Friday, May 15, 2009

A History of the Oriole Closer: From Zuverink to Sherrill - The 50's

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the top Oriole relievers through the years to see how the closer role developed in Baltimore. Of course, when the Orioles moved from St. Louis in 1954, the term closer wasn't even invented. Your top reliever was usually called a "fireman". The save hadn't been invented yet and wouldn't be an official stat until 1969. How were top relievers utilized during the dawn of the franchise?

Yeah, well, not that intersting in a broad sense but it's interesting to you're all stuck with these posts until I'm done

I decided to break it down by decade. For this post, it's the 1950's. Below are the relievers of note from each season.


Reliever Record SV ERA IP
Bob Chakales 3-7 3 3.73 89.1
Howie Fox 1-2 2 3.67 73.2

Bob Chakales, "The Golden Greek", was traded to Baltimore from Cleveland for Vic Wertz on June 1st, 1954. He was never given much of an opportunity with the Indians but quickly found a role in the Oriole bullpen racking up 89.1 innings in 2/3 of a season. He made a few spot starts as well and there was no one guy to "close" out games in the Orioles bullpen. Chakales was traded to the White Sox after the season.

Baltimore lost 100 games in 1954 and only accumulated 8 saves. Howie Fox accounted for two of them. Fox was a former starter in Cincinatti but at age 33 was trying to hang on as a reliever in the majors. He had a good year for Baltimore but 1954 would be his last year in the majors. In 1955, he pitched for San Antonio in the Texas League and that would be his last in professional baseball. After that, Fox met a tragic end:

After baseball, Fox opened up his own tavern in San Antonio and was present when three men entered the bar and started making trouble with the bartender. Fox, in trying to stop the trouble, was killed by a knife wound from one of the thugs on October 9, 1955.


Reliever Record SV ERA IP
Ray Moore 10-10 6 3.92 151.2
Harry Dorish 3-3 6 3.15 65.2
George Zuverink 4-3 4 2.19 86.1

In 1954, manager Jimmy Dykes had pitchers in the pen who were strictly relievers, not a common practice at the time. After Paul Richards replaced him for the 1955 season, that concept was gone. Richards used relievers for spot starts quite a bit and every regular starter pitched at least a couple games in relief. Harry Dorish was the only reliver to appear in more than 30 games to make less than 5 starts. With a staff full of swingmen, the saves were spread around. 16 of the team's 20 saves were accumulated by the top three relievers. With Chakles and Fox elsewhere, there were opportunities for new relievers to make their mark.

Ray Moore was a Maryland native (from Meadows, not too far from where I grew up...) and was traded to the Orioles from the Dodgers for his age 29 season. Early on, he found his niche in the bullpen getting 5 of his 6 saves before the end of May. He continued to relieve all season but started getting spot starts in July and ended the season with 10 wins.

Harry Dorish was a 33-year old journeyman reliever who was acquired from the White Sox (Paul Richards' former club)in June. Dorish was one of the first true relief pitchers starting only 40 games over his 10 year career. 1955 would be his last truly effective season in the majors and he would retire after the 1956 season.

At 30, George Zuverink was a journeyman starter who was, frankly, washed up. The gangly righty was picked up on waivers from the Tigers and he found some success in Baltimore out of the bullpen. He led all Oriole relivers in ERA in 1955 and it would be a harbinger of things to come.


Reliver Record SV ERA IP
George Zuverink 7-6 16 4.16 97.1
Mike Fornieles 4-7 1 3.97 111

In 1956, Zuverink became the first Oriole reliever that could be recognizable as a "closer". He saved 16 games (out of 24 for the team) and appeared in 62 games, finishing 40 of them, both marks leading the league. He didn't start a game in 1956. Zuverink's journey from waiver wire starter to top reliever was detailed in Baseball Digest in 1956:

"(Manger Paul) Richards told me that for a guy with my long arms, I wasn't getting enough leverage behind my pitches, (said Zuverink)

"I guess that night really changed my whole life in baseball..."

Zuverink has done such an about-face since then that for the first half of this season he was the number one ranking relief pitcher in the American League and had come striding out of the bullpen an average of once every other game. He became so consistently dependable that when Oriole starting pitchers showed even a slight trace of wilting in tight games, a regular "we-want-Zuverink" chant started in the Memorial Stadium stands...

With his new-found success, Zuverink has become the picture of confidence. He talks and acts like a pitcher who expects to get every hitter out every time he walks in from the bullpen. Richards sums it up this way:

"It's not bravado with George, it's just plain, simple belief in himself."*

Sounds like a closer to me.

Mike Fornieles led the pen in ERA but would not fare well during his brief Oriole career. He would be traded to the Red Sox in 1957 where he would eventually lead the AL in saves in 1960.


Reliever Record SV ERA IP
George Zuverink 10-6 9 2.48 112.2
Billy O'Dell 4-10 4 2.69 140.1
Ken Lehman 8-3 6 2.78 68

Zuverink continuted his good work in '57 as well as combining with C Frank Zupo to form the first battery in major league history where the pitcher and catcher both had last names starting with "Z".

Lefty Billy O'Dell was a bonus baby who broke in with the Orioles in the bullpen and would go on to be an All-Star starter for the O's in 1958 and 1959.

Ken Lehman was also a lefty reliever who bounced up and down between the majors and minors during his career. At age 29, he had his best season racking up 6 saves and a 2.78 ERA. He went on to coach baseball at the University of Washington from 1964-1971.


Reliever Record SV ERA IP
George Zuverink 2-2 7 3.39 97.1
Billy Loes 3-9 5 3.63 114

Zuverink continues to rack up the saves in '58.

Loes had been a pretty good starter for Brooklyn earlier in the decade and was an All-Star in 1957. He did good work for the Orioles out of the pen and in spot starts earning him more opportunities the next season.


Relievers Record SV ERA IP
Billy Loes 4-7 14 4.06 64.1
Jack Fisher 1-6 2 3.05 88.2

With Zuverink battling injuries that would end his career during the 1959 season, Loes stepped right into the role that Zuverink had pioneered in Baltimore. Loes was strictly a reliever and finished 31 games.

20-year old Jack Fisher was the only other bright spot in the Orioles bullpen that season. A Maryland native, Fisher would have a couple nice seasons for Baltimore as part of an 11 year career. Fisher is most famous for giving up notable home runs. He gave up a homer to Ted Williams during the last at bat of his career, gave up Roger Maris' 60th home run and gave up the first longball at Shea Stadium.

Fireman of the Decade: George Zuverink

With 36 saves for a perennial loser, Zuverink was the first great reliever in the modern history of the Baltimore Orioles. It's really not close.

Honorable Mention: Billy Loes
* excerpt from How Zuverink Found His Lever to Stardom by Neal Eskridge, Baseball Digest, August 1956


the wayward o said...

that's some heavy lifting.
nice work.

Dave Mc said...

Great idea for a series of posts. They should make good reading.