Mario Picone, a pitcher for the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds from 1947-1954, passed away October 23, 2013 in Brooklyn, New York. He was 87.
Born July 5, 1926, the Bensonhurst native grew up playing sandlot ball at the fabled Parade Grounds for a team called the “Chiros”. It was on those fields where Picone, who didn’t play for his high school team, earned the attention of Giants scouts just before his 18th birthday in 1944.
“I grew up in the Parade Grounds,” he said in a 2008 phone interview from his residence in Florida. “Someone [from the Giants] spotted me there. They had me for tryouts in Jersey and they signed me.”
The Giants sent Picone to Bristol, Tennessee to play for their farm team in the Class D Appalachian League. The rookie phenom wasted no time making an impression. On June 15, 1944, he struck out 28 batters in a 19-inning victory over Johnson City, setting a professional record at the time. It was a feat that Picone almost didn’t have a chance to achieve if his manager Hal Gruber had his way that evening.
“In those days, you tried to finish everything,” he said. “It got to be the 9th inning, 10th inning, 11th inning … It was a 2-2 tie. Hal Gruber was the manager. He came to me and said, ‘I’m going to take you out.’ I said, ‘No you’re not. I’ll stay right here. If you take me out because you think I’m tired, I’ll be on the bus tomorrow and I’ll go home.’ Sure enough he left me there. We went 19 innings. Art Fowler came in the bottom of the 19th and pinch hit for me, he got a single, we scored the run and we won 3-2.”
Picone was a rising star in the Giants organization, skipping a level of minor league ball the next season to play with Class B Richmond in 1945. He led the league with a 19-6 record and 202 strikeouts. This earned him a promotion to AAA Jersey City in 1946, one step closer to the major leagues and a front row seat for one of baseball’s most historic moments.
In 1946, the Jersey City Giants opened their season against the Montreal Royals. Playing second base for the Royals was Jackie Robinson. Picone watched in amazement from the bench as Robinson started in his quest to break baseball’s color barrier.
“The first game that Jackie Robinson played in 1946 in Jersey City, I was there,” he said. “He had a bad day (laughs). He had a single, a double, a triple, a home run, and I think he walked. Isn’t that something? He was great. Exactly the way he broke in.
“It seemed like the people were watching, yet they didn’t know what to expect. He showed them. He sure did!”
Picone made his major league debut at the end of Robinson’s historical 1947 campaign. The Giants called him up in September, appearing in two games against the Philadelphia Phillies, starting the first and relieving the second. While Picone didn’t earn a decision in either contest, he ended the season with a .500 batting average, roping a hit in his first major league at-bat.
“I got a double off of the right field wall against Schoolboy Rowe,” he said. “He was in the twilight of his career and he didn’t throw that hard. I was fortunate enough to swing and I got into one.”
Picone had two more trials with the Giants in 1952 and 1954, making the team out of spring training during the latter. In his extended look in with the Giants 1954, Picone managed a 5.63 ERA in 24 innings and was sold to the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds sent him to the minor leagues after 16 days on their major league roster. He never returned to the big show, ending his career with a 0-2 record with an ERA of 6.30 in 13 appearances. He retired shortly after the start of the 1956 season.
“I gave it up in 1956,” he said. “I went into the home improvement business.”
Even though Picone only pitched in 9 games for the Giants’ 1954 World Series championship team, the Giants included Picone in their 50th anniversary celebration at AT&T Park. They flew him and his wife out to San Francisco, providing them with a VIP treatment that included a limousine and first class accommodations.
While Picone languished during his trials in the major leagues, he took great pride in his ability to pitch complete games, something that definitely fueled the 19-inning effort at the beginning of his career.
“If I had to pitch every fifth day and pitch five innings,” he said, “I would have been pitching today with the arm I had. I can honestly say this. One guy for one inning, another guy and then comes the closer. That’s how you figured you were going to a higher grade. You had to finish a complete game. It was as good as winning.”