Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


Mickey Grasso


Date and Place of Birth: May 10, 1919 Newark, New Jersey

Died: October 15, 1975 Miami, Florida

Baseball Experience: Major League
Position: Catcher
Rank: Technical Sergeant
Military Unit: 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division US Army

Area Served: Mediterranean Theater of Operations

Major League Stats: Mickey Grasso on Baseball-Almanac


Mickey Grasso was a fiery-tempered catcher who spent nearly two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp after being captured in North Africa.


Newton M “Mickey” Grasso was born on May 10, 1920 in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up playing baseball on the sandlots of Newark with such teams as the Dukes and Temox, getting his chance in professional baseball when an uncle, Bob Ciascoa, a pharmacist in Trenton, got him a trial with the Trenton team of the Interstate League in 1941.


Former outfielder Goose Goslin, signed Grasso as a second baseman but converted him to a catcher during his rookie year. It was to be the only season for the youngster before he entered military service with the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey on January 20, 1942.


Grasso served with the 34th Infantry Division as a technical sergeant and was in North Africa in early 1943, where he was taken prisoner by German forces on February 17. Surrounded by Rommel’s Afrika Korps troops at a location known only as Hill 609 in Tunisia, Grasso was among 6,000 Allied prisoners taken by the retreating Germans who were being pursued by Britain’s General Montgomery.


“A young lieutenant,” The Sporting News reported on March 11, 1953, “turned to Sergeant Grasso and asked, ‘Mickey, shall we fight?’


“Mickey glanced apprehensively at the guns ready to blast the squad out of existence, estimated the overwhelming odds, swallowed and replied, Man, don’t be crazy.”


A three-day hike followed to an airfield where the prisoners were flown to Italy. They were then loaded into box cars for a five-day rail journey to their home for the next two years – prisoner-of-war camp Stalag IIIB in Furstenberg, 60 miles southeast of Berlin, Germany.


On a daily ration of thin soup and a slice of bread, Grasso dropped from 205 pounds to 145. But baseball was never far from his mind. Also in the camp was former Appalachian League outfielder, Harold Martin, who had been serving with a tank division when captured four days after Grasso.


Grasso, Martin and another prisoner, Keith Thomas, devised a baseball game using playing cards which kept them entertained during the long periods of boredom during the winter months of 1943-1944. They were so enthralled with the game that Martin wrote The Sporting News from the prison camp in December 1943, asking if anything similar existed.


But it was not just card games of baseball that Grasso played. During the summer of 1943, competitive fast-pitch softball leagues were formed and Grasso was a star player with the Zoot Suiters. In the summer of 1944, there were major and minor leagues, with the majors divided into National and American divisions. Games were well attended, the level of play was high and culminated in a World Series in August.


In the final days of the war against Germany, Grasso devised an escape with nine other prisoners. “They were marching us to Denmark after the Russians broke through,” he explained, “and the guards they put on us were all 65 or 70 years old. Ten of us slipped away into a field when we stopped for a rest.


“We had a French fellow in the group and a Jewish boy who spoke German. We marched through about ten villages in columns of twos. We were stopped a couple of times by German officers, but the Jewish boy saluted smartly, explained we were a working detail, headed down the road and we got away with it. We marched from the Oder to the Elbe, discovered a rowboat with one oar by a home on the edge of the river, found a sheet and painted a big black cross on it.


“The Russians and Germans were firing at each other a few hundred yards down the river, but we piled into the boat anyway and took off for the other side.


“We drifted downstream toward the fighting, but finally made it to the other side.”


“It seemed like about nine million GIs came out of the bushes to meet us. We were looking down the barrels of a lot of 35th Infantry Division rifles, but we told ‘em who we were and, thank God, they believed us. Then they told us we were crazy to escape – that the war was all but over.


“Anyway, they got us back to some chow. They shoved a ton of good food at us, but about all we could do was nibble on a chicken leg. Our stomachs had shrunk so much we couldn’t handle any more than that.”


The former prisoners were then flown to Le Havre in France and returned to the United States on the Queen Elizabeth.


Grasso remained in the Army for a further five months and returned to the Giants’ organization in 1946. After being away from the professional game for four years, Grasso played with the Jersey City Giants in the International League in 1946. Despite being sidelined some of the time with a strep throat, he had a good season and made his major league debut with the New York Giants on September 18. Grasso appeared in seven games before the season ended, collecting three hits in 22 at-bats.


He was back with Jersey City in 1947 and was purchased by the Detroit Tigers in April 1948. The Tigers assigned Grasso to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League where he continued to play through 1949. In November 1949, he was drafted by the Washington Senators and returned to the major leagues in 1950, playing 75 games and hitting .287.


Grasso hit .206 in 52 games with Washington in 1951 and played a career-high 115 games in 1952, batting .216. In 1953 he played a further 61 games and was traded to the Cleveland Indians in January 1954. Two months later, the 33-year-old catcher broke his ankle sliding into second during an exhibition game. The injury sidelined him for most of the season but he did make four regular-season appearances for the Indians and his only World Series appearance came in Game One against the Giants as a late-inning defensive replacement for Jim Hegan.


In November 1954, Grasso was drafted by the Giants – the team he had began his professional career with 13 years earlier. He played eight games with the Giants before being released in May and was signed as a free agent by the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association. Grasso later played for Miami in the International League and ended his career with that team in 1958.


Grasso remained involved in baseball in some capacity for the rest of his life. In June 1975, he operated a summer camp offering a unique combination of activities and events for both handicapped and non-handicapped children. “Challenging, frustrating and rewarding,” was the way Grasso described the camp to the Troy Times Record on June 21, 1975.


“In our integrated setting, handicapped children are able to witness and observe activities of non-handicapped children. Thus, a child has someone to model after,” explained Grasso. “Our camp also allows non-handicapped children to be exposed to children less fortunate than themselves. This potentially increases children’s awareness that while some people are different, they need not shy away from them.”


Four months later, on October 15, 1975, Mickey Grasso passed away in Miami, Florida. He was just 55 years old.


Some of the above information was obtained from Tim Wolter's book "POW Baseball in World War II."


Created August 28, 2007. Updated September 21, 2007.


Copyright © 2015 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.