Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ryne Duren, 1929-2011

There are two members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, that I know of, who were named after big-league ballplayers.

"My father named me after his favorite ballplayer, Mickey Cochrane," Mickey Mantle said at his induction in 1974. "I don't know if he knew this, but his real name was Gordon. I don't want to offend any Gordons in the audience, but I'm glad my dad didn't name me Gordon Mantle!"

Mickey Charles Mantle was the first, born in 1931, when Gordon Stanley "Mickey" Cochrane (of French descent, but called "Mickey" because somebody thought he looked Irish) was the unquestioned best catcher in baseball. The second was Ryne Dee Sandberg, the great second baseman of the Chicago Cubs in the 1980s and '90s, born in 1959 when the top relief pitcher in baseball was Rinold George Duren of the Yankees.

Ryne Duren was not an obvious prospect. The native of Cazenovia, Wisconsin was wild, both on the mound and off. He was signed by the hopeless St. Louis Browns, and made his major league debut with them in 1954, after they had moved to become the Baltimore Orioles. He was already 25. But while his fastball was amazingly fast, he had precious little control. He did not reach the majors in the 1955 or '56 seasons.

By 1957, he'd been traded to the Kansas City Athletics, and got back up, then was traded to the Yankees in one of those "farm system" trades the Yanks and A's did back then. The other notable players in the trade went the other way, the A's getting Ralph Terry (whom the Yankees later got back) and Billy Martin (who thought he was getting punished for the recent fight at the Copacabana Club, even though he was just an innocent bystander, ignoring that he was batting .241 at the time and the Yankees had Bobby Richardson coming up). Duren pitched for the Yanks' top farm team the rest of the year. That was the Denver Bears, and under manager Ralph Houk they won the American Association Pennant.

Duren reached the Yankees full-time in 1958, at age 29, and what a splash he made. A 6-foot-2, 190-pound reliever with thick glasses (they called 'em "coke-bottle glasses" then), he was a lot like Scott Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth, in that he seemed more interested in throwing hard than in pitching well. His manager, Casey Stengel, said, "I would not admire hitting against Ryne Duren, because if he ever hit you in the head you might be in the past tense."

But with Yogi Berra to guide him, he became the best reliever in baseball, going 6-4 with a 2.02 ERA and a 1.097 WHIP, leading the American League with 20 saves. He made the All-Star Team, and finished 2nd to Albie Pearson, the Washington Senators' 5-foot-5 center fielder, for AL Rookie of the Year.

Duren was aware of his reputation. He would use it to his advantage, throwing warmup tosses onto the backstop, intimidating batters, without actually having to injure them. It worked, as the Yankees won the Pennant in 1958. In the World Series, Duren was the losing pitcher in Game 1, but got the save in Game 3 and the win in Game 6, as the Yankees beat the Milwaukee Braves in 7.

It would be Duren's one and only World Series ring. Although he made the All-Star Team again in 1959, the Yanks slumped to the 3rd. In 1960, the Yanks won the Pennant, but he slumped. In 1961, the Yanks traded him to the expansion Los Angeles Angels (a.k.a. California Angels, Anaheim Angels, and now Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) -- where, ironically, he became a teammate of Albie Pearson. He became the Angels' first All-Star, his 3rd berth in the Midsummer Classic. (The only other notable player in the deal was slugging outfielder Bob Cerv, joining the Yankees for the 3rd time.)

But alcohol caught up with him. By 1965, just 36, he was out of baseball. It got worse: His drinking caused him to mess up his businesses, he went bankrupt, and eventually had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he finally quit.

He spent the last 30 or so years of his life as a substance abuse counselor, playing on his image (both as a drinker and as a man with thick glasses) by titling his memoir I Can See Clearly Now.

I was watching the Yankees' Old-Timers' Day one year, I think around 1982 or '83, on Channel 11, and Duren was pitching to Joe Pepitone, then in his long hair AND beard phase. And Mel Allen, piped into the public-address, said, "Don't worry, Joe, he won't hit you! Hard!" I got to see Duren live at a couple of Old-Timers' Days. He more than made up for his mistakes.

Ryne Duren died on Thursday, just short of his 82nd birthday.

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