Sunday, March 31, 2013

R.I.P. Bob Turley: Browns Pitcher With Blazing Fastball, Dies at 82

Former Brownie "Bullet Bob" Turley, a fireballing rightander who drew comparisons to Bob Feller when he first came up to the big leagues and won the AL Cy Young Award and World Series MVP with the Yankees in 1958, died Saturday of liver cancer in hospice care at Lenbrook, a retirement community in Atlanta. He was 82.  Turley attended and spoke at a St. Louis Browns Fan Club reunion of players and fans in June 2011.

Whitey Herzog, left, Bob Turley, center, and Ned Garver, right at 2011 St. Louis Browns Historical Society and Fun Club luncheon in St. Louis

Robert Lee Turley was born in Troy Illinois just across the river from St. Louis in Madison County, the youngest of two sons of Delbert and Henrietta Turley.  His parents both worked as bacon slicers at a packing house. When he was small his family moved to 1426 N. 52nd Street in the Rosemont area of East St. Louis.  Bob was prohibited from playing catch with the other neighborhood kids because he threw too hard.  He starred on the Central High School baseball squad.

The day before his high school graduation in 1948, he was asked to come to Sportsman's Park by Browns' general manager Bill Dewitt for a tryout. The Browns signed Turley the day after his graduation. He had also attended a New York Yankees tryout and the Yankees were very interested. However, when the New York club's procedure called for Turley to attend a so-called "advance camp" in Missouri, Turley demurred. "I wanted to play ball right away," he said.

Bob didn't have to travel far for his first pro assignment: it was the Belleville Staggs, the Browns' class D farm team that played at the old Belleville athletic field at ninth and Illinois Street. His Staggs teammates included Mike Blyzka and Frank Saucier and one of his Illinois State League opponents was St. Louisan Earl Weaver, a second baseman for the West Frankfurt Cardinals.

Bob had an extremely successful minor league career, winning 20 games twice and being called up to the Browns at the end of the 1951 season.   But it was Korean War Time, and Bob soon found himself wearing a different shade of brown: khaki.  The Korean War had ended on July 27, 1953 and Turley had saved about seven weeks leave time, so while he officially served two full years and was officially discharged on October 1, 1953, with his unused leave, he was actually able to get his release in mid-August '53. After working out for the Browns that August, it was obvious that the service had not hurt his fastball, and he found himself back in a major league game almost immediately, in a relief appearance August 18 against the White Sox. He relieved Satchel Paige, who took the loss 2-1 in a well-pitched, defensive battle. The next day Turley earned his first major league win in relief of Don Larsen as the Browns defeated Billy Pierce, who had been having one of his banner seasons.

It was on September 5, 1953, however, that Turley really displayed the Cy Young talent that he was to develop in the next few years. Turley got hooked up in an extreme pitchers' duel with the Tigers' Ralph Branca at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis.  Neither team scored a run for 11 and one-half innings when Browns' Outfielder Dick Kokos homered into the right-field pavilion off Branca in the bottom of the 12th to win the game and break the scoreless duel. When Turley had finished with his

toils that Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, he had completed a 12-inning, 14-strikeout, three-hit, shutout masterpiece, for one of the final shining moments in Browns' franchise history.  (Branca also recorded eight strikeouts and the combined 22 Ks by both pitchers was an unusually high total for that era).

Turley's Army leave-time heroics, good enough for third in ERA on the Browns 1953 pitching staff, earned him the assignment of getting the opening day start the next season ... but not for the team in St. Louis, but for the team in Baltimore, where the Browns were to move in the '53-54 off-season.  Bob notched a win in Memorial Stadium Baltimore that day.  Earning the nickname "Bullet" by a Baltimore sportswriter, Bob would lead the league in strikeouts in ‘54.  The last Brownie to do so had been Urban Shocker in ‘22.  In fact, since the franchise began in 1901, Shocker and Turley are the only two Browns/Orioles pitchers to manage to lead the American League in strikeouts.

But Baltimore management was in the middle of a major house-cleaning operation in which all ex-Brownies would leave the Orioles by mid-1955, to be replaced by fresh players.  Bob was no exception.  He was the key player in a mammoth 17-player deal between the Yankees and Baltimore that winter. The Yankees were desperate for a front-line starting line pitcher after their “Big Three” from their 1949-53 world championship teams — Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat — had all moved on, and Turley more than filled the bill. He was 17-13 in 1955, his first year with the Bombers. Then in 1958 he won the Cy Young, leading the AL in wins with a 21-7 mark and 2.97 ERA. 

Turley went on to win two games against the Milwaukee Braves in the ’58 World Series, including
Game 7 when he hurled 6.2 innings in relief of Don Larsen, his “stablemate” who had come over from the Orioles in that same trade in ’54. The day before, manager Casey Stengel had brought Turley in to retire the Braves’ Frank Torre for the final out in the Yankees’ 4-3 victory. The Yankees, who came back from a 3-1 deficit to win that Series, were leading Game 7, 2-1, when the Braves put runners at first and second with one out in the third, and Stengel summoned Turley again to replace Larsen. Turley wound up pitching out of a bases-loaded jam and went on to hold the Braves to just a solo homer by catcher Del Crandall in the sixth inning that tied the game before the Yankees got four runs in the eighth inning off their nemesis, Lew Burdette, to win the game, 6-2, and the Series. Besides the Cy Young, Turley was also named the Hickok Belt professional athlete of the year after the ’58 season.

In the 1956 World Series against the Dodgers, the day after Larsen pitched a perfect game, Turley lost a 10-inning, 1-0 heartbreaker to Clem Labine despite striking out 11. Unfortunately for Turley, the ’58 season proved to be the high point of his career. He never won in double figures again. In the 1960 World Series against the Pirates, he suffered his first arm injury — a bone chip in his elbow that limited him to only 72 innings in 1961. That winter, when Turley was 32, the Yankees sold him to the Los Angeles Angels. In July of 1963, a month after pitching a one-hitter against the White Sox, he was released. He signed on with the Red Sox the rest of the year and retired with a 101-85 record and 3.64 ERA.

Through the years, Turley was always one of the most popular and engaging players at Yankees’ Old-Timers’ Day Games. “I can’t understand some of these players today,” he said. “Nothing ever bothered me, signing autographs, doing interviews. You have all the privacy you want when you get out of the game.”

Turley was quite successful in business after baseball, becoming a representative for Primerica Financial Services earning more than he did as a pro ball player. In the 1995 version of the Primerica Financial Independence Council, it states that he was paid $150,000 as a professional baseball player compared to his $2,000,000 that he earned through working with Primerica. He retired from the business and gave half of his business to his son and the other half to his secretary. He later resided in Georgia.

Turley had an uncle, Ralph Kress Turley, who dwelled in the minor leagues at around the same time as Turley, for whom Turley was often mistaken.  Briefly, the elder Turley came under the control of the New York Yankees.  "We signed the wrong Turley," a Yankee scout reportedly commented. 
~ Emmett McAuliffe

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