The call to the pen
I remember two things about this month’s birthday boy. He had ears like Dumbo and a curveball that seemed to defy physics. Clement Walter Labine was deceptive. He was a soft-spoken French-Canadian, well-mannered, and easy to get along with. He also was a combat paratrooper with a maniacal competitive streak and arms and shoulders, said Robert Creamer from Sports Illustrated, like a black Smith. In the bullpen, he mused that he was always rooting for whoever was on the mound to finish the game. That was being a good teammate. Yet he always wanted to go in and close down the opposition.
From Wikipedia, we learn that Labine (August 6, 1926 – March 2, 2007) was a right-hand relief pitcher, best known for his years with the Brooklyn and LA Dodgers from 1950 to 1960. As a key member of the Dodgers in the early 1950s, he helped the team to its first World Series title in 1955 with a win and a save in four games. He is one of eight players in MLB history to have won back-to-back World Series championships on different teams.
He held the National League record for career saves from 1958 until 1962; his 96 career saves ranked fourth in MLB history when he retired. He also set a Dodgers franchise record of 425 career games pitched.
It didn’t take long for the young Labine to hit his stride. After compiling a 5–1 record for Brooklyn as a rookie in 1951, he shut out the New York Giants in game two of the National League pennant playoff. The score? 10–0. He was no flash in the pan. In 1955, the year the Dodgers finally brought a world championship to Brooklyn, he led the NL with 60 games pitched and 10 relief victories and earned a career-best 13 wins overall. Although the save was not yet an official statistic, he has been retroactively credited with leading the NL twice (1956 and ’57) in that category, with 19 and 17, respectively, and was an All-Star both years.
Labine was a student of pitching, as are most good pitchers. Here are some observations Creamer got from Labine. (Grammerly and Mr. Creamer don’t agree on a lot of punctuation. Since they are Mr. Creamer’s work, I left the quotes as he wrote them.)
“When you warm up like that you think about who’s batting and how you’d pitch to him. When Long was batting against Koufax, Sandy tried to keep the ball high because Long isn’t too strong on high fast balls. But I can’t pitch to him there because he’ll kill my fast ball. Sandy has a good fast ball; I don’t. Or if I throw my sinker high, he’ll kill that. I have to throw low to him, because I’m stronger there. I should never throw a high sinker, and I don’t mean to. But you make a mistake and the ball doesn’t go where you want it to go.
“A relief pitcher can’t afford mistakes. A starter may have a lead to fool around with, and he can wait until he gets into trouble to really bear down. But a relief pitcher is always in trouble, or he wouldn’t be brought into the game. You have to bear down on every man. You can’t afford to make mistakes.
“So, you practice throwing to imaginary hitters, practice what you’ll throw to them in the game. You can’t wait until you’re on the mound to practice. I remember this spring we were playing the Braves, in New Orleans, I think. Johnny Logan came up with bases loaded. Now, Logan’s a really good fast ball hitter. You can’t get one past him. The count went to three and two, and I threw him a good curve and he struck out. He looked out at me and he said, ‘It’s spring training, Clem. Can’t you throw a fast ball?’ I asked him after the game what he wanted me to do. He said, ‘What do you have to throw the curve for? It’s only spring training.’ I said, ‘Johnny, isn’t spring training for practice? When do you want me to practice throwing breaking stuff with a full count? Some day when the bases are loaded in the ninth inning in Milwaukee?’
“You have to think of who’s coming up. If I know that, say, Henry Aaron is the fourth man coming to bat in an inning, I really work on that first man, to get him out of the way. Then, even if I lose the second man I can still get the double play and get out of the inning. It’s very important to get ahead of the batter. Then he has to control his swing and protect the plate. And if you get ahead of him, say two strikes and no balls, you can try four times to make him hit your pitch. Including the fourth pitch. Let him walk. A guy like Aaron, in a very tight game you’d almost rather have him on first base, even though he’s the winning run. He’s so hard to pitch to, maybe you’d rather have him on and take your chances with the next man.
“I like relief pitching. It’s a challenge. When Sandy was in the bullpen he said one day, ‘My arm has never felt so tired.’ I said, ‘If you expect to stay in the bullpen, get used to it.’ Your arm is always tired. It isn’t sore. It’s just tired. A doctor I know told me it’s because a pitcher’s arm actually hemorrhages after he’s been throwing hard. It becomes a mass of tiny, tiny hemorrhages that take a day or so to clear up. If they clear up fast you’re a relief pitcher. I don’t think there’s any physical damage done to the arm. I think it’s more of a mental problem than a physical one. Your arm is tired, and you don’t feel like pitching. But you make yourself. You throw for a while, and then it feels all right. It feels good. Some days it feels so good you know you can go in and get anybody out.”
It is thinking like that which led sports writers to say when someone doesn’t feel well, they reach for Alka Seltzer. When Walter Alston doesn’t feel well, he reaches for Clem Labine.
While relief pitching has a long history in baseball, it wasn’t until well after Labine’s retirement that relief pitchers began to get their due. Alston said that once that relief pitchers were pitchers who weren’t good enough to be starters. Now relief pitchers are part of the plan. Labine never came close to being chosen MVP. His fans came up with a song:
Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’,
Oh, my darlin’ Clem Labine.
We have won, but your (sic) forgotten.
Dreadful sorry, Clem Labine
Ironically enough, Clem Labine’s final strikeout was in Vero Beach, Fl. spring home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a spring regular helping with the pitching staff. He was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and died in a town whose name meant “Brooklyn Dodgers” to any Brooklyn fan. He died at 80 years of age, a contented man. One can’t ask for much more than that.
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