1969 was the Year of Rico—on the baseball diamond, on the silver screen, on the radio, and even on Capitol Hill.
During this swan song to the Sixties, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal statute that eventually helped gut organized crime, was introduced as Senate Bill 30 by John L. McClellan (D-AR)—it eventually passed both houses and was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970.
In March, José Feliciano, who had performed the “Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, became the first native of Puerto Rico awarded a Grammy, receiving honors both for his suave, soulful interpretation of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” as well as for “Best New Artist.”
And in Fenway Park, Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli enjoyed his finest season, establishing career bests in hits, home runs, runs scored, doubles, total bases, on-base percentage, and OPS. Erupting for 40 round-trippers, Rico not only tied Carl Yastrzemski for the team lead despite playing 8 fewer games, but bested Vern Stephens’ American League mark for long balls by a shortstop, set in 1949. Rico’s mark would stand until 1998.
Sabermetrically, Petrocelli’s value to Boston is reflected in his stratospheric 10.0 WAR—the highest mark in the American League and second in the majors only to St. Louis’s Bob Gibson.
Rico also should have won a Gold Glove for his deft defensive play. Baltimore’s Mark Belanger took home his first of 8 Gold Gloves, yet Rico outdid him in putouts, assists, double plays, total zone runs, range factors, and fielding percentage (an AL-best .981 to Belanger’s .968), while committing 9 fewer errors.
Rico further set a career mark with 98 walks—befitting for a year that saw the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy, released on May 25, commencing what Joe Buck—that’s Jon Voight’s Joe Buck, not sports announcer Joe Buck—could have called the “Summer of Rico…Rico, Rico, Rico.”
“Rico,” of course, was Enrico Rizzo, the archetypal New York street hustler unflatteringly referred to as “Ratso” but who insisted upon being called “Rico” in his own Lower East Side home—a condemned tenement building in which he was squatting.
In walking more than he’d ever walked before (or since), Rico Petrocelli provided real-life counterpoint to Rico Rizzo’s timeless flip-off to a New York cabbie: “I’m walkin’ here!”
A native New Yorker like his on-screen namesake, Petrocelli had 67 opportunities after the film’s debut to use that soon-to-be-iconic line, though it’s not known if he ever yelled it at an opponent while tossing his bat aside and proceeding to first base.
Perhaps if the opposing team’s bullpen cart had crossed the base path right in front of him…
Given Petrocelli’s Brooklyn accent, it would be a genuine shame if he never seized the opportunity.
Oddly, Rico’s 1975 Topps card mentions that he walked 48 times in 1974—an extremely unnoteworthy achievement that would have better served as a Midnight Cowboy-esque cartoon on the reverse of his 1970 card, when the previous season’s walk total had constituted something other than ordinary…