BILOXI -- Chris Taranto, a power pitching prodigy whose nine no-hitters in 1961 set a national schoolboy record that remains untouched more than a half century later, passed away last week.
He starred at Notre Dame High School in Biloxi.
He died at age 71.
"He died peacefully in his sleep,'' Steve Taranto said. "It's sad, but I think we can take comfort in knowing that.''
In the early 1960s, Taranto brought swarms of local baseball fans and national media to the tiny Notre Dame ballpark adjacent to Keegan's Bayou south of Back Bay. The lean, angular southpaw had a fastball that was reported to reach the high-90s. As his senior year unfolded, his legend grew with every strikeout and scoreless inning.
Hitters timidly approached the plate in hopes of seeing an occasional off-speed pitch, which for Taranto were average at best. Instead, they were more often than not dismissed with three rapid fire fastballs.
Taranto first set a national record with six consecutive no-hitters in 1961. That record stood for 28 years before it was equaled in 1989 by Tom Engle of Ohio. Taranto finished with nine for the season and 12 for his high school career, standards that still remain. His statistics were equally astounding: 183 innings pitched, 26 wins and 2 losses, 335 strikeouts and only 38 hits allowed. He simply outclassed the opposition.
As the numbers grew, so did the attention. His accomplishments quickly spread from the pages of the Daily Herald to the full color covers of national newspapers and magazines. Sports Illustrated and Sporting News published reports about every outing. Even Life Magazine came to do a cover story, only to bump Taranto to the inside because astronaut Alan Shepherd became the first American in space that May.
Steve Taranto, 10 years young than his brother, remembers the excitement whenever Chris pitched. "I really wasn't aware of the records. I was only in the second grade then," Steve Taranto said. "I remember getting picked up from school and brought to the games, where I either stood or knelt on the sideline because the stands were overflowing with people. For a 7- or 8-year-old, the amount of people there and the noise were just unbelievable. I still remember all the oohs and aahs."
Chris Taranto began pursuing a professional career when a Mississippi legend lent a hand. His extraordinary ability was brought to the attention of major league Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, who flew the phenom around the country for tryouts with several teams.
"I know Dizzy took him to New York and St. Louis and Houston, and some other cities, too," Steve added. "Houston was just starting its team and was looking for bright young prospects."
Chris Taranto signed a contract with the Colt .45s, but first served a brief stint in the military, delaying his entry into pro ball until age 19. Once signed by the Colt .45s, he was shipped to their farm team in Moultrie, Ga, where he lasted a mere year and a half.
"He threw his arm out," said Steve. "One of the first things they did was try to get him to change his windup. It affected his pitching motion and had more to do with him hurting his arm than anything else."
Decades prior to Tommy John surgery, Taranto's arm injury was impossible to overcome. Although he tried to slowly pitch himself back into form, Taranto never regained his power or his confidence.
"Chris was always my hero," added Steve Taranto, who is the youngest of four brothers born to their late father, John "Red" Taranto. "We were the closest in age and he always involved me in things with him. What kid wouldn't have looked up to him as a hero when he was such a great ballplayer and so appreciated by everyone?"
After Chris Taranto exited pro ball, he worked for several years outside the country before taking a job at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula. He married and had five children of his own. Taranto was inducted into the Biloxi Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.
"So many people were disappointed for Chris because he never got the chance to use his talent on the major league level," added Steve Taranto. "Everybody had such high hopes for him."