A ‘Royal’ Assist
I was just a kid when Jackie Robinson broke organized baseball’s color line. It was the spring of 1946 and he began with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top farm club. I can’t say it seems like yesterday but it certainly doesn’t feel like 68 years ago. In spite of the antagonism and the animosity directed at him, there were many who gave their support and aided Jackie in his struggle. Dodger teammates like Pee Wee Reese, Ralph Branca, Gil Hodges, and Gene Hermanski were there for him. At Montreal Al Campanis, George Shuba, and John “Spider” Jorgensen were among those whose help he appreciated.
There are always champions in major historical events who lie below the horizon, whose names are not commonly heard, quiet heroes whose contributions are major nonetheless. In the Jackie Robinson saga there is a name, an Italian name, who stood tall as a human being in an important time.
This is one of those stories behind the story. In 1946 Lou Rochelli was a second baseman with the Montreal Royals, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the International League. Rochelli was one of the many players who made brief appearances in the major leagues during the manpower drought in World War II. Lou’s place in the sun came in five consecutive games from August 25-29, 1944 when he played four games against the Giants at the Polo Grounds and one against Philadelphia at Ebbets Field. He got three hits in seventeen at-bats that included a triple, he also walked twice and drove in two runs. On defense he handled 27 of 28 chances successfully.
The reason Lou’s story became a story happened in the spring of 1946 when Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals. Engaged in the arduous task of breaking baseball’s color line, Jackie needed all the support he could muster. Of course Branch Rickey took the initiative in signing the Negro star and Pee Wee Reese publicly befriended him. To the list of names of Lou Rochelli should be added.
Robinson came to the Dodgers’ organization as a shortstop, but it was immediately apparent that he did not possess a strong enough arm to play that position and the Dodgers had Pee Wee Reese entrenched there as well, so the decision was made to shift the talented Negro pioneer to second base. In that spring the twenty-seven year old Rochelli was the leading candidate for the second base job and as Robinson himself pointed out, once he came upon the scene it would have been only human for the Italian American from Staunton, Illinois to have resented him. But Rochelli’s attitude was the antithesis of what might have seemed the norm under the circumstances.
Arguably the most difficult maneuver on the diamond is the double play pivot made by the second baseman. His failure to execute would reduce his value to his ballclub considerably. With generosity, friendliness and total selflessness, Lou tutored the new man in the art of making the pivot. “Lou was intelligent and he was a thoroughbred,” Robinson recalled in his autobiography. “He spent considerable time helping me, giving me tips on technique. He taught me all the tricks.” Robinson was a great athlete and a quick learner and he soon had mastered the position, but not without the efforts of Rochelli, a kindness Robinson never for forget.
Rochelli’s playing career ended that season but he went on to manage in the Dodgers system from 1947 to ‘58 , spending most of that time with the Great Falls Electrics in the Pioneer League. Lou passed away on October 23, 1992 in Victoria, Texas. He was 73 years old.
Lou Rochelli should be remembered for his willingness to help another human being in a difficult time. Jackie Robinson certainly did. He was to explain in later years of Rochelli, “When I got the assignment, it would have been only human for him to resent it, and he had a right to assume that perhaps I had been assigned to second base instead of him because I was black and Mr. Rickey had staked so much on my success.” But such thoughts never deterred Rochelli from helping Robinson at the risk of his own future. Gloria to a great human being; unsung but not forgotten to those that mattered; Lou Rochelli, American … Italian American!