John Romano thought he’d be signed by the Dodgers.
Instead, the White Sox snagged him. But he had his best years with the Indians.
Romano, who died Monday at the age of 84, was a New Jersey native. His father was a longshoreman and semi-pro baseball player, and Romano attracted attention playing for Demarest High School in his native Hoboken. He even worked out regularly for the Dodgers, then still in Brooklyn, but in 1954, at the age of 19, he was signed as a free agent by the White Sox. In Triple-A, he was mentored by Walker Cooper, who was a catcher for the Cardinals when they won four pennants and three World Series from 1942-46.
Romano was a late-season call-up in 1958, and backed up Sherm Lollar as catcher the following year, when the White Sox won their first pennant in 40 years. Again, Romano benefited from the tutelage of a former catcher, as the White Sox were managed at the time by former Indians skipper Al Lopez.
Following the 1959 season, Romano was traded to Cleveland with Norm Cash and Bubba Phillips, for Minnie Minoso, Dick Brown, Don Ferrarese and Jake Striker. (Cash, a throw-in, was dealt the following spring to Detroit, five days before Trader Lane sent Rocky Colavito to the Tigers. He would go on to hit 373 homers for Detroit and serve as their everyday first baseman for a decade.)
In 1960, for the first time in his major league career, Romano was a starting catcher. He hit .272 and clouted 16 home runs. In each of the two following years, he was an All-Star in both games (from 1958 to 1962, there were two MLB All-Star Games, held in part to help the new players’ pension fund), and even received MVP votes in 1961, when he hit .299 with 26 home runs.
Romano was on the verge of a third straight appearance in the Midsummer Classic in 1963 (which would have been in front of the home crowd in Cleveland) when he broke his hand in the first game of a doubleheader against the Orioles on May 26. At the time, his batting average was around .340.
“I was supposed to be out for six weeks, but the Indians wanted me to get back sooner, so we took the cast off after two weeks and I played – but shouldn’t have,” he told Russ Schneider for the Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia.
Also that year, the Indians traded for Joe Azcue (manager Birdie Tebbetts had signed Azcue while he was with the Reds, and he remained a favorite of his). The following year, Azcue started to supplant Romano behind the dish, and following the 1964 season, Romano was traded back to the White Sox in a three-way deal that brought Colavito back to Cleveland. The other two players given up by the Indians, pitcher Tommy John and outfielder Tommie Agee, had far more productive careers than Romano would have after the deal. He spent two years on the South Side before the White Sox traded him to St. Louis, where he backed up Tim McCarver. Romano was left off the Cardinals’ World Series roster in 1967 (they beat the Red Sox), and was released after the season, ending his major league career.
Romano was named one of the Indians’ top 100 players when the team celebrated its centennial in 2001.