Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bob Turley's Wild Ride

Red Ruffing is the poster child for major leaguers who got a huge break by going from a bad team to a good team. Ruffing debuted with the Red Sox in 1924 at the age of 20, and in the five full seasons he spent in their starting rotation, the team finished last every year. Early in 1930, his career record stood at a dismal 39-96, including 47 losses the previous two seasons. Not exactly the pedigree of a baseball immortal, was it? But a miracle happened when he was traded to the powerhouse New York Yankees in 1930. He came into his prime just in time to have Ruth, Gehrig, & Co. behind him. His record with the Yankees was 231-124. Voila! A Hall of Famer.

A miniature version of Ruffing's rise occurred on the 1950s edition of the Yankees dynasty. Like Ruffing, he was only 20 years old when he debuted in the majors, starting once for the last-place St. Louis Browns in 1951. He lost. After more than a year of military service, he returned to the Browns in 1953. He pitched decently in ten games but went 2-6 as the Browns finished last (one of the victories was a 12-inning three-hitter with 14 strikeouts). They moved to Baltimore, and he had to go with them. The inaugural Baltimore Orioles of 1954 had the same dismal record as the 1953 Browns, 54-100. They escaped the cellar only because the Philadelphia Athletics were somehow even worse, but they still finished 57 games out of first place.

When Bob Turley, now 23 years old, pitched, however, the Orioles were a different team. His 1954 record was a respectable 14-15, a .483 winning percentage. In other games, the Orioles were 40-85, a .320 percentage. The Yankees certainly saw something in him, making him a key figure in the mammoth 17-player trade after the season which brought them four more pennants. From 1955-58, Turley's record was 59-30, culminating in a Cy Young Award in 1958 as the best pitcher in the majors.

How about that 1954 season, in effect an audition for the franchise any self-respecting pitcher hoped to join. The first thing you should know is that his roller-coaster ride was wild in more ways than one. Turley the American League in strikeouts that year--and in walks. They didn't call him "Bullet Bob" for nothing. He struggled against the two great teams--the Indians and Yankees combined for 214 wins--losing nine of eleven decisions, but beat up on the rest of the league, going 12-6. He completed 40% of his 35 starts, pitched more than nine innings three times, notched double-figure strikeouts four times, and double-figure walks thrice. He had a six-start stretch during which he walked 52 batters in 49 innings--and only lost twice!

Let's take a closer look at Bullet Bob's Big Adventure. He completed all three of his April starts, allowing a total of just 14 hits. Start #2 was against the Indians and future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon. Turley started fast, fanning five of the first six hitters. He continued to mow down the Tribe, and through eight innings had a 1-0 lead, a no-hitter, and 13 strikeouts. He whiffed Dave Pope to begin the ninth, then saw his no-hitter vanish on an Al Rosen single. Larry Doby followed with a home run, and there went the game, a tough 2-1 loss.

Turley bounced back in his next outing, winning 2-1 by pitching around a leadoff triple in the eighth inning. On May 5, he pitched at Yankee Stadium and held the Yankees hitless until the fifth inning. The bad news was that he walked the bases loaded, yielded a squeeze bunt which tied the game 1-1, walked another man, and saw the inning blow up on a bases-clearing triple by Joe Collins.

He faced the Indians next, and this time took a one-hitter to the seventh inning (you get the idea this kid could pitch?), again leading 1-0. The Indians tied it on a hit, two passed balls, and a sacrifice fly. That was all they got off Turley, who contributed a sacrifice bunt to the winning rally--in the tenth inning.

After an 11-strikeout win over the Red Sox, Turley suffered another tough loss against the Indians. He took a 1-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth, having retired 11 straight batters, when Al Rosen tied the game with a home run. The Orioles couldn't score any more for him (maybe this is a good time to mention that his offensive support for the whole season was a mere 3.34 runs per start), and he lost in the 12th on an RBI by opposing starter Art Houtteman.

On June 5, Turley beat the Yankees in the Bronx. This time he took a two-hitter and a 2-0 lead to the eighth inning. The Yankees doubled their hit total in that frame, but Turley got Mickey Mantle to fly out to end the threat. Two more hits brought a run in the bottom of the ninth, but Turley got Gene Woodling to pop out with the tying run at third, and he squared his record at 5-5.

Then came his wild stretch, starting with a nine-walk no-decision at Boston. He defeated the Senators but got drilled at Yankee Stadium when he walked six Yankees in less than two innings. Another brutal loss followed. On June 22, he led 1-0 with a two-hitter going to the eighth inning (does this sound familiar?), when a walk and a Sammy White tripled tied it. They kept going until the 12th, when White doubled in the winning run. In a dozen innings, Turley allowed only six hits, but walked 11 (and struck out eight--how many pitches do you suppose he threw?).

Turley's wild streak continued with a nine-inning no-decision and a complete-game win during which he walked nine Tigers in the first four innings. The two-game tally was 20 walks, but he didn't lose! That little party ended when he failed to get past the second inning in his next two starts. Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde. On July 7, inning #2 against the Indians went walk-walk-single-walk-walk-double. It didn't get better next time out against the Tigers. He loaded the bases in the first inning on a single, hit batter, and walk, but got out of it. He began the second inning by walking the first three hitters. Adios, Bullet Bob.

Turley pitched better in his next outing but got exactly one hit of support and lost his third straight. A pair of no-decisions followed: he got knocked out in the first inning at Washington but his offense finally bailed him out of a loss; at Philadelphia, he survived a trio of three-walk innings (and a dozen walks total) and left in the seventh with a 4-2 lead which the bullpen blew. When he lost to the Yankees on July 31, his record dropped to 7-11.

But he bounced back to beat the Athletics 10-2 and followed with another gem. On August 7, he took a no-hitter to the sixth inning against the Red Sox, leading 2-0. Jimmy Piersall's single broke it up, but he got Ted Williams to bounce into a double play. An unearned run in the seventh made it 2-1, but he retired the last seven Red Sox to polish off his two-hit victory. But the roller coaster dived again when he got knocked out in the first inning at Cleveland and lost 1-0 to the White Sox. Another discouraging loss to the Indians followed, another game where he led 1-0 with a one-hitter to the sixth inning before Larry Doby's two-run triple did him in.

With a month left in the season, Turley's record was 9-13 and the Orioles trailed the Athletics in the fierce battle for last place (with a 30-70 record in non-Turley starts). It was a little different the next time out; this time he took a three-hitter and a 4-0 lead to the eighth inning, when Ted Williams homered. Turley held on to win 5-3. One more gem followed, at Washington. This time it was no-hitter (and 3-0 lead) to the sixth inning, when Jim Busby bunted for the Senators' first hit (try that today!). It was still a two-hitter to the ninth inning, when an unearned run made the final score 3-1.

After a no-decision, Turley fanned a dozen Yankees but lost chiefly due to a bases-loaded double by opposing starter Tommy Byrne. That was his last loss of the season. He finished strong with three straight wins. His outing against the Athletics was scoreless to the sixth inning before he prevailed 4-3. At Chicago, he scattered five hits to win 5-1. His 1953 finale was a complete-game 4-3 squeaker over the Tigers. He finished the season 14-15 with a 3.49 ERA. In 247 1/3 innings, he walked 181 batters and struck out 185, both totals higher than his hits allowed (178). American League hitters batted just .203 against him for the season, and he allowed a mere seven home runs.

No wonder the Yankees wanted him. He didn't exactly tame his wildness in the Bronx, walking another 177 batters in 1955 and even leading the league in walks when he won the Cy Young Award in 1958. But he was a winner in the Bronx, including a shutout and a Game 7 victory in the 1958 World Series.

Turley's baseball part ended after that. He came down with arm problems the next spring, won only 26 more games, and retired at the age of 33 with 101 career victories. Then came success in business, more success, and ultimately his own airplane that made his early-career roller-coaster ride just a distant memory.

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