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Mudville: July 29, 2021 9:10 am PDT
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Face: The Facts

Roy Face can still slide a baseball between his fingers in a forkball grip despite the fact that he is 93 years old and hasn’t pitched in a professional game in more than four decades. The pitch helped him set records and made him famous during a time when he was pioneering the role of the modern day closer.

Face, who spent nearly 16 of his 17 Major League seasons in Pittsburgh, used the forkball to go 18-1 in 1959, saved three games in the 1960 World Series and tied Walter Johnson for the most games pitched [802] for one team. While many present-day fans and players may not be aware of Face and what he accomplished a half century ago, he more than earned his place among the greatest closers in the game’s history.

And, he owed much of his success to a pitch that was a forerunner to the split-finger fastball.

“With the splitter, you spread your fingers on the ball,” Face said. “I put the ball between my fingers. I have fairly good size hands for my size [5-foot-8] and I can still put the ball in there between the first and second finger. It used to ache before I got it stretched out enough but I can still grab the ball and hold it. The stretch is still there.

“The way it broke, it just changed speed, went in and sank. It didn’t have real rotation like a fastball. It was between a knuckleball and a fastball. If a guy was looking for the forkball you could throw a fastball by him and if was looking for a fastball, you throw the forkball and get him out.”

Getting people out was certainly one of Face’s specialties. He picked up 104 career wins and 193 career saves, earned six All-Star selections and was the 1962 National League Reliever of the Year winner. While his career can be viewed as under-appreciated, particularly by those voting for the Hall of Fame, he was the premier reliever in the National League for the better part of a decade and helped turn the Pirates from doormat to a perennial pennant contender and a World Series champion.

“I got here and the year before they lost 100 games and only played 154 at the time. Burgess, Haddix and Hoak gave us a catcher, a pitcher and third baseman that helped the team.”

“I would describe myself as one of the best,” Face told me. “I was a pioneer for relief pitchers and I feel one of the best ones, one of the first and one of the best. I probably get between five and 10 requests in the mail for autographs every day and nine of 10 of them said I should be in the Hall of Fame. They aren’t voting, though.

“I don’t know how they [the voters] consider it. I feel that some of the relief pitchers that are in there didn’t do some of the things I did and that I should be in there over them. But that’s water over the dam.”

A SURPRISE CAREER

Face, who was born in upstate New York, played high school ball and also played when he was in the Army shortly after World War II. He pitched some in high school but it wasn’t until he was in the service that his ability on the mound began to garner attention, both when he was stationed in the U.S. and abroad. While he was successful during his stint in the Army, it wasn’t until he came home that pitching and baseball looked like it might be a viable career option.

“I came home and pitched for my town team, just pickup games and against other towns,” Face said.” I had a good couple of weeks, 17 strikeouts one week and 18 strikeouts another week. A scout [with the Phillies] saw it in the paper and stopped by the following week where I was working as a mechanic. I was a mechanic in the service – and working in a garage – and he asked if I could go over to a field. So, I called my catcher and some other guys and we met up there after work.

“I played shortstop, hit a few, fielded a few and then I got on the mound. He said okay and that was it. Just before Labor Day in 1948, I was pitching. He stopped by. I lost the game but he signed me to a contract in the seventh inning. I was 20-21 years old. He said I don’t know if you’re going to make it, but I’m going to give you a chance and I signed for $140 a month.”

There were 59 minor leagues in professional baseball in the late 1940s and Face was sent to the lowest level, pitching for Bradford [Pa.] of the Class D PONY [Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York] League in 1949. He went 14-2 with a 3.32 ERA in 25 games [17 starts].

Face was ninth in the league in victories and 10th in ERA, but that wasn’t enough to get him out of Bradford. He returned to the Blue Wings in 1950 and went 18-5 with a 2.58 ERA in 31 games [25 starts] while leading the club to a league title. Though he was second in the league in both victories and ERA, he was left unprotected by the Phillies and was selected by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950 minor league draft.

“They didn’t promote me high enough to protect me and Branch Rickey drafted me to the Dodgers,” Face said.

Rickey sent Face to Pueblo of the Class-A Western League where he led the circuit with 23 wins in 35 games [32 starts]. He followed that up by going 14-11 with a 2.83 ERA in the Double-A Texas League but once again Rickey played a role in Face’s fate. Rickey was the general manager and part owner of the Dodgers but sold his share of the team to Walter O’Malley following the 1950 season and immediately joined the Pittsburgh Pirates as executive vice president and general manager.

Though he was in Pittsburgh, Rickey hadn’t forgotten about Face and selected him in the 1952 Rule 5 Draft after the Dodgers also failed to protect him. Face would spend all of 1953 in the Major Leagues per Rule 5 stipulations. He went 6-8 with a 6.58 ERA in 41 games [13 starts].

“Rickey was more or less the one that got me to the Majors. We didn’t have much of a team back then [in 1953]. You didn’t have to be great in order to make the team. I did alright, but I only had a fastball and a curveball. That’s all I threw; I didn’t have another pitch. That winter, Mr. Rickey said we’re going to send you to New Orleans [of the Double-A Southern Association] to work on an off-speed pitch.

“Next spring [former Yankees star reliever] Joe Page was trying to make a comeback with us and I saw him throw a forkball and how it was working for him. He didn’t show me how to throw it and I didn’t ask. But I worked on it and started using it the last half of the season in New Orleans. The next spring Mr. Rickey says ‘You have a new pitch there’.”

Face went 12-11 with a 4.45 ERA in 40 games [25 starts] for New Orleans. He wouldn’t see a minor league park again until 1970, his final year in pro ball.

PITTSBURGH, PA - CIRCA 1964: Roy Face #26 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for this photo before the start of a Major League Baseball game circa 1964 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Face played for the Pirates from 1953-68. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

A FIXTURE IN PITTSBURGH

The Pirates’ fortunes were certainly beginning to change as the middle of the decade unfolded. Not only did they have Face, who would establish himself in the pen in 1955, they also had Roberto Clemente, whom Rickey also plucked from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 Draft in the winter of ’54. The duo were part of the foundation that would bear World Series fruit in 1960.

Face, armed with his newfound pitch, split the 1955 season between the rotation and the pen, going 5-7 with a 3.58 ERA in 42 games [10 starts]. It was clear, though, that he was at his best in relief and started only four games after 1955. The following year would begin a stretch that would make Face one of the game’s premier relievers.

He appeared in a league-leading 68 games [three starts] in 1956 during which he went 12-13 with a 3.52 ERA. He would also tie a Major League record that September by appearing in nine consecutive games, which included a five games in four-day stretch. He tossed 14 2/3 innings in the nine games, going 3-0 with a save and a 1.84 ERA.

“I threw in nine straight games and that was unheard of, especially today but even back then,” Face said. “Nine games in a row. I guess they call it a rubber arm. I never had arm problems. I tore cartilage in my knee one time in 1965 but I never had an arm problem. It was tired and achy sometimes, but I’d wake up the next day and felt like I hadn’t thrown at all.”

Face went 4-6 with a 3.07 in 59 appearances in 1957. That included his last career start in which he received a no-decision in eight innings on July 26th at St. Louis. He was one of the best and most called-upon relievers in the game by 1958, when he went 5-2 with a 2.89 ERA. He led the National League in games finished [40] and saves [20] for the first time. Face also won his final five decisions, setting up his remarkable 1959 season, which remains one of the gold standards for relievers.

The Pirates began 1959 by making one of the most pivotal trades in franchise history when, on Jan. 30, they sent Whammy Douglas, Jim Pendleton, John Powers and Frank Thomas to the Reds for pitcher Harvey Haddox, catcher Smoky Burgess and third baseman Don Hoak, all of whom would contribute mightily to Pittsburgh’s 1960 World Series team.

“Each year we got a little better than the year before,” noted Face. “I got here and the year before they lost 100 games and only played 154 at the time. Burgess, Haddix and Hoak gave us a catcher, a pitcher and third baseman that helped the team.

“I liked throwing to Burgess. He wasn’t that great a catcher but he could hit. The umpires used to tell him all the time to catch the ball because it would go through him and hit the umpires in the shins. I don’t think he was a good defensive catcher.”

World Series: Closeup of Pittsburgh Pirates (L-R) Vern Law (32) and Roy Face (26) victorious during locker room celebration after winning Game 7 and championship series vs New York Yankees at Forbes Field. Pittsburgh, PA 10/13/1960 CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: D68578 - S227 C3 F20 )

Face began 1959 with three scoreless appearances before picking up his first win, a two-inning stint against Cincinnati on April 22. He then bookended victories over Philadelphia around one against St. Louis and was 4-0 by May 7. It continued like that throughout the summer with Face picking up some wins on his own and others after he had blown saves and stayed in for the win.

When he picked up the win on Aug. 30 against Philadelphia, he improved to 17-0 with 22 consecutive victories dating back to 1958. He had also become a national story.

He wouldn’t suffer his first loss until Sept. 11 when he gave up a pair of runs on three hits in Los Angeles. Jim Gilliam’s one-out triple in the ninth tied the score before a Charlie Neal grounder brought home the winning run.

“Charlie Neal hit a broken bat dribbler between third and short and that was the hit that beat me. He didn’t even hit me that solid. That’s how I lost the game. Sure, at 17-0 you have to be thinking about 20 wins but it just never happened. I didn’t start any games so I had to be called into a game. It had to be the right situation for me to be in there and you never knew when that would be.

“When I lost the game in LA, I go into the clubhouse and there are six, eight writers following me in. They asked me ‘What do you think about losing?’ I said ‘I’ll just have to start another one’ and they all left and didn’t get a story.”

Face didn’t get in another game for a week when he picked up his 18th win, this one against Cincinnati. He made two more appearances and pitched two more scoreless innings that season, finishing at 18-1 with a 2.70 ERA and 10 saves in 93 1/3 innings pitched. He picked up nine of those wins after entering a tied game and got 10 wins in extra innings.

June 24, 1963 Sports Illustrated via Getty Images Cover: Baseball: Multiple exposure of Pittsburgh Pirates Roy Face (26) in action, pitching vs Los Angeles Dodgers. Pittsburgh, PA 5/4/1963 CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images) (Set Number: X9207 TK1 )

His .947 winning percentage remains a record while his 18-1 final record was the best in nearly 50 years. Detroit’s Max Scherzer would match him at 18-1 in 19 decisions for the Tigers [2013] but finished the season at 21-3 [.875 winning percentage].

The Cy Young Award, which was created prior to the 1956 season, was only given out to one relief pitcher in all of baseball until 1967. While Face’s 18-1 mark should have garnered some serious consideration for the award, it didn’t. Early Wynn of the Chicago White Sox [22-10, 3.17 ERA] won the Cy Young with 13 first-place votes in leading his club to the American League pennant. San Francisco’s Sam Jones and fellow White Sox starter Bob Shaw split the other three votes, shutting out Face. He did, however, finish seventh in the National League MVP voting.

“If they had two [Cy Youngs], I probably would have won but they only had one and gave it to Early Wynn,” Face said. “I did things that nobody else did. I was 18-1. No other reliever did that. You would think that 18-1 would have gotten me the Cy Young.

“I had a bunch of guys behind me, that’s what stands out [about 1959]. It was just me and my guys. I always had someone to help me. The batter never had anyone to help him. I had eight guys helping me; that’s the way I looked at it. It was always nine against one.”

THE WORLD SERIES AND DOMINATING THE FIRST HALF OF THE DECADE

Face would have been hard-pressed to repeat what he did in 1959 in 1960. While the 18-1 season was magnificent in terms of personal accomplishment, Face and his teammates would reach the ultimate team goal in 1960, winning a thrilling World Series against the New York Yankees.

Of course Face contributed mightily to Pittsburgh winning the pennant. The Pirates had the third-best team ERA in the National League and cruised to a seven-game finish ahead of Milwaukee. Face was 10-8 with a 2.90 ERA in a league-leading 68 games, which also tied a career high. He led the league in games finished [61], had 24 saves, worked a career-high for innings pitched as a reliever [114 2/3] and was an All-Star for a second consecutive season.

“I was just going out and doing what I was supposed to do,” Face said. “From the seventh inning on, it was me. Other than that I was taking it easy and if it was close in the seventh inning, I was in there. If we had a three- or four-run lead, I wasn’t in there. But if it was a tight game and the tying or winning runs were on base, I looked forward to it.”

World Series: Pittsburgh Pirates Roy Face (26) on mound during game vs New York Yankees at Forbes Field. Pittsburgh, PA 10/5/1960 - 10/13/1960 CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: D68578 - S227 )

The World Series turned out to be an odd affair that year. When Pittsburgh won, it was a squeaker and when the Yankees won, it was a blowout. The Yankees were outscoring Pittsburgh, 46-17, heading into Game Seven. Face was a workhorse, saving Games One, Four and Five. He blew the save in Game Seven but was in line to get the win before the Yankees rallied to tie the score at 9-9 in the top of the ninth.

Bill Mazeroski’s homer in the bottom half of the inning won the Series for Pittsburgh and it’s the image most closely associated with that year’s Fall Classic and not the fact that Face saved three games. The writers voting on Series MVP also overlooked Face, instead giving it to New York’s Bobby Richardson, who batted .367 with 12 RBIs. It remains the only time that a player from the losing team won Series MVP.

“In the World Series, I was just doing my job,” Face said. “I could have won that game [Seven] if [Bob] Friend gets them out in the ninth. Friend and [Vern] Law used to kid me about stealing games. I said to him you had the one chance to save a game for me in the World Series and you couldn’t do it after all the games I saved for you.

“It was a high point for me winning that World Series. It was a low point, too. I was the first guy to get three saves in the World Series, my team won and they gave the MVP to a losing player. It could have been Maz or Al Smith. We won. That’s all those writers in New York there.”

Face and the Pirates dipped a bit in 1961. He went 6-12 with a 3.82 ERA yet still led the league in saves [17] and games finished [47] while making his third consecutive and final All-Star team for a Pirates team that went 75-79 en route to a sixth-place finish.

He rebounded in a big way in 1962, though, going 8-7 in 63 games with a career-high and league leading 28 saves and was named as the Sporting News National League Reliever of the Year.

Face remained a workhorse for the better part of the next six seasons in Pittsburgh though the Pirates never returned to the post-season and he never again made an All-Star team. He would save 68 more games for Pittsburgh before getting sold to Detroit on Aug. 31, 1968. The Pirates allowed him to pitch one last time before the deal was completed, giving him 802 appearances, which tied him with Walter Johnson for the most games pitched for one team. He appeared in two games for the Tigers, tossing a scoreless inning and was released the following April.

He was signed by the Expos in April of 1969 and was solid, going 4-2 with five saves and 3.94 ERA for the expansion club before Montreal released him on Aug. 15. Face made his last Major League appearance that day, allowing two runs in two innings to the Dodgers. He earned his 193rd and final save three days earlier against Cincinnati.

“Montreal was great,” Face said. “It was their first year and they needed to get situated and get their team together. [Manager] Gene Mauch wanted to know if I could throw and I said I could. He said we could use you in Montreal. It wasn’t really disappointing, though, that I didn’t play my whole career in Pittsburgh. I did tie Walter Johnson for most appearances with one team.”

Face attempted to continue playing in 1970 when he was signed by the Angels and sent to Hawaii of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He pitched 10 innings over eight games, was 0-1 with a save and a 4.50 ERA before calling it a career.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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