SABR

Art Rico

This article was written by Jim Leeke.

Handsome, talented, admired, Arthur Rico was a three-sport star who made the majors with a hometown ball club without ever spending a day in the minors. After his return from World War I, he seemed destined to become one of baseball’s great catchers—expectations soon shattered in tragedy.

Rico grew up in Boston, the son of immigrants. His mother, the former Margaret Monahan, was brought to America as a baby from her native Scotland. His father, Antonio Fernando Rico, a tobacco dealer, arrived from Spain as a young man in 1877. By 1900, Antonio owned a tobacco plantation in Cuba and the family was prominent enough to be listed in Boston’s Blue Book. Arthur was the third of four children, two boys and two girls. His father died when Arthur was 14, leaving the family well-to-do.

Arthur attended English High School, then the Huntington School for Boys. The latter was a private, college-preparatory school affiliated with the Y.M.C.A. and what is now Northeastern University. At Huntington, Rico was a shot-put champion, catcher on the baseball team, and fullback on the football eleven. He cut a memorable figure: brown-haired, blue-eyed, well-dressed, five feet, nine-and- a- half inches tall, 185 pounds. Older than some of his fellow competitors, he once had to produce a birth certificate to prove he was still eligible for sports.

Rico spoke of entering business in 1915, but returned to Huntington for one more year. That fall, he scored six touchdowns in one gridiron game. He ran hurdles that winter, and was the interscholastic indoor shot-put champion of New England. His eligibility finally expired before the track season ended, at age 20, but only his amateur career was over. In February, Manager George Stallings of the Boston Braves invited Rico to 1916 spring training. How Stallings became aware of Rico is not clear.

“Stallings saw him one day last Fall and liked his style so well that he signed him up to a contract,”i the Boston Globe reported. An Auburn, New York, paper had a slightly different story. The Huntington star, it reported, had often worked out at Braves Field the previous summer “just to keep in condition.” He made so favorable an impression upon the chief, although going into baseball was farthest from Rico’s mind, that Manager Stallings during last Winter had Business Manager Hapgood look up the youngster whose name even Manager Stallings did not know. … Stallings believes he is destined to have his name enrolled upon the scroll of the world’s great catchers.”ii

Rico flourished with the big club in Miami. “Johnny Evers, who watched Rico work yesterday, also thinks the youngster has a wonderful whip and that some day he will make a great backstop,” the Globe wrote. “Rico is a bright fellow and a good boy. He is just the kind of material that Stallings or any other manager would be glad to work on, and if he shows up well during his tryout he will be signed.”iii Globe beat writer J. C. O’Leary thought Rico was “developing satisfactorily, and it would surprise no one if Stallings should undertake to develop this boy himself, rather than send him to a minor league.”iv

It was a shrewd and accurate observation. That summer, an out-of-town sportswriter marveled at the Boston manager “carrying around the circuit all this season a Brookline schoolboy … Rico sits upon the Boston bench next to his boss day in and day out and is constantly absorbing from observation a lot of knowledge that should be of infinite value to the youngster when he makes his debut behind the bat.”v

Although Rico would soon turn 21, even the hometown Globe applied the “schoolboy” tag—and always referred to him as Arthur, while others often used a casual “Art.” Rico sat patiently on the bench beside Stallings until on the last day of July, when the Braves faced the St. Louis Cardinals in Boston.

In the fifth inning of the second game of a double-header, catcher Hank Gowdy, World Series hero of the 1914 “Miracle Braves,” took a foul tip off his hand. The ball split the skin and dislocated the first joint of his thumb, knocking Gowdy out of the line-up for weeks. Two innings later, backup catcher Walt Tragesser collided with his pitcher while chasing a bunt, took a knee to the head that knocked him cold, and left the field on a stretcher.

“This left Stallings with only Arthur Rico, the Boston schoolboy, available as a backstop,” the Globe wrote. “The young fellow finished the game and did very well indeed.” Rico batted once and hit the ball on the nose to the left fielder. “It was Rico’s first time up in the big league, and, he came near busting up the game.”vi

The rookie was again behind the plate the following day. He went hitless in three at-bats during a 1-0, 11-inning win over the Cards. “Rico was cool and level-headed, and all he has to do is to keep on as he started, and he will get by with flying colors,” the Globe wrote. “He threw out [Tommy] Long, who tried to steal on him in the first inning, and three men who got on after that did not care to take a chance with him. He hit the ball each time up, but not safely except the time he was ordered to sacrifice.” The paper’s Baseball Notes section added, “It was a pleasure to observe the reception that Arthur Rico received when he came to the bat. Encouragement is just what all sons need.”vii

Rico’s stint in the National League was brief. After the Braves recalled catcher Earl Blackburn from Class AA Providence, Rico appeared just twice more, without another plate appearance. For the season, the rookie totaled no hits in four at-bats. Rico didn’t sit back down beside Stallings, however. At the end of August, the manager sent him to catching-poor Providence. Rico finished the season there as a back-up receiver, three times catching both ends of a double-header. Although he accumulated too few appearances to be included in the International League’s final batting statistics, box scores show that he hit .189 in 13 games.viii

Eager to return to spring training with the big club in 1917, Rico signed his Boston contract in February. “The way he jumped into the harness last Summer when the Braves suddenly found their two star catchers on the disabled list was a treat,” the Globe wrote. “His work was a revelation, even to those who were cheering the loudest for him. Rico made satisfactory arrangements with the club, and will start for Miami eager to show the best he has.”ix

In Florida, Rico won a straw hat for slamming the Braves’ first homer of the spring. “The Boston boy is pretty fast, and never in his life was in better shape than he is now,” the Globe reported. “As a matter of fact, [he] is on edge, physically, right now, a little too fine, if anything, for this stage of training.”x

Baseball changed for every league and player when the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. The prospect of the draft and military service hung over all healthy, unmarried males. Rico went north with the Braves into uncertainty. In mid-May, before he had played an inning, Stallings farmed him out to Springfield in the Class-B Eastern League. “Rico is a young fellow, who has been under the eye of Manager Stallings for two years and is classed by the Miracle Man as ‘The best young ballplayer I have ever had,’” a New England newspaper reported.xi

The young catcher registered for the draft while at Springfield. He no doubt was keenly interested when Braves’ starter Gowdy joined a National Guard unit early in June, the first major leaguer to enlist. The draft hung over backup Tregasser, too. Rico was hitting .240 after thirty games for the Green Sox when Stallings recalled him in July. To further bolster the catching staff, the Boston manager also signed John “Chief” Meyers.

Rico played in 13 games for the Braves over the summer—the first on July 10, the last on September 3. Usually a late-inning substitute, twice playing in the outfield, he collected four hits and two RBIs in 14 plate appearances. The highlight of his season came on August 23, in a 2-1 Boston victory over Honus Wagner’s Pirates. In a game eerily reminiscent of his debut a season earlier, Rico entered the game in the sixth inning after a foul tip split Meyers’ hand. The rookie laid a bunt hit down the first-base line in the seventh and eventually scored the winning run.

By the end of the season, the war’s toll on big-league clubs had rapidly grown. Rico enlisted as a seaman in the naval reserves in December 1917, joining several other Braves and Red Sox players on duty at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Rico participated in naval athletics that winter, running track with Red Sox infielder Mike McNally and playing on the yard basketball team with Braves teammate Walter “Rabbit” Maranville.

In the spring of 1918, Rico, Maranville, McNally, and several other former professional and collegiate players signed up for the First Naval District’s baseball team. The manager was former Red Sox skipper Jack Barry, now an enlisted man, and soon to be promoted to chief petty officer. Based at the Navy Yard, Barry’s powerhouse club was perhaps the best service team of the war. The roster had two future Hall of Famers in Maranville and Red Sox pitcher Herb Pennock. Rico was the starting catcher.

As the season got under way, Rico caught games pitched by former Red Sox hurlers Ernie Shore and Loren “King” Bader. At Braves Field, meanwhile, the Braves hoisted a service flag to honor its four players then in the armed forces—Rico, Maranville, and infielder Hank Schreiber, all on Barry’s squad, and Hank Gowdy, then fighting in France.

Despite drawing big, enthusiastic crowds, the Navy Yard team had an unexpectedly short season. Resentment within the service, and civilian sniping about ballplayers safely serving stateside, may have prompted the transfer of Maranville and several other players in May. Rico reported aboard the battleship U.S.S. Georgia. McNally and Pennock went to London, Shore to an officers’ school at Harvard, Maranville to the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania, and the others to various stations. The navy disbanded the team altogether in mid-June.

Rico’s six months on the battlewagon included service overseas. Among his shipmates was Marty Shay, a Navy Yard teammate who had played briefly with the Cubs. With the armistice on November 11, they quickly turned their eyes toward home and baseball.

Placed on the navy’s inactive list, Rico returned to his family in Brookline during the first week of December. He planned to take a course in physical culture at Huntington to get in shape for spring training. He also elected to have his troublesome tonsils removed and to straighten his nose, broken while playing football. On December 29, Rico entered Boston’s Eye and Ear Infirmary. There, his lifelong good fortune suddenly vanished.

Disaster struck like a foul tip off exposed fingers. His recovery from the procedures seemed uneventful until New Years Eve, “when some puzzling stomach trouble developed and became so bad that he was removed … to the Phillips House of the Massachusetts General Hospital,” the Boston Globe reported. The next day, specialists agreed on an abdominal operation, which was performed January 2. Surgeons then discovered “a ruptured appendix and advanced development of peritonitis. He failed gradually till the end came last night,” on January 3, 1919.xii

Rico’s death “will come as a shock to the thousands who knew him personally, and other thousands who have seen him perform in school athletics at English High and Huntington School,” the Globe mourned. “He was an all-round performer, and only 23 years old.”xiii

The “schoolboy catcher” was buried January on 6 at stately Holyhood Cemetery in Chestnut Hill. All eight honorary pallbearers were ballplayers, among them Maranville, Lawton “Whitey” Witt, and Charles “Chick” Shorten from the Navy Yard team. Eighteen sailors off the navy receiving ship at Commonwealth Pier accompanied the body. A firing party of 10 sailors fired a volley over the grave.

Rico’s friends soon established an athletic award bearing his name. The Arthur Rico Memorial Shield was first awarded in February 1919 to the winners of an army-navy indoor track meet. Thereafter, for the next few years, it was presented at the Boston Athletic Association’s annual schoolboy games.

 

Sources

In addition to other sources noted in this biography, the author accessed Arthur Rico’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

i Boston Globe, February 27, 1916.

ii Auburn (New York) Citizen, July 3, 1916.

iii Boston Globe, March 8, 1916.

iv Boston Globe, March 27, 1916.

v Auburn Citizen, July 3, 1916.

vi Boston Globe, August 1, 1916.

vii Boston Globe, August 2, 1916.

viii Author’s analysis of box scores published in the Providence Tribune and New York Sun, August 26 – September 13, 1916.

ix Boston Globe, March 1, 1917.

x Boston Globe, March 21, 1917.

xi The Day (New London, Connecticut), May 15, 1917.

xii Boston Globe, January 4, 1919.

xiii Ibid.

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