The All-Star Game is tonight. Instead of watching the game I am busy reading up on long-gone ballplayers. One such player who never set foot in an All-Star Game is Cincinnati Reds’ backstop Joe Rossi. His entire MLB career took place inside a few dozen games in the 1952 season. He logged a single homerun, a solitary stolen base, and even numbers of strikeouts and walks. Based on this limited production I can see why this was his only time in the big leagues.
What’s amazing is that he put together a very impressive minor league record that is very much at odds with what he showed as a 32 year-old rookie in 1952. In more than a decade of professional experience leading up to that moment he amassed a lifetime batting average of .322, becoming one of the limited number of minor leaguers with more than 1,000 career hits to his credit.
With only 55 games to his credit inside MLB ballparks, there’s not a lot extraneous information to pass along. There is, however, one story that gets repeated often. While playing in the Pacific Coast League Rossi had served as the catcher for a team managed by Rogers Hornsby. Hornsby was a legend, posting a batting average of more than .400 for the 1921-1925 seasons and garnering the nickname “The Rajah.” Hornsby told Rossi straight away that he would never become a major leaguer.
A couple years later Hornsby and Rossi’s paths crossed again. Hornsby was one the guests of honor at a Hall of Fame night held at the Reds’ Crossley Field. Rossi, who was warming up along the foul lines for catching duty, caught sight of his former manager and used the opportunity to point out he had indeed made it as a major leaguer after all.
Irony apparently got the best of Rossi after this remark. Within weeks Cincinnati replaced manager Luke Sewall with nonother than Hornsby. Rossi was gone by mid-September.
Topps Believed in Joe
Although he never returned to the majors after the 1952 season, Rossi had at least had a one last shot with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team asked for the part-time catcher as a component of a multiplayer trade after the season ended. Topps commissioned artwork of Rossi in a Pittsburgh uniform and included him in the first series of the gum company’s 1953 baseball cards.
Knocking Out Another High Number for the ’52 Set
Rossi made it into the 1952 checklist, appearing among the metric ton of rookies that comprised the bulk of the high numbered series. These did not sell well, setting off a series of events culminating with the destruction of a good portion of the print run and making cards like that of Joe Rossi tough to track down. I found my heavily creased example on eBay and was ecstatic to find it fit my goal of acquiring high numbers for less than the cost of a restaurant pizza.
The condition of the card likely scared off other collectors who looked at Rossi’s cardboard image and said, “with all those creases you’ll never make it into my collection.” The years of wear and tear on this card is exactly what made it possible for this card to become part of my set build. If I end up with a Rogers Hornsby card in the future, I can imagine cardboard Joe looking at it and shouting, “Hey Rajah. Look who made it after all!”