Unforgettable Ryne Duren
Ryne Duren was one of my all-time favorite baseball characters. His reputation was legendary and has been the basis for several fictional movie baseball players. When first discovered in the tiny Wisconsin town of Cazenovia, he possessed the type of fastball that made scouts drool. It was later a generally held consensus among baseball men of the time that he was faster than anyone not named Bob Feller. The problem originally was that no one, especially Ryne, knew where the ball would go when he turned it loose. It was reported that he had not been allowed to pitch in high school after breaking a batter’s ribs. Later, another problem was found: he couldn’t see. His vision was measured at 20/70 and 20/200—almost legally blind. He was rumored to have once hit a man in the on-deck circle.
When he finally made it to the big leagues, Ryne was smart enough to use these imperfections to his advantage. His warm-up routine when he entered a game from the bullpen classically started with a nasty fastball which soared frighteningly high up against the backstop. He squinted in at the batter through coke-bottle thick glasses which were usually very darkly tinted because he claimed to be severely light-sensitive. Yankee catcher Yogi Berra used to warn batters, “Don’t get too comfortable, even I don’t know where this pitch is going.” And he wasn’t kidding. Berra later said, “He had several pair of glasses, but it didn’t seem like he saw good in any of them.”
Strong men had to battle their better judgement before stepping into the batter’s box against Rinold Duren.
Duren, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 81, played for 7 major league teams from 1954 to 1965. His best years came as the premier man out of the bullpen for the Yankees from 1958 to 1961. He was a member of 3 pennant-winners, led the American League in saves with 20 in 1958 and sported a 1.88 ERA in 1959.
I had the privilege of interviewing Ryne Duren in 2009. He laughed when he spoke about his warmup routine. “Part of that was an act,” he said. “It started in New York. I was a pretty good drinking buddy of some of the New York writers and they told me, ‘Hey, throw one up at the stands.’ They needed something to write about.” Duren had done that accidently before, but once he began to add it to his normal routine, fans loved it and it caught on. “Of course, it didn’t hurt me when the batters didn’t want to dig in.”
It turns out that the story about the guy in the on-deck circle was partially true as well. “It was Jimmy Piersall in Boston,” Duren remembered warmly. “Ted Williams used to come up from the on-deck circle and watch you when you warmed up, to get a closer look at the timing. Sometimes, he would take a practice swing as the ball crossed the plate. But he was Ted Williams, what are you going to do? Then one day, I’ll be damned if Piersall didn’t come over and do that. Well, he was no Ted Williams. So I threw a ball in his direction. I didn’t get too close, it was just to get his attention. He shouted, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you?’ I said, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you. You’ve got yourself confused with a hitter.’ That’s probably where the story got started.”
Reds catcher Johnny Edwards remembered that Duren once did that to another hitter when he was with the Reds in 1964. “It was against the Phillies. Ryne put him right on his can.” While sometimes written about in comic relief, Duren was an extremely tough competitor who knew how to win. He once reported to Reds’ manager Fred Hutchinson’s office after a game and fined himself $100 for failing to cover first on a ball hit to the right side. Later that year he purposely was hit by a pitch to start a key rally—not a tactic for the faint of heart against a major league pitcher.
Edwards also recalled that the reputation for poor eyesight was well-earned. “He couldn’t even see the signs from the pitcher’s mound,” he said. “When he came in the first time, I went out to the mound and we went over the signs and he said, ‘Yea, I got it.’ Then I got back behind the plate and he went into his windup before I had even finished giving the signs. I had to go back out there and tell him, ‘You give the signs then.’ And so he would let me know what was coming by the way he held his glove so I wouldn’t get killed.”
In addition to his on-field antics, Ryne Duren held the reputation of a guy who liked to have fun away from the ballpark. “Ryne Duren thought the telephone was the greatest invention there ever was,” said Edwards. “He would call all around the world. He called Princess Grace in Monaco. He called President Johnson at the White House. I think he got in trouble over that one.”
There was a famous night with Cincinnati in which teammate Deron Johnson hung Duren out the window of a hotel room by his ankles—twenty stories up. Several members of the team had been having a few cold ones in Johnson’s room and Duren, already well lubricated, got into an argument with Johnson. “I think Ryne was trying to call [Phillies manager] Gene Mauch,” said Edwards. Johnson, who didn’t want to get stuck with the long-distance charge, told Duren to hang up. Duren ended up dumping a load of beer on the muscular first baseman, incurring his wrath. “I can remember Ryne hanging out there yelling, ‘Go ahead. You don’t have the guts to drop me,” said Edwards. “Me and a few other guys had to grab him and pull him back in.”
Another time, Duren borrowed a rental car from Johnson in Florida during spring training. It was only supposed to be for a quick errand, but somehow Duren lost track of time and ended up parking it on the beach late at night. Unfortunately, it was during low tide and he watched helplessly in the morning as the tide came in and the car slowly drifted out into the bay.
There was also a night in Houston in which a number of Reds players ended up in a hotel swimming pool; sans clothing. The players had been out on the town and arrived at their hotel in the wee hours. “We were walking by the pool,” said Duren, “and somebody said something to somebody else and got pushed in the pool. The next thing you know we had all jumped in and guys were pulling each other’s shirts and clothes off.”
Cincinnati sportswriter Earl Lawson later wrote that he heard a commotion outside of his hotel room and looked out to see a group of major league baseball players in various stages of undress, splashing around the pool like a bunch of kids. He had to laugh when a loud siren was heard and the players, thinking someone had called the cops, fumbled out of the pool while grabbing for anything they could find to be used as cover and hid in the bushes. They were relieved when they discovered that it wasn’t the police after all, just an ambulance at a nearby hospital.
Reds batboy Mike Holzinger recalled an incident in which Duren answered the phone in the Crosley Field bullpen before a game. “It was Mrs. DeWitt, she was looking for one of the coaches or something,” he said. Unfortunately for the owner’s wife, Ryne Duren did not just use a telephone for communication, but viewed it as an object for fun as well. “He started giving her a real hard time, talking back, laughing and refusing to help her. Finally, I heard her shout over the phone, ‘Who is this?’ Ryne answered ‘Gordy Coleman,’ [the Reds’ affable first baseman] and hung up.”
Unfortunately, there was a dark side to the Ryne Duren story. As might be suspected from some of the stories, he was an alcoholic. In an era when most players drank, Duren seemed to drink on an altogether different level. Teammates on other teams had noted that he had trouble knowing when to stop. Many times he woke up with no memory of the preceding night—only broken doors and furniture and a black eye to give him hints. “One time in New York, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle told me I shouldn’t drink,” he said. “They said I was a different type of drinker.” And coming from them, that’s saying a lot.
“I was so addicted to alcohol that it was part of my makeup and personality,” he said. “I think I was probably irreversibly addicted from a very early age. Alcohol is a drug and if you don’t understand it as such, it’s pretty dangerous.” Duren lost more than one baseball job during his career because of off-field, alcohol-fueled incidents. In the early sixties the term “alcoholic” was rarely used and never used in association with baseball. Many players during those years ruined their careers and lives without ever getting treatment. “I knew a lot of guys who drunk themselves to death,” Duren said.
After baseball, Ryne Duren successfully underwent alcoholic rehab and spent years as an alcoholic counselor and speaker. He was one of the first to speak out to organized baseball about the problem of alcoholism. At 80 years of age, he still found time to travel and deliver his message on the perils of alcohol addiction. “The answer is always yes whenever people ask me to come talk,” he said. “Money is never a factor in whether or not I come.”
Duren proudly told me that he had not had a drink in 41 years. He did not say how long it had been since he had tried to call Princess Grace.
Ryne Duren was a great baseball character with one of the best arms, and best acts, in the history of the game. He was also a man who remade himself and tried to help others overcome the same demons he had battled.
Doug Wilson is the author of Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds, The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson and the soon-to-be-released (October 20, 2015) Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk. Visit him at Doug Wilson’s Baseball Bookshelf