July 22, 2017

Fifty Years Ago Today, Ron Taylor Transformed a World Series, Then Transformed His Life

October 11, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

By Ron Taylor and Jim Kaplan

Fifty years ago today, a Cardinal reliever named Ron Taylor transformed a World Series that itself transformed baseball.

On October 11, 1964, the Cardinals were down, two games to one, against the heavily favored Yankees, and apparently headed for a third loss. Cardinal starter Ray Sadecki allowed the four Yankees he faced to reach base, and two of them to score. The situation was dire for the Cardinals, to put it mildly. A loss would leave them behind, three games to one, with one more contest scheduled for Yankee Stadium.

With one out and a runner on third, Manager Johnny Keane called on Roger Craig, a sad-faced North Carolinian who could do a great hillbilly imitation. Good old boy exterior not withstanding, he had a crafty baseball mind. A pitcher with several speeds that could be used with several different pitches, Craig in 1964 won seven, saved five and threw a 7 2/3 shutout innings in a key game on September 27.

Craig actually wanted to start Game Four. Keane gave him the next best thing. “I don’t want you to run or throw, but as soon as this game starts, as soon as Ray Sadecki throws the first pitch, I want you to go down to the pen and start throwing,” Keane, who evidently didn’t have much confidence in Sadecki, told Craig. After giving up a run-scoring single to make it 3-0, Yankees, Craig allowed one more hit and no more scoring while striking out eight batters over 4 2/3 innings. He was not only outpitching the Yankee hitters but also outthinking their baserunners. When he picked off Mickey Mantle with two out and runners on first and second in the third, Mantle passed Craig and snarled, “You son of a bitch. You show me up in front of 40 million people.”

In the Cardinal sixth, with the Yankees still ahead, 3-0, Carl Warwick batted for Craig and got his third pinch-hitting single to tie a Series record. Curt Flood singled him to second, and Lou Brock flied out. Then Dick Groat hit a ground ball to second baseman Bobby Richardson. This surely was it. Using a cherished baseball mainstay, the Yankees would cool the Cardinals’ fire and snuff out their chances. As the late journalist Alistair Cooke put it, “Next to a triple play, baseball’s double play is the most exciting and graceful thing in sports.”

But when the normally slick-fielding Richardson fielded Groat’s potential inning-ending, double-play grounder, the ball stuck in the webbing of his glove. By the time Richardson made a gloved-hand flip to second, shortstop Phil Linz and Flood arrived simultaneously, and Linz couldn’t handle the throw when Flood slid hard into him. Thanks to Richardson’s error, the bases were loaded.

Behind the plate, Elston Howard called for a fastball, and Al Downing shook him off. Ken Boyer set himself for a Downing changeup, got one and homered down the left-field line. Suddenly, the Cardinals led, 4-3.

So Ron Taylor, who had been heckled by Yankee fans while warming up in the bullpen down the left-field line, took over in the bottom of the sixth. Taylor had an unusual baseball profile. Growing up in Toronto, he was an honor student who figured he’d become a pilot or an engineer (and eventually did become a doctor). He was also a good righthanded pitcher who threw batting practice for the Triple-A Toronto Maple Leafs.

Taylor’s schoolboy success impressed a sheet-metal worker named Chester Dies who was a Cleveland Indians scout. In late summer of 1955 Dies called Cleveland executives who showed no interest, so he paid for two train tickets and took the 17-year-old Taylor to Cleveland.

“We got to Cleveland, checked into a hotel, got up the next morning, and we had a root-beer float for breakfast,” Taylor later told an audience at a Toronto civic club.

Dies told the director of player development, Laddie Placek, “I’ve got this kid from Toronto who throws very hard” and got chewed out for bringing him in without permission. Nonetheless, Placek said, “Well, since you’re here, I’ll let the kid pitch to the bullpen catcher and you can take him home tomorrow.”

Taylor threw so hard that the bullpen catcher alerted pitching coach Mel Harder. The next day Taylor threw for Manager Al Lopez, a future Hall of Famer. And on Labor Day, Taylor pitched batting practice to the likes of Vic Wertz, Al Rosen and Larry Doby, veterans of the 1954 pennant winners.

The Indians signed Taylor for $4,000, the highest bonus a player could get that didn’t force him into “bonus-baby” status, where he’d have to ride the big-league bench for two years and get no valuable training in the minors. In 1956, Taylor won 17 games with a 3.13 ERA and pitched 227 innings at age 18 for the Daytona Beach Islanders of the Florida State League. He was playing at the lowest rung of the minors, but the numbers still jumped off the page. Following the season Taylor, as confident as he was knowledgeable, returned to Cleveland for a workout and told Placek, “I’ve made a decision. I’m going back to school for five years.”

He still had to complete grade 13, Canada’s senior year of high school at the time, before going on to college. “You what?” Placek exclaimed.

“I want to finish grade 13 and get four years of engineering.”

“We can put you in Case Institute here in Cleveland on the semester system,” Placek said.

“I want to get it over with [and study fulltime in Toronto]. . . . But I will play baseball for you in the summer. I just won’t go to spring training.”

Placek gagged. “I had him on the hook,” Taylor said, ’cause I won 17 games.”

“He said, ‘O.K., we’ll go for that.’ ”

Taylor graduated in 1961 with First Class Honors — in electrical engineering and, apparently, chutzpah. “I said to Cleveland, ‘I’ve got a lot of job offers,’ which I really didn’t have, ‘but I’d really like to play baseball.’ I want an invitation to the big-league camp.’ ” After finishing the 1961 season with the Triple-A Salt Lake City Bees, he got it. Taylor made the team in 1962 and threw 11 shutout innings in his first start before losing to the Red Sox on a 12th-inning grand slam. The hitters eventually caught up to him and he was demoted to Triple-A Jacksonville. But his work for a Puerto Rican team in the winter leagues drew the attention of Keane, who saw him warm up and promptly got the team to trade for him. In 1963 Taylor established himself as a singular Cardinal reliever. At a time when most sight-impaired ballplayers wore glasses, he wore contacts. He read books, tons of them. He also could warm up using very few pitches. “Ron was a nervous, maniacally fast worker, like a tiger in a cage,” one of his catchers, Tim McCarver, said.

He also trained maniacally. After the 1963 season, Taylor was working as an engineer for a Chicago plant owned by an American company with some Canadian employees called Interlake Steel. “I would run wind sprints and throw against walls after work. One night I was out running around midnight and a policeman stopped me and put me up against a car with my legs spread. He thought I’d committed a crime and was escaping. “What are you doing?’ he said.

“I’m getting in shape for spring training.’

“Let me see your identification.’ I had my birth certificate and residence paper.

“Now let me get this straight. Why are you running?’

“To get into shape. I’m a major league player.’

“Let me get this straight. You’re a major league player. You’re in Chicago and living in Canada. Did you miss a turn somewhere? Don’t ever run outside again. Run in a gym.'”

The lineup Taylor faced on October 11, 1964, was no Murderers Row, but there wasn’t a pit stop in it, either. Heeding Boyer’s advice to “Lay off the cute stuff . . . Just fire the ball,” and using the “hazy, checkered background” batters saw as they looked toward the mound, according to Sports Illustrated, Taylor challenged the Yankees with his best sinkers and sliders over the outside corner. He promptly got Howard on a grounder to first, struck out Tom Tresh and retired Joe Pepitone on a grounder to second.

The Cardinals were through scoring. All Taylor had to do was shut down Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and the other guys and preserve the 4-3 lead. In the seventh, Boyer’s brother Clete fouled to first, pinch hitter John Blanchard flied to center and Linz, trying to bunt, grounded to third. An inning later, Taylor faced his toughest batters. Richardson grounded to short. Maris ripped a hard grounder up the middle, but Taylor deflected it to shortstop Dick Groat, who threw in time to first.

Mantle, Taylor felt, was a special case. “I didn’t want to give him anything too good,” he said later. “I didn’t want him to pull the ball into those inviting right field seats.” So Taylor kept his pitches over the outside corner or missed away from the plate. The at bat went like this: foul ball, foul ball, ball, ball, another foul, another ball and an outside pitch for ball four. It was a victory of sorts, because Mantle hadn’t homered. Taylor struck out Howard to end the inning.

With most of the 66,312 fans pleading in vain for a Yankee comeback, Taylor made their ninth-inning batters look laughable. Tresh tried to bunt, but Taylor threw him out. Pepitone and Clete Boyer could only ground to first. No one got the ball out of the infield, and that was typical of Taylor’s afternoon. Of the 12 batters he no-hit, one flied to center, one fouled to the first baseman, two struck out and eight grounded out. In one of the virtuoso performances of World Series history, Taylor threw only 36 pitches in four innings, 27 of them for strikes. Four of the nine balls were served ever so carefully to Mantle. Craig got the win, Taylor the save. “It was the greatest thrill of my life to help win the game,” Taylor said.

“Sitting here years later, I can still remember every pitch I threw,” Taylor said. “It was an unbelievable existential experience.” Craig and Taylor had thrown a two-hitter over 8 2/3 innings. Keane said, “That has to be the finest relief work we’ve had. It couldn’t be improved upon. Craig and Taylor were splendid.”

David Halberstam, who wrote a book about the ’64 Cardinals, called Game Four “the crucial game of the 1964 World Series.” Writers swarmed over Craig and Taylor in the Cardinal clubhouse. “It’s the first time in the Series anyone has been talking to us,” Taylor said in the ghostwritten column he wrote on the Series for the Toronto Star. When a writer apologized for asking him what he’d just said in the noisy room, he said, “Gee, I’m enjoying it. Nothing like this ever happened to me before.”

Oh, Taylor was good copy. Asked if he was related to E.P. Taylor, owner of the racehorse Northern Dancer, he replied, “But I’m not. He’s the wealthy one.” Pressed for more information about himself, Taylor ad-libbed, “Put it this way: I’m the first righthanded Canadian who ever relieved in the World Series in New York on a Sunday.”

Despite Boyer’s insistence, with his arms around Craig and Taylor, that “Those are the guys who won the game,” the wire services stories published around the country in the following day’s papers concentrated primarily on home-run guy Boyer and secondarily on Craig, who was remembered for a Series win when he pitched for the Dodgers. Where were the “Introducing Ron Taylor” stories?

In any case, he quickly receded from view. After Tim McCarver’s 10th-inning homer won Game Five, 5-2, Taylor got Jim Bouton, the only batter he faced, to hit into a double play in Sadecki’s 8-3 Game Six loss. Then Series MVP Bob Gibson, making his third start in eight days, held on to win the finale despite two ninth-inning homers, 7-5. (Taylor and Sadecki were warming up in the bullpen at game’s end.) The other anointed Series hero, McCarver, played every inning and batted .478. “Sat my way through it,” backup catcher Bob Uecker, ever the loyal benchwarmer, said. “Called it from the bullpen. Yankee fans threw garbage at us, and I picked it up and threw it back.”

The enormity of Taylor’s dike-stopping work in Game Four was only evident in the rear-view mirror. “You know, when you talk about the greatest pitching performances of the Series, that really is a game that never gets its due,” outfielder Mike Shannon told Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun. “Roger gave up two singles in 4 2/3 innings, and Doc held them hitless for four innings. They shut down that powerful Yankee club.” Without that win, Shannon thought, the Series might not have returned to St. Louis.

In the book Cardinal Nation, fans called Game Four the seventh most important in franchise history. The Yankees had one less hit and scored one more run than the Cardinals in the Series, but with a different score in Game Four they might have won easily.

As it was, the Cardinals’ Series victory represented a paradigm shift in the baseball world. The Yankee hegemony that had lasted since the 1920s was over when they lost their second straight World Series for the first time in 42 seasons. The fabled Bronx Bombers wouldn’t play in another Series for 12 years. They had survived without integrating until 1955, and the other American League teams had followed their abominable lead. Now they faced a team and league that celebrated the recruitment of top blacks and Latinos. The Cardinals routinely started three blacks, Curt Flood, Lou Brock and Bill White, and one Hispanic, Julián Javier. (A bruised hip limited Javier to one pinch-running appearance in the World Series.) Gibson, an African-American, was one of the league’s best pitchers, and the Cuban lefthander Mike Cuellar was also on the team.

The Yankees started one black player, Elston Howard; had a black pitcher, Downing; a substitute outfielder, the Panamanian Hector Lopez, and a Cuban pitcher, Pedro Ramos, who saved seven games by the unofficial pre-1969 standard down the stretch but joined the team after September 1 and wasn’t eligible for the World Series. In the 1950s and 1960s, the National League had 15 blacks and Hispanics out of a possible 20 Most Valuable Players, the American League had three. Although the Americans held their own in the World Series, beginning in 1964, the Nationals won 18 of 19 All-Star Games. For their part, the Cardinals are still the only one of the original eight National League teams to hold a Series edge (3-2) over the Yankees.

Following the 1964 season, the majors would initiate a draft of players signing their first contracts that would invalidate the winning tradition the Yankees would otherwise have tempted them with in an open market. Ron Taylor and his teammates stood at the crossroads of baseball history.

And Taylor wasn’t through. In the late Sixties, he caught on with the Mets, whose media took more than a passing interest in him. In a book called “The Year the Mets Lost Last place,” Dick Schaap and Paul D. Zimmerman wrote of Taylor:

A quiet college man, with a degree in electrical engineering and collections of stamps, jazz records and tropical fish, Taylor survives in the big leagues on intelligence, a good sinker and a sense of humor. “What do I have to work with?” he says. “Well, a little sinker, a slider that backs up some days and a change or two . . . you know, mediocre stuff.”

As the only World Series veteran on the club, Taylor made a major contribution to the 1969 world champs. “He was a smart pitcher,” Jerry Koosman, who roomed with Taylor on the road, said. “He showed that by the way he located his pitches and handled the game. He put more pressure on himself than anyone else put on him. He came in to save a game for me one time and wound up losing it. That bothered him so much he didn’t come to the room that night.”

Rooming with Taylor was plainly beneficial to Koosman. “I sure do feel the pressure of the pennant race,” he told Ira Berkow, a columnist with Newspaper Enterprise Association, who later won a Pulitzer with the New York Times. “Like this morning, I’m coming down the elevator of the hotel with my roomie, Ron Taylor, and I say, ‘Ron, I wake up the day I’m going to pitch . . . It goes so slow. I sit around and worry about how I’m going to do.’

“Ron was with the Cardinals when they won pennants and he told me that it was just my way to get up for the game, that if I wasn’t hung up like this I’d be overconfident. That would hurt.”

In Game One of the National League Championship Series, Tom Seaver struggled to a 9-5 lead over the Braves, and New York manager Gil Hodges turned to Taylor in the eighth inning. Taylor threw two shutout innings, allowing only one walk, to hold the 9-5 lead. “I applaud Gil Hodges for going to his bullpen, just when he did, and asking Mr. Taylor to finish the job,” said Reds’ Manager Dave Bristol.

Taylor had a very different relief assignment in Game Two. After the Mets and Koosman took a 9-1 lead over Ron Reed, Koosman came apart in the fifth inning. With two out, he yielded a single to Felix Milan, a walk to Tony Gonzales and a three-run homer to Hank Aaron: 9-4. Then Rico Carty walked, Orlando Cepeda doubled him to third and Clete Boyer scored both of them with a single: 9-6. Though Koosman was one out from qualifying for a win, Hodges lifted him for Taylor. And Taylor got out of the inning when Bob Didier lined to second.

Taylor didn’t feel loose enough after his 12-14 pitches in the bullpen, so he returned there to warm up some more while the Mets batted, astounding broadcaster Tony Kubek. Then Taylor pitched a scoreless sixth, striking out two, and Tug McGraw held off the Braves with a three-inning stint. Final score: Mets 11, Braves 6, with Taylor getting the win and McGraw the save to end the NLCS.

The Orioles were 8-to-5 favorites to beat the Mets in the 1969 World Series, and Baltimore newspapers were crowning their beloved Birds champions after the Mike Cuellar beat Seaver, 4-1, in the Baltimore opener. Don Cardwell pitched one scoreless, hitless inning in relief, and Taylor pitched the last two innings, allowing no runs, no hits and one walk while fanning three. Almost unnoticed, he struck out Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson, while picking Paul Blair off of first.

In Game Two, Koosman pitched six no-hit innings against Dave McNally and took a 2-1 lead into last of the ninth on a Donn Clendenon homer and a run-scoring single by .215-hitting Al Weis. With two out, Koosman walked Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. Hodges took the ball from Koosman, who walked off the field to a standing ovation from the Baltimore fans, no sportswriters, they. Hodges called on Taylor, and told him, “You’ve got to get one man out.”

Brooks Robinson, who had driven in Paul Blair in the seventh, came to the plate. The runners would be going on contact, and anything through the infield would score the tying run. It was another existential moment in another World Series, one fraught with tension. Except Taylor didn’t see it that way. As he explained to a Little League banquet later, “Pressure? That’s a term that sportswriters use a lot. Ballplayers have their ups and downs, and everyone has their bad days, but that doesn’t mean it’s because of pressure. We didn’t think about pressure, we thought about winning. Besides, momentum can overcome pressure.”

Taylor fell behind, 2-0, got a called strike, then threw ball three. “I was behind Robinson, and I was uneasy,” he said later. “I don’t have overpowering stuff, so I’ve got to get ahead of the guy. I was pretty damn worried.”

Taylor got a called strike. With the count 3-2 and two out, the runners were moving when bat met ball. On a good sinker, Brooks grounded to third baseman Charles, who thought about running to the bag for a force but wouldn’t have won the race there against Merv Rettenmund, who was running for Frank Robinson. Somewhat tentatively, Charles threw to first. The throw arrived short and low, but Donn Clendenon dug it out of the dirt well ahead of the slow and chugging Brooks Robinson. Game over. If the ball had escaped Clendenon, at the very least Rettenmund would have scored to tie the game and Powell would have stood on third. Don’t even think of it.

“Facing Robinson with two out and two on was the toughest one-on-one test of my career,” Taylor said after the game. And it may have been the Mets’ toughest test, too. Losing the first two games to the 109-game-winning Orioles? Don’t even think about it. Instead, the Mets went on to win the Series, four games to one.

In addition to an 0.00 ERA, Taylor threw seven straight no-hit innings in the World Series, a feat matched by no other reliever. When he retired from baseball in 1972, he could have been excused for living the life of so many ex-players: collecting his pension, playing golf, telling old tales, laughing at gilded butterflies. But an even more satisfying career lay ahead of him. Taylor had gone on USO tours of Asia to visit injured soldiers in 1968-70, and he was impressed with the work of doctors he met. So he began checking out medical schools in the Toronto area.

When one dean asked him what he’d been doing, Taylor said, “Playing major league baseball.”

“What’s that?” the dean said. But the person Taylor spoke with at the University of Toronto did a double take when he saw a transcript of his undergraduate grades.

“He looked at it,” Taylor recounted years later. “He looked at me. “Are these [grades] yours?’

“Yeah.’

“He shook his head. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you were 24, we’d let you in. But you’re 34. What I’d suggest to you is to go back and take honor courses in biology, microbiology and chemistry. If you get the same grades, we’ll consider your application.’

“What are the odds?’

“He said, ‘Well, it depends on the person in the admissions committee. I’d say about 50-50.’

“Those are pretty good odds. I’ll take it.’

Living at his father’s house (his mother had died), Taylor moved into his sister’s old room, virtually bare but for a mattress and drafting table he piled his books on. Standing up to study because of his old back injury, he worked on concentrating. The courses were all about memorization, and Taylor hadn’t been in school for more than 10 years. This was a challenge in its own way as tough as facing the Cardinals and Orioles in the World Series.

“I’d go to school from 8 to 5, sleep till 10 and [study] from 10 [p.m.] to 7 [a.m.]. I did that all year, got good grades and was admitted to medical school.” A letter of recommendation from Mets board chairman M. Donald Grant, a native Montrealer, didn’t hurt.

Taylor walked into his first class wearing an old warm-up jacket, and the other students thought he was the janitor. The joke going around was:

“How do you get into medical school?”

“Get straight A’s or be a washed-up baseball player.”

“I got through medical school O.K., and I became an intern. We’d go around in clinical groups, and the professor thought I was a volunteer patient. I got through it and got my license to practice medicine.”

Taylor started a family practice that quickly earned a reputation for promptness, professionalism and prolonged laughter. A beautiful young woman came to his office on one unforgettable day. “Will you recommend a plastic surgeon for my nose?” She asked Taylor, who himself has a wide, flat nose resembling the deck of an aircraft carrier.

“Yeah, I know great ones, but you’re beautiful,” he said. “I can’t understand why you need surgery.”

She wanted to have her nose slightly flattened. “You don’t need it, but I can recommend one, the one who did my nose,” Taylor said.

“Do you know anyone else?” she said.

When major-league baseball came to Toronto in 1979, the Blue Jays asked Taylor if he’d like to be their team doctor. In preparation, he started a sports-injuries clinic. There were days when he reported to his family-medicine practice, headed to his clinic in the afternoon and from there went to the ballpark. He worked 72 hours some weeks, and loved every minute of it.

There had been ballplayers who became doctors — most notably Bobby Brown, a surgeon and later president of the American League — but never before a team doctor. Taylor’s work mostly involved diagnosing injuries and recommending specialists. He also got to pitch batting practice for a few years. As much as he identified with the players, Taylor sometimes had to stand up to them. In 1989 Tony Fernandez, the Blue Jays shortstop, was struck on the right cheek by a pitch and suffered a fracture of the zygomatic bone. When Fernandez asked to come off the disabled when he was eligible, Taylor turned him down. “It’s just too risky,” he told a publication called MD. “Any kind of blow or violent collision could do a lot of damage to the fractured area, even with a protected helmet.”

“I’ve been fortunate in every career job I’ve had,” Taylor says. “I always ask my patient, ‘How’s your job coming along?’ A lot of times people who aren’t having fun at their jobs have health problems.”

Taylor finally retired this year at age 76. He’s been busy closing his business, enduring the ritual roast friends threw for him, attending his younger son Matthew’s wedding and helping his older son Drew do a documentary on his old man. Ron and his wife Rona are planning a cruise down the Rhine.

But we trust the good doctor will take time off to remember his work 50 years ago today as the unsung hero of the 1964 World Series.

 

Ron Taylor and Jim Kaplan are writing a book about Taylor’s life. They can be reached at jkaplan105@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

One Response to “Fifty Years Ago Today, Ron Taylor Transformed a World Series, Then Transformed His Life”
  1. Jerry Winchell says:

    Jim, the statement that “They (the Yankees) had survived not integrating until 1955 and the other American League teams had followed their abominable lead” leaves the wrong impression. I have no problem with you taking the Yankees to task, but by the end of 1953, four AL teams (Senators, Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox) AND four NL teams (Pirates, Cardinals, Reds, and Phillies) had not introduced their first black player.

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