Dangit. I just heard of Ryne Duren’s passing yesterday at age 81. I am supposed to be working on a biography of him for the SABR Bioproject, but he hadn’t answered my recent letter. I was going to try to track down a more recent phone number for him, but now I won’t get that chance.
The reason I took the Duren assignment for the Bioproject, honestly, is because I was hoping to have another great chat with Ryne like the one we had back in 2003 when I was working on The 50 Greatest Yankees Games. He winters in Florida like many people, and so I met him one February when I went down for pitchers and catchers. On that trip I interviewed a lot of former Yankees, including Tom Tresh (who also sadly passed as well) and Phil Linz (still kickin’). Ryne wanted to know if I could meet him at a greasy spoon near Lakeland. This wasn’t that near either his home nor where I was, but I readily agreed.
When I got there I found out why he wanted to meet there–because of the proximity to several large pawn shops. In his dotage, Ryne had become something of a junk connoisseur, and apparently it’s more fun to hunt for junk with company that without. I happily went with him to pick through piles of used lawnmowers, lamps, stereo equipment, etc. We found no gems, but it was fun, and then we settled into the little diner nearby to have a bite to eat and talk baseball.
At the time I was working on The 50 Greatest Yankee Games, so I had a bunch of questions about Duren’s teammates to ask him (he played with the Yankees from 1958-1961) but sometimes you never know what you’re going to find if you just let a fellow talk. And Duren was a talker, that’s for sure.
In our conversation he told me stories about how Lefty O’Doul helped him with his pitching control, how alcoholism probably hurt his control, meeting Marilyn Monroe, getting batting tips from Joe DiMaggio, how having an infected heart as a child turned him into a baseball fan, Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry, and much more. What follows is pretty much a verbatim transcript of that afternoon:
Ryne Duren: Did you know I just wrote a book, too?
Cecilia Tan: No, I had no idea.
RD: I’ll get you a copy. [goes out and gets one from the car] I’m going to go down and autograph copies at the museum in St. Pete [where the “Baseball as America” Hall of Fame exhibit was showing at the time]. I don’t know how much research you did about me but I’m known for two things, I have real bad eyes and I had terrible alcohol problem. Anyway, this is kind of a play off of both. [The title of the book is “I Can See Clearly Now.”]
CT: Did you really hit a guy in the on deck circle in the minors?
RD: Oh no. That’s a myth. But what I did do was Jim Piersall got out of the batter’s circle, and got close to home plate as the on deck hitter, so I threw a ball that almost hit him and he ducked out of the way and started hollering at me. Now when you played Boston, Ted Williams would come up and he’d stand there and he would look from just about the same place that Piersall was. He wouldn’t be in the batter’s box but he’d stand there and watch the pitches as you warmed up. So he was Ted Williams. But Jim Piersall was Jim Piersall. So I threw the ball near him, and he said “What’s the matter with you? What are you doing?” and I said “What are YOU doing? You got yourself confused with a hitter.” (laughs) But then everybody played off of that. You’ll hear guys at banquets or wherever you go telling Ryne Duren stories. And anything that’s blind or kind of crazy, they stick me in it. That’s okay. Keeps my profile up.
CT: Did you start out a starter and shift to the bullpen?
RD: Oh yeah. Pretty much everyone did back then. What happened was I never was a reliever all the way through. And I always had a control problem. So they suffered out with me in the minor leagues. It was fairly typical the first year I led the league in hit batsmen and wild pitches, and the second year I pitched decently and I was on a good ball club, a pennant-winning ball club, and I was 15 wins I think, but yet, 9 or 10 base on balls and maybe 12-13-14 strikeouts, the kind of thing that just drives people mad. They watched me for a couple of years and although I got a little bit stronger, the control never came around.
The next year after that I won 17 games in A ball but it wasn’t a strong A league. I’d go out there and I probably had 7 or 8 base on balls. But as soon as I got to a little higher elevation, what happened when I was in the Pacific Coast League in 1955, my arm was bad, I pinched a nerve in it, in ’53 and ’54 I was in the Texas League, and just hanging in there every year, 12-13 wins, and about as many losses with a bad ball club, and I just could not improve. There were a lot of things happening, now that I look back on it. One of them was I think how disgusted the managers were with me, with all that talent, I could throw it so hard, and I’d stand out there, and I’d throw 250 pitches, the last one as hard as the first, and they were all saying–and this is the cleaned up version–‘you jerk, what’s the matter with you, if I could throw like that I’d be making thousands of dollars in the big leagues.’ So it was a frustrating time.
As I write about in my book, I had such a high priority for alcohol, not to use it to get high or to get drunk but as the mark of a man. So I initially didn’t drink for a fix, I drank to belong and to be somebody. Oh now if you understand alcohol addiction, for most people, like me, it can just grow. It wasn’t until I got into treatment in Milwaukee, the seventh one I was in, the tenth time I was hospitalized, that I understood the nature of my problem. They had a Catholic priest who had been through the same problem and he said gentlemen, we are drug addicts as sure as if we are hooked on heroin. And that was the first time that I heard the nature of my problem, that I was hooked on a drug. So before that I was an alcoholic and I would say that but I had no idea what that meant. I couldn’t get past the stigma thing. So the reason I’m telling you that, is that after I got on top of it and in subsequent studies, I realized that that was part of the problem of [pitching] control. In the central nervous system, when it’s being affected by alcohol, it kept me from developing that muscle memory sense that you need. [I] never had any coaching in pitching [and] wasn’t allowed to pitch until I was 19 years old. They wouldn’t let me pitch in high school because I threw so hard, nobody wanted to be responsible for it, until we played amateur ball in our small towns up there after I got out.
So then in 1956, two things happened that I think are noteworthy. The first one was that through that winter, I told you I had the pinched nerve in ’55 and it never did get better, and so over the winter something happened and that was that subconsciously there was so much pain connected with my throwing toward the end of ’55 that I think subconsciously I couldn’t turn the ball loose with reckless abandon with my arm like I had earlier. So I’m out in the PCL, and I run into a guy by the name of Lefty O’Doul. One day he got me aside and he said, Ryney old boy, the reason that you can’t throw strikes is because you don’t know how to “move the ball.” That was his term, like it was yesterday I can hear him say that. I said well what are you talking about Lefty, “move the ball?” He said go warm up and I’ll show you. So we’re standing there in front of the dugout, on the third base side up in Vancouver, BC. And he says are you loose Ryney? I said yeah. Now in those days you used to warm up right in front of the dugout. There was another home plate there where the fans could watch you warm up. They don’t do that anymore, now there’s the bullpen or down the sidelines. So I was warming up and loose and everything, and he said, okay, now. I had a catcher, Lennie O’Neill, and he said Ryney, throw the baseball high and tight. So I threw one up about there (holds hand about head high) for Lennie, and he caught it about there. And he said, no, high and tight. So I threw it up a little higher and he caught it a little higher, and he said, no, I mean throw one high and tight. So I threw it so high he jumped for it and couldn’t get it, and he said no Ryney, high and tight, and I looked at him and I said what’s wrong with you? So then I cranked one right out of the stadium, threw it right out of the ballpark. And he said, now you got it!
Now the regular home plate, the game home plate, is way over there, so he says now throw one low and away. So I just went over and threw it and he says, that’s it. Now high and away, so I threw another one out of the ballpark, we’re just kind of kidding and having fun, and he says now throw one low and in, and I hit the screen right over here. So all of a sudden it’s HERE and THERE and THERE and THERE, instead of here and there and there and there. And he said now look down here. And I had four distinct steps in the dirt on the mound. I had these four distinct marks. He said look, your body is doing something a little different every time, doesn’t it. And he said, and you have a pretty good idea what you have to do to throw the ball up here, or over here, right? And he says well, that’s what’s wrong. You’re trying to make an adjustment in here, where you can’t really distinguish between here and there. It’s logical, it makes sense. This guy was a gifted man, a genius, and I could tell you more about him or you could look him up as Casey used to say. But anyway, he said that’s all there is to it, Ryney, all you have to do is throw it here and here instead of trying to go out and throw down here every time, now you develop a sense. He said, I’ll bet you that you can win pretty soon.
But there was something else happening at that time, and I told you that subconsciously at that time I couldn’t throw so hard. So my next start coincided with that, we’re at San Francisco Seals stadium, and that was the name of the club before the Giants moved out there, and so we’re in the 8th inning, and we have a 7-1 lead, or 6-1, something like that, and I’ve got one or two out already, and finally there are two or three errors and maybe a base on balls or the umpire blew one or something, or whatever happened, when I was usually pitching a bloop hit, for whatever reason I couldn’t get that guy out, the third guy in the inning. So Lefty came out after a couple of errors and with two or three runs scored he said to me, you know, I think the fix is on. He was just trying to be light and laugh at it. And I said well if it is Left’, I don’t know about it. So he said it’s all right, I’m not taking you out, I thought I’d just come out here and break things up a little bit. And then I said, you know, I’ll take care of it, you go on back. And that was my kind of rapport with him. He went back to the dugout, and now, another error, another error, a bloop hit, and he came out and said I gotta take you out now Ryne, I’m sorry. I said why? I’m pitching great. I don’t want to come out. He said well, this is my second trip to the mound, so I have to take you out. I said no you don’t–you can take yourself out of the game. And I don’t know why I knew that, but I did, and I said just ask the umpire. So the umpire came out, and Lefty called him out there, and the umpire said that’s right, but you’ll have to leave the game, off the bench. And Lefty said that’s all right, I’ve had enough already, I’ll go have a beer. So he went up to the clubhouse, and Lefty liked his beer more than I did at the time which is sad to say. Now I’m not kidding at all, I’m mad as hell inside, and I’ll bet he didn’t even make it to the clubhouse before I struck that next guy out on three pitches. I didn’t give a damn if my arm fell off, It’s true, and there I was, I broke through that mental barrier I had about it. Now understand, I was throwing hard, but I don’t know if you know anything about my ability to throw, it wasn’t just hard, it was extra extra hard, compared to other pitchers, even fastball pitchers. I led the league in strikeouts or within one or so with less innings than the next guy. But anyway, that’s kind of the story, and then I went, I don’t know 50 some innings without giving up a run. At the time I had a real losing record, 1-6 or 2-7 or something, and I finished 11-11, from that point on. And the team I was on finished in 8th place. The funny part about that was that at the end of the year I got traded to Kansas City. Baltimore must never have sent a scout out or looked at me the last half of that year. So I was traded for practically nothing to Kansas City, and my first start on May 10th of 1957 was against the Yankees. They beat me 2-1, I drove in the only run that we got with a two out, two strike drag bunt, and if I’m not mistaken both their runs were unearned. So consequently I impressed them enough that I was to be traded.
CT: Back then wasn’t Kansas City considered almost like a farm club unofficially for the Yankees?
Yep, And in those days Billy Martin obliged us by having the Copacabana fight, so they wanted to get rid of him, so I got traded in essence for Billy Martin. There were some other guys involved in the trade too. Harry Suitcase Simpson went to the Yankees as did Bob Cerv… I don’t know. Anyway, that’s kind of the story.
So now I’m at Denver [the Yankees’ Triple A affiliate], and I’m a starting pitcher, and I guess this is where we came in, now at Denver I was mad as hell for having to go to the minor leagues. Lou Boudreau was the manager there (KC) and he said I didn’t have anything to do with this. I had nothing to do with this–you are, as far as I’m concerned, the best one on my staff. You’ve done well and as well as you throw, you’re the last one I want to get rid of. And I really was trying to do the right thing there. So in the office where they told me to go to see about the deal, all the mucky mucks from the two teams were there, and Lee McPhail was there, and he said well, Ryne, we’re going to send you to Denver, and I said why Denver? Lou Boudreau told me I’m the last pitcher he wanted to get rid of. So in other words, you’re taking the best pitcher off the Kansas City club in his mind, and you’re sending him to the minor leagues! I said I don’t think so. “Now, Ryne, please understand, this is the New York Yankees and we do things differently here. Just go down and get your feet on the ground and we’ll have you right up.” So I relented and said okay, I’ll go, I went to Denver and my very first game was a no-hitter. And it’s the only one to this date in the history of baseball in Denver that was pitched by the home team. I think Nomo pitched one there for the Dodgers. So consequently, I went 13 and 2, got beat 1-0 twice on unearned runs, one of them was my own error, and at that point we were making a run for the championship and into the playoffs and the World Series. So down the line, I’m not sure where it started, I was 13-2 from June the 20th until then, when that season ended, September first let’s say, so I now had the opportunity a couple of times Ralph [Houk] came to me and he said you throw harder than anybody the Yankees had while I was there, and he caught a fellow by the name of Joe Page. Page was the guy who was kind of the closer at one point a left hand pitcher, and he said you throw harder than he did and your control is as good or better. He said you could be a hell of a reliever for the Yankees if you wanted to. Now I said I don’t know about that Ralph, but you know, I was open to it, I thought why waste the pitches that I throw in between starts? So after two days rest I’d go down to the bullpen and crank it up and if I felt good which I always did I’d just take off my hat and give Houk the sign that I was all right. So if you had me warmed up in the bullpen, and you had a lead to protect or you were really in a close ballgame, you’d be a damn fool if you didn’t use me. So he’d bring me in and I’d do the job. I don’t know right off hand, but let’s say I saved 8 or 10 games for him. Then we went to the playoffs and I think I won a game or two in each round, and one in the (Triple A) World Series, so at that point boy… He recommended to the Yankees that I go.
So here’s the payoff to the whole thing. What happened was that the Yankees scouts came down, a couple of them I think it was Lou McWallis (?) who said go home and pack, I’m telling the Yankees they have to bring you up, that’s all there is to it, you can help them. They were hurting a little bit in that department, they had Bob Grim, and Bob was all right but he was not a Ryne Duren or a Mariano Rivera. Nothing like that. So he says I’m calling the Yankees right after the game so go home and pack and get ready so you can get out of here tomorrow. Well, so I went home, but nothing happened. So then I did that a second time, and kind of the same thing. The next morning I grabbed the newspaper and I’ll be damned if they didn’t buy Sal Maglie. The guy who was Larsen’s opposition in the perfect game in ’56. Now we’re talking ’57. And then they got beat by Milwaukee in that World Series. I think I could have helped them in that. But irregardless, here’s the thing I want to get to, so without going there, I always kind of curious and upset about it, thinking well, these people cost me time in the big leagues, and why? why did this happen? was it Houk that wouldn’t let me go? or what was the deal? And while I was down there there was an incident where I got into not a bar fight. Somebody that was in the bar that I walked away from but in the coffee shop later started up again–there was a staged thing where he had a cop sitting next to him and he said something smart enough to me that I had to grab him, and then the cop hit me and I ended up in the hospital and in jail. And Houk was the manager there and so I thought maybe that was it. So let’s say maybe ten years ago now I was out at a charity function in Denver and Bob Howsum was there, Bob Howsum was our general manager at that time. So I said Bob, this has always bothered me, what happened, at that time, how come I didn’t go up, in spite of the fact that this scout said I was going to go and they told me to pack and all that. He said Ryne it’s very simple, and I said well, I’ve been confused all these years so would you straighten me out? He said you pitched too good. If we had taken you out of here we would have had a rebellion of the fans and we were doing so well and everything that we convinced the Yankees that if you were pitching there was an extra thousand people or whatever in the stands. And so I suppose that in a sense he was right about that. That’s the Denver story.
Anyway, Houk was right, I could relieve with the Yankees. I sat on the bench a long time before I ever got a chance to make my first appearance, and when they did this is the funniest thing ever, it’s amazing how that happens, but Ralph Houk and I were in the clubhouse early, we would go in those days and come in and sit around the clubhouse for a while, and I’m dressed and everything and I said to Ralph, “Would you do me a favor? Would you take the fungo stick and just hit some balls back at me on the mound? You know, I haven’t been in the game in a long time…” and you know, at least you’re doing something and looking good and I always tried to impress people. So he came out and hit a bunch of ground balls back and I stabbed this way and that way at them. So now they bring me in in the ninth inning with one out and the tying run on third. We were playing Baltimore, and the winning run is on first with one out. Jim Marshall is the hitter. And I threw Jim Marshall a fastball way from him, he drilled it back to the mound, boom, one hop, right there in my glove: to second, to first, we go into the clubhouse a winner. So I saved that first one with my glove! (laughs) Then Casey afterward he was you know, “Oh he’s an amazing man, isn’t he? He knew just what to do with it.” Well, you know, nine years in baseball, you better know what to do with it! So anyway, you know, that kind of gets you up to date. And from there on I’d come into the game and it was a little different than it is today. I didn’t pitch the ninth inning, I’d be in there the 8th and the ninth, many times in the seventh, and a lot of times maybe even the sixth. In the sixth game of the World Series, which is probably my crowning moment, I was in there in the fourth inning, and I was still in there in the tenth. Pretty good for a short man! (laughs) That was, of all the games I was in with the Yankees, that was the biggest game that I was in. And the biggest one I WASN’T in was the seventh game of the 1960 series. I should have been in that game for a couple of reasons. And I think I know the reasons I wasn’t in that game.
CT: What do you think those reasons are?
Well, in-house politics. The guy Jim Coates that was Eddie Lopat’s buddy, Lopat brought him along through the organization, and he threw the three-run homer to Hal Smith, and he brought into the game in a bunt situation and Bobby Shantz was taken out, and Shantz was the best fielder in baseball with a left hand hitter up, and Coates was not the greatest fielder–I shouldn’t get into all of that.
The other one was that maybe my drinking reputation by then had soured people on me, because it had progressed some, but at the same time they had already had me in the series earlier and I had pitched well, and I could still throw good then. I think more than anything else it was politics. And the other thing was that Casey was gone, he knew it, and he really didn’t care. He started Ditmar in the series and he should have started Whitey Ford, you know. Everybody, you know it was just a screwed up thing. Ralph Terry autographed a picture to me that was the moment where he’s pitching, Johnny Blanchard by the way is catching, and Maz hit the ball… so that’s kind of a classic picture. And Ralph Terry autographed it “To Ryne, where the hell were you?” (laughs)
CT: Ralph told me that Stengel had his warm up four, five times that game.
Well, that wouldn’t bother me in that they usually let the bullpen call you. Here’s the way it worked with me. They call the bullpen and they say, you’re in there. You’ve got time now to stretch your arm to the max with two or three pitches, because the guy leaves the dugout and he heads out to the mound, and you’ve got three or four pitches. The only thing you want to do before that inning is just get your blood flowing and so forth. So as a relief pitcher I know that, so that wouldn’t affect me. But it would affect somebody like Ralph, who was a starting pitcher. So so many things enter into it. But the whole thing about that and about life is you have to be good on acceptance or it just kills you.
CT: So tell me more about Ralph Terry.
He was a very conscientious guy. He was my roommate, a very fun guy to room with. Too analytical, maybe. You’ve heard that before, he was quite analytical. He was a single guy, for the most part when we were rooming. He was a good egg.
CT: What did he throw?
He had a good curve ball and a slider, and he was sneaky fast. I think he had fairly good control.
CT: You outgunned Pittsburgh and yet they managed to scratch a series of low-score wins — was that frustrating?
Well, I think the problem was that after that first couple of high scorers, maybe the confidence was… we became overconfident. I never really saw the Yankees as an overconfident team. They went out there and grinded it out pretty good. But the breaks were so bad in that game, the ball that hit Kubek in the throat, and there were a couple of other things. I forget all the details now, because it’s so centered around [the home run]. Here was the thing that kind of broke us, was that Hal Smith had been my roommate. my friend in Kansas City. I knew Hal Smith real well, and as much as I didn’t pay a lot of attention to hitters, I threw hard, I threw the hard sinker, a good slider, and a riding fastball, and later I got so I could cut the fastball, but not… well in 1960 I was already doing that. But the thing that kind of got me was that we all knew that Smith was a high fastball hitter, but Coates gave him three high pitches, right up there in his wheelhouse, and he had the first two timed! Whitey was standing right next to me in the bullpen and he just went, oh god, get out of there, there’s another one! And when he hit that ball out we had them beat, but when he hit that ball out it changed the whole thing. But I don’t know, Whitey should have started that game, do you know why?
CT: You mean other than because he was Whitey Ford?
Yeah. He was hurt, he didn’t have a great year in numbers, but he was the reason we were even in the series. He beat Baltimore twice in four days. And of course Stengel was gone, and he decided he was going to start Ditmar because Ditmar had won the most games for him, and being true and loyal to him I think he was disloyal to the rest of the guys. If you’re going to play to win and you’ve got both Whitey Ford and Art Ditmar both rested, boy, it isn’t even a contest. And then Ford would have been ready for another game later. Who knows how it would have come out? In fairness to Ditmar, hell, you take the ball when they give it to you, you go out there and he always did. I’m not belittling him in any way, I’m just saying that you know… and then Casey I heard him say this: he said I manage this club and I’m going to manage it until this season is over and nobody is going to tell me what to do, because other people were telling him to start Ford. I don’t know if that came from the [front] office or the coaches or what.
CT: Or the writers…
CT: So were you still there in ’61 for the Maris-Mantle race?
No, I was with the Angels. I got traded in May some time. I knew I was gone. I think by then my drinking… there were a number of things that had happened. And you know in ’59 coming off the field I broke my arm. It’s another story, but some kid threw a block into me and I fell, and I was trying to hurry across the field rather than going under the stands and some kid threw a block into me and down I went and I lit on this hand and broke a little bone in there and my season was over.
Oh, but I have to tell you this. My earned run average, just before that, we were eliminated from the pennant, Cleveland finished second and the White Sox won it, we were 9 or 10 games back, it was a bad year, anyway, going into the time when we were eliminated from the pennant, my ERA was 0.68. This was the Yankees of this era — and I don’t know what you’re going to write about but please don’t belittle the Yankees — but you know, we can say baseball was different then. Were they really taking a look at me as a starting pitcher then? That ERA was tremendous. So they came by and said we’d like to see if you can start, I was in the game for quite a few innings, and my earned run average got blown up, I gave three or four runs up, and it went all the way up to 1.83. I always figured they left me in the game just to have my ERA go up. I was making $16,000 at the time, and at four o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve I got a contract with a four thousand dollar cut in it. And yet, with the Yankees I went 37 innings in a row without giving up a run. In the late innings. I went 45 innings without the Yankees getting me a run in the same time. The New York Thunder and Lightning Yankees. Can you believe that? So my record was 2-4. I think that was the cruelest thing that ever happened to me in baseball, they not only gave me a cut but they ruined Christmas.
CT: That was the way they treated everybody then.
You hear George Weiss stories.
CT: I’ve heard them from everybody.
CT: And not just him but other guys who learned from him.
His underlings, right. That was the structure at the time.
CT: They cut DiMaggio’s salary.
And Mantle’s after he won the triple crown!
But here’s a good quote I think. Ralph Branca, he said, you know who these guys, modern day ballplayers, have got to thank? I said who Ralph? And he said George Weiss. Branch Rickey. Walter O’Malley. I said, what are you talking about? He said well, they made the union necessary! (laughs)
CT: Bouton says the same thing. He said if they had just paid decently, players would have been too complacent to do anything. Though I think eventually entertainment industry conglomeration would have led to agents moving in and demanding more.
Well they could have still kept that control. At our time, you’d better not have an agent, or you could get blackballed.
CT: So tell me about Mickey Mantle.
Unfortunately, he had the same mindset as I did about the drinking and stuff and he’d probably became even deeper addicted. But I’m not sure, subconsciously I think he was using alcohol to escape the pressure that was on him from all ends like it is on all celebrities. He was an honest, good true friend. He was very generous to his friends. He was a wit, he was full of humor. He was a fierce competitor, he was his own worst critic. We carpooled for a year so I got to know him very well. I speak to his widow weekly or every two weeks or so.
CT: Where did you carpool from?
CT: I used to live in Englewood.
That’s where we played golf. The Englewood Golf Club. It’s not there anymore. But that was a fun thing because the celebrities of New York show business all played there. I met Ed Sullivan there, comedians, Buddy Hacket, Phil Foster, Pat Boone, three or four others. My favorite was Betsy Palmer, she was making the game shows at the time, variety shows. Highlight of my career was meeting Marilyn Monroe.
CT: Not on the golf course…?
No, she came to spring training with Joe. There she is, sitting outside the clubhouse on the bench, I walk up the first day and it’s Marilyn Monroe. And I don’t know why but I guess it’s just me, I sat down and made small talk with Marilyn Monroe. Joe and I always had a good relationship. We always talked, especially in later life when after she had died and everybody knew I had gotten on top of the problem and was running a hospital and I had been quoted in the papers a lot, a lot of people had done stories on me, Joe wanted to spend some time talking with me and we did about the mixtures of different drugs and alcohol and so forth. I don’t care what anybody else says, she died from Valium mixed with alcohol. I truly believe that.
CT: But people always want to make a conspiracy theory out of it when it’s an American icon who dies.
CT: So tell me some more about Joe DiMaggio. A lot of the guys don’t really say much about him.
Well, everybody sees him differently. I went down to the batting cage one day, and he had been down there helping guys hit. we were in St. Petersburg at the old Miller Huggins Field, way down in the corner we had a batting cage with a pitching machine. So I went down there and Joe was down there just kind of hanging around, and the last honest batter came out and got through, so now I say, hey Joe, can you help me some? And he kind of laughed and said why? You can’t hit. You’ve got to have good eyesight and coordination. So I said aw, c’mon Joe, at least help me with my stance or something. And he says Ryne, it’s a waste of time! Please, why would you want me to do that. So I said, you know, Joe, if I could at least look good striking out, that’d be a help, right? And it just cracked him up. But he did finally tell me how to stand and swing and so forth. So now, I’m down there hitting balls and he went back to the bench. So evidently he was proud of the fact that he had me with a pretty good looking swing, so they’re sitting up in the dugout and he’s playing a game with someone down there. He’d make a little bet with you and so on. So he says, who is that guy hitting down there? He looks pretty good. They can’t see my number from there. Joe then says, well, that looks like Ryne Duren to me. And they laughed at him. No, I think it really is. So then they made a little bet, and sure enough I finally turned around to pick up the balls and it’s me. So he did make me look good anyway, and he always got a kick out of that.
CT: One question I have, no one seems to agree on this. Was the old park in Baltimore hard to hit home runs out of?
Yes, it was. The old stadium, Memorial Stadium. It was a good-sized ballpark. But, I don’t know much about hitting home runs… I didn’t pitch much there.
The summer of 1945, I was 15 years old, and I had rheumatic fever, and the only treatment for rheumatic fever after they were able to figure out what it was was antibiotics. We didn’t have any antibiotics in ’45. Penicillin had just shown up, but who could afford it? And at that time, if it was around, the people who should be getting it were the war wounded and soldiers. So the only treatment for me was nine months in bed. No exercise on the heart while it was infected. Now I have a bad valve in my heart, I’ve always had it, and I don’t think it’s a problem. Some of the doctors fuss over it today, but it’s always been there. The insurance companies after many years took the rider off about it. So being a kid in Wisconsin, WGN from Chicago is a very powerful station carried the Cubs. So I listened to the Chicago Cubs every day and became a great baseball fan and hero worshipped everybody you know. I’d keep score, I had a tablet where I’d draw the lines, that would be something to look forward to every day. My mother was working in the post office and my father, who was the post master, they took care of things there, and I had a baby brother at the time who was born in ’44, and a lady by the name of Mrs. Stuck, she would come by and pick the baby up and take the baby to her house so my mother could work. And then the house would come back together in the evening. But for the most part I was one my own. They would come home at lunch time, but that [baseball] had me something to look forward to every day. That in a sense made me a tremendous baseball fan. I knew every player in both leagues. We could also get the White Sox but the Cubs were my team. Back in those days it was practically all day baseball, so I’d listen to everything, from spring training right through to the World series. Well the Cubs won the pennant and played Detroit in the World Series. But the absolute favorite of all the players was Phil Cavaretta. Stan Hack was third base, Cavaretta first, Mickelson in right… all the guys. One of them was Pinas Laurie who was the coach with Philly when I played with the Phillies. I knew everything about them. Even the announcer said hello to me because somebody had told him about me, how I listened every day, I was bedridden and all that. So Cavaretta was my hero, he probably had the best average on the club and so forth.
So in 1954 I had my first cup of coffee in the big leagues with Baltimore, that was their first year in Baltimore, and Phil Cavaretta was just ending up his career. He went over to the Chicago White Sox just to finish out his career, and I come into a game, they’re going to have me do the 8th inning in Baltimore, we’re playing the White Sox, so I come in and the very first hitter I faced was Phil Cavaretta. Isn’t that amazing?
CT: And did you get him out?
I walked him. (laughs) I wouldn’t dare get my hero out! I was just hoping he didn’t see my knees rattling. You know people say I wonder what’s going through their minds out there, well, I’ll tell you this and try to keep it in the right perspective. I’ve told this… this thing about being a starting pitcher versus a relief pitcher. Being a starting pitcher’s got some edges and the first one is … okay, all right, here’s the whole thing. Have you ever been out to the ball park and noticed that the whole team is out on the field except the pitcher when they play the national anthem? They play the national anthem, now the pitcher walks out. That’s the way it was in my day, anyway. So they say well, what would you like better? And I said relieving is a much tougher job, because it’s unpredictable. You never know. The starting pitcher gets a chance to, while everybody else is out there during the national anthem, you go in that little toilet right behind the dugout and you get rid of the nervous… uh, you know. (mimes stomach heaving) As a reliever you don’t have that luxury. You get up and warm up and all of a sudden you’re in there. Now you’re out on the mound, and well, what do they say when you come in? What does it feel like? Well, it’s like this, will you guys hurry up and get out of here so I can get this guy out, because I want to get to the bathroom! And it’s true! It got to be where you’d be on edge and ready to go with adrenaline flowing, and then later when it became kind of ho hum with the appearances, you almost wish you could psyche yourself up to get that rush, because you know you pitched well, and you performed well with it as an athlete.
CT: David Cone said almost the same thing in an interview I read about why the bigger the game, the better he pitched. Bouton too talked about how he had to convince himself sometimes that there was more at stake, like if he didn’t pitch well, millions were going to starve in Africa.
It’s hard to see it as important as other people. When I got home from the ’58 series this good friend of mine, who had pitched for the St. Louis Browns, had a cup of coffee, I went to spring training with him, and he said, did you realize what was going on in that sixth game of the world series in Milwaukee? We’re down three to one and came back to win, and I got the ball from the fourth inning on. Anyway, I go home and my friend Hal Hudson says Jesus, didn’t it make you nervous to be out there knowing it’s the World Series, and a hundred thousand dollars difference on every pitch? I said, oh, you don’t think about that. He said, oh, what do you think about? I said how to get the guy out. What’s the next pitch. Your mind is locked into the game situation. That’s what you think about. Well, I can’t believe that (he says). Well, that’s how come I’ve had 13 or 14 years of doing that. What you have to learn is that as a pitcher, if you’re not the most relaxed person in the Stadium at that point you’re in trouble. So you have to learn, one of the biggest things about pitching, at the big league level anyway, or anywhere for that matter, because every game is the same whether it be in the minors or whatever, you’re out there, the game’s on the line and so forth, and the number one thing that you have to be able to overcome is the human instinct to get uptight. So what do you have to do? You have to learn to relax. If you get tense, then your stuff ends, and your control ends, so you have to know how to relax on the mound. And stay within yourself. So I think that’s something where your concentration is at that time, because you’ve trained yourself to do that. I’d stand on the mound knowing that if I got any more relaxed, I’d drop the ball.
It’s absolutely the truth. A lot of people don’t see it like that. I’ve talked to other professional athletes, too. If you’re playing relaxed, your endurance is so much better.
CT: So tell me more about the book. (I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW)
The book was written through kind of the desires of the author. What it’s really written for is to share the… well, are you familiar with Winning Beyond Winning?
CT: Not really.
It’s my charitable foundation in New York. I have a golf tournament up there in my name, and the foundation puts on an awards banquet in the fall. This past year honored Don Newcombe for his work in awareness and everything. We honor local people and Mrs. uh…. oh I hate it when I can’t remember names… Mrs. uh… Mrs. Gil Hodges, she’s the honorary chairman of our banquet. We raise funds and put on camps for kids and then we go into schools and on the weekends we have on Saturdays camps for kids, and we bring instructors in who are former pros, and some like myself have had a problem and teach kids about sports and sportsmanship and the necessity for social skills and then alcohol and drug awareness, which I do the most of. We do a pretty good job. I’m quite proud and quite happy with it. I didn’t start it. Tom, really, started it and then a guy who was having problems like I did by the name of Rusty Torres–he was in the big leagues for a while with the Yankees–so he was involved, and then Frankie Tepedino, a former Yankee who was on the New York fire department, he’s there, Felix Mantilla a New York Met… and I always have trouble thinking of this guy’s name… he’s the harmonica player.
CT: Phil Linz.
Yes, Phil Linz! He’s been there quite a bit. Don’t tell him I had trouble thinking of his name, but that’s the state of my mind these days. There are a number of other guys. Look on the web site and you’ll find more. About the second year they were involved I was at an organization for retarded kids…. I’ll think of it…. in New York… we have that tournament every spring. And while I was there I met Tom and Rusty, and when I heard what they were doing and they knew what I was doing, especially in Rusty’s case, I think it was paramount to Tom that Rusty and I get together. I was probably the most notorious of the recovering guys and I wrote about it in the other book. So we got together from then on. It’s their efforts as much as mine. I was someone who had some notoriety and the whole thing just snowballed to where our banquet today is $150 a plate and we get 500-600 people.
CT: So what about the book?
Anybody reading this that has kids that have got some false ideas about alcohol and drinking and so forth, it approaches it like some of the things I’ve told you. There are a lot of people out there hurting that don’t know they’re hurting. They are hurting other people by their lack of knowledge or by their attitude about it. From that standpoint, I think it’s a good book, and there are some good stories in it. There’s some… the thing that makes it better than anything else is that my son read the manuscript at age fifty, and now he’s reflecting how it was in his life at every age and stage, so… and then a lot of my teammates and former ball players are quoted in there. We sent out questionnaires and a lot of them wrote back some very decent stuff. So that’s good. It’s a pretty sentimental book, too, the parts dealing with my first wife and so forth. Alcohol was a heartbreaker for the family, and that’s in there.
My dad was a wonderful man, a World War I hero, real honest, good work ethic, wounded in the war, you’d like him as a neighbor and everything. All of those things. He was stern but that was the German heritage and there’s nothing wrong with that. But he was so mis-informed about alcohol and manliness, you know? I had the occasion to have him hear me speak after I was sober for a while you know, and ride back home in the dark in the car where people talk and say things without seeing each other’s eyes, and he was able to tell me that it was great what I had done for the family since I got sober and how wrong he was about alcohol. He admitted it. Both of my brothers have died this past year, they both got a chance to read the book and loved it. They were both alcoholics, and there are uncles and aunts on my mother’s side who have died of it, too. And I know there were deaths related to it on my father’s side, too. Within the family there is some pretty tragic stuff that is alcohol-related… I don’t want to get into that. The bigger picture here is that the number of people who have had problems among my kids and nieces and nephews and so on by their numbers is a hell of a lot less than in the generation before, so you have to be able to weigh progress in the right perspective. You can’t change everybody overnight, but in a sense I’m lucky to be here.
Are there many people who can say I’m glad I had this godawful problem? Because in essence it gave me the opportunity to do something a lot more positive in life than just strike out the side or something like that. It’s a much better gift to humanity. I mean, we have hero worship in this country for people who play professional sports, and that’s good because it has helped me to do something. So I’m just happy and tickled about the whole thing. The only problem is I’m seventy five.
CT: Anything else to add?
To me, the sixth game of the 1958 World Series, when we were 3-1 down, that belongs on your list.
And that was it. We had been sitting in that diner for a couple of hours at that point. As I discovered was de rigeur when interviewing men of Ryne Duren’s generation, he would not let me pick up the check. Rest in peace, Ryne.
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