By Dan Trigoboff
Twenty-three-year-old Rocco Marchegiano came to Fayetteville, North Carolina in March, 1947 with a carload of friends from his hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts and big league dreams.
Ambitious, even fearful of a marginal life, the Army veteran hoped to escape the limited opportunities available in his home town to a high school dropout. He had already dug ditches, worked on a coal truck and labored in a shoe shop—as his father had for decades. Young Marchegiano wanted to be a ballplayer.
He was good enough to get a tryout with the minor league Fayetteville Cubs, but not good enough to make the team. Marchegiano had, by professional baseball standards, a weak arm.
The irony will not escape boxing fans. That “weak” right arm would become world famous for its power. Marchegiano returned to Brockton and pursued another dream, another way out of anonymity.
And with another name—sort of. As Rocky Marciano, he would become one of the best known athletes in the world, winning the biggest individual title in sports—the heavyweight championship of the world. Before he died in a plane crash in 1969, Marciano would appear on television with Ed Sullivan, share stages with other Italian-American icons like Joe DiMaggio, and meet presidents like Dwight D. Eisenhower and fellow Bay-Stater John F. Kennedy.
Marciano was the dominant heavyweight of the 1950s. After winning the title in dramatic fashion, he defended it in epic battles—sometimes bleeding, swollen or up from the canvas, but always, endlessly punching until victory.
He achieved the highest knockout percentage of any heavyweight champ. And, perhaps most importantly for his place in history, he has the distinction of being the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated.
Bill Hurley remembers hearing about Marciano’s time here as a ballplayer when he first came to Fayetteville in the mid-1950s. “We were kind of proud that he had once played here,” said the former Fayetteville mayor. “We followed boxing much more then than now. We were always talking about Joe Louis; we were very much interested in the heavyweights."
“I remember watching Rocky Marciano fight Jersey Joe Walcott on a seven-inch screen,” said Hurley. Babe Ruth and Rocky Marciano are the standouts among athletes connected with Fayetteville.
Ruth, of course, is celebrated in Fayetteville, as he is in many places including Baltimore, where he grew up and New York, where he achieved his unparalleled stature (but not so much in Boston, where he shone as a player, but is associated with a legendary, near-century long curse).
In 1952, a North Carolina Historic State Marker was dedicated to his towering first professional home run at the old Cape Fear Fairgrounds. The plaque also notes that it was in Fayetteville that George Herman Ruth took on the nickname “Babe.” In 2014, the centennial of that first home run was commemorated in Fayetteville.
Marciano enjoys similar stature. Like Ruth, he’s earned a place in any discussion of the all-time greatest in his sport. In Marciano’s home town, a statue, unveiled in commemoration with the 60th anniversary of his heavyweight championship, is the tallest such tribute in the world—at 24 feet high. As solid as its namesake, it sits near Brockton High School’s Rocky Marciano Stadium (inside the stadium, Armand Colombo Field is named for Brockton High’s legendary football coach, also Marciano’s brother-in-law and cousin to Marciano’s close friend and trainer Allie Colombo).
And in Rita Teatina, Italy, a bronze statue of the champion was erected to commemorate the birth there of Marciano’s father, Pierino Marchegiano. Members of the Marciano family have visited the Abruzzo region, where prizes named for Rocky Marciano are awarded to top athletes.
Marciano, of course, did not launch a great career as a baseball player in Fayetteville, nor did he fight professionally here (although he did fight three times at the old Yankee Stadium, also known as “the House that Ruth Built”).
In fact, New England sports writer Everett Skehan, in a biography of Marciano written with the help of Marciano’s family in 1977, referred to Marciano’s baseball tryout as “the failure.”
“Rocky’s real love was baseball,” his brother Peter remembered. “And he continued to love baseball throughout his boxing career.” The youngest of three brothers, for decades Peter Marciano owned and operated a sporting goods store near Brockton in Mansfield, Massachusetts, under a sign that showed Rocky throwing his powerful right hand. As proprietor, Marciano occasionally shared 16 mm films of his brother and enjoyed telling stories to fascinated listeners (including, in 1975, a recent college graduate and former amateur fighter working his first newspaper job). Today, that business bears the name of another major New England athlete. New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan, who played in the Pats’ first Superbowl in 1986, bought the business in 1994 and simply added his name to create Grogan-Marciano Sporting Goods.
“I don’t think people realize what a tremendous athlete Rocky was,” said Peter Marciano, who himself played two years in the Braves’ farm system. “He had great hand-eye coordination. That had a lot to do with his punching ability. He was a very gifted athlete.”
Brockton produced a lot of good ballplayers, recalled Charlie Tartaglia, who has known the Marciano family for nearly all of his 79 years. “Half of the guys who tried out with Rocky could make the major leagues today, with all the teams out there.” The major leagues had 16 teams in 1947. Today, there are 30.
Tartaglia was a batboy for a Brockton team that included Marciano. “Rocky had short legs,” recalled Charlie. “He wasn’t fast. But he could hit. He could hit the ball a country mile. Today, he might be a designated hitter.” Tartaglia remembered watching Marciano knock a ball out of the park, and hit a house across the street.
Tartaglia is proprietor of George’s Cafe, a Brockton fixture since 1937, a restaurant with walls lined with hundreds of photos of the city’s favorite son. He climbed into many rings himself over years as a Massachusetts boxing commissioner, and enjoys telling stories about the many fighters he’s known including Marciano, Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes and Brockton’s other world champion, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the middleweight champion of the 1980s.
Cubs historian Ed Hartig notes that Fayetteville was home to minor league clubs for 11 seasons. The Cubs started here with a D league team in 1946, which became a B league team in 1947, the year Marciano tried out. The 1946 team is notable for the presence of Ed Musial, brother of future Hall of Fame member, Stan. The 1947 team was notable for future major leaguer Smoky Burgess. It was managed by longtime minor leaguer Clyde McDowell, who would later coach at Texas Christian University.
Both teams had losing record and the club won the league in 1948.
According to Marciano biographer Everett Skehan and Cubs historian Hartig, Cubs scout Ralph Wheeler, also scholastic sports editor for the Boston Herald, invited a handful of Brockton ballplayers to try out for the Fayetteville farm team. Marciano and three friends, Vinnie Colombo, Eugene Sylvester and Red Gormley hopped into Colombo’s old gray two-door sedan for a two-day drive to North Carolina. Already late, they made an overnight stop in New Jersey, then drove straight through to the Tar Heel state.
Marciano had quit school after his sophomore year in high school to help support his family. He worked on a coal truck, for a candy factory and in a shoe shop, playing baseball at night. Drafted in 1943, he was stationed for a time in Wales and helped ferry supplies across the English Channel to Normandy. When he returned to the U.S, at Fort Lewis, Washington, he played baseball again and found that boxing helped get out of the worst duty.
Historian David T. Morgan is too young to have known Marciano in his Fayetteville youth. But he certainly knew baseball in Fayetteville. Morgan, now retired as a professor at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, was a ballboy and batboy for the Fayetteville Athletics, the team that followed the Cubs here
Morgan, who researched his home town for his book, Murder Along the Cape Fear, said that more than 3,000 fans showed up for Opening Day at Cumberland Memorial Stadium on Bragg Boulevard at Bonnie Doone. The Cubs lost, 6-2 to the Wilson Tobs.
Beyond his research, Morgan has personal memories. “I caught many fly balls on that field,” he recalled. He has fond memories as well of former major leaguer Elmer Burkhart, who was general manager of the Fayetteville Athletics. “He used to like to pitch to us,” Morgan remembered.
Ballplayers in Fayetteville didn’t make much money, Morgan said. They couldn’t afford to stay in hotels and the teams did not provide housing. “Most rented rooms in private homes.”
So it was with Marciano and his friends. Skehan said the young men from Brockton stayed in a boarding house, where he shared a room with Gormley and enjoyed family-style meals for fifty cents.
Marciano would later tell a Chicago reporter that his tryout lasted about three weeks and that he was paid $200, Hartig noted. In a 1952 article in “The Sporting News” Marciano recalled that there were 13 catchers at the tryout and that the Cubs had planned to keep four, either for Fayetteville or for another club in the system.
The competition was even tougher, since the Fayetteville Cubs top player was a catcher. Smoky Burgess led the "B" Tri-State League in 1947 hitting with a .387 batting average and led the Southern Association the next year, hitting .386. Burgess would go on to play in 18 major league seasons, was a nine-time All-Star, and was on the Pittsburgh Pirates World Series championship team in 1960. When Burgess retired in 1966, he was the all-time leader in pinch hits.
Babe Ruth launched his long ball-hitting career in Fayetteville. Rocky Marciano ended his. As his brother said, he would continue to love baseball all his life. But he needed another dream.
“When he came back from North Carolina he was very disappointed,” said Peter Marciano. “But he was ready to make a move. Rocky was going to try boxing.”
Marciano had already boxed in the Army and outside the service as an amateur with considerable success. He had even fought professionally under the name Rocky Mack on St. Patrick’s Day, 1947 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, for $35. He scored a third-round knockout.
Marciano biographer Russell T. Sullivan noted that using a false name had protected his amateur status. Marciano returned to amateur boxing after his tryout in Fayetteville. More serious than ever about boxing, he lost four amateur fights, the only fights he ever lost. But he won many, many more. scoring in Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournaments.
In 1948, he turned professional and won his first 16 bouts by knockout, mostly in the early rounds, handled by New York-based manager Al Weill and veteran trainer Charley Goldman.
Marciano took a big step toward fame and fortune in October, 1951, when he knocked the legendary but aging Joe Louis into retirement. A year later, he came back from a first-round knockout to win the heavyweight championship from Jersey Joe Walcott in Philadelphia.
Marciano defended the title six times, five by knockout and announced his retirement in 1956. The champion died in a small-plane crash while on his way to deliver a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1969, one day before his 46th birthday.
Family and those who have studied Marciano agree that, along with his obvious ability, what brought Marciano to boxing from baseball, to rise from a knockdown, to triumph over the pain and heavy bleeding brought by powerful men, was fear. It was, wrote Russell T. Sullivan, executive director of Boston’s Sports Museum and author of Rocky Marciano, The Rock of His Times, “a singular emotion, simple, yet powerful.” It was fear of a life digging ditches, or of the smell of shoe leather throughout the many factories of Brockton. It was fear of poverty and anonymity.
“Desire sustained Marciano and nourished the abused flesh” wrote famed sports writer Jimmy Cannon, on the champion’s death. “The prize for Marciano was identification, and he would bleed without protest and ache without complaint if he could be called a champion. Obscurity was all he was afraid of.”