especially hot in August, hitting .344 with 23 RBI to help the Red Sox surge into contention for the division title---they would finish a scant one-half game behind Detroit. He also led the majors in grand slams with three. He would finish his career with a total of nine grand slams, good for second on the Red Sox all-time leader list behind only the great Ted Williams.

The injury problems that had plagued him early in his career returned with a vengeance in 1973. He missed the last 47 games of the season with chronic elbow problems, and his loss was keenly felt. Boston was only 2½ games behind division-leading Baltimore when he left the starting line up on August 12, but finished eight games off the pace. Off-season elbow surgery had him back and fit to start the 1974 season, but a series of new injuries set him back yet again. A nagging hamstring injury plagued him for most of the early part of the season, and then disaster struck September 15 when he was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Milwaukee's Jim Slaton. The beaning shelved him for the rest of the season, and the Red Sox ended up squandering a 7½ game lead near the end of August--staggering home in third place. Despite his time on the disabled list he still tied for the team lead in home runs with 15 and finished second with 76 RBI.

Although Petrocelli was in the opening day lineup for the Red Sox at the start of the 1975 season, it was readily apparent that he was still suffering from the after-effects of the beaning. Although it was not public knowledge, he suffered from a severe inner ear imbalance that caused him a great deal of trouble with his sense of balance. While he continued to perform at his usual high level in the field, he had difficulty gauging the ball as it left the pitcher's hand and his batting average dropped significantly. Despite his shortcomings at the plate, his leadership ability came to the forefront with a new group of young players that drove the Red Sox to their first pennant since 1967. With the red-hot Baltimore Orioles coming on strong in the season's final month Rico again demonstrated his ability to come through in the clutch. His solo homer off Baltimore ace Jim Palmer on the evening of September 16 accounted for the winning run in Boston's 2-0 shutout of the Orioles--a key victory that effectively put the Red Sox in firm control of the pennant race.

Thanks to medication that treated his inner ear imbalance, Petrocelli returned to his old form in time for the postseason. His seventh-inning homer off Oakland's relief ace Rollie Fingers in Game Two of the 1975 ALCS widened the lead in a one-run game and helped to propel the Red Sox to a three-game sweep of the defending champion A's. His stellar play continued in the World Series against Cincinnati, as he hit .308 and contributed some fine fielding plays at third base as Boston came within a run of winning their first World Series since 1918.

While Rico's play in the field continued to be above reproach, his lack of productivity at the plate became an issue in 1976. He began suffering reactions to the medication he was taking to correct his inner ear problems and he was forced to discontinue its use. The problems with his balance returned and severely hampered his ability at the plate. He hit a career-low .213 in 1976, and when Don Zimmer took over as manager shortly after the All-Star break he gave rookie Butch Hobson significant playing time at third. Rico was tried briefly at second base, but with little success. In a move that shocked New England, Petrocelli was cut at the end of spring training in 1977, ending his 12-year playing career in Boston.

Out of baseball for the first time in his life he decided to remain close to the sports scene in Boston by writing a regular column in the Boston Herald that followed the progress of the Red Sox. He was also one of the early pioneers of the sports talk radio scene in Boston, co-hosting a sports talk show with Glenn Ordway. In 1979 he joined longtime Red Sox broadcaster Ken Coleman in the radio booth as the color commentator. On July 24 he had the privilege of calling former Red Sox teammate Carl Yastrzemski's 400th home run in a game against the Oakland A's at Fenway Park.

Petrocelli stayed only one year in the radio booth and after several years in the business word returned to uniform in 1986 as a manager for the Chicago White Sox Single A affiliate in Appleton, WI. He stayed in the White Sox organization a total of three years, eventually being promoted to manager of their AA club in Birmingham, AL in the Southern League, but left to return home as the new Director of Sports Programs for the Jimmy Fund between 1989-1991.

His love for the game moved him to accept the position as manager of the Red Sox AAA affiliate in Pawtucket in 1992. That began a six-year stay for him in the Boston organization as a roving instructor. On September 7, 1997, Petrocelli was rewarded for his outstanding Red Sox career when he and four other former players were inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

Since leaving baseball he runs his own private company Petrocelli Marketing Group based in Nashua, NH. He resides there with his wife of 40 years Elsie. They have four grown sons; Michael (39), twins James and Bill (38), and Danny (36). Rico remains active in the Boston sports scene as a frequent guest on Boston TV and radio sports programs.


Note

This biography originally appeared in the book The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox: Pandemonium On The Field, edited by Bill Nowlin and Dan Desrochers, and published by Rounder Books in 2007.


Sources

The primary source for this material was a series of interviews with Rico Petrocelli between 1994 to 2005. Material was also used from The Sporting News Baseball Guides, 1969-1976, Boston Red Sox Yearbooks, 1968-1974, Retrosheet, and Total Baseball (7th edition).


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