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Raymond Edmond Narleski
Right-Handed Pitcher, 1954-1958
Height: 6'1" Weight: 175 lbs.
Acquired: Amateur Free Agent, 1948
Left Via: Trade, 11-20-1958 (Detroit)
When we think about relief pitchers, we generally think about pitchers from the 1970s through today. The save statistic did not exist until 1969, so before that, there was no simple way to measure how effective a reliever was. But that doesn't mean there weren't outstanding relievers before then.
Ray Narleski was the son of former big-league middle infielder Bill Narleski, and grew up in Collingswood, New Jersey. He was signed by the Indians in 1948 as a pitcher, and although he showed promise in the minors, the Indians had a loaded starting staff, and there just wasn't room for a young pitcher in the rotation, even one who could throw in the upper 90s. So in his second season in AAA Indianapolis, manager Birdie Tebbetts moved Narleski to the bullpen; Narleski was not happy about it; starters got the big money, while relievers were usually making peanuts, as the relief specialist as we know it was decades away from coming into being. But he was already 24 years old, and the bullpen was going to be the only he was going to crack the major league roster.
Narleski was invited to major-league camp in 1954, and manager Al Lopez was looking for some pitchers who could take the load off his starters; the previous season, his three top starters (Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, and Early Wynn) had made 10 relief appearances. So Lopez tried out some starters, and took both Narleski and Don Mossi, along with veteran Hal Newhouser north with him for the 1954 season to pitch in relief. That season's pitching staff may have been one of the best in major-league history; all five starters had at an ERA+ at least 109, and there were three dominant pitchers in the bullpen. Narleski was a right-hander, with Mossi and Newhouser the left-handers, but they usually weren't used in matchup situations; Narleski more often than not would pitch two innings or more.
Even as a reliever, Narleski used three pitches: a mid-90s fastball, a curve and a changeup; in other words, he pitched like a starter even though he came out of the bullpen. Narleski only made two starts in 1954, so of his 89 innings pitched that season, 78.1 of them came in relief. Had the statistic been in existence, he would have saved 13 games for the Indians, which is pretty impressive, since the Tribe pitching staff threw 77 complete games that season. He finished the season with a 2.22 ERA (165 ERA+), and appeared in two World Series games; he was one of the few Indians pitchers to retire Tribe-killer Dusty Rhodes.
There still wasn't room for him in the rotation in 1955, so he again went the bullpen, this time throwing an incredible 111.2 innings, 102.2 of them in relief. He led the league in appearances with 60, and saved 19 games. He appeared in 38% of the Indians' games that season, striking out 94 batters. His ERA suffered, probably due to the workload, but he undoubtedly helped the starting rotation with all those innings logged. In the spring of 1956, Chuck Dressen, Washington's manager, thought that having a couple good relievers was the key to keeping a rotation healthy:
"Cleveland was able to go with Herb Score, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia last year because they had two of the best relief pitchers in the game in Don Mossi and Ray Narleski. It's rare to get two great stoppers like that at one time, but without them even Al Lopez would have had his trouble keeping up his rotation."
Sporting News - March 14, 1956
Don Mossi, who had made the club with Narleski in 1954, would tag along with Narleski his entire career. The two relievers would form essentially a two-man bullpen in 1955. He was even traded along with Narleski in November 1958 to Detroit.
Narleski got his first real chance to start in 1957, when both he and Mossi were used in the rotation because of retirements (Bob Feller) and injuries (Herb Score, Art Houteman). Ray started 15 games, but still pitched 31 times in relief, earning 16 saves to boot. He threw 154.1 innings and managed a 122 ERA+. He still wasn't a full-fledged starter yet, but at least he was getting a shot. In 1958, with both Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia on the way out, he started 24 games, but still was used as a late-inning reliever. His success in the bullpen ended up being his curse, as he was never able to make the transition to a full-time starter and the bigger paycheck that came with it.
He vented his frustration at not starting, and GM Frank Lane, never shy to trade a player, traded both he and Don Mossi to the Tigers for Al Cicotte and Billy Martin. Mossi would go on to have a successful career as a starter for the Tigers, but Narleski's career was on the wane. He injured his forearm in the 1958 All-Star game, though he continued to pitch in spite of the injury. In 1959, he injured his back, and had to have off-season surgery to fix a ruptured disk. He would never pitch in the majors again. He held the franchise record in saves until 1989, when it was finally broken by Doug Jones.
Ray retired to his home in New Jersey, where he worked as a mechanic for a trucking company, One of his three sons, Steve, was drafted by the Indians, and made it to AAA before retiring in 1983. Ray died last month at the age of 83.
Indians Career Statistics:
|AAA (2 seasons)||AAA||17||23||.425||4.56||74||34||12||2||278.0||275||160||141||5||155||203||1.547||8.9||0.2||5.0||6.6||1.31|
|A (1 season)||A||2||10||.167||4.37||20||13||103.0||94||62||50||76||1.650||8.2||6.6|
|AA (1 season)||AA||15||8||.652||2.42||33||32||242.0||175||75||65||130||1.260||6.5||4.8|
|B (1 season)||B||9||5||.643||3.57||17||111.0||77||54||44||6||91||1.514||6.2||0.5||7.4|
|CLE (5 yrs)||39||21||.650||3.22||224||42||111||16||1||53||597.2||501||235||214||60||276||19||383||10||3||12||2535||119||1.300||7.5||0.9||4.2||5.8||1.39|
All-Star: 1956, 1958
AL MVP Voting: 6th, 1955
AL ERA: 7th, 1957
AL H/9 IP: 8th, 1957
AL Saves*: 3rd, 1954; 1st, 1955; 2nd, 1957
AL Adjusted ERA+: 8th, 1957
AL Win Probability Added: 10th, 1954; 1st, 1955; 1st, 1957
*Until 1969, the Save was not a recognized statistic.
Schneider, Russell. Whatever Happened to "Super Joe"? Pages 143-147
The Sporting News, 1954-1958
Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Ray Narleski, 2 time all-star and part of Indians' great bullpen in historic 1954 season, dies at age 83"