A player in his day
For eight years, Ted Lepcio was a member of the Red Sox. For decades, he’s been a fan. Now, he revels in being both.
By Jack Thomas, Globe Staff | April 14, 2005
Having played infield for the Red Sox for eight years back in the 1950s, Ted Lepcio, now 75, was back at Fenway Park along with the rest of the old-timers for the big celebration on Monday. While the World Series rings were handed out and the championship banner was hoisted in center field, and while the Boston Pops played Handel’s ”Hallelujah” chorus, Lepcio’s mind drifted back more than half a century, back 53 years to be exact, back to a time when baseball was less flamboyant and when, on a warm afternoon in April, the Red Sox were in Washington to open the 1952 season against the Senators.
And what a team! Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Vern Stephens, Clyde Vollmer, Walt Dropo, Jimmy Piersall, and, at second base, the 22-year-old rookie, Thaddeus Stanley Lepcio.
Moments before the game was to begin, as he remembers it, the players clustered along the first-base line, and from the front row, President Harry Truman tossed a ball into the air. The players leaped, the ball bounced among them, and landed — smack! — right in Lepcio’s glove.
As recipient of the ball, Lepcio was escorted over to meet the president.
”How are you, son?” Truman said.
”Fine, Mr. President. How are you?”
As Lepcio recalled over lobster bisque at the Harvard Club the other day, ”Being in the starting lineup for my first major league game and playing with great Red Sox players — and also meeting the president — I was nervous as hell, nervous as hell.”
With Mel Parnell pitching, the Red Sox won, 3 to 0, and Lepcio overcame his jitters to get the first of his 512 major league hits, a sharp single up the middle off Bob Porterfield. The ball tossed by President Truman was, at the time, reputed to be the oldest ever used in a major league game, said Lepcio, and as a result, it was sent to the Hall of Fame. In a 10-year career that included short stints with the Tigers, Phillies, White Sox, and Twins, Lepcio managed only 69 home runs and a modest lifetime batting average of .245. The ball he caught from Truman would be as close as he’d get to the Hall of Fame.
None of that mattered Monday, though, when Lepcio left his Dedham home and drove his 2004 Kia to Fenway Park, where he dressed in the old-style woolen uniform with No. 12 and stood once again in the sun with a lot of old men who make up the lineage that is the legend of the Boston Red Sox.
Having played 532 games for the Sox and having paid for season tickets in Box 30 for more than three decades, Lepcio has the rare perspective of both player and fan upon which to judge the long drought and then, at long last, the World Series victory in 2004.
”Monday was a thrill, all those decades, Bobby Doerr and Dominic — I played with him for a year — and also with Frank Malzone, and standing behind us was the next generation, Rico [Petrocelli] and [Jim] Lonborg and [Luis] Tiant and Carl Yastrzemski.
”Underneath, it doesn’t matter whether you were a big star, because everybody goes through the same agony. You work your [butt] off. You get the same blisters on your hands, on your heels, and you suffer the same humiliation when you strike out.”
At 5-feet-10, Lepcio weighed 178 as a player. He’s 210 today, and he attributes his good health to years of playing squash. What is it like to sit in the stands as an old man and reminisce about the days of his youth? ”This may be funny to you,” he says, ”but I watch a game and I see a double play or a home run, and I say to myself, I can’t believe I did that.”
A towering friend
Lepcio grew up in Utica, N.Y., received a degree in business at Seton Hall, and after summer baseball in Maine he joined the Sox in 1952 as part of manager Lou Boudreau’s youth movement, along with Piersall and Sammy White. He was in the clubhouse at Sarasota, Fla., in his rookie year when Williams arrived at his locker, six feet from Lepcio’s.
”Sure, I was nervous. Ted was the biggest name in the game, and you could hear him a mile away, always shouting,” Lepcio recalls.
Williams looked at Lepcio and said, in a booming voice: ”Who are you, rook?”
”I said I’m so and so, and we shook hands. And that,” says Lepcio, ”was the beginning of a friendship.”
Williams chose Lepcio as his warm-up partner, sat with him on planes, and hollered at him for not being a better hitter.
”For a guy with only a high school education,” says Lepcio, ”Ted Williams was an extraordinary human being, not only in baseball, but also photography. You couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t know about cameras, not to mention that he was an expert fisherman.
”Although I was his warm-up partner every day, we almost never dined together. He said to me, ‘Teddy, I’d like to go out to dinner with you, but I can’t because it would be impossible for us to eat in peace.’ See, people would always come up to his table for autographs, and so, Ted almost always ate in his room.
”And he’d get mad at me. Boy, would he get mad. He’d tell me to be more patient at the plate, more selective. But when you don’t play every day and then you finally do come off the bench, every time you’re at bat it’s like the World Series, and suddenly you’re facing a guy like Herb Score throwing 95 miles an hour, and you say to yourself, whoa, what the hell was that.
”I was strong, and Ted would say to me in that loud voice, ‘Damn it, why can’t you be a better hitter?’ He thought I should have been a better hitter, and probably I should.”
A modest man, Lepcio is under no delusions that he was a star, and his conversation is sprinkled with self-effacing references — ”If you’re an average player, like I was . . .”
Looking back on the years of defeat, the problem was not bad luck nor the so-called curse, he says, but the fact the Sox were not as good as many people thought.
”Not to sound too high and mighty, but my inner self always believed we were good enough to win, but then I’d see the Yankees play, or some other teams, and I’d say, maybe we’re not good enough.”
Off the field
Lepcio’s career ended in 1961 after back surgery — traction convinced him it might not be wise to be sliding into bases. He went to work for Honeywell and then as an executive for St. Johnsbury Trucking Co. for 22 years. Today he works part time for Stonepath, a global logistics company. He lives in Dedham with his wife, Martha. Their son, Thaddeus Jr., 33, is a teacher in Tennessee. Their grandson, Thaddeus III, is 5.
”People say, ‘Do you have mementos?’ and I say no. In the ’50s, nobody cared. There aren’t many pictures because there weren’t many photographers. I tell [former teammate] Dick Gernert, ‘Do you know how many bats we could have had autographed by Ted Williams? We could have made a million dollars.’ I could have had a thousand baseballs signed by Williams instead of what I have, which is three. I’ve saved my uniform, though. I’ve put it in a box for my son, and I also have three gloves. My wife saw them and said, ‘What are you, planning a comeback?’ ”
As a fan, what irritates Lepcio these days is the proclivity of the crowd to stand so often.
”It’s discouraging when there are two strikes and it’s the first inning and everybody stands. It’s like being in church, for gosh sakes, up and down, up and down.”
At Monday’s ceremony, Lepcio encountered three Marines who came home from Iraq.
”They looked like high school kids. I thanked them for their service, and they gave me baseballs and asked if I’d sign them. I thought, holy cow, these guys are back from Iraq and they’re asking me for an autograph?”
Lepcio watched till the eighth inning, and as the shadows lengthened, he made his way out the gate and across the street to his car, and then he headed south on the long drive away from the park and back to Dedham, back to his home, and back to reality.