Monday, March 26, 2012

Mel Parnell, 1922-2012



Mel Parnell died last week. He was one of the best pitchers of his time. Unfortunately, that time was the beginning of the TV era really began, and he arrived in the majors just after his team won its last Pennant for a generation, so we haven't seen endless replays of his performances.

Melvin Lloyd Parnell was born in New Orleans on June 13, 1922. His quick rise through the minors was interrupted by serving in World War II, but in 1946 he went 13-4 with a 1.30 ERA for the Scranton Red Sox. The Boston Red Sox ran away with the American League Pennant, winning a club-record 104 games, so there really wasn't a place for him on the big-league roster. But the next season, the Louisiana lefty couldn't be ignored, and was called up. The Sox finished a distant 3rd, but Parnell showed he could make it.

(The Scranton Red Sox and their neighbors, the Wilkes-Barre Barons, would later have their names combined when the Phillies put a farm team in a stadium in between the two cities: The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. That team is now the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, the Yanks' top farm club.)

In 1949, as the Red Sox battled the Yankees for the Pennant, Parnell went 25-7, leading the AL in wins, complete games, innings pitched, and fewest home runs per 9 innings. Teammate Ellis Kinder went 23-6, while Vic Raschi of the Yankees went 21-10. But, had there been a Cy Young Award at that time, Parnell probably would have won it. Still, the season ended badly for the Sox, as it came down to the last 2 games at the original Yankee Stadium, where winning either game would have gotten the Sox the Pennant: Parnell didn't have his good stuff in the Saturday game, and Kinder may have been pulled too soon in the Sunday game, and the Yankees won both games.

Throughout his career, Parnell wore Number 17, and played only for the Red Sox. He started for the AL in the 1949 and '51 All-Star Games. He went 21-8 in 1953 despite a seriously weakened Red Sox team -- Kinder, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Vern Stephens were all gone and Ted Williams missed most of the season serving in the Korean War. But a torn muscle early in the 1954 season ruined him, and before he turned 32 he was more or less done. He pitched a no-hitter in 1956, but that would be his last season, retiring at 34.

Parnell returned to his hometown and managed the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, then managed in the Red Sox' system, before becoming a broadcaster for them.

On October 1, 1967, the last day of one of the most amazing Pennant races in baseball history, the Sox needed a win over the Minnesota Twins (or else the Twins would have been in the same position) and a loss in either half of a doubleheader by the Detroit Tigers (or else the Tigers would have played the Red Sox-Twins winner in a one-game Playoff) to win the Pennant. As Jim Lonborg got Rich Rollins to pop up to shortstop Rico Petrocelli for the last out -- with the Tigers not yet having started their nightcap, therefore no one in Fenway Park yet knew for sure whether the Sox would actually clinch the Pennant that day -- Parnell had the call on Boston's Channel 5, then WHDH, a CBS affiliate (now WCVB, on ABC):

Little soft pop-up...Petrocelli will take it...he does! The ball game is over! The Red Sox win it! And what a mob on this field! They're coming out of the stands from all over!

In 1981, Terry Cashman mentioned Parnell is his musical look at the game in the 1950s, "Talkin' Baseball" -- better known by its chorus of "Willie, Mickey and the Duke." Of the 1950s stars mentioned in the song, only Yogi Berra, Stan Musial (just "The Man") in the song, Don Newcombe ("the Newk"), Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson (the "one Robbie... coming in") and Ralph Kiner are still alive.

In 1997, Parnell was elected to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame. He had been battling cancer for years, before dying last Tuesday at age 89.

Should he be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame? No. His career record was 123-75, for a winning percentage of .621. His ERA was 3.50 and his ERA+ was 125. His WHIP was a bit high, 1.411. Baseball-Reference.com has him at 44 on its HOF Monitor, where a "Likely HOFer" should be at around 100; their HOF Standards have him at 18, when the "Average HOFer" is at 50. That injury in 1954 may have ruined his chance at Cooperstown.

But he is still the winningest lefthander in the 111-year history of the Red Sox franchise. It's a bit of a disappointment for fans of that team that he was never a player on a Pennant winner -- but he'll forever be connected to the 1967 Pennant, the most revered moment in the team's history until 2004.

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