After a failed tryout with a Cubs minor league team, Rocky Marciano turned his attention to boxing and rose to the top of the heavyweight division. Marciano, who was born 86 years ago on Sept. 1, 1923, died 40 years ago in a plane crash.
Editor's note: This is the third part in a seven-part series.
The dream of becoming a professional baseball player took him to North Carolina in 1947.
Rocky Marciano and three friends from Brockton went to Fayetteville for a tryout with a Chicago Cubs minor league team.
Discharged from the Army a few months earlier, Marciano decided to give baseball a try after having success as a semi-pro catcher in the Brockton area.
The dream failed to become reality, however, and Marciano’s stay with the Cubs’ team lasted about a month.
“He was always a long-ball hitter with a very weak arm,’’ recalled his younger brother, Peter Marciano. “He had good mechanics, but he couldn’t throw at all.
“How ironic: The same right arm that was so powerful for him to knock out all those fighters was too weak for baseball.’’
Said Marciano’s brother-in-law, Armond Colombo: “He didn’t have a great arm, but he could hit the ball a mile. He was very slow of speed and that held him back. He was a better-than-average baseball player, though.’’
The door to baseball was closed, but it wasn’t long before another door opened, leading Marciano to fame as a legendary champion.
With baseball out of the picture, Marciano decided to become a fighter, something he had dabbled in while serving in the Army.
Marciano, who died in a plane crash 40 years ago Monday, showed promise as an amateur, then began fighting regularly as a professional in the summer of 1948 at the age of 24.
A little more than four years later, Marciano won the world heavyweight championship from Jersey Joe Walcott, a memorable occurrence in a 49-0 career that ended with a Sept. 21, 1955 win over Archie Moore.
“He never thought of becoming a fighter, never talked about it,’’ said Brockton resident Nick Sylvester, a close friend who grew up in the same neighborhood as Marciano. “He never gave any indication about it.’’
Said Colombo: “We all lived in Ward 2 near Edgar’s (Playground), and none of us boxed. We were either football or baseball players. We weren’t tall enough for basketball. The fact that he did pick up boxing was unusual for the guys in those days, very much so.’’
The introduction to boxing in the Army gave Marciano another athletic option as he had success fighting fellow servicemen.
“He made the statement one day that if you win a fight, you got a weekend pass,’’ said Peter Marciano. “He wins by knockout in the first round, and every week, he got a pass and he kept winning to get passes. That was his motivation.’’
Sylvester said it was Allie Colombo, one of Marciano’s cornermen, who got him interested in the fight game and took him to New York and introduced him to manager Al Weill.
Marciano, who played one year of football at Brockton High before quitting school to help support the family, began his pro career fighting mainly in Providence, where 27 of his 49 pro bouts were held. The paydays for the early fights would be less than $100.
“It would be Monday nights in Providence at the old Rhode Island Auditorium,’’ said Sylvester. “They loved him in Providence.’’
The Italians from the Federal Hill section of the city and the Brockton residents who made the trip to Rhode Island gave Marciano strong backing every time he fought in Providence.
“It was an easy ride to the old Rhode Island Auditorium, and he used to fill that place up,’’ said Peter Marciano. “There were a lot of Italians in Rhode Island, and they adopted him like a son.
“I was 9, 10, 11 years old and I went to a few of the fights there. The shops would close up early in Brockton. It was like a caravan of cars going to the arena. It was a happy and upbeat time.
“You’d talk to the people of Rhode Island and they said they knew he was going to be something special. He was so humble and blue collar that you couldn’t help but love him, and they did. The only beef the people had with him was the fights usually ended in the first or second round and it was too quick. But he was down there fighting once every six weeks.’’
Hank Tartaglia, a close friend of Peter Marciano, said he remembers the sound of honking horns from cars returning to Brockton from Providence, delivering the message that Rocky Marciano had won another fight.
Betty Colombo, Marciano’s sister, recalls what it was like when the victorious boxer and his friends would get back to the city.
“It started becoming a little party,’’ she said. “After every fight over in Providence, they’d all meet at our house. It was like, ‘(Oh, well), another win.’ They expected it because he did it so easily. It was an exciting time. I know my mother (who was against the boxing career) went through a lot. My dad loved every minute of it.’’
Marciano, who was born 86 years ago today, had 11 fights in 1948, 13 the next year, and the victories kept piling up. He stopped an aging Joe Louis in 1951, and was on a path that would lead to the heavyweight championship.
After going 42-0, Marciano got the chance to win the title in ’52 against Walcott, and he took full advantage.
The former baseball catcher became a powerful hitter in the ring, and it was obvious he was destined for greatness.
“Maybe he didn’t have all the natural ability of others, but he compensated with a tremendous determination,’’ said Peter Marciano. “That was the way he would approach a fight.
“He had the hockey mentality. In hockey, the more you shoot at the net, the better chance you have of scoring. Rocky felt the more punches you were throwing, the better chance you had at connecting.’’
Knockouts became Marciano’s trademark, and his style of fighting became a fan favorite.
“When Rocky went into the ring, you were going to get a good show,’’ said former Enterprise cartoonist Eddie Germano, who did an award-winning series with Marciano. “Rocky didn’t go in there to fancy dance. He went in there to knock somebody out and he took a lot of punishment.’’
Next: The championship fights.