Elroy Face is a baseball icon in Pittsburgh. Soon to celebrate his 82nd birthday, Face spent 15 of his 16 big-league seasons in a Pirates uniform, setting a standard for relief pitchers in an era that preceded modern-day usage. The right-handed forkballer threw 1,375 innings over 848 appearances from 1953-69, logging 104 wins and 193 saves. A three-time All-Star, Face played a major role on the 1960 championship club, saved a then-record 28 games in 1962, but is best known for his remarkable 1959 season in which he posted an 18-1 record pitching exclusively out of the bullpen.
David Laurila: You came to the Pirates from the Dodgers after being originally signed by the Phillies, all before breaking into the big leagues. I believe that it was Branch Rickey who brought you to Pittsburgh?
Elroy Face: Yes, I had two good years in the Dodgers organization, but they left me up for the (Rule 5) draft. Mr. Rickey had drafted me (in the 1950 minor-league draft) when he was (general manager) with the Dodgers and later that year he went to Pittsburgh. Two years later he drafted me to Pittsburgh.
DL: Rickey apparently thought highly of you.
EF: I always got along well with him. There were a lot of people who didn’t like him, but I had no problems with him. I never had any problems with contracts or anything, although he wasn’t here that long. It was just a couple of years that I dealt with him. I actually got married my first year here and the first place I went to was his office and I introduced him to my wife.
DL: Like most pitchers, you were originally a starter. How did you become a reliever?
EF: When I pitched in Fort Worth, Texas, Bobby Bragan was the manager down there. This was in 1952, the year before I was drafted to Pittsburgh. In 1955, he became the manager in Pittsburgh. But down in Fort Worth, Texas, I was a starting pitcher but also relieved between starts. He knew that my arm recuperated quickly, so he started using me more in relief.
DL: In your era, pitchers were primarily put in the bullpen because they weren’t considered good enough to be starters. Did you resent being made into a reliever?
EF: No, I was happy. I enjoyed the challenge and everything; I really enjoyed that. Back then, relievers were guys who couldn’t go nine innings so they stuck them in the bullpen. Well, my first years in the minor leagues I was 14-2, 18-5 and 23-9 as a starter. I’m satisfied with what happened.
DL: Do you think you could have been an effective starter in the big leagues?
EF: Well, I started 27 games total and I had seven complete games. The last game I started was under Bobby Bragan (in 1957), just before he got fired. I was supposed to start the day he got fired, but (Danny) Murtaugh had taken over and he scratched me from starting. I never started another ballgame.
DL: What was your best pitch?
EF: Whatever got them out. No, I had a fastball, a curveball, a slider, and I developed that forkball for an off-speed pitch. It made my other pitches more effective.
DL: Was your forkball gripped pretty much the same as a split-finger fastball?
EF: No, I put the ball in between the fingers. Now they spread their fingers on top of the ball, and I put the ball between the fingers. I needed an off-speed pitch and they sent me back to New Orleans in 1954 to work on one, Mr. Rickey did. I just started working on it, developed it, and started using it and came back to the big leagues with it.
DL: What is your opinion of how relievers are utilized in today’s game?
EF: Well, they give them credit…like (Trevor) Hoffman, what does he have, like 500 saves? He wouldn’t have that if he had to come in, in the seventh inning and pitch two or three innings. He didn’t have to face the tying or winning run in some of those saves. The tying run didn’t even come to the plate, and he still got a save for it. You get two outs in the ninth inning and you bring the closer in, and he gets the third out and gets a save. Back then, we had to pitch. I went five innings in Chicago one time and the ballgame was finally won in the 14th inning.
DL: I think that might have been the game where you got two hits.
EF: I don’t know. I may have. I didn’t keep track of my hitting.
DL: You were credited with 193 saves in your career. Are there any that stand out more the others?
EF: There was one in Cincinnati where I came in with two men on base and nobody out and I picked the guy off second, and then I picked the guy off first. That was before I made a pitch to the batter, so I had two outs and nobody on.
DL: Everybody points to your 18-1 season in 1959, but were you even better in 1962?
EF: I think that in 1960, I pitched better ball than I did in ’59. We won the pennant that year and I did a better job pitching. I didn’t get as many victories, or maybe even as many saves, but I think I pitched better ball in ’60 than I did in ’59. Of course, in ’62, I got the Fireman of the Year award, so that was a great year, too. I really didn’t have any real bad years. In ’61, I had an off year, but it really wasn’t a bad year.
DL: What most stands out about the 18-1 season?
EF: The biggest thing was the game I lost. Charlie Neal got a broken-bat single to beat me. He dribbled it between third and short. I broke his bat. Other games, where I won, guys were hitting the ball hard but it was at somebody. He broke his bat and broke my streak.
DL: There’s a lot of luck in baseball, isn’t there?
EF: That’s what (longtime radio voice of the Pirates) Bob Prince used to say: “The luck of Elroy.”
DL: You had an opportunity to pitch to Ted Williams.
EF: I faced him one time, in 1959, in my first All-Star game. It was in Forbes Field and I ended up walking him. In the early 1990s, I was inducted into his Hall of Fame down in Florida. We were sitting around talking and he said that he remembered the circumstances of the ballgame and that the last two pitches could have been called strikes. They were called balls, but they could have been strikes. He had the reputation where if he didn’t swing, the umpire was going to call it a ball. That’s the only time I ever faced him. I faced Mantle and Maris in the World Series, too.
DL: Can you talk a little about the 1960 World Series?
EF: Well, I had three saves in that World Series, the first game, the fourth, and the fifth. Then, in the seventh game, I threw that home run to (Yogi) Berra to put us down, but then Hal Smith came back and hit a three-run homer to put us back ahead by two runs. So, I would have won that game had we gotten them out in the ninth. It ended up that (Harvey) Haddix got the win because he relieved (Bob) Friend. I kid Friend about it. I say, “All the games I saved for you, and you had one game to save for me and you couldn’t do it.”
DL: Who was the best player of your era?
EF: I think Hank Aaron was probably one of the better ones. He didn’t make the outstanding catches like Mays did, or like Clemente, but when he walked out he knew the hitter and was always in position for that hitter. He was just a great ballplayer.
DL: Who was the best you ever played with?
EF: I’d say [Bill] Mazeroski. That’s my feeling. He was just a great ballplayer. There’s never been another second baseman like him.
DL: After 15 years with the Pirates, you were traded to the Tigers late in the 1968 season, and despite being there for the entire month of September you only pitched one inning. Why was that?
EF: Well, I went over there and they got 13 straight complete games. I pitched in two ballgames. I got two-thirds of an inning in one of them and one-third of an inning in the other. That was it. I spent a lot of time sitting in the bullpen, just watching. I wasn’t eligible to go to the World Series, either, as I didn’t go there until the first of September and you had to be on the club before the first of September to be eligible.
DL: How do you want to be remembered by baseball fans?
EF: Just as a great relief pitcher. Nothing else.