KENT WARD

A ‘be’ ball up high and inside

Posted March 23, 2012, at 11:23 a.m.

Mainers may be impressed with the spectacular grand entrance of spring, but that doesn’t mean we have abandoned a suspicion that the weather gods will somehow extract payment for their unseasonable gift of abundant sunshine and summer-like temperatures.

Show me the person who, when talk turns to the run of fantastic weather we’ve enjoyed all week, doesn’t speculate that some sort of retaliatory weather ambush lies just over March Hill and I’ll show you a person who just doesn’t get it.

No matter. Spring is here to stay, in any case. And in springtime a man’s fancy turns to… baseball.

An Associated Press news story in Thursday’s newspaper reported the death of Mel Parnell, 89, the smooth-throwing left-handed pitcher who was the ace of the Boston Red Sox pitching staff in the 1950s.

In his later years, Parnell had criticized baseball’s modern pitching system that coddles starting pitchers in order to protect their multimillion dollar arms by relying heavily on long relievers, short relievers and closers to finish games.

“You’ve got guys [starters] who go five or six innings and everyone thinks it’s great. In 1949, I started 35 games and completed 27 of them,” he once told a reporter. Parnell still holds the Red Sox team record for left-handed pitchers in games started, innings pitched and victories. He pitched 113 complete games and had 20 shutouts, including a no-hitter in 1956 — unlikely statistics in today’s game.

Another pitcher of the same era who knew a thing or two about pitching complete games was Leroy “Satchel” Paige. One of the game’s more unforgettable characters, Paige starred for many years in the Negro leagues before finally making it to the major leagues at age 40 or thereabouts — no one, including Paige, was quite sure how old he was — with the Cleveland Indians in the team’s 1948 championship season.

He made his way from poverty and obscurity to become one of the greatest box office attractions in baseball history, a fan favorite who added to his credentials once the shameful major league color barrier had been broken by the pioneering Jackie Robinson with Brooklyn in the National League and later by Larry Doby with Cleveland in the American League.

“This is my 23rd year of pitching and when I say ‘year’ I mean 365 days,” Paige told sports writer Hal Lebovitz of the Cleveland News. “I been pitching 130 to 160 games a season regular, and only ’til recent did I stop pitchin’ whole games.”

I rediscovered the Paige interview in a small booklet titled “Pitchin’ Man” buried deep in my cache of baseball memorabilia. The booklet, published in 1948, is a series of interviews conducted by Lebovitz — a “vernacular autobiography” in the words of Cleveland News editor N. R. Howard — that had run serially in the newspaper during the 1948 season.

Paige’s menu of pitches was hardly limited to the basic fastball, curve and changeup. “I got bloopers, loopers and droopers. I got a jump ball, a be ball, a screw ball, a wobbly ball, a whipsy-dipsy-do, a hurry-up ball, a nothing ball and a bat dodger,” he told Lebovitz. “My be ball is a be ball ‘cause it ‘be’ right where I want it — high and inside. It wiggles like a worm.” Perhaps his signature delivery, though, was his “hesitation” pitch, which thoroughly messed up a batter’s timing.

His assortment of wind-ups ranged from no wind-up at all to “my windmill wheel in which my arms keep whirlin’ ’til I tell ’em to stop.” The objective was to “fascinate” hitters into forgetting that a ball was about to be thrown.

After Paige had lost some zip off his fastball he realized “the time had come for me to be cute. The batters had to be out-thunk. So I began to cute up. I taught myself to throw three ways — sidearm, overhand and underhand. I conjured up a curve three ways. You understand now, an underhand curve is a rare ball. But I got it.” He hadn’t thrown it in the majors yet, Paige said, “but when I do, some batter’s peepers are gonna pop.”

When he made his major league debut in relief against the St. Louis Browns in Cleveland on July 9, 1948, Paige wasn’t nervous, he told Lebovitz, “but I was as close to that feeling as I could be.” Once he had discovered that home plate was “where it always was,” however, he settled down. “You know home plate is home plate, regardless where you play. It don’t move.”

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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