This article was written by Cort Vitty
This article was published in The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)
He loved kids and despised umpires. Since he was a genuinely nice guy, youngsters followed him like the Pied Piper Grasso’s vendetta against the men in blue was attributed to his resentment of authority, courtesy of vicious beatings inflicted by World War II POW guards.
Newton Michael Grasso was born on May 10, 1920, in Newark, New Jersey. The 1930 census lists him as the middle son of Carmen and Lena Grasso. He played ball on the sandlots of Newark and was voted All-City catcher as a fifth-grader. Grasso grew up to stand over six feet tall, while weighing in at 195 pounds.
In 1941, Newton’s uncle arranged a tryout with the Trenton Senators; the youngster beat out 200 prospects to make the team. Signed as a second baseman, he was shifted behind the plate when the regular backstop was injured. His teammates christened him Mickey, based on a remarkable resemblance to Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane. He appeared in 52games and hit .234 for Trenton, in the Class B Interstate League, in 1941 — and then Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7. Mickey enlisted in the army on January 20, 1942, and reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Grasso was assigned as a sergeant to North Africa with the 34th Infantry Division, where he was taken prisoner by Rommel’s retreating army on February 17, 1943. Sergeant Grasso’s unit was surrounded by 10,000 Nazis, all heavily equipped with tanks and howitzers. According to Burton Hawkins of The Sporting News, the lieutenant in charge quizzed his sergeant:“Mickey, shall we fight or go along with ’em?” Grasso answered: “Man, don’t be crazy.” Taken prisoner, they were flown to Italy, then transported by rail to Furstenberg, Germany, and settled into Stalag 11B, where they were held captive for over two years.
In the early part of the war, German prison camps were run in the same efficient manner as the German army. Captured soldiers were systematically sent to camps based on branch of service. Once interned, the prisoners were separated according to rank. The prison camps varied in size; all were equipped with a parade ground, where prisoners gathered twice a day to be counted.
The Germans and Americans had both signed the Geneva Convention, which stipulated proper conduct toward all prisoners. The Germans adhered to the code and generally treated those captured in accordance with the rules and regulations. Exercise and recreation was encouraged and the parade area was generally ample size for games of baseball or softball. POWs had access to sports equipment, courtesy of the Red Cross. Massive numbers of gloves, bats, and balls were collected in the States and shipped overseas, ultimately making their way to prison camps. Mickey and his mates at Stalag 11B made frequent use of the equipment.
Prisoners felt it was their duty to escape. Grasso was involved in three failed attempts, each resulting in abrutal beating at the hands of the guards. Mickey finally managed to successfully escape on Hitler’s birthday—April 20, 1945. The Russian army was closing in on German forces near the camp, and the captors ordered prisoners moved farther from the ground fighting. By now, the German army was short of personnel, and most guards were poorly trained old men.
On the evening of the evacuation, Mickey was one of ten prisoners who simply ran off while the guards snoozed. The escapees marched through towns, led by a prisoner fluent in German. When stopped by German officers, the leader merely explained it was a work detail; the explanation seemed plausible and the trip resumed. Happening upon a dilapidated boat, the group climbed aboard and paddled across the Elbe River to the safety of the American side, where they were met by GIs.
It took some convincing, but finally the American forces, with rifles drawn, believed the interlopers were prison-camp refugees. At the time he was liberated, Mickey weighed 60 pounds below his normal playing weight. Although frail and behind his contemporaries in terms of lost playing time, he returned stateside and resumed his profession.
In 1946, after a brief trial with the New York Giants, Mickey was assigned to their Jersey City farm team, hitting.228 with 13 home runs. He became the [Jersey City Giants’ regular catcher in 1947, posting a .268 average.This resulted in his sale to the Pacific Coast League Seattle Rainiers for the then staggering sum of $20,000.
At Seattle in 1948, Mickey could proudly boast of having the largest fan club in the league, with 5,000 active members. Mickey commented that he “made 1,000friends by giving away 1,000 baseballs that belonged to the club.” He hit .261 with five homers. Defensively, Grasso led all league catchers with 81 assists.
In 1949, still with Seattle, he hit .251, while contributing seven home runs, leading league receivers with 74assists and 18 errors. He was ejected 23 times, drawing $1,100 worth of fines. Grasso thought umps were “thick-headed and thin-skinned.” He once got the hook for flinging his shin guards into the air, with one landing on the head of umpire Ira Gordon, resulting in a $200 fine.
This aggressiveness caught the attention of Washington manager Bucky Harris, who recommended that his club purchase the fiery backstop. Signed to a Senators contract for the 1950 season, Grasso would go on to hit .287 in 75 games. In 1951, Grasso played in 52 games, while hitting .206 for the Senators.
Mickey and umpire Larry Napp had a confrontation in the spring of 1952. Napp was assigned to travel with the Senators when his car broke down. Since the players had to travel on the team bus, Mickey offered Larry the use of his new car as transportation to a game in Fort Myers. During the game, Grasso argued a strike call and Napp tossed him. After the contest was over, Mickey boarded the team bus and saw Larry getting into the car. Grasso shouted, “I hope you get a flat tire,” when he suddenly came to his senses and said: “What am I saying? It’s my car.”
On May 14 in Boston, Mickey was presented with an award by the American Prisoners of War Association, just before the game. The slightly embarrassed Grasso slowly sauntered out to home plate and received a lifetime membership in the organization as recognition for his time served as a POW. Mickey ultimately posted a .216 batting average in 1952, appearing in 15 games.
During spring training 1953, Mickey had a little fun with young Clark Griffith, son of team vice president Calvin Griffith. After batting practice Mickey told the eleven-year-old to “roll up those stockings” and “look like a big leaguer.” Mickey, with a twinkle in his eye, said: “Listen to me, I’m telling him what to do and someday he’s going to be my boss.”
Mickey’s batting style caught the attention of Senators’ owner Clark Griffith. Although he hadn’t managed in 33 years, Griffith took the liberty of trying to tutor his catcher through field manager Bucky Harris. “Stanley, tell that big galoot to stop swinging for home runs,” he said, and added, “I mean Grasso.” Harris agreed and diagnosed the problem as Mickey lunging to take a big swing, when he could just as easily use his arms to poke more singles and doubles in the spacious Griffith stadium. The 1953 season ended with Mickey hitting only.209 in 61 games.
Early in 1954, Mickey was traded to the Cleveland Indians. Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich lamented, “With Grasso in there, the Nats were never a dull team. He was a good catcher too, a bundle of fire behind the plate and an arm that held terror for all base runners in the league.” News of the trade was unpopular with fans, including Calvin Griffith’s nine-year-old daughter Corinne. Griffith commented, “Mickey wasn’t much at the plate, but he sure hit it off in the personality league with the kids and the women.”
During spring training 1954, Mickey broke his left ankle and ended up catching only four games for the Indians. Sportswriter Bob Addie of the Washington Post pointed out how Grasso spent much of his tenure in Washington visiting hospitalized patients. “Now it was time for fans to reciprocate by sending a card to a nice guy who always took time out to help others.”
Mickey later appeared with the Indians in the 1954 Fall Classic. He remains the only player in major-league history to have been a POW and play in a World Series, albeit only in one game, and without a plate appearance.Mickey drifted to the New York Giants in 1955, but was cut after eight games. He made minor- league stops at Indianapolis, Chattanooga, and Miami before calling it a career after the 1958 season. In a big-league careers panning parts of seven seasons, the right-handed hitting catcher posted a .226 average in 322 games. In retirement, he ran several restaurants and worked at a Florida racetrack. He passed away on October 15, 1975, in Miami.
Wolter, Tim. POW Baseball in World War II: The National Pastime Behind Barbed Wire. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002.
New York Times Pacific Stars & Stripes The Sporting News Washington Post