Obituary: Bobby Del Greco (1933-2019)

RIP to Bobby Del Greco, an outfielder for six teams from 1952-1965. He died on October 13 at the age of 86. He had been battling severe dementia, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Del Greco played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1952, 1956), St. Louis Cardinals (1956), Chicago Cubs (1957), New York Yankees (1957-58), Philadelphia Phillies (1960-61, 1965) and Kansas City Athletics (1961-63).

Bobby Del Greco was born on April 7, 1933 in Pittsburgh, the youngest of 10 children. He was a sandlot star in the area and was a member of the Washington Social Club, an organization started by boxer Charley Affif to further Hill District youths in sports. He quit high school after his sophomore year to help support his family. Pirates scout and Hall of Famer Harold “Pie” Traynor discovered the youth and signed him off the Pittsburgh sandlots and to the Salisbury Pirates of the North Carolina State League in 1951, when he was 16 years old.

“I was easy to sign,” he said after he made the major leagues, noting that his signing bonus was a paltry $600.

The teenager hit .251 in 64 games for the Pirates farm team. The following season, he hit .302 for the Hutchinson Elks of the Western Association, stole 17 bases and led the league with 37 doubles. By the end of that year, Branch Rickey Jr. was calling Del Greco the best center fielder candidate in the entire Pirates organization, major-league club included.

Del Greco was invited to Spring Training in 1952 and, despite his age and inexperience, walked out as a starting center fielder. While he didn’t get the Opening Day assignment, he was one of three Pirates rookies who made their major-league debut on April 16, along with catcher Jim Mangan and right fielder Brandy Davis. Though the Bucs lost 3-2 to the Cardinals, Del Greco was the star of the day, going 3-for-4 at the plate with a walk and a triple. He had three more hits, including another triple, in the Pirates’ home opener, a 3-0 win against the Reds. Del Greco’s mother and 40-something of his relatives were in the stands to see it.

“Boy, I’m the happiest guy in Pittsburgh tonight,” he told the Associated Press after the game. “I just hope I can play a lot of baseball and make some money for my mother — I’m going to build a new house for her, you can bet on that!”

Despite some early heroics, the 19-year-old was overmatched by major-league competition and ended with a .217 average in 99 games. He was demoted to Toronto, where he rebounded with a .311 average.

The Pirates kept Del Greco in the minors for three years, and he played everywhere from New Orleans to Hollywood. He had his breakthrough year in 1955 with the Hollywood Stars, belting 10 homers and hitting .287 with 73 RBIs. He returned to the Pirates in 1956, though he didn’t stay for long. He appeared in 14 games, even seeing some playing time at third base, and had 4 hits in 20 at-bats, including 2 home runs off the Phillies’ Harvey Haddix in the same game. On May 17, he and Dick Littlefield were traded to St. Louis for Bill Virdon, the 1955 Rookie of the Year. Del Greco batted .215 for the Redbirds, with 5 home runs and 18 RBIs, in 102 games. Virdon would go on to a very successful playing career with the Bucs. Frank Lane, the Cardinals GM who engineered the trade, called it his worst deal at the time. Though to be fair, “Trader Frank” would make many more bad deals in his career.

Supposedly, that 2-homer game against Haddix led to the trade. Lane was said to have been in the stands for the game along with the Pirates’ Branch Rickey. After the first home run, Lane turned to Rickey and said, “He’ll never do that again.” Del Greco did indeed do that again, and the trade was made the following day.

Del Greco was on the move again in 1957. He was traded from the Cardinals to the Cubs, where he was ineffective in the major leagues but pretty decent in the minors. The Yankees acquired him in mid-September as an insurance policy. Mickey Mantle had just missed a few games with painful shin splints, and Del Greco was expected to spell him in the outfield. Mantle finished his MVP season in good form, so Del Greco only played in 9 games. But he did get 3 hits in 7 at-bats and stole a base as the Yankees won the AL pennant.

Aside from 12 games with the Yankees in 1958, Del Greco spent the next two seasons in the minors. When he reappeared in the major leagues again in 1960, he was now 27 and wearing a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. The Phillies had bought his contract from the Yankees the previous year.

By then, it’s safe to say that Del Greco had a chip on his shoulder. He was a great defensive outfielder, with a strong arm and superior range. He also had a “can’t hit” reputation that followed him from team to team.

“I was so sure I was going to stick with the Yankees,” he said of the 1958 team. The New York papers had all but guaranteed him a spot on the roster over aging veteran Enos Slaughter, so he rented a house and brought his mother, his wife, and their five children to live there. That was about the time that manager Casey Stengel told Del Greco that he was being sent to Richmond. The Yankees kept Slaughter.

“He was a great ball player, but he’d had it. All he could do was pinch hit. I could have filled in at all three outfield positions, run and pinch-hit,” Del Greco said.

“I’ve never played in 15 straight games in the majors, never,” he said in a separate interview. “They say I can’t hit. You get that sort of reputation and it follows you. No matter what you do in the minor leagues. I know I can play center field as well as anyone.”

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 17, 1952.

Del Greco played like he had something to prove and had one of the most productive seasons of his career in ’60, slashing .237/.355/.417 with 10 homers. He had an OPS+ of 112 and, faced with the challenge of replacing Richie Ashburn in center field, did a pretty fair job, with 10 assists.

Del Greco was traded, again, in 1961. This time, it was a deal for the better, as he was dealt to the Kansas City A’s on July 2 for Wes Covington. The Kansas City general manager who made the deal? Trader Frank Lane. The A’s gave him a chance to start for two-and-a-half seasons, which was the longest he was ever with one team. He hit .233 for Kansas City in that time, including a career-best .254 average in 1962, when he played in 132 games. He also led the American League by getting hit with 13 pitches in ’62. His average fell to .212 in 1963, but he did help the A’s beat Baltimore’s Steve Barber. Barber just dominated Kansas City until a game on May 30, where Del Greco loosened up the dugout by chirping “I’ll get that Barber. I own him. He’s easy!” The A’s knocked Barber off the field by scoring 6 runs off him, and Del Greco contributed with a 3-for-3 day. Del Greco, incidentally, was a lifetime 3-for-23 off of Barber.

Del Greco was sold to Toronto of the International League in 1964, and the Phillies re-acquired him after a successful campaign there. Philadelphia brought him briefly to the majors at the start of 1965, and he went hitless in 4 at-bats over 8 games. He returned to the minors in early May and played for the Phillies and White Sox organizations until he retired after the 1966 season.

In nine seasons in the major leagues for six teams, Del Greco slashed .229/.330/.352 in 731 games. He had 454 hits, including 95 doubles, 11 triples and 42 home runs. He knocked in 169 runs and scored 271 runs.

After his baseball career, Del Greco returned to Pittsburgh and drove a newspaper delivery truck. He also threw batting practice for the Pirates when they were at home. He recalled a time when he was in the minors, playing for manager Frank Lucchesi late in his career. Lucchesi once told him that he’d end up a truck driver. Years later, when Lucchesi was managing the Phillies, Del Greco approached him.

“Mr. Lucchesi, you’re a prophet,” Del Greco said.

“How’s that?” Lucchesi asked.

“You once told me I’d end up as a truck driver. Well, I’m driving a truck for a Pittsburgh newspaper.”

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