Fenway at 100: Park holds special memories for oldest living former Red Sox employee Al Rocci
|04.17.12 at 9:34 am ET|
Throughout his life, no matter how poorly things went, Al Rocci knew he could never complain. Regardless of what direction his life was headed, he always knew that his retreat from everyday realities and struggles, Fenway Park, was never far away.
His official job title at the ballpark was usher, but after manning the gates, aisles and concourses of Fenway for 39 years, from 1936 until 1975, a more fitting title would be historian. It was where he watched Ted Williams step up to the plate and Johnny Pesky take the infield, where he watched the Red Sox make pennant runs, only to inevitably break the Fenway faithful’s collective heart.
What was once a chance to make some extra money in 1936 became a powerful presence in his life, one that left an indelible impact on the man that he is today.
With Fenway set to celebrate its 100th anniversary Friday, the 95-year-old Rocci stands as a remarkable and important relic of the ballpark’s storied history, as the Medford resident has the unique designation as the oldest known living Red Sox employee.
Rocci’s time and connection with the Red Sox is one that has spanned decades and one that has seen the drastic changes with both Fenway and the Red Sox organization itself. But Rocci’s long and well-defined connection with the Red Sox began in humble enough circumstances.
Growing up in the perpetual economic struggle and turbulence of the Great Depression, a time in which Rocci said that his family had to “scrimp and scrape” to get by, Rocci was forced to go to work before and after school in order to make money for his family. Matters were complicated by the fact that Rocci’s father passed away when he was just 3 years old, something he described as “one of my worst setbacks” in his life.
Though a part of Rocci’s early life was characterized by a series of setbacks, things quickly started to change as he was unknowingly about to begin a 76-year relationship with the team he grew up idolizing.
While working as an usher at an area theater, Rocci developed a friendship with the theater’s chief usher, who happened to also work at Fenway. Rocci’s coworker took him to the park one day and by the time he left, he was a newly minted ballpark employee.
“I was a huge baseball fan, so that was part of the excitement for me,” Rocci said. “I had so many good years there and I enjoyed every good bit of it.”
For all of the allure that came with working at the home of the city’s most cherished team, there wasn’t much compensation that came with the job, at least in the early goings. When Rocci began working in 1936, ushers were paid $2 per game and $3 for a doubleheader, all without a union or any form of pension.
In addition to his duties at Fenway, Rocci also worked as an usher for the Boston Braves and later for the Boston Patriots. When one of the baseball teams would be on the road, another would be at home and Rocci would be at the park working.
Understandably, things were often busy for Rocci, especially since he pulled down graveyard shifts at General Electric, working from 11 at night until 7 in the morning. Despite the daily grind he continually faced, Rocci maintained a similar attitude — he couldn’t complain because he got to spend so much time around the game he loved.
“I don’t have anything to show for it, you know, money-wise, but I got along,” Rocci said.
But what Rocci lacked in significant financial compensation, he more than made up for in long-held and cherished memories.
Of course, for Rocci, what took place on the field holds a special place in his heart. He fondly recalls the talented players and Red Sox teams he was able to watch from the Fenway boxes. There were also the pennant races and the World Series appearances, three of which took place in the time Rocci worked at the park. In fact, the last games that Rocci worked at Fenway were the final two games of the 1975 World Series, a series that included Carlton Fisk’s iconic home run off the left field foul pole to win Game 6 in extra innings.
But even more important to Rocci than the moments he witnessed at the ballpark were the relationships he established in his time there, particularly with Red Sox players. In recalling some of his favorite players and closest friends, Rocci spoke of a group of Red Sox players as if he were reading off a Rolodex, one jam-packed with some of the most celebrated and iconic players in franchise history.
There was Ted Lepcio, who manned various positions in the Red Sox infield from 1952-59; Mel Parnell, the lefty pitcher from New Orleans who spent the entirety of his 10-year career in Boston; and infielder Eddie Pellagrini, who played just two seasons in Boston but still stands out to Rocci.
Additionally, there was no less a Red Sox icon than Johnny Pesky who Rocci considered a close personal friend “from way back.” It was a relationship that extended far beyond the confines of Yawkey Way and Lansdowne Street, as Rocci fondly recalled Pesky visiting his house for anniversaries and birthdays. Pesky even attended Rocci’s daughter’s wedding, despite it coinciding with the World Series in 1975.
For Rocci, the relationships with the players transcended their professions and standing in society. Though he roamed the park’s concourses rather than the field, Rocci always knew he had a special bond with the players.
“I’m just an usher,” Rocci said. “To be with these guys, it was quite a thing, which I’ll never, never forget. I’ve been so grateful for it all. They treated me very well.”
Rocci always wrote to and kept in touch with many players, even long after their respective careers were over. But no Red Sox player held a more cherished spot in Rocci’s memory than Ted Williams.
Williams is legendary in Boston and in the annals of baseball for many things, most notably his two American League MVP awards and .344 career batting average, but he is also well-known for his surly and contentious relationship with the media and the fans. However, the cold, callous image of Williams is not one that Rocci knew; rather, he remembers a man who handled his business on the field and was cordial and caring off of it.
The careers of Rocci and Williams overlapped considerably, and Rocci described Williams as “one of my closest friends,” having known him from the time he came up with the Red Sox in 1939 to the day he retired in 1960.
“A lot of people don’t know what he does off the field, he does a lot for charity and he doesn’t want to be recognized,” Rocci said. “That’s Ted — he was real class.”
When it comes to the topic of Williams, it’s the individual anecdotes and moments that stand out to Rocci after all of these years.
For certain games, Rocci would travel with the team, and once when he was sitting on the plane with a friend, Williams walked on board, spotted Rocci from a distance and sat next to him on the flight. Upon reaching their destination — Rocci thinks it was Baltimore — he walked with Williams, who had a limousine waiting for him outside of the airport. Williams proceeded to have his limo take Rocci and his friend to their hotel, and they met up with Williams later in the night for dinner.
Some of their exchanges were even more lighthearted and playful. According to Rocci, if Williams would see an attractive female fan in the stands, he would motion Rocci down to deliver a note to her and bring him back the response.
“He always did that,” Rocci said. “He loved the ladies.”
Rocci retired from his job at Fenway at the conclusion of the 1975 season, and though he still keeps in close contact with several former players and ballpark employees, he seldom returns to the place that was once such a large and integral part of his life.
He said that getting to the ballpark from his home in Medford is “too much of a hassle.” A series of health problems, including dizzy spells and a bad back, have also limited his ability to easily get around.
“I’m lucky to be around,” Rocci said. “I like to say I’m living overtime as it is.”
As the last living member of his family of 13, Rocci lives in Medford with his daughter, Carol, who he said “keeps me going.” Although he said he has no use for entertainment and rarely goes out, Rocci still finds ways to stay busy, several miles removed from Fenway. He said that he consistently writes letters to politicians and even U.S. presidents, past and present, not about sports, but regarding issues like the economy and Social Security. In response, he receives autographed pictures and has one from every president, beginning with John F. Kennedy all the way to Barack Obama.
Still, baseball remains in a place very close to Rocci’s heart. MLB commissioner Bud Selig is among the high-profile figures to whom Rocci writes letters. He still keeps a room full of Red Sox mementos and memorabilia from the time that he worked at Fenway and, until his wife of 66 years passed away two years ago, Rocci would regularly go to spring training with her.
He remains perplexed and disheartened by the state of professional baseball today. It’s a game that’s undoubtedly deviated significantly from the type of baseball Rocci saw day after day for almost 40 years, and he is flummoxed by the importance of agents in the modern game. After all, as Rocci sees it, Williams never had an agent nor did he sign a contract — “all he did was shake hands and that’s it,” as Rocci said.
Even though the visits are sparse, Fenway still remains a part of Rocci’s life. He went back recently to attend a game and a special ceremony for friend and former Red Sox pitcher Bill Monbouquette, who picked him up from his house and drove him to the game.
Under the ownership of John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, Fenway has undergone a massive overhaul to the point where it hardly resembles what it looked like even a decade ago, let alone from when Rocci last worked as an usher there. Rocci said that he was amazed by the changes that have been made to the ballpark and that he has had a great time with every visit he’s made back.
But while Fenway may have transformed drastically from what it was during Rocci’s era, the meaning of it as never changed. For Rocci, it is still the same place where he was able to work as Williams’ wingman, the same place where he saw some of the game’s great all-time players, the same place where he was able to take in baseball history on a daily basis.
For the oldest living Red Sox employee, the ballpark and the organization have been a profound and positive presence in his life for all of these years. And with the ballpark ready to celebrate its centennial, it’s an experience he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“That’s my life, I enjoyed it,” Rocci said. “It’s a wonderful life.”
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