Ryne Duren: The Fireman
by Mike Whiteman
January 22, 2023
Throughout much of baseball's early days, a pitcher was expected to go nine innings, and a relief pitcher was a failed starting pitcher, a step down from the starter who was leaving the game. In fact, the best relievers may have been starters like Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell who were pressed into duty between starts. That thinking started to change after World War II. The Yankees' Joe Page finished in the top five in American League Most Valuable Player voting in 1947 and 1949 and was a crucial cog in two World Series champions. The Phillies' Jim Konstanty took home the National League MVP award in 1950, and the voting wasn't really close.
Through the 1950s, Yankee manager Casey Stengel turned to the likes of Tom Morgan, Tom Ferrick, Bob Grim, and Johnny Sain to provide quality relief. Not household names, but talented pitchers nonetheless. On June 15, 1957, righthanded pitcher Ryne Duren was acquired in a trade with Kansas City Athletics, one of many deals between the two clubs during that era. The Yanks had been "introduced" to the hurler back in May, when pitching for the A's he terrorized the Yankee lineup with his 100+ MPH velocity and unreliable control. According to Peter Golenbock in his epic book Dynasty, outfielder Hank Bauer asked Stengel to consider acquiring Duren, so at least he didn't have to worry about facing him again. The Yankee front office granted their players' wish and dealt for their nemesis. What they didn't know at the time was that they had picked up their latest relief ace, and perhaps most imposing pitcher in franchise history. Duren threw the baseball hard, real hard. His minor-league scouting report, per The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, was "Big guy. Throws like hell. Hitter can't see it. But he can't see you either...Curve not much. Neither is sinker. Just throws the fast one. Unpredictable where it will go."
He threw so hard, and so wild, that it was reported that he was banned from pitching high school ball after hitting a batter with a blazing fastball and breaking three ribs. Stengel himself cautioned "I would not advise hitting against Duren because if he hit you in the head you might be in the past tense". His dark, thick, glasses correcting 20-200 vision in his left eye and 20-70 in his right created the impression that he was unsure where the ball was eventually going. Duren knew the fear he generated, and perpetuated it with the occasional purposeful warm up pitch that flew well beyond his catcher's reach. After his career ended, he confirmed his strategy, saying "I wasn't a headhunter, but the bravado was necessary for me to be effective."
After the trade, Duren was immediately sent to AAA Denver where he was properly fitted with eyeglasses, and went 13-2, 3.16 for the rest of the season. In 1958, he went north with the Yanks out of Spring Training and immediately turned into a trusted asset for Stengel, becoming the premier reliever in the American League. The AL All-Star was 6-4, 2.02 with a league-leading nineteen saves and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. The Yanks cruised to an easy AL pennant that season, and Duren continued to perform in the World Series, with a 1.93 ERA in 9.1 innings. He may have been even better in 1959, lowering his ERA to 1.88, increasing his strikeouts per nine innings and was again selected as an All-Star. For the 1958 season, Duren struck out 28% of the batters he faced - the average American League pitcher fanned about 13%. In 1959 he punched out 30% of the batters who stepped the plate. Both years, he struck out more than double the league rate. For comparison's sake, the one MLB player to do that in 2022 was Edwin Diaz of the Mets. Duren suffered a broken wrist at the end of 1959, which led to a poor 1960 season. The Yanks dealt him to the Angels in 1961. He then became a journeyman, bouncing to multiple teams until his career ended in 1965. Sadly, even while enjoying great baseball success Duren struggled with the demons of alcohol addiction, which certainly contributed to his many travels after leaving New York. Duren's career and his life spiraled into struggle and despair, and not long after his playing days ended he hit rock bottom after multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations. Thankfully, he recovered and worked for over forty years helping others struggling with addiction. Most discussions of the great relievers omit Ryne Duren, as his career did not last long. His peak was as high as anyone's though, and for a short while was among the elite pitchers in the game, and a significant contributor to the 1958 World Series champions.