RIP to Ron Perranoski, one of the best relievers of the 1960s and a long-time pitching coach. He died at his home in Vero Beach, Fla., on October 2, at the age of 84. His sister told the Associated Press that he had complications from a long illness. Perranoski played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1961-67, 1972), Minnesota Twins (1968-71), Detroit Tigers (1971-72) and California Angels (1973).
Ronald Peter Perranoski was born on April 1, 1936 in Paterson, N.J. He attended Fair Lawn High School and became one of the “whitewash kids” — a couple of pitchers who regularly shut down the opposition. In his senior year, Perranoski went 5-1 and struck out 67 batters in 47 innings, while allowing just 21 hits and 5 runs. He also tossed a no-hitter for a Fair Lawn semi-pro team in 1955, with 17 strikeouts. He then went to Michigan State University from 1956-58. He struck out 223 batters there, which was a Spartan record until 2004, when Bryan Gale ended up with 277 K’s.
Perranoski, a 6’0″ lefty, pitched in plenty of semi-pro leagues during his college career, and he had several major-league teams after his services. His father, Peter, was a semi-pro player in New Jersey and advised his son to sign with the team that gave him the best chance to pitch, not necessarily the one with the most money. The Chicago Cubs ended up beating out 14 other teams and signed him with a $27,500 bonus.
The Cubs assigned him to the AA Fort Worth Cats, but he only worked 4 innings there before he was sent down to the Class-B Burlington Bees. Perranoski struggled in his first season, but joined the San Antonio Missions in 1959 and showed much improvement, with a 11-10 record and 3.12 ERA. He would continue his improvement elsewhere, as the Cubs traded him, minor-leaguer Lee Handley, infielder Johnny Goryl and $25,000 to the Dodgers to get infielder Don Zimmer. Zimmer would go on to have an All-Star season with the Cubs, but it definitely doesn’t go down in the list of great Cubs trades.
The Dodgers began experimenting with Perranoski as a reliever in 1960. He made a total of 18 starts for Montreal and St. Paul and came out of the pen in 39 others. As a pitcher in the Dodgers organization, becoming an effective reliever was really the best chance of making the team. The 1961 Dodgers had a starting rotation of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Stan Williams and Johnny Podres, all of whom won between 13 and 18 games. When they needed a break, swingman Roger Craig was available. However, the team had need of a lefty reliever, and Perranoski was the surprise pick to make the Opening Day roster.
Perranoski didn’t have a blazing fastball, but he had a good curveball and sinker and had good control. “He had a job to do and he’s doing it well,” said manager Walt Alston. “Ron won a crack at the job by his showing in spring training and now he’s turned out to be one of our best relievers.”
Perranoski turned in an impressive rookie campaign, with a 7-5 record in 53 games and a 2.65 ERA. He saved 6 games and had 56 strikeouts in 91-2/3 innings. Though he’d been a starter his whole playing career, he adapted to the change. “Right now, I’m only worried about doing a good relief job. I’m certain that I’ll get the chance to become a starter if I keep going the way I have been.”
Perranoski made exactly one start in 737 games. It came on July 16, 1961, against Pittsburgh. Perranoski worked 4 innings and allowed 6 hits and 3 runs. He was out of the ballgame well before the Dodgers won 12-11 on an RBI triple by Johnny Roseboro.
The role of the closer in the 1960s wasn’t as well-defined as it is today. The ninth inning quickly became his domain, but he was used at any time and routinely threw over 100 innings a year. In 1962, Perranoski led all of baseball with 70 appearances and had 19 saves. Twelve of those appearances were three innings or longer. With the best starting rotation in the NL and great bullpen arms with Perranoski, Larry Sherry and Ed Roebuck, the Dodgers finished second in 1961 and ’62. The team finally made it up to first place in 1963 and swept the Yankees in the World Series. Perranoski finished fourth in the NL MVP vote — unheard of for a reliever. However, with a 16-3 record, 1.67 ERA and 21 saves, it wasn’t unjustified. His .842 winning percentage was the best in baseball, and his 69 appearances led the NL. By then, he’d come to love his role and stated that “Fireman” Joe Page, a great Yankees reliever from the past decade, was his idol.
“If the Los Angeles Dodgers had their way, there would be two Cy Young pitcher-of-the-year awards for the 1963 season — one for Sandy Koufax and one for Ron Perranoski,” wrote syndicated columnist Fred Down.
Perranoski made it into one game in the World Series, relieving Podres in Game Two after he gave up a double to Hector Lopez. Perranoski allowed a single to Elston Howard to drive in a run but retired Joe Pepitone and Clete Boyer to get the save in the 4-1 win.
Perranoski was remarkably consistent during his peak seasons. When the Dodgers won the NL pennant again in 1965, he had a 6-6 record and 2.24 ERA in 59 games, with 18 saves. He gave up just two home runs in 104-2/3 innings — One to Billy Williams on a day with the wind blowing out in Chicago, and one to Johnny Callison. Perranoski’s offspeed pitches didn’t lead to a bunch of strikeouts, but when batters hit them, they were either routine grounders or soft pop flies.
The Dodgers won their second World Series in 1965, but Perranoski didn’t play much of a role in it. He appeared in 2 games but was uncharacteristically wild, giving up 4 bases on balls in 3-2/3 innings.
Through no fault of his own, Perranoski was moved out of the “closer” role in 1966, as the Dodgers brought in Phil “The Vulture” Regan. Perranoski was held to 6 saves, but the two pitchers changed roles in 1967. Perranoski once again led the Dodgers with 16 saves, while Regan was more the set-up reliever. In those first seven seasons with Los Angeles, Perranoski won 52 games, saved 100 and had an ERA of 2.56.
The Dodgers and Twins pulled off a big trade on November 28, 1967. Los Angeles sent Perranoski, catcher John Roseboro and pitcher Bob Miller to Minnesota in exchange for starting pitcher Mudcat Grant and shortstop Zoilo Versalles. Grant and Versalles had very limited effectiveness for the Dodgers. Perranoski, on the other hand, had a couple of record-setting seasons as the Twins’ closer.
The Twins used Perranoski as the lefty portion of a short relief tandem with 39-year-old Al Worthington in 1968. He didn’t pick up as many saves (6), but he did record 8 wins — including three in a single series against the California Angels in May. “It looks as if I’ll have to tell my men to start easing up on those starting pitchers,” shrugged Angels manager Bill Rigney.
Worthington declined in his final season of 1969, so Perranoski took over the closing duties. He proceeded to lead all of baseball with 31 saves in 75 games, to go with a 9-10 record and 2.11 ERA. He easily set the AL record for most saves in a season (the old record of 26 was held by Stu Miller of Baltimore in 1963 and Jack Aker of Kansas City in 1966). He then broke his own record the following year with 34 saves. It was also the first time in MLB history that a pitcher recorded back-to-back 30-save seasons. For his late-inning heroics, Perranoski was given some Cy Young votes in both the 1969 and ’70 seasons, and he finished 12th for the 1970 Most Valuable Player. The only thing he didn’t do particularly well was pitch in the postseason. The Twins were swept in the Orioles in the AL Championship Series in each season, and the reliever had a combined 0-1 record and 10.29 ERA in 7 innings over the two series. He was also forced to have a mid-inning hand wash, when Orioles manager Earl Weaver protested that he had pine tar on his pitching hand.
Perranoski was never quite the same pitcher after that year. He held out for a better contract and was left to conduct his own personal training camp blocks away from the Twins facility. Though he and Twins owner/notorious tightwad Calvin Griffith were only a couple thousand dollars apart, the holdout dragged on until he signed for $63,500 on March 9. The season got underway on April 6, and Perranoski was awful. Maybe it was the fact that he had turned 34 years old. Maybe it was that Perranoski, who was always a heavyset pitcher, hadn’t gotten into playing condition due to the holdout. Whatever the case, he had a 1-4 record with a 6.75 ERA by the end of July, with 5 saves and 6 blown saves.
The Twins put the lefty on waivers, and the Tigers quickly snapped him up. Detroit’s manager, Billy Martin, had been the Twins skipper in 1968, and he was desperately in need of good relievers. He felt confident he could get Perranoski on the right track. “They’re not handling him right over there. You’ve got to warm him up every day until his arm falls off and then you can pitch him,” Martin reasoned. “His sinker isn’t effective until his arm is about dead.”
Perranoski blew a save in his Tigers debut, picked up a loss in his second game and allowed 4 unearned runs in his third. After that, he did settle down and pitch better. He still ended the season with a 1-5 record, 7 saves and a 5.49 ERA. He stumbled out of the gate in 1972, with a 7.71 ERA in his first 17 games. The Tigers released him, which Martin called it the toughest thing he had to do as a manager. Perranoski was re-signed by the Dodgers for the stretch run, and picked up wins in 2 of his 9 appearances. His control was shaky, and he didn’t get any save opportunities, but he showed flashes of the old Dodgers relief ace. It wasn’t a permanent situation, as the team released him at the end of the season.
Perranoski thought about returning to California to manage a restaurant he owned in Sepulveda, but he decided to make a last comeback with the California Angels in 1973. He made the team and was a mostly effective, infrequently used reliever. He went on the disabled list with a sore arm in late June and only made one more appearance before the end of the season. After that, at the age of 36, he called it quits.
“I can truthfully say that I threw one ball one day and decided I was through,” he explained. “There was no animosity. I just couldn’t threw with the authority I used to.”
In 13 seasons, Perranoski appeared in 737 games and had a 79-74 record, with 178 saves and a 2.79 ERA. He struck out 687 batters in 1,174-2/3 innings and walked 468 (121 of them were high, which seems really high for a reliever). He was worth 18.2 Wins Above Replacement in his career.
Starting in 1974, Perranoski went right back into baseball as a minor-league pitching instructor for the Dodgers. A couple generations of Los Angeles pitchers came to see Perranoski as an invaluable pitching guru, either as a minor-league instructor or as the Dodgers pitching coach — a job held from 1981 until 1994. Rick Sutcliffe was one of Perranoski’s first success stories, but he guided many excellent pitchers, most notably Cy Young winners Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser. Bob Welch, Steve Howe, Jerry Reuss and Ramon Martinez were just a few of the pitchers who succeeded in the majors with his help.
Very little escaped Perranoski’s notice when his pitchers were on the mound.
“He sees you when you’re in a groove, and then when you’re going bad he recognizes what’s missing,” explained Hershiser in a 1985 interview. “He can get you right back in that groove in a hurry. I think that’s the best thing about Perry. Not that he’s not good at teaching new pitches or building somebody’s confidence, but he’s really good at keeping the staff in a groove and keeping us consistent.”
“They’re all like my sons. I feel like that,” Perranoski said in 1987. “Whatever happens in their careers, sad situations — Steve Howe, I lived with his problems — and bright situations, I’ve shared with them. If they fall by the wayside, I still love them.”
The Dodgers let Perranoski go at the end of the 1994 season, but he was an in-demand coaching free agent. He joined the San Francisco Giants and held a number of positions — coordinator of minor-league pitching, bench coach, pitching coach, special assistant to the general manager — before he retired to Vero Beach in the early 2000s. During his time there, he coached Robb Nen, the son of his old Dodger teammate Dick, and was reunited with Hershiser, who won 11 games with the 1998 Giants. The pitcher said that working with Perranoski was one of the reasons he signed with San Francisco. “Ron Perranoski was my Geppetto,” Hershiser said, referring to the man who created Pinocchio. “He was the originator of my repertoire. He gave me the sinker.”
For more information: Minneapolis Star-Tribune
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