Ray Narleski, a standout reliever for Cleveland in the 1950s, died last week at the age of 83. Here’s the obituary that ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer; here is his B-R Bullpen page, and a note from WasWatching.
Narleski’s career was over before I was born, but I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since I encountered a goofy passage in The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubblegum Book discussing him and his longtime teammate, Don Mossi. (The book’s text is not directly accessible online, but the passage was excerpted by Josh Wilker in his Cardboard Gods essay on Mossi.)
As rookies in 1954, the righty-lefty tandem of Narleski and Mossi helped the Indians win a then-AL-record 111 games, ending the Yankees’ record streak of 5 straight pennants. They combined for a 2.08 ERA in 182 IP, holding opponents to a .182 batting average. As a unit, the pair were about as valuable as any of Cleveland’s 3 top starters (Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia), who averaged a 22-9 record. Because of the outstanding bullpen, the ’54 Indians were the first team ever to have 3 SPs each with 19+ wins but more wins than complete games.
After the high of ’54, Narleski and the Indians experienced bitter disappointment in 1955. They held a 2-game lead over the Yankees with 9 to play — none against the Bombers, whom they’d beaten 13-9 in the season series. But they stumbled to a 3-6 finish while the Yanks caught fire and captured the flag by 3 full games. Cleveland would not finish that close to first place for another 40 years.
In 1957, with Bob Feller retired and the other Big Three growing old and ineffective, Narleski and Mossi were both shifted back to a starting role in mid-season, with Ray going 6-4 with a 3.30 ERA and 7 CG in 15 starts. He also notched 16 saves, joining Firpo Marberry as the only pitchers ever with at least 15 saves and 5 CG in the same year. The notion that Narleski and Mossi were tied at the hip was further deepened in ’58, as both made the reverse transition back to relief work. Narleski finished that year 13-10 with a mediocre 4.07 ERA, while Mossi was 7-8, 3.90.
At the end of that season, Narleski and Mossi were among the first victims of Trader Frank Lane’s 3-year roster turnover. Both were sent to Detroit for Billy Martin and journeyman pitcher Al Cicotte (greatnephew of the banished White Sox star). The trade led to a career revival for Mossi, who averaged 14-8 and a 126 ERA+ in 209 over the next 3 years. But Narleski never found his mojo in the Motor City. By midseason he had fallen into a mop-up role, and after taking a beating late in the year, he was found to have a ruptured disc in his back that abruptly ended his career.
Bill Narleski, Ray’s father, played infield for the Red Sox in 1929-30, batting .265 in 135 games. Ray won the family “home run derby” by one to nothing, touching Russ Kemmerer for a 3-run shot in 1957. Two of Ray’s sons played in the minors; Steve Narleski spent 8 years in the Cleveland farm system, but his career stalled in AAA.
Like all pitchers of that time, Narleski began as a starter. In 1951 he was one of the best in the Texas League, with a 2.42 ERA 242 IP. But he stalled in AAA over the next 2 years, which ultimately sent him to the bullpen and got him to the majors. And for his first 3 years combined, Narleski was one of the most effective relievers in the game, ranking 3rd among all RPs for 1954-56 with 5.9 Wins Above Replacement, trailing only Mossi (6.1) and Marv Grissom, who opposed them in the ’54 Series.
At 83, Don Mossi is now the last surviving regular of the ’54 Indians pitching staff. Among the surviving regular position players, 3B Al Rosen is 88, OF Wally Westlake 91, IF Rudy Regalado 81, 1B Bill Glynn 86, C Hal Naragon 83.
Our thoughts go out to the family and friends of Ray Narleski.