Hello all, and welcome to the first ever edition of Husky History, a new column focusing on one accomplished UConn athlete per week. Each article should detail the athlete’s accolades at UConn, as well as their ability to take their games to the professional level. I’m very excited to add this to our weekly budget and can’t wait to see where it takes us in the coming weeks.
Here’s a trivia question. Who is the first NBA draft pick in UConn basketball history? If you’re good with context clues and you read the title, you’d probably guess Walt Dropo, and you’d be correct. For the league that would eventually become the NBA, the “National Basketball Association” at the time, Dropo was selected fourth overall in the 1947 Basketball Association of America Draft. He was picked by the soon-to-be defunct Providence Steamrollers.
Being such a high draft pick, you’d think that he’d be known for basketball and basketball alone, right? With Dropo, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Dropo was born in 1923 to Serbian immigrants from Bosnia-Herzegovina. He grew up in Moosup, Connecticut, where his father tended the family farm and worked at a local textile mill. Dropo grew quickly to 6’5” in height, earning himself the nickname “The Moose of Moosup,” or just “Moose” for short. He especially had a knack for athletics, as he excelled at nearby Plainfield High School. He and his two brothers all earned athletic scholarships at UConn.
With a brief three-year stint as a combat engineer in World War II between his sophomore and junior years, Moose was able to star in three sports at Connecticut: football, basketball and baseball. As a listed center/forward, Dropo left the university as its top career scorer, and to this day he is second all-time in points per game with 20.7. In football, he played both offensive and defensive end. Dropo did so well that he was selected as the 74th pick in the 1946 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He went undrafted in baseball, but played first base. UConn did not have individual statistics for baseball before the 1948 season.
“Walt Dropo was the forerunner of all the great student-athletes we have had here at UConn,” said legendary UConn basketball coach Dee Rowe in 2010. “Wherever he went, he had UConn on his jersey. People around the country knew of UConn because of Walt Dropo.”
“Walt Dropo was the forerunner of all the great student-athletes we have had here at UConn. Wherever he went, he had UConn on his jersey. People around the country knew of UConn because of Walt Dropo.”UConn Basketball coach Dee Rowe in 2010.
Despite him getting drafted professionally in both football and basketball, he is best known for his baseball career post-UConn. When asked about why he chose baseball over his other two sports, Dropo said that the Bears were really interested in signing him, but he did so well in a tryout at Fenway Park that then-owner Tom Yawkey pulled out his checkbook and signed Moose on the spot.
“That ended all my negotiations. I had a check in my hand… a simple matter of money,” Dropo explained.
As much potential as Dropo had in both basketball and football, it looks like he made the right decision, as he enjoyed a healthy 13-year career in the major leagues with five different organizations. With the war keeping him in college late, Moose was 26 years of age when he made his debut for the Boston Red Sox, and still had his rookie status at age 27 in 1950. It was then that Dropo had one of the greatest rookie seasons in MLB history.
In 1950, Moose was an absolute force at the plate, slashing .322/.379/.583 with a .961 OPS, with the OPS third-best in the American League among players with 100 games. He tied for first in all of Major League Baseball with 144 RBIs, ahead of Hall of Famers like Yogi Berra, Joe Dimaggio and Bobby Doerr. His efforts netted him the AL Rookie of the Year Award, beating out Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford for the honor. Dropo also finished sixth in AL MVP voting.
With all of these accolades and statistics out of the gate, it seemed like Dropo was primed for a Hall of Fame career, and he may well have been if not for a wrist fracture the following year. While he was able to put up solid numbers the rest of his career, the technology at the time was unable to get him back to 100 percent health, making it near-impossible to replicate his 1950 statistics. Moose finished his career at age 37 with a slash of .270/.326/.432 and a fielding percentage of .992.
Dropo has been known as the greatest UConn three-sport athlete, and not only is a member of the Huskies Ring of Honor in Gampel Pavilion, but was also named to UConn’s 11-member All-Time Football Team in 1969. He died in 2010, but left his impact in the form of his children and grandchildren, as well as his fully endowed athletic scholarship, the first of its kind at UConn.
Besides his playing career, there were another few interesting tidbits about Dropo’s life that I found in my research. Identifying as a Serb, he sympathized with other minorities throughout his life. Moose was discouraged from dining with a few of his African-American teammates when playing with the White Sox, but Dropo told his discouragers to “pound sand” and ate with them anyway.
Lastly, what may be the oddest, yet most interesting stat about his life, came about because of Dropo’s love for fireworks, his career after baseball. On a business trip to China, Moose hit a baseball over the Great Wall, becoming the only person to hit a ball over the Great Wall of China (16-26 feet high) as well as Fenway Park’s Green Monster (37 feet).