Ray Narleski, 1928-2012

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.

20 thoughts on “Ray Narleski, 1928-2012

  1. 1
    Hartvig says:

    While this is sad news anything that helps bring a little recognition to the man in my avatar helps to lighten the moment.

    I strongly recommend that everyone read the link to the Cardboard Gods essay. It’s a rare treat.

    Excellent work, John.

  2. 2
    LJF says:

    I had both Narleski and Mossi in an old timers ABPA league one year and they were dynamite. I had no idea he was part of such a terrific baseball family. Nice work John and condolences to the Narleski family.

  3. 3
    Doug says:

    That then-record 111 AL wins is still the AL record for winning percentage.

    Seattle could have surpassed Cleveland’s .721 clip with a win in the final game of their 2001 season, but Texas edged Seattle 4-3 on a 2-out 9th inning RBI single by Rafael Palmeiro, and the Mariners finished at .716.

    That Indians team truly had crazy opponent splits. Only .500 against the Yankees and White Sox (who both finished above .600), but .809 against everyone else (who were a collective .400). Getting swept in the Series now doesn’t seem quite so surprising.

    • 5
      Ed says:

      Baseball strategy sure was different back then. In game one of the ’54 World Series (the game with the famous Willie Mays catch of the Vic Wertz line drive), the Indians had a chance to take the lead in the top of the 10th. Wertz led off with a double and was sacrificed to 3rd. After an intentional walk and a strikeout, it was Bob Lemon’s turn at bat. The Indians actually let Lemon hit! Needless to say he made the 3rd out of the inning. Lemon was a good hitting pitcher earlier in his career but his best years as a hitter were behind him (.594 OPS in ’54). Plus he had already thrown 9 innings so why let him hit and bring him back to pitch in the 10th????

      • 8
        John Autin says:

        Good points, Ed.

        On the other hand (because you know I always have to play devil’s advocate), by the time Lemon’s spot came up in the 10th, the only lefty remaining to face the RH relief ace Marv Grissom was the rookie backup catcher Hal Naragon, who batted .238 that year.

        Also, Lemon was dealing pretty well on the mound, allowing just a single and a walk in the 5th through 9th innings. And Lemon was himself a lefty hitter and had made contact in each of his 3 ABs thus far (and wound up pulling a line drive that was caught by Whitey Lockman at 1B).

        I might be more inclined to question one or two of Al Lopez’s earlier moves that had used up most of his bench. In particular, I think he got outfoxed by Durocher in the 8th inning in a lefty/righty chess match that saw Lopez pinch-hit for his starting RF, lefty Dave Philley, and then pinch-hit for the pinch-hitter with lefty Dale Mitchell.

        Of course, even if Lemon was the best option for batting in the 10th, Lopez still could have brought in one of his three outstanding relievers. But as you said, the game was played differently then; relieving a horse like Lemon after a “mere” 9 innings wasn’t often done.

        • 10
          Ed says:

          Good points John. I hadn’t looked that closely to see who was left to bat on the Indian’s bench. And hindsight is obviously 20-20.

      • 9
        John Autin says:

        Speaking of lefty hitters on Cleveland’s bench in 1954 … Anyone know the story behind Luke Easter being released early that year after just 6 PAs — or why he never made it back to the majors? Easter had batted .303 with a 118 OPS+ the year before in a part-time role, and was one of the best sluggers in the league for 3 years before that.

        According to B-R Bullpen, Easter lost his job to lefty 1B Bill Glynn, which looks like a classic blunder — Glynn couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag (at least not a 2-ply bag), and the club traded for Vic Wertz in June. Judging from what Easter did in the PCL that year (and in AAA for many years to come, into his late 40s), they should have just kept Easter.

        His SABR bio says he had been injury-prone in his last years with Cleveland, and I guess most teams wouldn’t have much patience with a 38-year-old slow-footed 1B. But given what he did in the PCL in ’54, it seems odd that they’d trade for another slow-footed 1B rather than bring back the proven Easter.

        • 11
          Richard Chester says:

          Easter was able to play in the minors until 1964 when he was 48 years old. He was the Internaional League MVP in 1957. At the time of his release from the Indians he had knee and ankle problems.

  4. 4
    Ed says:

    Indians also had Hal Newhouser, the 2 time MVP, in the bullpen. Newhouser went 7-2, 7 saves and a 2.51 ERA.

  5. 6
    DaveKingman says:

    I like the classic logo on Narleski’s hat.

    Oh, for those halcyon days of yore.

    • 12
      Tmckelv says:

      1957 Topps is a wonderful card set. It is the first Topps set with color photos and the 1950’s quality of the photos is great. It is all head and/or posed shots, but the old logos/hats/uniforms more than make up for the lack of action.

      • 13
        John Autin says:

        T — I’m no card expert, but while picking out the photo used above, I noticed 1955 and ’56 Topps cards with what seem to be color photos. In fact, their 1955 and 1956 cards for Narleski seem to use the same color photo.

        Could this be a b&w photo painted in color? And was it common practice to re-use a head shot for 2 different years?

        • 19
          Howard says:

          I don’t know how common it was but Don Mossi’s ’55 and ’56 cards also use the same picture.

          • 20
            John Autin says:

            Well, in Mossi’s case, it could be a simple matter of protecting costly camera lenses.

  6. 7
    Richard Chester says:

    Testimony to the Indians relief corps that year was a game I’d rather forget. On 6/2/54 at the Stadium the Yankees jumped on Early Wynn and reliever Don Mossi for 7 runs on 6 singles and a walk in the first inning. From that point on the Indians pecked away and tied the game in the top of the ninth and finally pushed across a run in the tenth to win the game. The relief pitchers Mossi, Narleski, Hooper, Garcia and Newhouser held the Yankees hitless for the last 9 innings of the game. The Indians considered that game to be an omen finding it hard to believe they could beat the Yankees after falling behind so quickly.

  7. 15
    Tmckelv says:

    JA,

    The the Topps cards from 1952-1956 are painted pictures. some of them are painted portaits and some appear to be painted photos. My point about 1957 was the use of a full color photo (player and background).

    There are some instances over the years of topps reusing, pictures/photos. Even later than the 1950’s (where is was common – especially 1955 & 1956 like you mentioned).

    It was even done with superstars. Check out these 2 cards (1 images) of the same player for 1968 & 1969. Plus a bonus from 1957:

    1968
    http://www.checkoutmycards.com/Cards/Baseball/1968/Topps/110/Hank_Aaron/1829116
    1969
    http://www.checkoutmycards.com/Cards/Baseball/1969/Topps/100/Hank_Aaron/1831931

    1957 (reverse image)
    http://www.checkoutmycards.com/Cards/Baseball/1957/Topps/20/Hank_Aaron_UER_(Reverse_negative_photo_on_front)/1805485

    Note: Hank Aaron had the same picture used for his first THREE topps cards (1954, 1955 & 1956)! They they followed it up in 1957 with the reverse image.

    • 16
      Tmckelv says:

      this was in response to John Autin @ #13 above.

      I tried to put the links to all of the cards mentioned, but it said I was too “Spammy” so it would not allow it. Then when it returned me to the previous screen for update, it must have dropped me down to the bottom instead of being a reply to John’s post.

      • 18
        John Autin says:

        T — I think the system limits you to 3 links per comment.

        P.S. re: the inverted Aaron card — Could it be a subtle reference to his having batted cross-handed in his youth?

  8. 17
    birtelcom says:

    Ray Narleski was Cleveland’s franchise career saves leader for a surprisingly long time, from early 1956 until May 19, 1989, when Doug Jones finally broke Narleski’s record of 53 career saves as an Indian. That’s a thirty-three year stretch as the franchise saves leader. As of the end of 1988, the only then-existing franchises that had not had a reliever save at least 54 career games for them were the Indians and Mariners.

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