John Dominic Boccabella was born on June 29, 1941 in San Francisco, California. His parents were Italian immigrants, coming over from Italy in the 1930's. His father was from Sampeyre near the border of France & his mother was from Tuscany in the hamlet of Sant' Angelo in Campo. He attended Santa Clara University and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1963. He received attention & became more popular just because of his name. When he first came up to the Cubs out of their farm team in Pocatello, Idaho the Cubs broadcasters dubbed him “Boccabella from 'Pocatella'".
He started out his MLB career playing first base and was at one brief time considered to be the successor to Ernie Banks. He also played outfield then converted over to being a catcher, at the request of manager Leo Durocher. He stayed in Chicago for six years mostly as a reserve player, playing in 24 games or more in three of those seasons. In 1966 he played in 75 games, batting .228 with 6HRs & 25 RBIs. In 1968 he was drafted by the Montreal Expos as the 56th pick in the expansion draft. Strangely the previous year, his contract was purchased by the A.L. New York team but he was returned back to the Cubs.
As a kid I remember watching Mets games on TV when they played the Expos at Jary Park. I could never forget the way the P.A. announcer would recite Boccabella’s name. Sure enough, doing research on him, I found out that it was what everyone remembers!
The Jary Park announcer would love to play with Boccabella's name, using his French accent to intone "Jean BOCK-(pause)-a-BELLLLLL-aaaaaa" much to the delight of the Expos fans. He struggled mightily in the Expos inaugural season, batting .105 in just 40 games. He improved to .269 the next year playing in 61 games, giving credit to coach Lary Doby for his improvement. That season in June he hit a two run HR against the Houston Astros driving in both runs in the 2-1 Expo win. On September 2nd, he hit a dramatic walk off HR in a classic game against the Pittsburgh Pirates off pitcher Bruce Dal Canton. The game was recently aired on the MLB network.
By 1972 he was primarily the Expos main catcher, sharing time with Terry Humphries & Bob Stinson. He threw out 48% of would be base stealers, fourth best in the league. In 83 games he hit .227 with one HR & ten RBIs.
In 1973 he caught 117 games behind the plate, throwing out 39% of would be base stealers, nailing 34 runners (fourth in the NL). He was third in the NL in assists (65), led the league in errors (14) & had 11 passed balls. He batted .233 with career highs in HRs (7) RBIs (46) doubles (13) at bats (403) & games played (118).
On July 6, 1973 in the first game of a double header he made history, by becoming one of three catchers, to ever hit two HRs in the same inning. He led off the 6th inning with a solo HR off the Astros Jim Ray, and then later in the inning hit a grand slam off Jim Crawford finishing off an eight run Expo rally. In the game he had three hits with the two HRs & five runs driven in, as the Expos beat Houston 12-8 at Jary Park.
His Expo Manager Gene Mauch, gave him a huge compliment calling him "one of the most underrated players in the league." He also said “He’s a very stoic individual. He leads a quiet life and nothing is going to change it. He exerts a quiet kind of leadership over our pitching staff that isn’t very visible, but you know it’s there.” “Boc is still the possessor of the softest hands and fastest release in the game".
After five years in Montreal he was traded to the San Francisco Giants in 1974 for pitcher Don Carrithers. During his last season in Montreal, he roomed with Rookie & future Hall of Famer Gary Carter, mostly in Spring Training. After 29 games in his hometown of San Francisco, and batting only .138 he was demoted to the minor leagues, ending his MLB career there that year. In 12 seasons he batted .219 with 320 hits 26 HRs 56 doubles 148 RBIs a .267 on base % & 117 runs scored. Behind the plate he threw out 40% of would be base stealers, posting a .984 fielding %.
Retirement: Boccabella is a religious family man, who never smoked & only drank wine, like a good Italian man. After his playing days he became a marketing representative for Pacific Gas & Electric in Marin County California.