Indians

Musings on Innovations: The ‘50s Tribe Staff, and the Pocket Fisherman

Cleveland Indians 1950s Al Lopez
MEARS Photo

My phone suddenly found itself blanketed under a flurry of texts.

Me: “Roger, do you still have your Pocket Fisherman?”

Roger: “Yes, I do.”

Roger: “If you ask me to find it, though, it may take a few days.”

Roger: “I never got it to work quite right.”

Roger: “Being so young, I hooked my own self more often than fish.”

Roger: “Wonder if they are for sale on eBay.”

Me: “Yep, I checked. They are.”

When my brother received his Pocket Fisherman as a Christmas or a birthday present, he was under ten years old. By that point, we’d fished some, catching bluegill in small ponds with cane poles. Our grandparents would load us kids in the car, along with Grandma’s picnic items, and take us over to Holden Arboretum, up the road from their home in Kirtland.

To a kid in the 1970s, the name, “Pocket Fisherman,” seemed odd. The thing was about the size of a football. But it was a thrilling concept: catch fish any time you want! Without carrying around a long pole! The commercial promised you could catch a huuuge bass!

The Pocket Fisherman came from the creative and marketing genius that is Ron Popeil. As did the Chop-O-Matic (“All your onions chopped to perfection without shedding a single tear!”). And the Mr. Microphone, the Smokeless Ashtray, and spray-on hair for bald folks.

As Popeil’s television commercials would declare, “BUT WAIT- there’s more!” Other products included the Automatic Pasta Maker, the Inside-the-Egg Scrambler, and the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ Oven (“Set it- and forget it!”).1

As the saying goes, necessity can be the ‘mother of invention.’ But an idea can owe its appeal to other reasons, as well. Such as the abundance of resources.

Cleveland sports observers can expertly describe the innovations introduced by Paul Brown. But while the Cleveland Browns’ founding father is rightly remembered for the ingenuity that revolutionized the NFL in the 1940s and 50s, the Cleveland Indians also boasted their own moments of imagination and discovery.

The emphasis on the relief corps as a strength of a major league baseball team originated with the Tribe. According to their contemporaries, Don Mossi and Ray Narleski comprised the best relief pitching combo in the history of baseball when they toiled for the Cleveland Indians from 1954 through 1958.

Under manager Al Lopez, the 1950s Cleveland Indians were a perennial American League contender. However, they were frustrated on an almost yearly basis by the New York Yankees. From 1951 through 1956, the Tribe fell short of the Yankees in five of those six years, by an average of about five games.

Cleveland Indians 1950s Al Lopez

MEARS Photo

Nineteen-fifty-four was the exception. Cleveland’s star-studded roster boasted AL home run and RBI champion Larry Doby, slugger Al Rosen,  and AL batting champ Bobby Avila (Ted Williams had a slightly higher average, but had missed time due to a broken collarbone and then a lung infection and did not have enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title). Cleveland won an AL-record 111 games that year (more than the fabled Yankees of 1927). Although the Yankees did win 103 in ’54, that was merely enough to finish eight games behind the Tribe.

The 1954 Tribe also had what may have been the greatest pitching staff in baseball history. The starters:

  • Early Wynn (23-11, 2.73 ERA)
  • Mike Garcia (19-8, 2.64 ERA)
  • Bob Lemon (23-7, 2.72 ERA)
  • Art Houtteman (15-7, 3.35 ERA)
  • Bob Feller (13-3, 3.09 ERA)

For the bullpen, lefty Hal Newhouser had been signed prior to the season after his long Hall of Fame run with the Detroit Tigers had ended. Newhouser, later a baseball scout who is credited with discovering Derek Jeter, finished 7-2 with a 2.54 ERA in 1954. Also that spring, minor league manager Birdie Tebbetts was insistent with Tribe manager Al Lopez: he had to take two impressive rookies north with him to start the year as well.

Don Mossi and Ray Narleski were both 25 year old starting pitchers. Since there was no room for them on that historically good starting staff, Lopez began to rely on them at the back of the bullpen (the Indians were so loaded with pitching that still in the minors awaiting his turn was 1955 Rookie of the Year and 16 game winner Herb Score).

Don Mossi was a laid-back left-hander with an arm that was so crooked, he could not straighten it. Doctors had told him he must have had an arm injury in the past, but he had no memory of one. He had been very wild in the minors, but boasted a tremendous strikeout-to-walk ratio (932/385) in the majors. Mossi credited the improvement to Mel Harder.2 The pitching coach suggested he change from a two-finger to a three-finger grip on the baseball. Good for the Tribe, and good for Don Mossi: as he approached his fifth year with the Indians‘ organization in 1954, he knew he would either make the big club or be waived, per the rules of MLB at the time. He planned to retire and “get a job” if he didn’t make the big leagues in ’54.

Mossi’s lasting reputation was that he threw with pinpoint control. However, he was noted by Al Lopez as being “sneaky fast”, and in 1956 The Sporting News recognized him as having one of the best fastballs in the American League. His main pitch was the curveball, though, and Al Rosen was known to exclaim that it “never stops curving.” He played with pain throughout most of his career, but lasted several years in Baseball. He said when it started to hurt, he would “throw harder.”

Ray Narleski was a right-hander with an upper-90s fastball. He prided himself on battling hitters, “fighting them all the way.”  “I had a rising fastball that I could throw 95-100 miles per hour. The batters would hit underneath it and pop it up.  I had a knuckle curve in the minors, but Bill Norman, one of my managers, said to forget it. I had a slider, too. Mel Harder taught me how to throw a curve later on. He also helped me with my motion.”3

In 1954, Don Mossi finished 6-1 and 1.94 while Ray Narleski went 3-3 with a 2.22. Mossi’s mental makeup reflected a tendency to take adversity and pressure in stride. He remained calm and poised. In contrast, Narleski was a Type-A personality. He stomped into games with an aggressive attitude. Though opposites in some ways, they were best of friends who roomed together on the road.

These days, of course, a manager will point to his arm that corresponds to the throwing arm of the reliever he wants to enter the game. Back in 1954, Lopez eventually took to signaling the bullpen by raising the arm which matched the arm the reliever threw with. Originally, however, he had player-specific signs he used to summon the tandem. For Narleski, Lopez would draw an imaginary “N” in the air as he walked to the mound to remove the starter. For Mossi, he would cup his hands on the sides of his head and wave back and forth- in reference to Mossi’s huge ears! Mossi later professed it did not bother him.

Mossi and Narleski. They are still mentioned in the same breath, and experts such as Herb Score considered them the best lefty-righty combo they’d ever seen. They anchored the Tribe bullpen for two more years, and in 1957, they each were given at least some spot starts with the (by then) sub-.500 Tribe. Mossi went 11-10 and Narleski finished 11-5. In 1958, they were back in the bully, as Mudcat Grant and Cal McLish were inserted into their starting roles. After the 1958 season, they were both included in the deal with the Detroit Tigers that brought Billy Martin to Cleveland. The General Manager who swung the deal was Frank “Trader” Lane. His infamous dismantling of the Cleveland Indians during that era also featured the dealing of Rocky Colavito- blamed by many to have resulted in the “curse” which keeps the club from winning a championship. Lane explained that the duo had not won many games recently; others were sure the big reason he traded them was their repeated request to start- and thereby earn perhaps three times their salary (Narleski was outspoken on this – and remained so long into retirement).

Shortly after being dealt by Trader Lane, Ray Narleski developed shoulder problems and was close to being finished as a pitcher. Don Mossi had several productive years with Detroit, the White Sox (reuniting with Al Lopez), and Charlie Finley’s Kansas City A’s. He’d become a starting pitcher for much of his post-Cleveland career. Variously nicknamed “The Sphinx”, “Ears”, or “The Loving Cup”, Mossi retired in 1965 because “My kids were getting older, my arm hurt, and a new attitude was coming into the game.”

“Mossi and Narleski” lasted 5 years with the Indians. They were a matched set, even with regard to the way they were sent away from the team. And it all began in a trailblazing role, at the back end of the bullpen. On one of the finest pitching staffs, on one of the best baseball teams in history.

  1. BUT WAIT! Does a competitor appear to have emerged to challenge the Popeil classic? []
  2. Mel Harder as pitching coach could be considered to be an innovation in itself. When he assumed this role with the Indians in the late 1940s, he was among the first ever. []
  3. Splendor on the Diamond, Rich Westcott, 2000. []