For the love of the game

Written by ryan. Posted in Uncategorized


Published on March 01, 2011 with No Comments

by Samantha Rader

It was a humid summer evening. Nick Strincevich stood on the pitcher’s mound with sweat glistening on his upper brow. He lifted his cap to wipe the sweat from his forehead as the next batter stepped up to the plate. The catcher made a few signals, and the first pitch was thrown.


Two more balls were thrown – both were strikes. The smacking noise of the baseball hitting the leather-skinned mitt became a familiar sound as the 19-year-old struck out 18 batters – and this was only the beginning of his baseball career.

Strincevich was born on March 1, 1915 in Gary, where he lived his entire life until he retired and moved to Portage. He was in high school during the Great Depression. He dropped out of school in 10th grade to work at a steel mill to financially help his family.

While working in the mill, Strincevich acquired a nickname that lasted throughout his career – Jumbo. His dad was 6 feet 5 inches tall, and everyone at the mill called him “Jumbo.” Accordingly, 6-foot-1- inch Strincevich was referred to as “Little Jumbo,” but eventually, the “little” part of the name was dropped and he has been known as Jumbo ever since.

A few years after dropping out of school, an exciting opportunity came Strincevich’s way. He was the star pitcher for the Barnes Ice, a baseball team in a semi-pro league that was unofficially called the “twilight league.” At the game where Strincevich struck out 18 batters, the umpire behind the plate happened to be a scout for the New York Yankees. He was so impressed with Strincevich that he made arrangements for him to pitch batting practice to the Yankees.

Before Strincevich knew it, he was in a car with the umpire and on his way to Chicago to pitch batting practice for the Yankees. When Strincevich arrived at the stadium, he got to change with the team in the locker room, put on a jersey and warm up the batters. Although Babe Ruth had already retired, Strincevich had the opportunity to pitch to other well-known baseball players such as Lou Gehrig. Strincevich did so well pitching at batting practice that by the time he returned home, his dad had already received a telegram that said Strincevich had been officially claimed by the New York Yankees.

In 1936, shortly after the start of his baseball career, Strincevich married the love of his life, Mary. The couple was happily married for nearly 63 years and had two children – a son, Nick Jr., and a daughter, Carol.

From there, Strincevich became a part of the Yankees’ farm system and was called up to the National League to play for the Boston Bees, which were under the management of Casey Stengel.

Out of Strincevich’s time with the Bees comes a classic story that exemplifies the upbeat, lighthearted sense of humor he displayed during his career – humor he still has today. Strincevich told his family that when he was pitching a good game, he would sit next to the manager between innings in the dugout. During the bad games, however, he would sit as far away from the manager as possible.

Strincevich had been pitching in a game and was about to face one of the best batters in the league, Johnny Mize. When Mize came to the plate, Stengel walked out to the pitcher’s mound to advise Strincevich what kind of ball to pitch to Mize. Strincevich stood on the pitcher’s mound, his heart racing as he anxiously and repeatedly threw the baseball into his mitt. Mize took a few warm-up swings, and, finally, the time had come. Strincevich wound up, threw the first pitch, and Mize hit the ball out of the park.

When the inning was over, Strincevich returned to the dugout and sat on the opposite end of the bench, as far from Stengel as possible. Stengel, with his raspy voice, yelled out to Strincevich, “Jumbo! What kind of ball did you throw to Mize?”

Strincevich looked at him and replied, “I think it was a Spalding.” Stengel was so furious he jumped up off the bench and hit his head on the low ceiling in the dugout.

Strincevich played with the Bees for a short time before he was traded in 1941 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he played the majority of his career.

During the 1944 and 1945 seasons, Strincevich’s career was booming. In 1944, he had a record of 17-7 with an earned run average of 3.08, and in 1945, he went 16-10 with an ERA of 3.31.

“Nick was a natural athlete who enjoyed baseball,” Strincevich’s son-in-law, Les Perino, said. “He used his gift to play the game.”

And it showed.

Strincevich was recognized for his dominant seasons by being selected to play in the 1945 All-Star Game. However, because of wartime travel restrictions, the game was never played.

After four years of playing for the Pirates, Strincevich was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. His time with the Phillies did not last long because he was sent back to the minor league to be replaced by an up-and-coming pitcher, Robin Roberts (who went on to become a Hall-of-Fame pitcher).

In the mid-1940s, baseball players were not paid a significant amount of money, so during the off-season, Strincevich would go back to Gary to work at the steel mill. In 1947, he was the only major league baseball player originally from Gary, and to honor him, the community established a fund to buy a car for Strincevich and a sewing machine for his wife. The mayor of Gary presented the gifts to Strincevich and his wife at a game when the Pirates played at Wrigley Field on what the mayor named “Nick Strincevich Day.”

Strincevich pitched that day, but, unfortunately the Pirates lost to the hometown Chicago Cubs.

When Strincevich went back to the minor league, he was in his mid-30s and played for the Toronto Maple Leafs for one summer. He felt it was time to retire from playing ball and head back to Gary to be with his family.

“Nick represented that old-time baseball player who played for the love of the game,” Perino said. “I think that is the most impressive and enjoyable trait about his career. He just enjoyed the game.”

By the end of his eight-year baseball career, he had played with some of baseball’s most outstanding players, including Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams (who Strincevich struck out), Al Lopez and Harry Danning.

Once Strincevich was back in Gary, he was able to focus on his family while working at the Budd Company plant as an auto stamping press operator. He retired from the plant in 1980 as a safety supervisor.

As a father, Strincevich was always there for his two children and was always having fun. Being of Serbian descent, it was a holiday tradition to cook either a lamb or a pig in a spit and invite family and friends over to the house. The meat would cook for nearly seven hours out in the yard, and the men, who all happened to have nicknames, would sit outside by the spit, telling stories and jokes. The women would sit inside talking about how they made the side dishes and desserts they brought while the children ran all over the place.

“My boy cousins always loved to hang out with my dad,” Carol Perino, Strincevich’s daughter, said. “When they would come over, they would always want him to show them how to pitch and throw a baseball.”

As a retired Major League Baseball player, Strincevich has been honored both locally and nationally. On a local level, the RailCats, a minor league baseball team in Gary, invited Strincevich to throw the first pitch at one of their games and sign autographs.

“All of the players greeted and respected Nick,” Les Perino said. “Some players even asked for autographs. It was very heartening to see these younger athletes treat him with such high respect.”

“The Phillies have been really good to my dad,” Carol Perino said. For Strincevich’s 95th birthday, the Phillies sent him an authentic jersey with his name and number.

Currently, Strincevich is the eighth-oldest former major league baseball player still living – and he still receives fan mail and requests for autographs on a regular basis at his new home, Life Care Center of Valparaiso. Since living there, he has found a new pastime that does not require a baseball or a glove, but rather a bowl and a spoon – ice cream socials.

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