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On January 6, former Yankees relief pitcher Ryne Duren passed away at the age of 81.

Dark glasses and a wild fastball were trademarks of Ryne Duren.

Duren was the original wild thing. Thanks to the combination of a power arm and poor eyesight, the fire balling right hander ranked as one of the most intimidating pitchers in all of baseball, mostly because he often had no idea where the ball was going.

Instead of feeling limited by his poor eyesight, Duren would sometimes use the handicap to his advantage. According to legend, the right hander would fire a “warning shot” by purposely throwing an errant pitch during warmups. Whether intentional or not, seeing Duren, who wore thick-framed glasses that covered his face, pepper the backstop with explosive fastballs had to make the waiting batter think twice about getting too comfortable at the plate.

Ryne Duren likes to fire his first warm-up pitch into the dirt or eight feet above the catcher’s head. Then he squints his thick glasses at Yogi Berra with a puzzled expression that says, ‘Funny, I could have sworn there was a plate around there somewhere.’” – Red Smith, The New York Herald Tribune, November 9, 1958  

Being wild wasn’t an act for Duren. His inability to consistently throw the ball over the plate forced the talented right hander to spend the better part of his 20s in the minor leagues. From 1949 until 1957, when he was acquired by the Yankees from the Athletics, Duren pitched 1,448 1/3 innings in the minors…and walked 1,079 batters along the way! At the start of his career as a 20 year-old with the St. Louis Brown’s Wausau affiliate in the Wisconsin State League, Duren walked 12.1 batters per game, but his impressive fastball, which was rumored to top out over 100mph, ensured that he would be given an extended chance to develop.

Wild Things: Pitchers with the Most BBs and HBPs in 600 or Fewer Innings

Player HBP IP   Player BB IP
Brian Fuentes 47 525   Ryne Duren 392 589.1
Ed Doheny 45 561.2   Grover Lowdermilk 376 590.1
Juan Cruz 43 570.2   Brian Williams 332 595.1
Mike Myers 43 541.2   Juan Cruz 299 570.2
Ryan Rupe 42 476.2   Whitey Moore 292 513.1
Trever Miller 41 502   Mike Cvengros 285 551.1
Ryne Duren 41 589.1   Felix Rodriguez 283 586.1
Johnny Cueto 37 531   Blake Stein 281 475.2
Grover Lowdermilk 37 590.1   Daisuke Matsuzaka 278 585.1
C.J. Nitkowski 36 479   Bucky Brandon 275 590

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Over his lengthy stay in the minors, the wild right hander gradually refined his command, but his greatest strides were made in 1956 with the Orioles’ Vancouver Mounties affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. At Vancouver, Duren shaved two walks per game off his previous season’s total, finally achieving a respectable rate of 3.8. The following year, while pitching for the Yankees’ PCL team in Denver, the emerging right hander improved further to 2.6 walks per game. A promotion to the big leagues was finally within Duren’s grasp.

Lefty O’Doul had me at Vancouver. He taught me not to aim for the center of the plate, but for the corner of the strike zone. So, if I aim for the left corner, say, and the pitch sails to the right, I correct my aim like a rifle site that’s off.” – Ryne Duren, quoted by Brush-Moore Special Writer Ed Nichols on March 13, 1959

In 1954 and 1957, Duren pitched briefly in the majors, but his real breakthrough came with the Yankees in 1958. After opening eyes in Spring Training, Duren made the team, emerged as its top reliever and ended the year with a win and save in the World Series. In addition to making the All Star team, Duren also finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting and 22nd in the MVP tally. Not bad for a pitcher who had toiled for so long in the minors because of his inability to throw strikes.

Duren before a game at Yankee Stadium in 1958 (Photo:AP).

Despite having such a strong season, Duren’s wildness was still evident, but his erratic behavior extended beyond balls and strikes. During the 1958 season, the Yankees new relief ace developed the reputation of being a headhunter. In a game on July 19, 1958, he plunked Kansas City Athletics’ outfielder Bob Cerv immediately after surrendering a three-run homer to Bill Tuttle in the 12th inning of a tie game. In an interview with Kansas City Star writer Joe McGuff, Cerv accused Duren of intentionally targeting him. In the same article, McGuff also wrote about the growing animosity toward Duren that was building around the league and sarcastically suggested, “The American League would do well to assign a fifth umpire to the games that Ryne Duren pitches. The duty would be to count for the knockdowns.”

The American League never took action, but only days later, the Detroit Tigers did. Earlier in the game on July 24, Duren dusted Al Kaline with his first pitch, so when he finally came to the plate three innings later, Paul Foytack exacted revenge. The pitch hit Duren squarely on the left side of the face, leaving him sprawled upon the ground until he could be carried off the field and taken to the hospital. The right hander wound up missing the next 10 days, but, almost as if to let the league now he would not be intimidated, plunked the next to last batter in his first game back. And, for good measure, Duren hit four more batters before the end of the season.

Hitting opposing batters wasn’t Duren’s only problem. In September 1958, he also took a swing at one of his coaches. Unfortunately for Duren, he decided to tangle with Ralph Houk, his former manager in Denver who also happened to be an Army Ranger during World War II. According to published reports, the Major got the better of the brawl, leaving Duren with a bloodied eye and a bruised ego. “Duren can’t drink,” Houk told AP, “He’s a Jekyl and Hyde”.

This shouldn’t happen. You get whiskey slick and then you fight with your own.” – Yankees Manager Casey Stengel, quoted by AP, September 17, 1958

Houk couldn’t have been more right. You see, Duren was an alcoholic whose real battle was not controlling an explosive fastball, but handling his drinking problem. After 1958, Duren had one more dominant season with the Yankees, but thereafter mostly struggled to make an impact. At the same time, his life was also spiraling out of control.

Duren’s final season was in 1965 with the Washington Senators. By that time, he was completely ravaged by alcoholism. So, after a rough outing against the White Sox, he knocked back a few drinks, climbed atop a bridge overlooking the Potomac River and threatened to jump. The police were eventually able to talk him down, but Duren was still far from hitting rock bottom. According to the Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray, following his subsequent release by the Senators, “[Duren] went from the penthouse to the flophouse. From Yankee Stadium to a mental institution. From World Series checks to raiding his insurance money.” His career was over; his life not too far behind.

The old time Yankees were tough outs. But for Rhino, the real Murders Row lineup consisted of Scotch Rocks, Cutty Water, Vin Rose, Seven Seven, Three Fingers Bourbon and the all-time cleanup hitter, One Martini. Ryne Duren’s dark glasses didn’t scare them all. They hit him like they owned him. Because they did”. – Jim Murray, The Los Angeles Times, July 17, 1978

Ryne Duren not only overcame his addiction, but spent the rest of his life helping others do the same. In addition to directing alcohol education and recovery programs near his hometown in Wisconsin, Duren also told the story of his recovery in two autobiographies, “The Comeback” (1978) and “I Can See Clearly Now” (2003). In 1998, he also helped start Winning Beyond Winning, a foundation dedicated to helping athletes derive physical and psychological benefits from competition.

After years of trying to find the strike zone, Duren finally found himself. Although his contribution as a player was marginal, his impact as a man was significant. Duren’s coke bottle glasses may have been intimidating at one time, but the clearer vision he later developed proved to be the real inspiration.

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