Ryne Duren – Legally blind, drunk and bringing the cheese

1 Jan

Ryne Duren was a pitcher that most people would consider average at best, below average by the standards of the game today. He had a career losing record, only managed 57 career saves, and didn’t ever seem to be outstanding to say the least. Most people say if he hadn’t been on the Yankees during their great Dynasty Years of the 1050’s he wouldn’t even be a footnote in baseball history. Most people don’t know the story behind the statistics.

Duren wasn’t quite as bad as his numbers make him look, he was a three time All-Star during his career, the 1958 American League Saves leader, and one of the first true closers in the game baseball. In an era when starting pitchers finished what they started, Duren was the Yankees ace in the hole. He had a blistering fastball estimated in th mid to upper 90 mph range. He also had serious control issues, a well documented and known severe drinking problem, and tremendously thick coke bottle glasses. Many people claimed he was blind, and they were actually right. He wasn’t fully blind, in all honesty he was legally blind. He could see shapes well enough to know where to aim the ball, and one eye was stronger than the other. His eyes were also allergic to light which meant he always wore dark tinted glasses just like any fully blind person which just added to the fear factor. Still to many hitters in the 50’s and 60’s the prospect of facing the flame throwing possibly drunk/hungover legally blind pitcher was nothing to feel good about. Without doubt, Duren was one of the most feared pitchers in baseball history to this day.

In high school Duren already threw so hard, and wild, coaches refused to allow him to pitch because they were afraid he would seriously hurt someone and didn’t want to be responsible for it. He was too good to not have play though. They wouldn’t let him play third base or shortstop because they feared an errant throw might hurt spectators. He couldn’t catch, play first, or play the outfield because he couldn’t see the ball well enough. Finally they settled on second base where he could see just enough and toss the ball to first under-handed.

He signed a pro contract out of high school and made his debut after seven years in the minors with the St. Louis Browns. In 1957 he made his first start with the A’s against the Yankees. The first batter he faced, Hank Bauer he sent sprawling to the ground with a pitch under his chin. The next two were just as close sending Bauer to the ground each time before striking him out on the next three pitches. The next batter Gil McDouglad stood on the outer edge of the batters box, took three pitches and happily headed for the dugout. Yankee manager Casey Stengel screamed at his players after two innings of likewise plate appearances “what is wrong with you guys?” A now unknown player commented something to the effect of we’re married guys with kids, and he’s blind and throwing 100 mph. Get him here or get him out of the league before he kills someone. Someone listened and Billy Martin was traded for Duren.

Duren went to the Yankees AAA team in Denver for more seasoning before joining the team for good. Duren was told he would come right up to the Yankees, but after going 13-2 with a no hitter and a dozen saves, he still spent the rest of the year in AAA. That is when his problems began. Duren was frustrated, he felt cheated, he began drinking more heavily. In 1958 though Duren did make it to the Yankees. In a game at Comiskey park he hit a player so hard with a pitch, it actually knocked his batting helmet off his head and sent it all the way to the backstop. As soon as word of that got around, Duren owned every hitter in the league.

Eventually though due to serious alcohol abuse his control got worse, his body failed to respond as it should, and his career took a sharp downturn. As he commented in his book I Can See Clearly Now, every night was New Year’s Eve, and that is no way to go through life. It’s just a road to death.

By the end of the 1965 season he was out of the game for good. That did in part serve as a wake up call that life was changing and he had to change with it. He began getting sober and committed himself to helping others achieve sobriety as well. For over twenty years he dedicated his time to helping people in all walks of life dealing with every imaginable form of substance abuse find their way to tranquility. Ryne Duren seres as not only a reminder, but proof that in many cases there is more to the story than meets the eye.

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