Baseball relief aces have been around for more than a half century. Cy Young Award to Bedrosian recalls former bullpen stars

It was no surprise that Roger Clemens (20-9) won a second consecutive Cy Young Award this year. He simply dominated the American League, despite his slow start after his spring training holdout in a contract dispute. It was something of a surprise that Steve Bedrosian was voted this award in the National League. Bedrosian was a relief pitcher for the Phillies after being traded from Atlanta. The big right-hander became a full-time reliever at Philadelphia after setting a major league record in 1985 at Atlanta for being taken out the most times in a season as a starting pitcher - 37 games. Make no mistake, Bedrosian had a distinguished year, posting a major league-leading 40 saves despite pitching for a team that was not in serious contention. However, Cy Young winners are mainly starting pitchers, and usually when a reliever wins he helps nail down a pennant, as did Willie Hern'andez for Detroit in 1984.

Baseball has always been in constant change: playing fields, parks, bats, gloves, uniforms, shoes, franchises, designated hitters, batting helmets, money, radio and television, umpiring, the ball itself, and the specialization of pitching.

Relief pitching as a specialty dates back to 1924. I remember asking Connie Mack when he was still managing the Philadelphia Athletics, and had seen more of baseball than any other living person, how using certain men to finish games came about.

``In the early days,'' Mr. Mack began, ``we didn't think much of a starting pitcher who couldn't finish his games. [Cy Young won 511 games, started 818 times and finished 751.] I remember having a man who could pitch very well for a few innings but then weakened. I let him go. Now I know he would have been a splendid relief man.

``It was Stanley (Bucky) Harris'' - Mr. Mack was always formal with names - ``with the Washington Club in 1924 who began using Marberry in relief. Marberry did so well coming out of the bullpen that from then on we began looking for men who could go full speed for a few innings.''

Connie Mack pinpointed the first acknowledged relief specialist, Fred (Firpo) Marberry. However, several basic changes in baseball took place in 1920 which demanded changes in pitching philosophy and usage. Beginning in 1920 the spitball was banned, as was the use or application of any foreign substance on the ball. No longer could a pitcher ``doctor'' a ball legally. Then, and most important, in 1920 Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs, and the next year hit 59.

Ruth's home runs changed all baseball. The owners saw that fans were excited by home runs, and so the ball was made much livelier in order that lesser players could hit them. Batters stopped trying to meet the ball and hit for average. They got lighter bats and started swinging from the end, swinging for distance.

Pitchers learned bitterly they could not relax on a single pitch to a single batter. Starters could no longer pace themselves as with the dead ball. They had to bear down, pitch as hard as they could, ``keep the ball in the park,'' and let a fresh man come in from the bullpen.

During World War II, with the severe shortage of players, Leo Durocher at Brooklyn, out of necessity, began ``managing in depth.'' Leo used his bullpen early and late. When Casey Stengel won 10 pennants in 12 years (1949-60) with the New York Yankees, he ``platooned'' all positions. He had a remarkable pitcher in Allie Reynolds, who both started and relieved in money situations. Casey called Allie ``my two-way man.''

Today we have starting pitchers, and we have ``long men'' who come in early, and we have ``finishing'' pitchers who lock it up. The importance of the bullpen today cannot be overestimated. Two years ago the bullpen failed the Red Sox in their World Series loss to the New York Mets. In this year's Series the Minnesota Twins had the relief pitching and the St. Louis Cardinals did not.

A relief pitcher always comes in when the game is on the line. He is not wasted when he is not needed. He must have a rubber arm. He must have control. He must be overpowering or have a special pitch. He must have cold nerves. He can't afford a single mistake.

Marberry, Hugh Casey, Joe Page, Jim Konstanty, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dick Radatz, Bruce Sutter, Mike Marshall, Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle, Kent Tekulve, Elroy Face, to name a few. They bit the bullet. A hard way to make a living. Some men!

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.