Saturday, April 2, 2011

Grasso was P.O.W. baseball star

Uncommon commons. Based on contemporary accounts from The Sporting News; tidbits that as a collector of baseball and football cards I found interesting because they help bring to life the faces on the cards I collected. I figure that if I found these items of interest, so would other vintage card collectors.

Mickey Grasso's is a familiar face to collectors of 1950s baseball cards, but as a backup backstop for most of his major league days, most of us don't know much about him.

That's why I was surprised to learn that Grasso had an interesting story relating to his World War II experiences . . . as do most of those veterans if you take the time and make the effort to draw them out.

Grasso had had only one year's experience in professional baseball, with the Class B Trenton Senators of the Interstate League, before he enlisted in the army in January, 1942.

T/Sgt. Grasso was serving with the 34th Infantry in Tunisia in early 1943 when his unit found itself surrounded by a dozen of Gen. Rommel's Afrika Korps panzers, on the run from the British in North Africa.

After a three-day march to an airport, Grasso's unit was flown to Italy, then spent five days and nights packed 200 to a boxcar on a rail journey to Stalag III-B near Furstenberg, Germany. In nearly two years in the P.O.W. camp, Grasso's weight dropped from 202 to 145 lbs.

In the summer of 1943, a large shipment from the Red Cross arrived in the camp. Rather than being much-anticipated food rations, however, the boxes contained baseball equipment. The 6,000 men in the camp organized fast-pitch softball teams and began "league" play.

In the summer of 1944, the men of the camp's 16 barracks organized a major league analogy and began a full season, complete with an all-star game on July 4th and a World Series. Grasso reported that he had the game-winning double for his "Pirates" squad in the World Series.

In the spring of 1945, as the Russians advanced on Furstenberg, the P.O.W.s were marched towards Denmark. Guarded only by what he described as 65- 70-year old rear echelon troops, Grasso and nine others slipped away during a rest break, eventually making their way to the American lines and home.

Grasso spent the 1946-49 seasons in the minors with Jersey City and Seattle before being called up by the Giants for a week in mid-September, 1946. He got his first real experience in the big leagues at age 30 in 1950 with the Washington Senators, who had taken him in the Rule 5 draft.

In four years with the Senators, Grasso was the first-string catcher only in 1952. He hit .228 with Washington, and averaged just one home run per season. Grasso got a "bonus" from Uncle Sam in 1952. That year Congress voted to award World War II prisoners of war $1.50 for every day of captivity.

In 1954 he was traded to the Indians, playing just four games with Cleveland. His last major league season was eight games in 1955, back with the Giants, who had drafted him from Indianapolis.

After sitting out the 1956 season, Grasso played a few more games in the minors in 1957-58 with Chattanooga and Miami, before retiring. He lived in Miami until his death in 1975, only 55 years of age.

After his death, a 150-page journal of his days as a P.O.W., including photos of camp baseball, was discovered among the effects of a friend.

While he appears in the very rare 1953-54 Briggs hot dogs card set -- and is short-printed at that -- and in the scarce 1949 Bowman Pacific Coast League set, Grasso's cards can be readily found in 1951-54 Bowman and 1952-53 Topps.

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