Obituary: Don Mossi (1929-2019)

R.I.P. to Don Mossi, an All-Star pitcher equally at home in the bullpen or the starting rotation. It has been reported that he died on July 19 at the age of 90. Mossi pitched for the Cleveland Indians (1954-58), Detroit Tigers (1959-63), Chicago White Sox (1964) and Kansas City Athletics (1965).

A post on his Facebook page read, “We lost the Sphinx today. His 90 years were well spent on this earth and he was ready to move on. Per his request, there will be no services and his ashes will be spread in the mountains of Idaho. In lieu of flowers, Don asked that donations be made to a place that helps and supports animals.”

Don Mossi, or “The Sphinx” or “Ears,” as he’d later be known, was born in St. Helena, Calif., on January 11, 1929. He was an all-state quarterback in high school and turned down college scholarships to play baseball. He went from being a top pitcher at Jefferson High School to a top lefty pitcher in the minor leagues in relatively short order. He signed with the Indians after graduation and spent two seasons with the Bakersfield Indians in the California League. His first professional win came on April 27, 1949 against the Ventura Yankees. After a rough first inning that saw him give up 4 runs thanks to some poor defense and a wild pitch that allowed Yankees Frank Lucchesi to score, he settled down and even hit an RBI triple, as Bakersfield won 6-4. He won 13 games and was named an All-Star in his first pro season, though an arm injury kept him out of the All-Star Game.

I know it’s from a direct quote, but still… that caption. Source: The Des Moines Tribune, June 7, 1951.

Mossi won 11 games in 1950, including the first game after his wedding (he got married at home plate). The newlywed carried a no-hitter into the 8th inning. “The San Jose pinchhitter Sheriff Robinson — a bachelor no doubt — stepped to the plate and slammed out a home run,” reported the Hanford Morning Journal. Mossi won 11 games for Bakersfield and continued to move through the ranks of the minors in the Indians organization. He baffled hitters with a mix of pitches, including a “hopping” fastball and sharp curve.

“You’ve got to mix ’em up, or they’ll pin your ears back,” he said. “And I’ve got sensitive ears.” Those ears would make him famous, or possibly infamous, but they were a part of Mossi’s distinctive look. That’s one thing you could say about Don Mossi; you could never confuse him with any other baseball player.

After a 12-12 campaign with Tulsa in 1951, the Indians acquired him from their farm team, and Mossi never saw the minor leagues again. The ’52 Indians, who would go on to win the AL pennant, had a stacked starting rotation with Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia and Art Houtteman. Rookies Mossi and right-hander Ray Narleski became two dangerous tools out of the bullpen for manager Al Lopez.

“They’re young, and they don’t scare. They’re ideal for relief,” he boasted.

Mossi won 6 games against just 1 defeat and saved 7 games, to go with a 1.94 ERA in 40 appearances. He made 5 starts as well, on occasions when Lopez wanted a southpaw instead of his all-righty rotation. He threw two complete games, including one outing that lasted 10-1/3 innings before the Tigers won 1-0. Mossi pitched 3 games in the 1954 World Series, throwing 4 shutout innings.

Mossi was a valuable reliever for the Indians over the next two seasons, averaging 52 appearances and picking up a combined 20 saves in 1955 and 1956. He just couldn’t crack the starting rotation. He was given infrequent spot starts, and one audition for the rotation ended when the Yankees knocked him out of the game after an inning.

The Indians celebrate after a win. From left to right: Rocky Colavito, Mossi, Roger Maris and Russ Nixon. Source: The Star-Gazette, June 26, 1957.

“I guess my chances of being a starter now are pretty slim,” he said in 1956. “But it’s still a better life. You can know in advance what days you’ll work and what days you won’t. Relief pitching is too uncertain.”

The Mossi-Narleski combination was making baseball take notice. This excerpt is from a column by John Carmichael in 1956.

Narleski and Mossi are living, breathing examples of the new trend in big-league pitching. Nobody has to go nine innings anymore. The Dodgers have won flag after flag with bullpen artistry. The Indians are fighting for further title recognition along the same lines. Let the starter go six-seven frames and then bring in the relief.”

Akron Beacon Journal, April 1, 1956

Mossi finally got a chance to start in 1957, though not for the reason that anyone wanted. Injuries, including the line drive that forever altered Herb Score’s career, forced Cleveland to bring Mossi into the rotation. He started 22 games for the Indians that year and went 11-10 with a 4.13 ERA. He picked up the only All-Star nomination of his career and was brought into the 9th inning after Billy Pierce loaded the bases with nobody out. Mossi struck out Eddie Matthews and allowed an RBI single to Ernie Banks to narrow the lead to 6-5. He was credited with 2/3 of an inning because Gus Bell was thrown out at third base on the Banks single; Bob Grim was summoned in from the pen to preserve the AL win.

Mossi was moved back to the bullpen in 1958, and he wasn’t as successful as he had been in previous seasons. After the season, both Mossi and Narleski were shipped to Detroit in a 5-player deal that brought second baseman Billy Martin to Cleveland. The Tigers made Mossi a full-time starter, and he responded by turning in a 17-9 record and 3.36 ERA in 1959. His 1961 season was just as good, as he won 15 games with a 2.96 ERA and a career-best 137 strikeouts. The Tigers battled the Yankees for first place in the AL the whole season. The two teams fought in a late-season series, and Mossi, a noted Yankee Killer, held the Yanks scoreless into the bottom of the 9th inning, when Moose Skowron singled in the only run of the game for a 1-0 win. The Yankees swept the series, essentially ending the pennant race.

Mossi got off to a great start in 1963, losing a perfect game in the 7th inning against his former Indians teammates on April 11 and settling for a 2-hitter. But he struggled and ended up in a swingman role, with 16 starts and 8 relief appearances for a 7-7 record and 3.74 ERA. He was also slowed by a sore arm. He was unable to throw at all in the 1964 Spring Training and was placed on waivers. He was claimed by the White Sox with the idea of using him, once again, as a late-inning relief specialist. He was excellent in his one season with the Sox, picking up 7 saves and walking just 7 batters in 34 games.

Late that summer, White Sox manager Al Lopez asked Don Mossi if he was ready to pitch. Mossi replied that he could use one more day to rest his arm. Lopez never pitched him again, and Mossi spent the last six weeks of the season sitting in the bullpen. For some reason, his old Indians manager never let Mossi out of the doghouse after that.

“There were times when I think the club could have used a lefthander, but Al didn’t call on me,” Mossi explained. He was released by the Sox, and when the 1965 season started, Mossi was still unemployed. “I still feel that I can help some team.”

Baseball cards like this are part of the reason that Don Mossi is remembered today. The stats on the back are pretty outstanding, too.

Mossi signed with the Kansas City Athletics at the end of May. At 36, he was the team’s elder statesman, at least until they signed Satchel Paige for a game when he was 58 (and that number may be off by a up to a decade). Despite the late start, Mossi worked 51 games in relief and ended up with a 5-8 record and 7 saves. One of those losses came in relief of Paige, who threw 3 scoreless innings against the Red Sox on September 25.

Mossi decided to retire from baseball in February, 1966. The A’s, faced with a hole in their bullpen, gave it to the recently deceased Joe Grzenda. In Mossi’s 12-year career, he won 101 games and lost 80, with 50 saves. He had a 3.43 ERA and a 1.213 WHIP. He struck out 932 batters and walked just 385. He was worth 23.5 Wins Over Replacement in his career.

While it may not be fair, Don Mossi was remembered more for his looks than his pitching abilities. He played at a time when baseball cards became a popular hobby, so people across the country got to know the faces of every ballplayer in the league. For Mossi, that sometimes led to some harsh judgements. Bill James famously devoted an entire essay to his looks.

“Mossi’s ears looked as if they had been borrowed from a much larger species and reattached without proper supervision,” he wrote, and it kinda went downhill from there. It was funny, in a cruel way. But then again, Mossi must have been pretty self-aware, given that comment a few paragraphs up about having sensitive ears.

Hopefully, people can best remember Don Mossi’s career by taking a look at one of his baseball cards and then flipping it over to read the back as well. When people do that, they’ll also see that he was a helluva good pitcher.

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