To fans old enough to remember the Indians playing at Municipal Stadium, Rocco Scotti was as much a part of the experience as John Adams’ drum, the statue of Chief Wahoo stepping into a pitch and sitting behind a pole.
“My audience was mainly ushers and peanut vendors,” he joked of those days when sparse crowds looked even more so in the cavernous Cleveland Stadium.
Scotti, who died Friday at the age of 95, was already a local celebrity by the time he sang the national anthem for the first time at an Indians game in 1974.
Rocco Biscotti was born in Ambler, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia, in 1920. His family moved to Cleveland when he was 3 years old, and Rocco graduated from Collinwood High School. He studied opera for a time, and got a talent test with Warner Bros., but returned to the Cleveland area and worked a series of jobs, some voice related (a 1964 Plain Dealer profile said he was a voice instructor for the city’s recreation department) and some not (he was a salesman for Paulich Specialties, a company that made trophies).
He continued to study opera at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and sang publicly in dinner theaters and operas. His voice – which ranged from tenor to baritone – was compared to that of Mario Lanza, the celebrated tenor. Like Scotti, Lanza was a native of the Philadelphia area, and both were celebrated for their singing as the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello – based on William Shakespeare’s play.
Scotti made numerous radio and television appearances in Cleveland throughout the 1960s, appearing on Mike Douglas’ show on KYW (now WKYC) and WEWS “One O’Clock Club.” He also cut an album, “Rocco Scotti Sings in Rome,” in 1963, and had a regular singing engagement at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami.
Scotti also had a regular gig singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Knights of Columbus Indoor Track Meet, first at the Cleveland Arena, then at Public Hall. And in 1974, he was invited to sing the national anthem at an Indians game against the Kansas City Royals.
He said his vocal range – estimated around two and a half octaves – was perfect for the national anthem, a challenging song for any soloist. “I’m made for that song,” he told Plain Dealer columnist George Condon. “It fits my voice. It is true that the song is arranged in a weird way, going from low to high the way it does, but I don’t mind.”
Condon said the first time Scotti sang the the national anthem, the entire stadium stood still – and even the Royals applauded when he was done. The Indians made him a regular singer of the national anthem. Scotti continued to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” about 50 times a year for the rest of the time the Indians played at Municipal Stadium. He was also named the anthem singer for the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions in Canton. He sang the anthem before baseball games in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York – at Shea Stadium and before a nationally televised playoff game at Yankee Stadium.
In 1993, the last year at Cleveland Stadium, he sang the anthem on opening day, but was excluded from the final weekend. A public outcry demanded his inclusion. He sang the national anthem at the penultimate game at the stadium. He also sang the anthem at the last Cavaliers game at Richfield Coliseum – with that other legendary Cleveland musician, Michael Stanley.
But when the Indians moved to Jacobs Field in 1994, Rocco Scotti didn’t come down East Ninth Street with them – at least not until Larry Dolan bought the team. Scotti was scheduled to sing the national anthem on opening day in 2001. And he did – after being released from a hospital. He was involved in a car wreck in front of Jacobs Field before the game.
Scotti was inducted into the Collinwood Hall of Fame in 2004, and the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame a decade later. That year, the Indians honored him before a game. Scotti had given up performing publicly at that point, so a recording of him was played.