Monday, August 12, 2019

Don Mossi, RIP: Ugly is as Ugly Does

By Jeff Kallman

"He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power," wrote Bill James about pitcher Don Mossi in The New Historical Baseball Abstract. "He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure ... man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch."

Wrote the late Jim Bouton in Ball Four, while musing how players loved to choose up all-ugly lineups to pass time, "he looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open."

Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, the all-ugly receiver, once said, "It don't matter if you're ugly in this racket. All you have to do is hit the ball. And I never saw anybody hit one with his face." Mossi, a brainy left-hander who made Berra resemble Cary Grant by comparison, could have said the same thing, with the codicil that he'd never seen anybody pitch one with his face.

Mossi, who died July 26 at 90 in an Idaho hospital, had nothing on the mound but his brains, an unusual three-finger grip on his fastball, which didn't travel like a speeding bullet but came to enough forks on the way to the plate and took them to keep hitters off balance, and a deadly enough curve ball. And it gave Indians manager Al Lopez a smart idea when Mossi made the team in 1954.

Lopez used Mossi's wits and right-hander Ray Narleski's power as an effective bullpen counterweight whenever one of the Indians' effective starters — Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, Mike (The Big Bear) Garcia, and aging but still capable Hall of Famer Bob Feller — needed to be spelled, with elder veteran Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser the long man out of that pen.

Used so judiciously, that bullpen helped the 111 game-winning Indians whistle past the 103 game-winning Yankees and into the World Series, with Mossi rolling a 1.94 ERA and a staggering 194 ERA+, then pitching four innings in the World Series without surrendering an earned run or a walk.

If only the Series equaled Mossi's performance: the Giants swept the Indians in four straight, and it only began with Willie Mays's stupefying catch in Game One to rob Vic Wertz of a likely extra base hit at the Polo Grounds's cavernous rear end. In due course, Mossi would admit he was scared to death as a rook until veterans such as Feller and Lemon put him more at ease.

A year later, Mossi was deadlier. He struck out 69 against only eighteen walks, posted a 2.42 ERA and a 2.01 fielding-independent pitching rate, and even drew a few Most Valuable Player votes while he was at it. Who knew that Narleski would begin experiencing elbow trouble and put an end to that skin-tight rear end of the Indians' bullpen?

Perhaps inexplicably, the Indians moved Mossi and Narleski into the starting rotation for most of 1957. Perhaps also inexplicably, Mossi earned his only all-star berth. Perhaps even more inexplicably, the Tribe traded both Mossi and Narleski to the Tigers after the 1958 season — for Billy Martin, well along the way to his second career of wearing out his welcome swiftly enough, wherever he landed, after Yankee general manager George Weiss got fed up with him in 1957.

As a Tiger, Mossi became a starter, mostly, and a reasonable back-of-the rotation option. In 1961, Mossi became a curious trivia element when he surrendered only one home run to Roger Maris but none to Mickey Mantle while that pair of Yankees chased ruthsrecord all season long. Mossi also started a 1 September game against the Yankees in which a near-flawless performance was ruined when, with two out, Elston Howard and Berra singled back to back before Moose Skowron drove home Howard with the winning run.

The loss kicked off an eight-game losing streak that knocked the Tigers out of the 1961 pennant race. And that was the last season Mossi pitched before incurring arm trouble that began slowly decreasing his starting assignments and increasing his bullpen options until the Tigers sold him to the White Sox during spring training 1964.

The White Sox put him back into the bullpen permanently, and Mossi responded with a 2.94 ERA over forty innings before the Sox released him after the season. The Kansas City Athletics took a flyer on him in May 1965, but he called it a career after the season.

His comparatively late major league start may have shortened his career a bit; he was 25 when the Indians brought him up in 1954 and one year removed from discovering that odd three-finger fastball grip. He was a good if unspectacular pitcher who married his mind to his arm and did the best he could with both.

Teammates appeared to have loved and respected Mossi. Once upon a time, according to a fan posting on Mossi's Legacy.com obituary page, Rocky Colavito — dealt to the Tigers controversially in 1960 (Indians fans were ready to arrange the execution of general manager Frank Lane over that and other trades that essentially broke up the Indians' perennial contenders) — drove a white Cadillac convertible and picked Mossi up in it on the way to Tiger Stadium as long as they were teammates.

But his distinctive (shall we say) appearance stuck in the minds of opponents and fans more than his ways and means on the mound. Beneath eyes similar to those of Edward R. Murrow, Mossi also wore a proboscis that made Danny Thomas's look like a bob and ears that rivaled the batwing flaps of legendary Hollywood censor Will Hays, earning him the nicknames "The Sphinx" and "Ears."

Well, now. The Sphinx with Ears ended up having a last laugh. He returned to his native California with his wife, Eunice, and their three children; he'd married his lady on the field at Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark while pitching for the Indians' farm in 1950. Mossi's baseball afterlife included running several motels in California successfully, not to mention becoming a 12-time grandfather and a 25-time great-grandfather.

A few years after Mrs. Mossi passed away, her husband retired to Idaho, where much of their family had relocated, and took up an active life indulging his passions for gardening, hunting, and camping. The Mossis were animal lovers to the point that the pitcher's family declined a funeral service and asked instead that contributions be made to a pet hospital in nearby Oregon.

Clearly enough, ugliness was in the eye of the beholder, and Mossi's was only skin deep. (Admittedly, you wonder, if Mossi had gone to medical school, he'd have put up with tons of needling about becoming an ear, nose, and throat specialist.) Beneath the ears and the schnozz there rested a competitor on the mound and a gentleman off it.

So laugh, clowns, laugh. This Donald had the last laugh known as a life lived very, very well. Call it winning ugly if you must. But emphasize winning.

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