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April 9, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

Where the Crazy Closer Comes From

by Matthew Callan

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Matthew Callan writes about the New York Mets for Amazin' Avenue and has written about everything else elsewhere. He is also the host of Replacement Players, a new podcast about old games. Catch him on Twitter at @scratchbomb.

 

Over the last few months, I’ve been watching the inaugural season of This Week in Baseball for a “recap” series at Amazin’ Avenue. (Spoiler alert: the Yankees win it all.) It has been immensely enjoyable to watch these shows and see how much the game has changed since 1977 and how much of it remains the same. But recently, I was struck by one segment that drove home just how long we’ve accepted the idea of a Closer Mentality: a mindset that hovers somewhere in the intersection of daredevil, showboat, and mental patient, and is supposedly what makes a closer a closer.

Episode 13 of TWIB featured a segment on the struggles of Cardinals reliever Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky. He closed out games for St. Louis while intimidating batters with wrestling heel theatrics and wild-man grooming. Then in 1977, new Cards manager Vern Rapp waged an idiosyncratic anti-hippie campaign and instituted a no-facial-hair policy. Hrabosky was forced to shed another part of his stagecraft, a glorious fu manchu. When he struggled to close out games with the same ferocity of years past, Hrabosky blamed his struggles on the loss of his whiskers. In the words of TWIB narrator and broadcasting legend Mel Allen, “He felt his beard helped his most effective weapon: the psyche.” Hrabosky griped, “It’s like taking a gun and taking the firing pin out of it.”

Before seeing this clip, I assumed certain notions about closers were cemented by the emergence of “wacky” relief aces like Hrabosky in the 1970s (see also: Tug McGraw, Sparky Lyle). But TWIB—an official MLB production—took Hrabosky’s claims very seriously. To me, this suggests that by 1977, the idea was already well established that closer not only could act like this, but should.

With this in mind, I wondered if it would be possible to locate the origin of the Crazy Closer archetype. Was there one late-inning reliever who was simultaneously good at his job and bonkers, thus planting this archetype in the heads of baseball fans and writers forever after? In my hunt to find the answer to this question, I kept coming back to one man: Joe Page.

As the relief ace for the first portion of the great Yankees dynasty of the 1940s and 1950s, Page combined what we now think of as closer “stuff”—a hard, rising, swing-and-miss fastball—with the kind of wanton attention-seeking and reckless endangerment of life and limb we also associate with the job. Most baseballers of this period were hard livers (and hard on their livers), but Page still managed to stand above the crowd as a champion night owl, in large part because the press loved to write reports with insinuations about his postgame roguery. Peter Golenbock’s Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1961 describes him as “Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones in a baseball uniform.” David Halberstam noted in Summer of ’49, “Given a choice between the pursuit of pleasure late at night and serious training, he always chose the former.”

Page showed considerable promise during his rookie campaign of 1944, but his performances faded after he experienced a pair of personal losses in quick succession that year. First, his sister was killed in a car accident. Then his father was felled by a stroke on the eve of his first All-Star Game appearance. It doesn’t take Freud to see these traumas, combined with a hardscrabble youth in an Allegheny Valley mining town, and draw a direct course to his live-fast-die-young outlook on life.[1]

Page’s manager, Joe McCarthy, often took him to task for his lack of stamina in starting assignments, and blamed this on his postgame exploits. Page responded to McCarthy’s fines and lectures with bemused indifference, which infuriated McCarthy to no end. After a few seasons of clashes, the last straw came when McCarthy tried to scream some sense into Page during a flight to Detroit in 1946. Threats of being sent to Newark (the Yankees’ minor-league team) fell on deaf ears. Upon landing, a frazzled McCarthy promptly flew back home to New York and resigned the post he’d held since the days of Ruth and Gehrig.

Page cut an imposing figure on the mound, and when he had his good, lively fastball working, he was as intimidating as any pitcher in the game. The problem was, Page had nothing but that fastball, and he couldn’t throw it for nine innings. Nor was he all that cerebral about his approach. When asked to give his pitching philosophy, Page insisted, “Give ’em the good stuff right down the middle.”

This macho tunnel vision drove McCarthy mad, but the Yankees’ new skipper, Bucky Harris, saw an opportunity. Page’s stuff reminded him of Firpo Marberry, a hard-throwing righty who pitched his Senators to a championship in 1924. As Washington’s manager, Harris used Marberry almost exclusively as a late-inning reliever, making him the game’s first true closer. It was a revolutionary idea no one had bothered to try again in the intervening years, so Harris made Page his second test subject.

Pressed into closing duty in 1947, Page finally delivered on his potential. He appeared in 56 games (all but two as a reliever), won 14 games, fanned 116 batters, and pitched to a 2.48 ERA. He also made four appearances in the World Series and blanked Brooklyn for five innings of dazzling one-hit ball to earn the win in the decisive Game 7. The scribes of the day thought enough of Page’s contributions that he finished in fourth place in MVP voting. His skill at extinguishing rallies made him one of the first pitchers to be dubbed The Fireman, and presumably the last one to be dubbed The Gay Reliever.

Page being Page, he celebrated his newfound success with a non-stop offseason bacchanal and showed up to spring training the next year 30 pounds overweight. His efforts to shed the pounds in a hurry, combined with continued carousing, diminished his overall effectiveness. Fearing his closer was partying the pennant away, team president George Weiss had Page tailed by a private detective. The detective, despite all evidence to the contrary, insisted to Weiss that Page was on his best behavior. Late in the season, a column by Ed Sullivan (yes, that Ed Sullivan, who was a “nightlife” columnist in the Earl Wilson mold) revealed that this detective’s “glowing reports” were mostly attributable to the fact that she and Page were conducting a whirlwind romance.[2]

The Yanks missed out on the 1948 AL pennant by two games. Harris, the man whose brilliant idea had revived Page’s career, was promptly fired and replaced with an as-yet undistinguished manager named Casey Stengel. Despite early struggles, the lefty rebounded in 1949 to make 60 appearances, all in relief, and post a 2.59 ERA. Most importantly, he helped thwart a late challenge from the Red Sox. Thanks to a rash of Yankee injuries, Boston had pulled ahead of New York in the standings, one game up with two games left to play. All the Sox needed to do to win the league title was win one of their final two contests against the Yanks, and they looked well on their way to doing so when they took a 4-0 lead in the penultimate game of the year.

Then Page entered and threw 6 2/3 innings of one-hit ball. With Boston’s bats silenced, the Yanks came back for a 5-4 win, then clinched the pennant with a victory the next day. The comeback was doubly sweet for Page, since the Sox were now managed by his old nemesis, McCarthy. In the years to come, Sox catcher Birdie Tebbetts would insist that Boston was the better team in 1949, but when pressed for a reason why the Yankees won anyway, he’d say, “I’ll give you the answer in two words: Joe Page.”[3]

Page made three more appearances against the Dodgers in the World Series, earning one win in relief as the Yanks made short work of Brooklyn in five games. Once again, Page followed an amazing season with a middling one, which most observers chalked up more to partying than the wages of overuse. Halberstam’s book describes a late-night outing in 1950 when Page outlasted rookie Whitey Ford, a Herculean task if ever there was one. With the clock creeping toward 4 AM, Page arrived at another boite only to be told the joint was closed. He bellowed “But I’m Joe Page!” to the doorman, “as if it were inconceivable,” Halberstam wrote, “that a nightclub would close with him on the outside.”

This time, there would be no I’ll-show-’em comeback. During spring training in 1951, Page slipped off the mound during a windup and wound up tearing his shoulder bursa on release.[4] Such injuries were even more of a mystery then than they are today, and his career all but ended there. A comeback attempt with the Pirates in 1954 lasted all of seven games before Page would admit the party was over. Meanwhile, other relief specialists emerged who stood in stark contrast to Page, more mild-mannered types who tossed “trick” pitches. (See: 1950 NL MVP Jim Konstanty and his palmball, Hoyt Wilhelm and his deathless knuckler.)

However, Page’s brief stint with the Pirates assured that he would live on in baseball lore. With his fastball gone, Page tried to adopt a forkball. It didn’t help him much, but a Pirates farmhand named Elroy Face made a note of the gambit and taught it to himself. Face pitched his way to the bigs with that unpredictable weapon, and by the end of the decade he was baffling hitters with it as the Pirates’ closer. Over the 1958 and 1959 seasons, he won an astonishing 22 games in a row, all in relief. The next year, he saved three of the Pirates’ victories in their stunning World Series win over the Yankees. By 1963, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Baseball’s Best Reliever.”

Face’s example helped popularize the idea of having a closer, but there was a sense that wins alone were a poor measure of their worth. Inspired by Face’s brilliant 1958-1959 campaign, Chicago newspaperman Jerome Holtzman took an amorphous idea that had been floating around for years and codified it by developing a save formula. He sold the idea to the Sporting News, which then used it as the basis for a brand new trophy awarded exclusively to relievers. In 1969, saves became an official MLB statistic, thus officially establishing the sense of a reliever’s worth and setting up a decade that would be dominated by the likes of Hrabosky et al.

There is some debate about the extent to which Face’s success can be directly attributed to Page’s example. “He didn’t teach [the forkball] to me or show me how to throw it,” Face clarified years later. There is also some question as to exactly how “crazy” Page was. In Golenbock’s aforementioned book, Page insisted that his exploits were blown way out of proportion by a sniggling press corps that had it out for him, and maintained that he drank no more than the average Yankee of his era. (Which, granted, was probably still gallons too much by modern standards.)

Regardless of the pure facts, there is significance in the fact that Page was so often mentioned as a primordial source of Elroy Face. The Page connection is explicitly mapped out in Face’s 1963 SI profile, which betrays a desire of sportswriters from that era—writers who surely would have remembered Page’s exploits on and off the field—to paint him with the same brush. When fans, writers, and peers alike tried to stamp Face in the mold of Page, they subconsciously transmitted their ideal of how a closer should act.

It must have been far too tempting to see Face’s unpredictable forkball and not think of the mercurial man from whom it was said he learned it. Despite standing a slight 5’8”, Face—like Page—was considered quite intimidating by players of his time. Bill Mazeroski said, “You could just see the confidence in his walk,” while Steve Blass testified, “he had more balls than Babe the Blue Ox.” Consciously or not, the Sporting News included a nod to Page in the name of their new accolade: The Fireman of the Year Award.

Yes, as early as the early 1960s, attitude and showmanship was considered as important as stuff for this new role. Witness a proto-closer whose heyday overlapped that of Face, bespectacled Yankees reliever Ryne Duren, who combined high velocity with a dangerous lack of control that was either genuine wildness or a bit of theater meant to intimidate the opposition. His coke-bottle glasses terrified batters, who feared that he couldn’t see the plate and would brain them with his rocket-fuel offerings. Duren also engaged in hard-living extracurricular activities that would later inspire him to give up drink altogether and become an addiction counselor. He is best remembered now as the inspiration for Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn in Major League, but to contemporary writers, Duren was known as “a right-handed Joe Page.”

This is why Hrabosky’s antics circa 1977 were taken at face value, and why we now accept everything from Brian Wilson’s beard to Fernando Rodney’s imaginary bow-and-arrow. It doesn’t matter how much Page truly did to inspire the reliever revolution that began in the 1960s. When people first began to think of what a closer should be, whether they realized it or not, Page was the model for which they grasped.


[1] Golenbock

[2] Golenbock

[3] Halberstam

[4] Golenbock

Related Content:  Closers

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