“Bullet” Bob Turley, R.I.P.


It seems to be that discussion of the career of Bob Turley, who died Saturday morning at age 82, came and went all too quickly. Turley was very nearly a great pitcher. Between 1955 and 1958 he won 59 games for the Yankees and lost only 20, mostly starting but often, in Casey Stengel’s wacky in-and-out pitching system, appearing in 20 games in relief. No one has ever really studied Stengel’s unusual method of not using a set rotation and how it might have helped or hurt certain pitchers.

On the whole, I think, it was good for Whitey Ford and saved wear and tear on his arm; I don’t think it worked well for Bob Turley who, at 6-2 and 215, was powerfully built and the kind of straight-out fastball pitcher who needed regular work.

Yankees fans know that Turley’s best season was 1958 when he was 21-7 with a 2.97 ERA and became the first Yankee to win the Cy Young Award. But he was just as good the season before when he went 13-6 and had an ERA of 2.71. The difference in the two years was that in 1958 Stengel used him almost exclusively as a starter — 31 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 19 complete games.  In 1957 he had started just 22 games and pitched 10 relief appearances.

I don’t think back-and-forth, in-and-out of rotation to the bullpen strategy was good for his arm; he was ineffective in 1959 (8-11), the year after winning the Cy Young, and then back to his old self for a while in 1960 when he went 9-3. Under almost any other manager, I think, Turley would have achieved real greatness and been a Hall of Fame-type pitcher.

He came to the Yankees in 1954 in the same deal that brought Don Larsen from Baltimore to New York. Because Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, the press tended to make more fuss about Larsen’s career than Turley’s. But Turley was a much better pitcher, not just in New York but in Baltimore, where he was 14-15 in 1954 with a 3.46 ERA and led the AL in strikeouts. Had he pitched for the Yankees that year, he probably would have been a 20 game winner.

A couple of facts about Bob Turley that I didn’t see in the New York Times obit or anywhere else. One, he got a great deal of amusement over the fact that everyone confused his nickname with that of Bob Feller. Feller was “Rapid Robert,” but Feller retired in 1956 the year New York writers started calling Turley “Bullet Bob.” When Turley appeared on the ed Sullivan Show in 1958, just before the World Series, Sullivan introduced him as Rapid Robert and Turley, a big Feller fan, told Sullivan, “That’s all right with me.”

Another interesting fact I didn’t see in the obits was that he wrote children’s books. You used to see them on display in the glass cases at Stan’s Sportsworld across the street from Yankee Stadium.

I didn’t know him well, but from what I knew of him he was a nice man who, from his home in Alpharetta, Georgia, gave me hours of his time over the phone when I was working on books on Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. One little historical nugget I’ll pass on: It’s long been an established fact of Yankee history that Casey Stengel should have set his rotation in the 1961 World Series so Whitey Ford could have started the first game (and thus pitched in the seventh and deciding game) instead of Art Ditmar. “I never blamed Casey for starting art instead of Whitey in the Pittsburgh series,” Turley told me five years ago. “Art was as good a pitcher in ’59 and ’60 as Whitey. It was only after Whitey had those great series in 1960 and 1961 that everyone thought of him as the ultimate World Series ace. Before that, I can’t really say that Whitey was a better big game pitcher  than me or our other starters.

“What I blame Casey for is for not trusting Ryne Duren to pitch the ninth inning of the seventh game against Pittsburgh instead of Jim Coates. Casey was shy of using Ryne because he had a drinking problem and was sometime erratic. But when Ryne was rested and ready for that seventh game, and, man, when he was on his game, he was faster than me or anyone. I’ll always say that if Casey had used Ryne Duren in that situation we’d have been world champions that year.”