ElRoy Face and his signature forkball pioneered the role of closer
In 1959, pitcher for Pirates put a new Face on bullpen role
September 13, 2009 4:00 AM
Former Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher ElRoy Face shows his famous split-finger pitch.
By Robert Dvorchak Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a pioneer in the art of relief pitching, with his signature forkball baffling the best hitters in the National League, ElRoy Face was rewarded early for a good beginning to the 1959 season.
Before private underground parking privileges became a major league perk, players forked over a dollar a game for a space at the Esso station near Forbes Field. But the man dubbed the Baron of the Bullpen got a free ride.
"I was 2-0 or 3-0, and the owner told me I wouldn't have to pay until I lost a game," he said. "Turns out, I didn't have to pay until September."
Incredible as it may seem, the greatest season ever by a relief pitcher -- according to baseball historian Jerome Holtzman, among others -- was almost over before Mr. Face lost a game. Up until Sept. 11, he had 17 straight wins. Counting the five straight wins he had to end the 1958 season, his streak reached 22. As it was, he finished 18-1 in 1959 and put up a number no pitcher -- reliever or starter -- has matched before or since. It's the best winning percentage ever posted by anyone who had a minimum of 15 decisions.
"This all happened B.C. -- before cash," joked catcher Hank Foiles, who roomed with Mr. Face during that 1959 season.
The play on words had two meanings. The accomplishment seems like ancient history, and in the pre-expansion era, baseball was about the love of the game, not the love of the almighty dollar.
"If he had that kind of season today, you'd need a Brinks truck to pay him," Mr. Foiles deadpanned. "Twenty-two straight? Nobody's ever going to do that again."
The record-smashing season is not merely a 50th anniversary story. It also changed the way that relievers were used and paved the way for what is now known as the closer, the hammer who nails down victories with the three-out save.
"ElRoy's achievement has stood the test of time," said Kent Tekulve, baseball analyst and closer on the 1979 champion Pirates. "Every other manager in baseball said, 'I have to get me one of those, somebody like that to close a game.' The role had to be invented. There was no road map, no blue print. And there weren't piles of them just lying around. ElRoy was it."
When asked the difference between a forkball and a split-fingered fastball, ElRoy Face, now 81, answers with a chuckle. "About $3 million a year, apparently." Actually, more like $10 million.
In both instances, the ball is held with the middle and index fingers spread far apart. A splitter is held with the fingers on the seams. Mr. Face had his fingers on the smooth part of the ball. To a batter, the pitch looked like a fastball, but then dipped as if it was falling off the edge of a table. Depending on fingertip pressure, however, it could dart down left or right, or even rise.
"The beauty of the pitch was it was thrown with the same motion as the fastball, but it didn't get there as quickly. It didn't have the push behind it," said Mr. Face.
It was like a stealth pitch.
"It was very deceptive for a hitter," Mr. Foiles said. "You couldn't set for the forkball, and you couldn't set for the fastball. And every once in a while, ElRoy would slip a curve or a slider in. Hitters knew what they were going to get because you got to go with your best pitch. But every once in a while, we'd show them something else. It wasn't for sale, but we wanted them to look at the merchandise."
The origins of his forkball date to 1954, when general manager Branch Rickey told Mr. Face to come up with an off-speed pitch. While in the minors, Mr. Face experimented for half a season before throwing the pitch in a game.
He didn't invent it. Ex-Yankees reliever Joe Page was attempting a comeback with a forkball he held on the seams, and Mr. Face was just learning.
"He didn't teach it to me or show me how to throw it. But we compared notes," Mr. Face said.
At the time, major league bullpens were mostly the domain of broken down starters or pitchers who had slunk their way into a manager's doghouse. But when Mr. Face arrived in the major leagues, Danny Murtaugh, of the Pirates, recognized that he had a workhorse pitcher with a resilient arm and a special pitch.
"Anytime from the seventh inning on in a close game, I could get the call. In 1956, I pitched in nine straight games for a total of 16 innings," Mr. Face said.
He always had more than a trick pitch, however. Although he stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 150 pounds soaking wet, Mr. Face exuded confidence no matter the situation or the opponent.
"He was fearless," said teammate Bill Mazeroski. "I loved to see him come into a game. You could just see the confidence in his walk."
"I'll tell you what," added Steve Blass, "he had more [brass] than Babe The Blue Ox."
His roommate provided an example of that fearless attitude.
"We were in Milwaukee with a one or two-run lead, and Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock are coming up. No lambs in that bunch," Mr. Foiles said. "Murtaugh was on the mound going over the hitters, and ElRoy says, 'Skip, give me the ball and let me pitch.' Well, he struck all three of them out, all on forkballs. When he got back to the dugout, he looked down the bench and said, 'Skipper, how do you like them apples?' "
A complete pitcher, Mr. Face had a pick-off move that was as deadly as his forkball. In one game, Cincinnati had two runners aboard with nobody out, and Mr. Face was summoned.
From the stretch, he picked the runner off second. Then he got the runner off first. Now there were two outs and the bases clear, and he hadn't thrown a pitch yet.
A pattern was set early in the 1959 season. On April 22, Mr. Face gave up a run in the eighth inning, but the Pirates rallied for two in the ninth. It was his first win.
Two days later, he gave up two runs in the eighth, but the Pirates scored four in the ninth to make him 2-0.
"I could have lost three or four games that year, but we'd get some runs in the bottom of the ninth and I'd get the win," Mr. Face said. "You have to have your team score some runs for you."
Although the closer of today almost always comes into a game in a save situation and rarely works more than one inning, Mr. Face almost always pitched multiple innings.
On June 18 in Wrigley Field, he pitched five innings, which almost qualifies as a quality start in today's game. Bob Skinner put the Pirates ahead in the top of the 13th, and Mr. Face retired the side in order to run his record to 11-0.
At the end of August, Mr. Face reached No. 17. In the second game of doubleheader against the Phillies, he gave up a home run in the top of the 10th inning, but Dick Stuart saved the day with a two-run double in the bottom of the inning for a 6-5 win. Mr. Face was 17-0.
Just when it seemed like the streak would never end, Mr. Face was protecting a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth of the first game of a doubleheader at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was Sept. 11.
After Jim Gilliam hit a game-tying triple, Charley Neal broke his bat on a forkball. The ball dribbled between Don Hoak and Dick Groat, and the streak was over. For the first time in 98 appearances, Mr. Face walked off the mound with a loss.
Eight days later, in a four-inning appearance at Forbes Field, Mr. Face gave up a run to the Reds in the top of the 12th inning. But Bill Mazeroski hit a two-run triple to bail him out and lift his record to 18-1. The save wouldn't become an official stat until 1969, but Mr. Face would have qualified for 10 saves. He would also have been charged with 10 blown saves for the season.
In the MVP voting that year, Mr. Face placed seventh while Ernie Banks of the Cubs took the award. At the time, there was only one Cy Young Award between the two leagues, and Early Winn, of the White Sox, won it for going 22-10.
Five relief pitchers are in the Hall of Fame -- Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley and Rich Gossage. Mr. Face never got as much as 20 percent of the vote in his years of eligibility.
When the Pirates marked their 100th anniversary in 1986, he was named the franchise's all-time reliever. But when younger voters picked the all-time team for the 20th century, Kent Tekulve was named as the reliever.
"Neither one of us had thrown a pitch after 1986," Mr. Face chuckled. "Stuff like that happened to me my whole career. I had three saves in the 1960 World Series, but the MVP award went to Bobby Richardson, the only time it went to a player on the losing team."
At this year's Dapper Dan Dinner, Mr. Face and Mr. Tekulve shared a table. The talk turned to the days when the Pirates were on the cutting edge of bullpen innovation.
The team won world titles in 1960, 1971 and 1979 with Mr. Face, Dave Giusti and Mr. Tekulve as closers.
Mr. Face pitched his last game for the Pirates on Aug. 31, 1968. He had already been dealt to the Tigers, but he needed one more appearance to tie Walter Johnson for what was then a record of 802 appearances with one team.
Steve Blass started that game. Then Mr. Face was brought in to face one batter while Mr. Blass moved to left field. He threw one pitch to Felix Milan, who grounded out. Manager Larry Shepard escorted him out of the game.
"It was the only time in my career I ever played left field," Mr. Blass said.
Mr. Face was back in uniform and on the mound this summer when the Pirates marked the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field.
He threw the ceremonial first pitch to Mr. Foiles, his old roommate.
"Just like sitting in a rocking chair. He held up the glove and I hit it," said Mr. Face, whose top salary in one season was $42,500.
Mr. Foiles took the ball home as a keepsake.
"Maybe they'd need two Brinks trucks to pay him today," the catcher said. "One wouldn't suffice."