SABR

Johnny Lucadello

This article was written by Richard Riis.

Johnny Lucadello was a hard-hitting and versatile infielder who, like many of his generation, saw a promising Major League career fizzle after he lost four prime years to military service.

John Lucadello was born on February 22, 1919, in Thurber Texas.1 At its peak, in the early 1900s, Thurber, situated between Fort Worth and Abilene, was the largest and most prosperous coal-mining town in Texas. The town’s population of nearly 10,000 was made up predominantly of Italians, Poles, and Germans, most of them miners recruited overseas by the Texas and Pacific Coal Company.

One of those recruits was Domenico Lucadello, a native of San Zenone degli Ezzelini, Italy, a village near Venice. Domenico left Italy for Thurber in 1904 at the age of twenty-nine. There he married Maria Donesco, another Italian immigrant. John was the youngest of their seven children. By the time he was born, the conversion of America’s railroads from coal to diesel fuel had caused a steep decline in the coal market. When Texas and Pacific began to close the mines and brickworks and sell its company housing, the Lucadellos moved to Chicago, where Domenico landed a job as a coal loader.

Growing up in the Little Italy section of Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, Johnny and his brother Tony developed a passion for baseball. Johnny taught himself how to hit from both sides of the plate and how to scoop ground balls off the rough, uneven surfaces of the Chicago sandlots and he became a standout player on the Christian Fenger Academy High School baseball team. “I had always wanted to be a ballplayer,” Lucadello once told a reporter, “Nothing else had ever entered my mind.”2

Tony, seven years older than Johnny, developed into a local semipro baseball star, and in the spring of 1936 was signed by the Fostoria Redbirds of the Class D Ohio State League, a St. Louis Cardinals farm club.

Maria Lucadello, fearing that a fondness for billiards and dice could get her youngest child mixed up with the wrong crowd, sent seventeen-year-old Johnny to spend the summer with Tony in Fostoria. When the Redbirds’ second baseman was sidelined with an injury, Tony recommended that manager George Silvey give Johnny a look. Johnny, at five foot eleven and 165 pounds, was four inches taller and twenty-five pounds heavier than Tony and already making a name for himself on Roseland’s All-Nations semipro team.

Johnny’s twenty-four games with Fostoria led Silvey to recommend him to the St. Louis front office. Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey wasn’t sold enough on Lucadello’s potential, though, to part with a $200 signing bonus, and Johnny returned to Chicago at the end of the season unsigned.3

A postseason charity game between minor leaguers living in the Chicago area and inmates of nearby Joliet State Prison proved to be Johnny’s big break. The guest manager for the professional team was Rogers Hornsby, then managing the St. Louis Browns. Hornsby assigned Tony Lucadello the task of making out the lineup, and Tony made his brother the starting second baseman.

The professionals lost the game, but Johnny banged out three of his team’s four hits. Upon learning the teenager was unsigned, Hornsby called the Browns’ office to send a contract for Johnny and a two-hundred-dollar check for Tony.

The Browns placed eighteen-year-old Johnny with their Fairbury farm club in the Class D Nebraska League. Playing second base, Johnny batted .316 with eight home runs; he tied for the league lead in doubles and triples, and was named to the league’s all-star team. The following season he was promoted to the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Johnnies of the Class C Middle Atlantic League. Splitting his time between second and third base, Lucadello hit .318 with eleven home runs and again was selected to the all-star squad. Called up to the Browns for a late-season look, he made his Major League debut on September 24, 1938 as a pinch-hitter for second baseman Don Heffner.

“I was scared to death when [manager] Gabby [Street] asked me to pinch-hit,” recalled Lucadello, the youngest player in the American League that year. “Here he had all those good hitters sitting around and he picked me. If he had used the whole bench before me I would have understood it.”4

With the Browns stuck in the cellar, Street was fired two days later. Late in the second game of a doubleheader against the Tigers on September 27, interim manager Ski Melillo used Lucadello as a replacement for third baseman Harlond Clift. Facing right-hander Slick Coffman, Johnny doubled to right field for his first Major League hit.

In 1939 Lucadello played second base for the San Antonio Missions of the Class A Texas League. His shaky fielding was helped by the June arrival Sig Gryska, demoted to San Antonio after a brief stay with the Browns. Gryska worked closely with Lucadello on improving his defense. “Lucadello began to sprout wings on his feet,” wrote San Antonio sports editor, Harold Scherwitz, “Lucadello improved so fast he looked like a different ball player between home stands.”5

Playing in 161 games and batting a team-high .298, Lucadello paced the league in hits, led the loop’s second basemen in total chances and double plays, and was for the third time in three seasons voted a starter on his league’s all-star team. All this earned him another late-season call-up.

Lucadello was now the brightest prospect in the Browns’ system. A potential off-season trade with the Yankees was vetoed by St. Louis president Don Barnes when the Yankees asked for Lucadello as partial payment for center fielder Wally Judnich.

In 1940 Johnny was invited to the Browns’ spring-training camp in San Antonio, where new manager Fred Haney described his swing as “one of the finest” he had seen.6 Lucadello impressed the Browns with his natural talent and single-mindedness on and off the field “John is strictly business at all times,” said one observer, “and his business is baseball.”7 But Haney and the Browns’ management decided Lucadello would be better served by playing regularly in the Minor Leagues another year than by sitting on the bench in St. Louis, and he was optioned to the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association.

For nearly half the 1940 season, Lucadello led the league in hitting, and although a late-season slump trimmed his average, he finished at.334 and was named to his fourth all-star team in four seasons. In September he once again got the call to the big leagues and took over second base and the second slot in the Browns’ batting order.

On September 15, in St. Louis, the seventh-place Browns stunned the Yankees, who were in a three-way struggle for the league lead, by taking both games of a doubleheader. The next day proved to be Lucadello’s finest in the Major Leagues. Batting right-handed against Yankees starter Marius Russo, he ignited a seven-run first-inning outburst with a home run into the left-field bleachers. In the fifth inning he drove in two runs with a bases-loaded single off reliever Bump Hadley, and in the seventh inning, batting left-handed now against the right-handed Steve Sundra, he launched a two-run home run onto Sportsman’s Park’s right-field pavilion roof. In pacing the Browns to a 16–4 rout of the Yankees, Lucadello became only the third major leaguer to hit home runs from both sides of the plate in a single game.8

The Browns broke training camp in 1941 with Lucadello installed at second base after a bad hop in a spring exhibition fractured the nose of regular Don Heffner. Lucadello went 4-for-5 in the season opener, but managed just one hit in his next nineteen at bats. When Heffner returned on April 26, he regained the starting position. For the rest of the season Lucadello shifted between second base, shortstop, and third base. He finished the season with a .279 batting average and only two home runs in 107 games. United Press sportswriters voted him the second baseman on their all-star rookie team for 1941.9

America’s entry into World War II put Lucadello’s baseball career on hold. Having already begun war-related work in the off-season as a laborer in an ammunition plant in St. Louis, he enlisted in the navy in March 1942. He was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, where he was assigned to the physical training program and, not surprisingly, placed on the roster of the Great Lakes baseball team, managed by Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane.

The Great Lakes Bluejackets, featuring a current or future major leaguer at every position, compiled a 63-14 record in 1942 and a 52-10-1 mark in 1943. After a stint at the Bainbridge Naval Station in Maryland in 1943, Lucadello was reassigned to Aiea Barracks in Hawaii, where he played for the 14th Naval District All-Star team, and also played in the September-October 1944 Army vs. Navy Service World Series, which raised funds for injured and disabled servicemen. Then he participated in a Navy All-Stars tour of the Western Pacific. Finally Lucadello was sent to Tinian and then the Marshall Islands, where his duties included overseeing sports activities. He was discharged on October 16, 1945.

It was a very different Browns team that assembled in Anaheim, California, for spring training in 1946 than the team Lucadello had played for before the war. Having risen to the first division in 1942, the Browns captured a surprise pennant in 1944 and although they dipped to third place in 1945, they were considered a pennant-contender in 1946. Don Heffner and Don Gutteridge were gone, leaving the second base position up for grabs. Lucadello, perhaps owing to an extra fifteen pounds from his prewar playing weight, had an uncharacteristically sluggish spring and the second base slot went to fellow returning vet (and Lucadello’s close friend and roommate) Johnny Berardino.

Backing up at second and third base, Lucadello appeared in eighty-seven games and batted .248 as the Browns slid to seventh place in 1946. When he held out at the start of training camp the following season, he was placed on waivers and, on March 1, 1947, was sold to the Yankees.

The Yankees expected that Lucadello would compete for the second base job with Snuffy Stirnweiss. Lucadello, trimmer by fifteen pounds, outperformed Stirnweiss in camp, but manager Bucky Harris opted to stick with the veteran Yankee. Lucadello saw little action with New York, spending most of the first two months on the bench, collecting one base hit in twelve at bats. On July 16 Lucadello, whose last appearance in a game had been as a pinch-hitter on June 13, was optioned to the Kansas City Blues, the Yankees’ Class Triple-A affiliate in the American Association.

After Lucadello batted a dismal .170 in thirty-four games for the Blues, the Yankees released him to Kansas City outright. His former Yankees teammates meanwhile voted him a half-share ($2,915) of their World Series championship money.

Lucadello never made it back to the Major Leagues, but he put together a journeyman’s career in the minors for nearly a decade. He regained much of his old form with the International League Newark Bears in 1948, hitting .275 with twelve home runs and 101 walks. A return to Kansas City in 1949 saw him boost his average to .286.

The Chicago Cubs purchased Lucadello’s contract from Kansas City before the 1950 season and assigned him to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Lucadello struggled at bat and was traded to Sacramento. He split the 1951 season between the Minneapolis Millers and the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association.

Lucadello rebounded in 1952 with Birmingham of the Class Double-A Southern Association, but was released when he refused to report after a trade to Augusta in midseason.10 Signing with the Wichita Falls (Texas) Spudders of the Class B Big State League for 1953, Lucadello was named the league’s all-star second baseman. That same year, having moved to San Antonio, he married Lena Gene “Lee” Granato, a twenty-five-year-old San Antonio native.

Now approaching thirty-five, Lucadello understood his playing days were nearing an end. “I realized I would have to get into another field, either the business end of baseball or something of that sort,” Johnny told a San Antonio reporter, “The old bones are getting pretty tired.”11

J.C. Stroud, an oilman and the owner of several Minor League teams, offered him the position of player-manager for the Decatur (Illinois) Commodores of the Class D Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. Lucadello repaid Stroud with an outstanding season, leading the team to a first-place finish while capturing the league’s batting title with a.362 average. Exploiting his still-strong right arm, Johnny also made his professional debut on the mound, compiling a 4-1 record in five starts and five relief appearances.

In June 1955 Johnny and Lee welcomed their first child, Donna Marie. Considered for a managerial post at Albuquerque for 1955, Lucadello opted for a job closer to home, signing as a player-coach with another of J.C. Stroud’s clubs, the Port Arthur (Texas) Sea Hawks of the Big State League, and proceeded to hit a robust .350, third highest average in the league. At the age of thirty-six, Johnny was selected as the third baseman on the league’s all-star team.

After the season Lucadello hung up his spikes for the last time, closing out a sixteen-year professional career. He spent the ensuing years raising a family (Johnny and Lee welcomed a second child, Mark, in October 1962), appearing at baseball clinics and promotional events for the San Antonio Missions, and hunting in the rugged Texas hill country. In October 1972 Lucadello was inducted into the Roseland-Pullman Area Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago.

Tragedy struck the Lucadellos in 1989 when Johnny’s brother, Tony, shot himself to death on a baseball diamond in Fostoria, Ohio. Tony had signed more than fifty future major leaguers in a fifty-year career as one of the game’s most acclaimed scouts, but none made him more proud than his first signing, brother Johnny.

Johnny Lucadello died after a lengthy illness on October 30, 2001, in San Antonio at the age of eighty-two and was buried with military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Lee, his two children, and four grandchildren.

 

This biography is included in the book "Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.

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