Rollie Pier, beloved, gave life to New London
New London — And so our most unwitting comedian, fabled character and reflexive historian, the man who gave life to our city, has passed.
Yet it is with the utmost gratitude that we thank the universe for allowing us to share the great Rollie Pier for the last 90 years.
Rollie, the man his 50-year friend Kent Ward calls “the Godfather of boxing in New England,” died earlier this week, leaving a lifetime of one-liners to be repeated by his loved ones.
Which would be everybody.
Because this is where you begin with Roland Pierfederici: He was of New London, for New London and by New London. And yet it’s … New London, the place where the hard markers could knock Santa Claus, the Pope and a baby's baptism.
But nobody ever knocked Rollie Pier.
He was our most beloved character, right there with the late, great Hughie Devlin: two men in need of first names only for true, blue New Londoners.
“Rollie was an enormous influence in my life, like he was for many, many guys,” Ward was saying Wednesday from Championship Rounds, his spiffy new gym on Broad Street that pays fitting homage to Pier’s love of boxing and people. “I was young when my father passed away. That’s when I met Rollie. We were together for over 50 years. Through thick and thin.
“There are so many aspects to that man. It’s hard to describe some of them. But I always think about the word ‘stance.’ How you stand in the batter’s box. How you stand in the ring. How you stand in life. Those were his things. How you represented yourself inside the ropes, between the lines and what parameters you establish for yourself in life. That’s the one thing that always stuck out to me. He had an effect on so many people.”
No one story defined Rollie Pier. Not through boxing, despite his 2008 induction into the New England Hall of Fame. Not through baseball, despite his love affair with the Vagabonds, a traveling baseball troupe of local players who were privileged enough to spend three decades of summers playing for Pier in the Morgan League in New London, the Norwich City League, the Silver City League in Meriden, the Westerly Twilight League and the Newport Sunset League. National tournaments, too.
Former Vagabond Roger Bidwell, who won more than 1,000 games coaching UConn Avery Point, estimated once the Vags would play 85 games per summer.
“You had to be nuts and have no life,” Bidwell said. “But our loyalty to Rollie is what kept us going. We loved him. We know a lot of the expenses came out of his own pocket.”
They loved him because Pier made them laugh. Effortlessly. Rollie’s deadpan was like his American Express Card. He never left home without it.
Among his greatest hits:
"I had 42 consecutive knockouts. Then I won my first fight."
"I'll keep this brief, no matter how long it takes."
"I have bad hands. The referees kept stepping on them."
Ward: “The stories. They’re endless. Most of our (boxing) ventures — and I think a lot of the baseball guys would back me up on this as they went with Rollie on their journeys — it was always like an outtake. If we had a director with us, he’d have been constantly saying ‘cut.’ We got lost. In the wrong city. Wrong gyms. But always a sense of humor prevailing.”
Pier honed that sense of humor growing up in the old days, when Pier's parents ran a grinder shop called The Subway. It was on Pequot, near the old Stash's. And Rollie would be there at “home base” every day, otherwise known as The Wall in front of Butler's Beach.
”We lived on laughs,” Pier’s closest friend, the late William “Ace” Parker, said once. Ace was a New London guy who wrote sports for the Baltimore Sun, Dayton Daily News and New York World & Sun Telegram.
“The Subway Club” was an assemblage of New London greats Parker, George Pugsley, Bill Burke, Hank Secchiaroli, Dick Ballestrini, Nick Ballestrini, Jake Nobrega, Louie Casimono, Louie Nascetta, Steve Campagna, Frog Al Sitty, Patsy Cannamela and the Pier brothers. They were New London: loyal, irreverent, resilient.
Sitty would do Sid Caesar imitations. Babe Pier, Rollie’s brother, would do everyone else. Babe made his way to Vegas and spent decades there, a legendary entertainer who could do Burt Lancaster better than Burt Lancaster.
Rollie was in his 80s and still in the ring, this modest-sized man who would teach kids twice his size how to lay out people twice theirs. And he did it with the most understated mien. Funny how those understated guys make the most declarative statements of all sometimes.
All of us with an affinity for New London and sports in this corner of the world salute Rollie Pier for making our lives richer, better and funnier.
We had him for 90 years.
How lucky we were.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro