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Games Within The Game : The Poor Relievers Have Become Rich

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The selection of Willie Hernandez of the Detroit Tigers as both the American League’s Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award winner has focused new attention on the role of relief pitchers in modern baseball.

It’s a good bet, too, that relief pitchers will soon receive even more recognition in the form of the election of the first of their number to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N. Y. Ten-year veterans of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America are currently deliberating their choices with the announcement scheduled for Jan. 8.

The leading candidate for election is Hoyt Wilhelm, who spent most of his career as a relief pitcher for the New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox.

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Wilhelm had the most votes among those who failed to make it in last year’s voting--an almost certain sign that he will soon be elected--and, additionally, has overwhelming statistics. He pitched from 1952 through 1972 had a 143-122 lifetime record, six seasons in which his earned run average was under two runs a game and 14 in which it was under 3.00.

Wilhelm’s rise to excellence roughly corresponds to the influx of sluggers into the game, beginning in the early 60s. His knuckler turned power-hitters into pretzels--the harder they swung, the more he prospered.

There isn’t a manager in baseball who doesn’t emphasize the importance of relief pitching and yet as recently as 1970 Manager Danny Murtaugh of the Pittsburgh Pirates astonished the baseball world by insisting that Dave Giusti, a relief pitcher, was the Pirates’ MVP. He’d have been laughed out of his rocking chair if he had suggested Giusti was the league’s MVP.

It seems incredible that before 1947 relief pitchers were mostly old pitchers who no longer could go nine innings consistently. There had been a few relief pitchers--like Johnny Murphy of the New York Yankees, Mace Brown of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Clint Brown of the Chicago White Sox--who had attained some prominence as relievers in the 1930s and 1940s but they were rare.

In 1947, however, Joe Page of the Yankees and Hugh Casey of the Brooklyn Dodgers performed so spectacularly that managers began to take another look at relief pitching.

Page, who appeared in 56 games and had a 14-8 record that season was especially noteworthy although Casey relieved in 46 games and had a 10-4 mark. Page a young fastball pitcher whereas most successful relievers had been veterans and basically curveballers. Page opened the eyes of the managers to the fact that the surest way to stop late-inning rallies was to strike out the first batter and perhaps three of the next six, too.

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It is no exaggeration to say that 1947 marked the birth of the modern relief pitching concept--bring speed or a trick pitch out of the bullpen--thanks mostly to Page.

The World Series confirmed what managers were beginning to suspect. It was a brilliantly-played Series between the Yankees and Dodgers and Page emerged as its hero, winning the seventh game by shutting out the Dodgers with one hit over the last five innings.

Page also played a heroic role for the Yankees in 1949 and one year later Jim Konstanty starred in relief for the Philadelphia Phillies, who won their first National League pennant since 1915.

The recognition relievers have today didn’t blossom overnight. It came slowly year by year until Cy Young Awards were won by Bruce Sutter in the National League and Rollie Fingers in the American League in 1979 and 1981, respectively.

Page was a rollicking guy who loved the bright lights of Broadway and up to his death in 1980 never saw himself as having played a pivotal, much less an historic role. His chief reward in 1947 and 1949 came when Manager Bucky Harris would greet writers after games he saved by lifting a glass of whiskey over his head and saying, “To Joe Page.”

Many modern relievers probably don’t even know his name but they could do worse than lift their glasses in one more toast to Joe Page.

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