He was six feet tall and 180 in his prime. A World War Two paratrooper who hailed from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, for almost a decade he held the record for the most career saves in the National League. He had ears that made his baseball cap appear to have wings, and a curve ball that seemed to defy the laws of physics. Who belongs to an August 6th, 1926 birthday? Walter Clement LaBine, whose autographed picture looks down on me as I write this.
I was a big fan of his until he was traded after a stellar career with the Dodgers that lasted until the first year of their move to LA. He was traded to Detroit. He was a bust and considered retiring. The Tigers put him back in the National League with Pittsburgh. The Pirates were in a pennant run and needed someone in the bullpen who could spell Roy Face. LaBine came back to life and was key to their success that year. He then spent a year with one of the most comical franchises in baseball history. Were there a Harlem Globetrotters of baseball, it would have been the NY Mets. It’s just that the ‘trotters were foolish on purpose. So foolish the Mets could be on the diamond that their manager Casey Stengel a close second to Yogi Berra in linguistics, was moved to ask to someone? anyone? himself? in the dugout, “Is there anyone here who can play this game?” LaBine pitched three games for the hapless Mets including one inning in their first game.
LaBine moved back to Rhode Island and went into the sportswear business. He died at age 80 in Vero Beach, Fl. where he instructed at the Dodgers’ fantasy camps. His death struck me as bizarre as the way the Mets played ball. He came down with pneumonia. For reasons unknown to me, and Wikipedia, his doctors decided to do exploratory brain surgery, the brain being some distance from the lungs. “Go know” as my grandmother used to muse at the oddities of the world. The surgery killed him. But let us not bury him and his spectacular curveball before we nod a bit to his other accomplishments.
He played for 13 seasons and had a winning percentage of over 500. His ERA was 3.6. Thirteen World Series appearances get credited to him, again with a 500 win/lose percentage. According to the big “W,” his 96 saves trailed only three players in baseball history, one with the name of Firpo Marbury. Don’t ask. His record of 425 games pitched was in 1966 a Dodger franchise record. His 83 saves were broken only by Don Drysdale and Ron Perranoski. He was in the groove in 1958 and ‘9. In ’58 he broke the National League record for saves, notching 60. The next year he broke the franchise record of 381 appearances. That record belonged to Brickyard Kennedy. (Again, with the names.) He is only one of six ballplayers who won back-to-back world championships on other teams.
Knitted into his sad demise is something else noteworthy. His son Jay followed in his father’s patriotic footsteps. He joined the Marines, went to Vietnam, and gave his leg for his country courtesy of an IED.
We should also note that his native Woonsocket, in lasting memory, named Bernon Park Field after him.
So, Clem LaBine, in August along with Woonsocket, and your son Jay, we remember you and salute you.
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