By Palmer Hasty
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brookyn native and famous former Boston Red Sox All-Star shortstop Rico Petrocelli was born in Coney Island Hospital just off Ocean Parkway near Coney Island Avenue in 1943. Petrocelli is the youngest of seven children whose family lived near the hospital on West 3rd Street.
Later, when Petrocelli was seven, his family moved to Bedford Stuyvesent on Kosciusko Street. That's when he first started playing stickball and basketball. During the spring and summer months, he and his friends played stickball in the streets every day, or as he jokingly said in a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle; “We played until someone broke a window, and then we all scattered.”
When he was 10 his family moved to Sheepshead Bay, and that's when, at 12 years old, the future major league star played his first organized baseball.
Although Petrocelli has not been inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, for years after his retirement he received lots of votes, and in 1997 he was inducted into the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame.
He first reached the big leagues with the Red Sox briefly in 1963, was sent to the Red Sox farm system and returned to play full time in 1965. Petrocelli played his whole major league career with the Red Sox, but due to a nagging elbow injury, mentioned later in this article, his production became erratic and the Red Sox released him in 1976.
Petrocelli was always a natural athlete. “In the schoolyards in Sheepshead Bay we played everything; baseball, basketball, softball, and touch football. My senior year in high school I was offered several basketball scholarships as a point guard, but I turned them down because I wanted to play professional baseball. I believed I had a better chance at baseball, especially since I knew the Red Sox were interested in me.”
When he was 16 and still in high school Petrocelli played with the Cadet Baseball Club in the Parade Grounds in Brooklyn. The professional scouts were always watching the Cadets. Other famous professional baseball players (and Brooklyn natives) from that late-50s and early-60s time period also played for the Cadets. Petrocelli recalled, “Joe Torre played for the Cadets a few years before I did.”
No fewer than 12 major league teams were keeping an eye on Petrocelli's progress during his senior year at Sheepshead Bay high school, when he was a mere 18 years old. But then, as Ron Marshall noted in the Society of American Baseball Research; “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.”
Later in the season he hit three home runs in the first game, then two home runs in the second game of a doubleheader. After that game he was officially invited to work out with the Red Sox. Petrocelli's family accompanied him to Boston, and following the workout he signed with Beantown.
Ironically, as anyone who knows virtually anything about baseball is aware, an intense rivalry exists between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, and although Petrocelli became one of Boston's enduring heroes, he confessed with a laugh, “As a kid playing ball my heroes were all New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers.”
Petrocelli's older brother Vinny often took him to see both the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. He said that one of his most memorable moments was meeting Yankee legend Mickey Mantle. “I think my knees were knocking I was so nervous, this was Mickey Mantle.”
Not only was Petrocelli one of the most popular ball players to ever play for the Red Sox, he also still holds several team records. A consummate infielder, he holds the Red Sox’s all time fielding Percentage in two positions; at shortstop with .981 in 1969, and at third base with .976 in 1971. He still stands third in Red Sox history behind Hall of Famer Ted Williams and David Ortiz with nine career grand slam home runs.
In the early 70s Petrocelli moved from shortstop to third base, an inspiring story in itself. Petrocelli was respected by the Red Sox management and teammates not only as a great player, but also for his leadership skills. When the team developed a weak link in the infield, the Red Sox had a chance to acquire the Hall of Fame short stop Luis Aparicio, but they weren't going to force Petrocelli to agree with the acquisition. Petrocelli offered to make the move to third base to make room for Aparicio.
He reported to Spring Training early to work with another Red Sox All Star, third baseman Frank Malzone. In typical Petrocelli fashion, at his new position he set a major league record playing 77 straight games without an error at third base. He also led the league that year with an amazing .976 fielding percentage, which still stands as the team record.
Petrocelli was a fan favorite from the start. In another recent Eagle interview, Brooklyn native Greg Kehoe (a prosecuting attorney in Tampa who still is an avid and very knowledgeable baseball fan) even talked about Petrocelli while recounting his own high school baseball connection with the Parade Grounds. Kehoe recalled, "Back then, Petrocelli was the idol of Sheepshead Bay. I remember I was dating a girl from Sheepshead Bay, and the fact that I even knew who Rico Petrocelli was, seemed to impress her more than anything else I was aware of.”
During the two phone interviews with the Eagle, Petrocelli talked about his profound appreciation for, and indebtedness to, his Brooklyn background. “I feel blessed having grown up in Brooklyn. My dreams from when I was a kid actually came true. Brooklyn made that happen. My parents, even my brothers, everyone in my family recognized my natural talent. They sacrificed, and not only did they allow, they encouraged me to spend a great deal of time developing my athletic skills. They all recognized that between the ages of 10-18, those are the years, the most important time to prepare for a career in professional sports. As a teenager in Sheepshead Bay, instead of going out to parties I spent many a Saturday night playing sports.
“I have a lot of fond memories of when I was younger, when I was around 10 or 12 years old. We did a lot of family trips to Coney Island. That was always a big trip. Going to Coney Island always made for a special day. I loved the Parachute Jump. Yet, best of all, the biggest treat back then was Nathan's hot dog stand. And we also took family trips to Broadway in Manhattan. You know, the lights, the theatre district, that was always exciting when you were a kid.”
Petrocelli currently lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, with his wife Elsie, to whom his has been married for 49 years. He vacations in Sarasota, Florida. After retiring from baseball Petrocelli remained connected to the baseball world via radio broadcasting for the Red Sox and writing newspaper columns and blogs about the Red Sox. He also worked as a roving instructor for the Red Sox, and managed several Minor League baseball teams. Later, he started a sports memorabilia business called Petrocelli Sports that he recently turned over to his son.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threw out the first ball for the New York Mets opening day. The mayor is known in New York for his affinity for the Boston Red Sox, and to commemorate his Italian heritage, he had a custom Mets jersey made for the event with No. 6 on the back to honor, none other than, Rico Petrocelli.