No one thought to ask him, but it was possible that Walter Alston's stomach hurt. The game was close, as close as a game can get without being tied. Alston's team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, led 4-3. It was the eighth inning, the rival New York Giants had a man on base and Alston's pitcher had gone to a two-ball two-strike count on the batter, young Andre Rodgers. Alston was afraid that his pitcher might, in his desire to get the ball over the plate, give young Rodgers what the trade calls a fat pitch. Young Rodgers hits with power, if not with consistency. A fat pitch could mean a home run. A home run would put the Giants ahead.
Where another man might reach for an Alka-Seltzer, Alston reached for Clem Labine (see cover). Labine is a 30-year-old Rhode Islander of French-Canadian extraction and deceptive appearance. He has a youthful face, a crew cut, a wife, two small children, a warm, musical speaking voice and an outspoken enthusiasm for men's fashion design. When he is not on the ball field these things tend to obscure the fact that he also has arms and shoulders like a blacksmith, a competitive drive that borders on sheer meanness, and a very great proficiency in the art of throwing a baseball.
Labine is a relief pitcher. When Manager Alston beckoned, he walked briskly in from the bullpen and took charge of the game. He threw his warmup pitches, all fast balls, as young Rodgers, waiting, watched. The game resumed. Rodgers stepped up to bat and Labine threw him, not a fast ball, but a curve. It was strike three and that was that. Labine ran through the remainder of the Giant batters in the eighth and ninth innings without allowing anyone to reach base, and the Dodgers won.
Not too many days later the Dodgers were in Milwaukee playing the Braves. They had lost the night before and they wanted to win this game very, very much. In the eighth inning the score was tied 2-2. Alston sent Labine in to pitch. The Dodgers finally scored a run in the top of the 10th inning. The Braves? Nine of them faced Labine, three in the eighth, three in the ninth, three in the 10th. None of them reached first base. The Dodgers won.
June 2, 1957
In New York a writer talking idly of this and that with Bob Scheffing, manager of the Chicago Cubs, asked Scheffing, "If you had your choice of any one pitcher in the entire league, who would you pick?"
"Labine," Scheffing said, without hesitation.
What Scheffing wants, Alston has. And happily, Alston appreciates what he has. In discussing Labine and relief pitching recently, Alston said: "It used to be that your relief pitcher was a fellow who wasn't good enough to be a starter. But now, when you have someone like Labine or Hershell Freeman in the bullpen, you know the man you bring in is just as good a pitcher as your starter. Maybe better."
Relief pitching is not, of course, a new development in baseball. It traces back probably to the first psychosomatic twinge in the elbow of a nervous starting pitcher confronted by the meat of his opponents' batting order. ("I'd like to stay in the game, you understand, Charley. It's just I don't want to do nothing to hurt the team's chances. Maybe you better bring Lefty in.") Relief pitchers like Firpo Marberry, Johnny Murphy and Joe Page were important contributors to baseball's colorful history.
But if the relief pitcher as an individual is not new, relief pitching as it is practiced today is. In the old days a relief pitcher was a substitute, an indication of weakness in the original pitching plan. Today relief pitching in itself is part of the plan (relief pitchers were used in 70% of the games played in the major leagues last season) and the presence of a relief man in a game is, as often as not, an indication of strength, of fortified pitching. The Philadelphia Phillie pitching staff had the second highest total of complete games in the National League last year. This might seem to be a sign of team pitching strength, yet the Phillie staff gave up most hits, most runs, most home runs and had the worst earned run average in the league. They simply did not have enough relief pitching.
Relief pitching is strength. And a good relief pitcher is worth his weight in gold. Actually, at current market prices—gold is still listed at about $35 an ounce—Labine, who weighs 195, is worth probably three times his weight in gold. And in open bidding Bob Scheffing might go as high as four.
Yet for all this the recognition given relief pitchers is surprisingly meager. Jim Konstanty did win the Most Valuable Player award in the National League in 1950, but that seems in retrospect to be almost as big an upset as Truman's win over Dewey in 1948. Hershell Freeman, who was by far the best pitcher Cincinnati had last year and whose wonderfully effective relief work was a key reason why the pitching-poor Redlegs finished only two games behind the first-place Dodgers, was a distant 13th in the voting for Most Valuable Player. And Labine himself ended in a tie for 30th, with just one point (or one measly 10th-place vote) of the total 1,416.
This caused followers of Brooklyn baseball to wonder what the baseball writers who cast the votes were watching during the season. One such wonderer put his protest in song:
Oh, my darlin', oh, my darlin',
Oh, my darlin' Clem Labine.
We have won, but you're forgotten.
Dreadful sorry, Clem Labine.
Labine himself is unworried about the slight:
"When a team has pitchers as good as Newcombe and Maglie [who finished first and second in the Most Valuable Player voting], they're the ones who should get the votes."
"Just as long as I get paid I'm not going to worry about it. Relief pitching isn't glamorous. Kids don't imitate pinch-hitters and kids don't imitate relief pitchers. But I've come to realize that a starting pitcher, to get to the point where he's making as much money as I'm making now [around $25,000 a year], has to figure on winning 20 games a season."
A RARE DAY OFF
Labine was sitting on the bed in his hotel room as he discussed his work. Outside, rain dripped coldly down from a foul sky. The game scheduled that day had been postponed and Labine had a day off, a rare thing for a relief pitcher. (After those three perfect innings against Milwaukee, for instance, he was back at work in the bullpen the next afternoon against the Chicago Cubs. Of course, he sat with regal disdain through the first seven innings while first one and then another of his cohorts provided the "activity in the Brooklyn bullpen," as the broadcasters like to say. But as soon as the eighth inning started, Labine rose to warm up. The Cubs scored to narrow Brooklyn's lead to one run, and Alston asked the Dodger bullpen if Labine was ready to go in. Just then Dale Long of the Cubs hit into a double play, Starting Pitcher Sandy Koufax was safely out of the inning, and Labine sat down. When the ninth inning began, Labine arose again and warmed up quickly. The Cubs threatened once more, but Koufax held on to retire the side and win. Not until Koufax's last pitch did Labine stop throwing. Then he walked in toward the dugout, slowly and deliberately, his day's work done.)
"It's funny how you feel, warming up like that," Labine said. "I was hoping Alston would put me in the game, because I like to go in. But at the same time I was rooting for Sandy to pitch a complete game, because I knew how much it would mean to him. And I knew that if I did have to go in, it meant that we were in trouble—if I didn't have to we weren't in trouble; we'd win—and you want to win. You root for your team, you root for your teammates. But at the same time, I want to get in the game.
"When you warm up like that you think about who's batting and how you'd pitch to him. When Long was batting against Koufax, Sandy tried to keep the ball high because Long isn't too strong on high fast balls. But I can't pitch to him there because he'll kill my fast ball. Sandy has a good fast ball; I don't. Or if I throw my sinker high, he'll kill that. I have to throw low to him, because I'm stronger there. I should never throw a high sinker, and I don't mean to. But you make a mistake and the ball doesn't go where you want it to go.
"A relief pitcher can't afford mistakes. A starter may have a lead to fool around with, and he can wait until he gets into trouble to really bear down. But a relief pitcher is always in trouble, or he wouldn't be brought into the game. You have to bear down on every man. You can't afford to make mistakes.
"Take a hitter like Joe Adcock. I don't have a very high opinion of Adcock as a hitter. He can't reach the outside corner of the plate with his bat. He stands at the plate in a sort of crouch and he reaches out and touches the far corner of the plate with his bat, as if to prove to himself that he can reach it. But when he hits, he's standing up straight and his foot's over here and he just can't reach the outside corner of the plate. If you keep the ball out there he'll never hit. But make a mistake against him, and he hurts you plenty.
"So, you practice throwing to imaginary hitters, practice what you'll throw to them in the game. You can't wait until you're on the mound to practice. I remember this spring we were playing the Braves, in New Orleans, I think. Johnny Logan came up with bases loaded. Now, Logan's a really good fast ball hitter. You can't get one past him. The count went to three and two, and I threw him a good curve and he struck out. He looked out at me and he said, 'It's spring training, Clem. Can't you throw a fast ball?' I asked him after the game what he wanted me to do. He said, 'What do you have to throw the curve for? It's only spring training.' I said, 'Johnny, isn't spring training for practice? When do you want me to practice throwing breaking stuff with a full count? Some day when the bases are loaded in the ninth inning in Milwaukee?'
"You have to think of who's coming up. If I know that, say, Henry Aaron is the fourth man coming to bat in an inning, I really work on that first man, to get him out of the way. Then, even if I lose the second man I can still get the double play and get out of the inning. It's very important to get ahead of the batter. Then he has to control his swing and protect the plate. And if you get ahead of him, say two strikes and no balls, you can try four times to make him hit your pitch. Including the fourth pitch. Let him walk. A guy like Aaron, in a very tight game you'd almost rather have him on first base, even though he's the winning run. He's so hard to pitch to, maybe you'd rather have him on and take your chances with the next man.
"I like relief pitching. It's a challenge. When Sandy was in the bullpen he said one day, 'My arm has never felt so tired.' I said, 'If you expect to stay in the bullpen, get used to it.' Your arm is always tired. It isn't sore. It's just tired. A doctor I know told me it's because a pitcher's arm actually hemorrhages after he's been throwing hard. It becomes a mass of tiny, tiny hemorrhages that take a day or so to clear up. If they clear up fast you're a relief pitcher. I don't think there's any physical damage done to the arm. I think it's more of a mental problem than a physical one. Your arm is tired, and you don't feel like pitching. But you make yourself. You throw for awhile, and then it feels all right. It feels good. Some days it feels so good you know you can go in and get anybody out."
Staid Bostonians were astonished. In two games last week, the Indians and Red Sox brought back memories of Ebbets Field in its Babe Herman heyday—lots of comedy mixed with heroic feats.
The first game was tied 1-1 when the sixth inning started. Boston Shortstop Billy Klaus reached down to field a ground ball and bobbled it. A single followed. Klaus had a chance at another grounder and this time started a seemingly easy double play via second. The first baseman dropped the throw. A walk filled the bases. Another potential double-play ball was hit to Klaus. He fumbled it. One run scored and the bases were still loaded. The second baseman grabbed a line drive for the second out and tossed quickly to Klaus to trap the scrambling runner off second. Klaus dropped the ball.
In the Red Sox half of the sixth, Klaus came up with the bases loaded. He hit into a double play. In the seventh when the Indians came up again, the first batter hit a ground ball to Klaus. He didn't fumble it. It bounded over his glove and hit him under the eye. He was carted off the field and sent to the hospital for observation.
In the second game, the next day, the Red Sox were leading 3-0 as the sixth inning started. Indian Pitcher Calvin Coolidge McLish threw a soft floating changeup to Red Sox Batter Gene Mauch. He hit it into the left-field net for a home run. Ted Williams stepped up.
"No changeup for this guy," thought McLish. He threw a low fast ball. It was hit into the right-field seats.
McLish switched to the curve and threw six to Jackie Jensen. He walked him. He threw two more to Dick Gernert. The second went over the left-field fence. McLish started talking to himself. "Changeup, fast ball, curve, that's all I know. I'll have to stick to the curve."
Frank Malzone took two curves and knocked the third into the left-field net. The Red Sox had equaled an American League record they set 17 years ago. In five minutes Cal McLish's ERA had jumped from 1.39 to 3.90.
"It was nothing, really," McLish later modestly commented. "I'd say I gave them a variety. The pitches to Williams and Gernert, I thought, were pretty good. But they turned out bad, didn't they?"