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Mudville: July 12, 2024 8:46 am PDT

First and Last II

Every player who reaches the major leagues has a first game and a last game. Sometimes those games are one in the same. How did baseball’s immortals do in their first major league game? This is the second in a series of Myster Eephus columns of the first and last games of MLB’s greatest players.

Imagine in your first at-bat in the major leagues you face a pitcher called “Bubba.”

Seventy-three years ago, May 25, 1951, Willie Mays stepped up to the plate at Shibe Park in Philadelphia in his major league debut facing Phillies pitcher Bubba Church. He was called out on strikes.

New York Giants fans had read about the 20-year old who possessed other-worldly talent, and no doubt followed the game that day.

After his first-inning strikeout, Mays went hitless in four more at-bats. The headline in the New York Daily News the next day read: Giants Win 8-5; Phils Collar Mays

The paper’s story by Jim McCulley read:

“Philadelphia, May 25, – Whammin’ Willie Mays joined the Giants here tonight, and his .447 American Association batting average took a deep dip. Mays played center with Bobby Thomson in left.

“Mays made a number of routine catches in the outfield, but was horsecollared in five trips to the plate. He robbed Monte Irvin out of a two-base hit in the ninth, but nevertheless Leo Durocher’s boys whipped the Phils, 8-5, coming from behind with five runs in the eighth.

“The 20-year old Mays, who was rushed here from Minneapolis, had a hero’s chance in the seventh. Coming up with two runs behind, two runs on and two out, he worked Church for a limit count and then socked a long fly to left. Willie also had a chance to tie the score in the fifth, but flied out to left,” wrote McCulley.

“He was on base only once during the evening, via (Granny) Hamner’s error. In his first two times up, Willie fanned and hit an easy roller to third,” McCulley wrote.

New York Giants rookie star outfielder Willie Mays poses for a photograph in 1951. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

The day before, Mays was watching a movie in Minneapolis (Giants AAA Team) when the movie stopped, the lights went up, and an announcement was made that if Willie Mays was in the theater he should report to his manager at the hotel.

Mays went hitless in the next two games, but in his 13th plate appearance belted a long home run off Warren Spahn; he went on another hitless streak, and was convinced he could not hit major league pitching. Durocher told him he was his centerfielder, and according to a SABR bio by John Saccoman, the manager told Mays to hitch his pants up to help with the strike zone.

Mays finished the season with very good but not great stats: he batted .274 with 20 home runs and 68 RBIs.

Giants owner Horace Stoneham had a great fear that Mays would be drafted to serve in the Korean War. Stoneham thought his luck was holding out when the 1952 season started, but Mays’ name was called and he was inducted into the Army, after he had played 34 games. In addition to 1952, he also missed the entire 1953 season.

Mays ended his career with 660 home runs. How many round-trippers could have hit if he had played those two years? Could he have swatted 55, which would have passed Babe Ruth’s record of 714?

He might have had plenty of home runs in those two missing seasons, but Mays played his last game when he was 42, a shell of the player he had once been.

In 1970, at the age of 40 and playing in 136 games for the Giants, he hit 18 home runs with 61 RBIs and batted .271. He led the National League in walks and On-base-percentage. He even stole 23 bases in 26 attempts.

The following year, he was batting .184 with no home runs and three RBIs when on May 11, he was traded by the now San Francisco Giants to the New York Mets for Charlie Williams and $50,000.

Being back in New York might have rejuvenated him – in 69 games with the Mets, he batted .267 with 8 home runs and 19 RBIs.

But as 1973 progressed, it was obvious Mays was far from playing at the level at which he set new standards for a Hall of Fame career – and recognition as the game’s greatest all-around player. But his numbers weren’t that bad: in 66 games, he batted only .211 but hit six home runs and had 25 RBIs.

The ’73 Mets won the National League East with a record of 83-79, but they shocked the baseball world by defeating the NL West champs Cincinnati Reds by winning three games to two to advance to the World Series against the reigning champion Oakland A’s.

In Game 1 played in Oakland, Mays started the game in center field and singled in the first inning. He was 1-4 in the game, making 11 putouts in the outfield.

With the score tied at 6 in the top of the 12th inning in Game 2 of the World Series against the Athletics, Mays singled off closer Rollie Fingers, plating Bud Harrelson and giving New York a 7-6 lead. It was Mays’ last hit of his career. The Mets went on to win 10-7.

In game three, with the score tied 2-2 in the top of the 10th, with a runner on first base, Mays batted for Tug McGraw, and hit into a fielder’s choice. It was the last at-bat of his career.

(Mays had one hit in three at-bats in the NLCS and went 2 for 7 in the World Series).

So much has been written and said about Mays upon his death on June 18 there really isn’t anything I can add, except this:

A close friend called me the day of Mays’ death and said he was mad at God. Why? I asked. Because when Willie Mays broke in the majors, he had a 32-inch waist and when he died he had a 32-inch waist!

Well, I replied, sometimes God gives a little extra to folks, like Mozart, Einstein, Streep. In Mays’ case, he gave a big dose of extra, and he used it to become the game’s greatest all-round player now – and probably forever.

*******

Brooklyn was known as the Superbas and the Giants were still in New York on July 17, 1900 when the Big Apple squad brought in its “phenom,” a pitcher who in the minors at Norfolk, VA, had gone 20-2 in half a season.

The Giants paid the then exorbitant sum of $1,500 to Norfolk to purchase the rights to this pitcher. The owner told the player that in addition to the Giants, teams in Philadelphia and Cincinnati were also interested in buying him. The owner let the then 19-year old pitcher choose which team he’d want to join. Thinking he had a better chance of sticking with the Giants because they were the worst team in the National League and were obviously short on talent, with a record of 23-43, he selected New York.

On July 17, he was brought in in relief to face Brooklyn. In his first full inning, he allowed five runs. After three plus innings, he had also hit three batters, threw a wild pitch and watched his teammates butcher several plays. (New York Giants third baseman Charlie “Piano Legs” Hickson committed a still-record 91 errors that season at the hot corner.)

Welcome to the big leagues, Christy Mathewson, who nearly 125 years after his debut is still regarded as one of the game’s greatest pitchers.

His second appearance wasn’t much better, when he gave up six runs in his first inning of relief. For his third appearance that season, he faced the St. Louis Cardinals and his future manager John McGraw, but there is no box score available to see how they fared against each other.

He was 0 and 3 with an ERA of 5.08 when he was sent back to Norfolk for the rest of the season.

The Giants were worse in 1901, going 52-85-4, but Mathewson managed a 20-17 record with an ERA of 2.41 while pitching 336 innings.

New York was even worse in 1902, with a record of 48-88-5 and Mathewson’s record was 14-17; his ERA was 2.12, lower than in 1901. But things would turn around soon for New York, as McGraw was hired as manager and oversaw the team’s final 65 games with a record of 25-38-2.

From 1903 to 1914, Mathewson won 30 games or more four times and had 20 or more wins in eight seasons.

His “out” pitch was a fadeaway. In his book, The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball, Frank Deford wrote, “Mathewson threw it sort of inside out, so his palm ended face up after the ball was released.”

UNDATED: Pitcher Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants poses for a portrait. (Photo by National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MLB via Getty Images)

The pitcher said he threw it while “twisting off my thumb with a peculiar snap of the wrist.” At a July, 1900 practice, Giants player-manager George Davis faced Mathewson and swung and missed at two fadeaways. “That’s a good one. It’s a slow-in curve to a right-handed batter. A regular fallaway or fadeaway,” Davis said.

Deford noted Davis was a switch-hitter and faced Mathewson batting left. “Curiously, since most batters are right-handed, the pitch absolutely did not fade away from them. On the contrary it ran in,” he wrote, so instead of being called a fade-in, it was known as the fadeaway.

In 1914, Mathewson was experiencing constant pain on his left side even though doctors could find nothing wrong. After winning only three games in 1916, he thought his career was over, and he wanted to manage.  On July 20, McGraw traded him to Cincinnati for player-manager Buck Herzog on the condition that he replace Herzog as manager.

He pitched one game for the Reds, against another great pitcher at the end of his career, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. September 4, 1916, was “Mordecai Brown Day” in Chicago which was also Labor Day. A huge crowd turned out to see the old masters one more time. Mathewson pitched a complete game, as did Brown, and the Reds won 10-8 in the second game of a double header. Mathewson gave up two runs in the first, a run in the third; two in the fifth and three in the ninth, along with a wild pitch. He also went 2-5 with a run scored.

A subhead in the Chicago Tribune‘s game story the next day read: “Great Masters Are Through”.

“There was nothing but sentiment to attract a crowd that overflowed to see these past greats of the slab art pitch their last game against each other. Gone are the days when they were the reliance of two great clubs battling each other for pennants every year,” wrote I.E. Sanborn in the Tribune. “Their lots are cast with second division outfits.”

The New York Sun reported it was the largest Cubs crowd of the season at Weeghman Park (later referred to as Cubs Park and after the 1927 season was known as Wrigley Field.)

It was Mathewson’s 373rd and final victory – and final MLB appearance – of his career.

He continued to manage the Reds, but in 1918 he was commissioned a captain in the Army’s Chemical Warfare Division in France.

While there, Mathewson came down with influenza and was exposed to mustard gas during a training exercise. In 1921 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and died on October 7, 1925 at the age of 45. In 1936, he was posthumously selected among the first group of players inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Christy Mathewson pitching in 1916.

******

The St. Louis Cardinals clinched the National League pennant on the next-to-last day of the 1930 season. With nothing to prove the next day, manager Gabby Street let a recent call-up, Jerome Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Dean joined the Cardinals on September 10, and while he told his manager he “could beat those bums” on the field, he sat on the bench for three weeks before he got a chance.

Dean, hailing from Oklahoma, worked on various farms picking cotton. He decided to join the Army in 1926 so he could play baseball,  becoming the star pitcher on his Camp Sam Houston’s baseball team. In 1929, the San Antonio Public Service company bought him out of the service (which was doable then) and he became a star pitcher for the company’s team, taking them to the state championship for such clubs.

He signed with the Cardinals, and was supposed to play for the team’s class D league, but the manager of the C League team in St. Joseph’s, MO, asked for and got Dean on his roster.

Even with his limited experience, Dean was 17-8 for St. Joseph’s, and in August was promoted two steps to the A-level Houston team, where he won his first six starts. He went 8-2 and was named to the league’s all-star team even though he pitched less than a month for Houston.

According to Vince Staten’s Ol’ Diz: A Biography of Dizzy Dean, the 6’2” inch Dean had to borrow cleats from 5’10” teammate Burleigh Grimes, which were too small for his first start in the majors against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 28, 1930.

During warmups, Dean was razed by the Pirates – a common fate for rookie pitchers. In the first inning, he walked Pirates’ leadoff man Gus Dugus. Next batter Paul Waner grounded to second, with Dugus moving to second base. Dean walked the next batter, George Grantham. Pie Trainor singled, scoring Dugas and sending Grantham moving to third base. Then Adam Comorosky grounded to Cardinals third baseman Sparky Adams, who threw Dugus out at home. Gus Suhr lined out to first base and Dean survived his first inning allowing only one run.

(Original Caption) Dizzy Dean , on the mound, as he put the finishing touch to the whirlwind finish of the St. Louis Cardinals, by blanking the Cincinnati Reds, 9-0, to clinch the National League pennant. Dean allowed the Reds but seven hits, each coming in separate innings except for the last two, which came in the ninth.

In the bottom of the third, with one out and shortstop Charlie Gelbert on first base, Dean, in his first at-bat, singled to right field, moving the runner to second. Centerfielder Taylor Douhit doubled, scoring Gelbert and sending Dean to third. The next batter hit into a fielder’s choice, but Dean stayed at third. He then scored on a fielder’s choice to make the score 2-1. The Cards added another run in the sixth, making it 3-1, which was the final score. Dean pitched a complete game. After giving up a walk and a hit in his first frame, he allowed only two more hits and one more walk and struck out five in the next eighth innings.

After the game, Dean told sportswriters, “Them bums got three hits off me.”

Dean went on to a Hall of Fame career and was a member of the Cardinals teams known as the Gas House Gang, noted for their hijinks as much for their talent. Dean’s career was shortened when he injured his toe and changed his delivery, which hurt his arm. After 12 big-league seasons he retired in 1941 with a record of 150-83. But he wasn’t done.

He became a famous broadcaster of Cardinals games, but for the wrong reason. A ninth-grade dropout, Dean either never learned proper English or forgot it:

“You caint take them Boston Red Sox too light-like. Them guys got the stuff to make things disasterous or goodastrous for a man, corrdin to how things wind out.” 

“We seen a lot of ball hawkin’ and hittin’. 

“’Tain’t braggin’ if you kin really do it.” 

“He (Branch Rickey) must think I went to the Massachesetts Constitution of Technology.”

He was fond of saying ain’t, and when English teachers protested he said, “A lot of people ain’t saying ain’t, ain’t eating.”

After being let go as an announcer by the Cards, Dean called games for the woeful St. Louis Browns. He was so critical of the players they challenged him to do better. Which he did.

He was 37 and hadn’t pitched in the majors in six years when he put on a uniform and pitched against the Chicago White Sox on September 28, 1947, the last game of the season – and 18 years to the day after he made his major league debut. Dean pitched four innings, giving up no runs and only three hits.

According to Retrosheet.com, “In the bottom of the fourth. Dean came to the plate with a miniature bat, striped black and white; plate umpire Cal Hubbard told him he could not use it, so he then batted with a regulation size bat striped black and orange; he singled on the first pitch; (on the next play) Dean slid into second on the force out and suffered leg cramps, causing him to leave after pitching 4th inning.

The White Sox went on to win 5-2, but did anyone care after Dean left the game?

*****

The left fielder saw the manager at the mound waving at him.

“Why is he looking at me?” the left fielder thought. “He can’t mean me. I’m not a pitcher.”

But the manager did mean him.

“I know you’re not a pitcher, the manager says, but we’re in a bind and all we’re looking for is for you to throw strikes. Don’t worry about anything else. You throw the ball over the plate and you’ll be fine.”

He finished the game without allowing a run against a good club and his team went on to win the game. The next day two teammates call him and say they’ve arranged a tryout with a major club for him. He thinks they’re joking. But they weren’t. He goes to the tryout without a glove and a shoe with a hole in it. The man running the camp tells him to be the first pitcher to face the batters. On the mound, he notices his big toe on his right foot is sticking out of his shoe.

He retires several players on nine pitches. That leads to his signing a pro contract with a $2,000 bonus. Without the manager waving him in to pitch, or his teammates arranging a tryout, we might never not ever have heard of Mariano Rivera.

The son of a Panamanian fisherman, Rivera played baseball on dirt fields when he wasn’t on his father’s boat or repairing the fishing nets. He was tall and thin, and his goal in life was to study to be a mechanic (to repair fishing boats). He was also older than most signees out of Central America, 20, and didn’t throw particularly hard, but he had pinpoint control. He also had only one pitch, a fastball he could throw for strikes anywhere in the strike zone, which helped him climb through the Yankees’ farm system.

He was called up to the Yankees in May of 1995, and on May 23, he made his major league debut against the California Angels. But he’s kept a secret: his elbow is hurting. Big time. He fears if the team finds out they’ll send him back to the Yankees’ AAA team in Columbus, OH.

In his first start, he begins with two scoreless innings. and gets the first two batters out in the third inning, but allows a bases-loaded bloop hit to put the Angels ahead 2-0. In the fourth, the first two batters singled and Jim Edmonds – who he has struck out twice — hits a home run to make it 5-0. He walked the next batter and is taken out of the game. The Yanks go on to lose 10-0, but Rivera believes there is a positive: “I’ve shown I can get these guys out, ” he wrote in his autobiography, The Closer.

He won his next start pitching six innings. But his third and fourth starts against Oakland and Seattle are disastrous, and his ERA after four games is 10.20.

“He (Rivera) was, he was a fierce competitor on the mound. It didn’t clearly come out in his emotions, but mo expected so much from himself… he was extremely humble, but he was a fierce competitor. I don’t think you get to his level in his consistency without having incredible work ethic, belief in yourself and just loving to compete,” said Joe Girardi, Rivera’s former teammate and Yankees manager at the time.

Mariano Rivera #42 of the New York Yankees warms up before a game against the Kansas City Royals on July 12, 1995 at Yankee Stadium in New York. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

He’s sent down to Columbus (along with another recent callup, Derek Jeter). His elbow still hurts, so the team places him on the disabled list. Two weeks later, he returns and is throwing harder than ever. His top speed before was 88 to 90 mph. That night he was consistently hitting 96 and touched 97. He wound up tossing a five-inning no-hitter.

Rivera is a deeply devout man and ascribes all his success to God. After his no-hitter he was dining with teammates who talked about his velocity. “It is a gift from the Lord,” Rivera wrote. “I have known for a long time that He is using me for His own purposes, that HE wants my pitching to help spread the good news about the Gospel of Jesus. What else could it be? It makes no sense otherwise.”

Before he makes another start in the minors, he’s called up again.

In his first game back, he faced the ChIcago White Sox and shut them out for eight innings, before manager Buck Showalter sent closer John Wetteland to save the game in the ninth, which he did.

Rivera’s first career relief appearance came at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 1, 1995. He started the sixth inning of a game New York was leading 3-2 in and gave up the lead.

The Yankees made the playoffs as a wild card and faced the Seattle Mariners. The second game went into extra innings. Before the start of the 12th, Rivera is told to warm up in the bullpen, after Ken Griffey jr. hit a home run off John Wetteland to give the Mariners a 5-4 lead. When Wetteland walked the next hitter, Showalter called for Rivera. He ended the inning by striking out Jay Buhner; he then pitched scoreless ball for the next three innings, and New York won the game on a Jim Leyritz home run in the 15th inning.

In 1996, Rivera was designated the setup man to Wetteland’s closer, and the Yankees went on to win their first World Series in 18 years.

After the season, Wetteland signed with Texas, and Rivera was named the closer.

In Detroit, while having a pre-game catch, Rivera’s fastball started moving more than it ever had, but he doesn’t know how to do it. He worked with Stottlemyre on his grip, and eventually learned to control what he now calls his cutter.

With the increased velocity and a new pitch, Rivera goes on to record 652 saves, the most of anyone in history, and becomes the first player to be unanimously selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.

In 2012 he missed most of the season with a torn ACL. By 2013, he knew it was time to retire, and he let the Yankees know it.

On Thursday, September 26, 2013, Rivera entered a game against the Tampa Bay Rays in the top of the eighth inning. There was one out and a runner on second. He retired the next two batters and came out to start the ninth. He recorded the first two outs, then saw long-time teammates Jeter and Andy Pettitte approaching the mound. Pettitte extended his left hand and Rivera handed him the ball; Rivera exited to a raucous ovation from a packed stadium. His Yankee teammates stood and applauded him, as did the Tampa players. (He’s replaced by Matt Daley, who nailed down the third out of the inning). The Rays went on to win 4-0, but after the game ended Rivera stayed in the dugout.

“This was never scripted. I had no idea what I was gonna do during the course of the day, even when the game started and it just kind of came to me, probably in the sixth inning, seventh inning, when we were down four to nothing,” recalled Girardi. “I went out and asked Laz Diaz, who was the umpire that night behind home plate. I said, listen, this is what I wanna do. Derek Jeter on the IL, can he come out (and take Rivera out of the game)? So he went and asked the other umpires and he said, sure, they said it’s ok and that’s how I kinda got the idea. It was just the way the game went. If he had a save situation, I  guess is he would have wanted to close it out.”

I asked the former Yankees skipper about the season drawing to a close; what was the mood among the players, coaches, etc. about this being Rivera’s final season, that the end of a great career was coming to an end?

“There was probably sadness, there was joy for him, for what he had accomplished, but we knew we’d all miss him. Not just as a pitcher, but as a person.  Mo was as kind and as humble as anyone that I’ve ever met; in a lot of ways he was just like Yogi Berra. That’s how I felt Yogi was and you just always felt better no matter what the situation was, whether it was on the field, off the field when Yogi or Mo were around you just kind of wanted to be in their presence. So I think there was probably an overall (feeling) like, man we’re really gonna miss this guy, and I know from a managerial standpoint, you know that you’re gonna miss this guy because you just had a chance to catch, coach and manage the greatest closer of all time. And a lot of times I compared him to a blanket, you know, something that pacified a baby all the time. So what I knew when Mo came in, I felt great. It was just like, ok, I got my blankie, I’m in good shape now.”

In his autobiography, he wrote: “I don’t want to leave. But I am ready. I decide I need to go back to the mound, my office for the last nineteen years, one more time.

“I toe the rubber a couple of times and then bend down and scoop up a handful of dirt and pack it into my right hand. It makes sense to me. I started playing in dirt so I might as well finish playing in dirt, the perfect keepsake for a single man.”

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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