Obituary: Ralph Terry (1936-2022)

RIP to Ralph Terry, a right-handed pitcher for the Yankees during one of their greatest eras, and the MVP of the 1962 World Series. He died on March 16 at a long-term care facility in Larned, Kan., where he lived for many years following his careers as a pitcher and a professional golfer. He was 86 years old. His wife, Tanya, said that he had suffered a head injury when he slipped and fell on ice. Terry pitched for the New York Yankees (1956-57, 1959-64), Kansas City Athletics (1957-59, 1966), Cleveland Indians (1965) and New York Mets (1966-67).

Ralph Willard Terry was born on January 9, 1936, in Big Cabin, Okla. He became a hot prospect while playing for Chelsea High School in Chelsea, Okla. In 1952, he shut out a team of barnstorming major leaguers. In 1953, he signed with the New York Yankees… and then the St. Louis Cardinals. The dispute over his rights ended up on the desk of Commissioner Ford Frick. What happened was that Terry was scouted by Tom Greenwade, the man who discovered Mickey Mantle and Jerry Lumpe. The young pitcher signed his mother’s name on a telegram accepting the Yankees contract offer. Then a Cardinals scout visited, told him the telegram wasn’t binding and offered to sign him and have him assigned to nearby Omaha, and the teenager agreed. The Yankees accused St. Louis of tampering with their signed player. Frick determined that both teams acted in good faith, but that Terry’s acceptance of the Yankees contract via telegram was binding,. Terry, meanwhile, was named to the Daily Oklahoman all-state baseball team in 1953 and was named the MVP of the Oklahoma All-Star Game. He spent a semester at Miami (Okla.) A&M Junior College, where he wanted to play football but elected to preserve his body for baseball.

Yogi Berra and Ralph Terry talk baseball before his first start. Source: The Sacramento Bee, August 7, 1956.

Terry was smart. He skipped a grade and was younger than most new pro ballplayers. He also had a straight-A average in high school, making him only the 14th such student in the history of Chelsea High. “Well, there aren’t too many students in such a little school,” he explained. Terry had plans of continuing his college education, a semester at a time, to get a psychology degree.

He was a three-sport athlete in school and played football against Ray and Roy Mantle, Mickey’s brothers. He also played ball with Mantle in a charity game for Joe Crowder, a minor-league pitcher who drowned in 1953. Mantle was the pitcher and Terry the center fielder in that particular game. He got a taste of life with the Yankees by attending a training school in St. Petersburg, Fla. Yankees manager Casey Stengel called him “the best pitching prospect for his age I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s been a memorable two months,” Terry said in April of 1954, when he had been assigned to the Binghamton Triplets of the Eastern League. “I’ve learned an awful lot, but learning it isn’t enough unless I can apply it on the field. Fellows like Rizzuto and Berra and Lopat I’ve been reading about most of my life, and all of a sudden I’m eating with them and joking with them and playing with them in a Yankee uniform.”

Terry started off slowly for Binghamton in 1954 and pitched himself out of the rotation for spell. John Fox, the Binghamton Press sports editor who was watching over the boy, determined that he was trying to outthink opposing hitters when he could have been simply overpowering them with his fastball. Terry eventually returned to his strengths and won 11 games for the Triplets, with 120 strikeouts in 191 innings.

The Yankees promoted Terry all the way up to Triple-A Denver in 1955 but moved him to Double-A Birmingham to help the Barons with their playoff drive. He won a combined 14 games for the season and then won 13 more for Denver in 1956. That August, the Yankees called the 20-year-old righthander to the majors.

The 1956 Yankees would eventually defeat the Dodgers in the World Series to be crowned as champions. But when Terry made his major-league debut, they were mired in a 6-game losing streak. Stengel had faith in the rookie, and his gamble paid off. Terry was shaky and gave up 3 runs on 7 hits and 3 walks in 5-2/3 innings, but he was effective in breaking the losing streak with a 4-3 win over Boston. He started two other games for the Yankees and lost both of them to the Baltimore Orioles, leaving him with a 1-2 record and a 9.45 ERA in his brief stay in the majors. Still, he could say that he was on a World Series-winning team after 3 games in the majors.

Terry’s first tenure with the Yankees ended in mid-1957. He spent May working out of the bullpen before throwing a shutout against the Orioles on June 2. After two more appearances, Terry was traded to the Kansas City Athletics, along with Woodie Held, Billy Martin and Bob Martyn, in exchange for Ryne Duren, Harry Simpson and Jim Pisoni. Simpson was the only player to report directly to the Yankees, so it looked like the A’s came out ahead — a rarity in the history of Yankees-Athletics deals. It didn’t hurt that Terry threw 8-2/3 innings of shutout ball against Washington in his first appearance with his new team. He had a no-hitter until Rocky Bridges singled with two outs in the fifth inning. Terry was also brilliant in his first start against the Yankees on June 30. He threw 7-1/3 innings of no-hit ball before Gil McDougald doubled in the eighth inning. Then Joe Collins walked and new Yankee Simpson drove them both home with a double.. Terry took the hard-luck 2-1 loss while striking out 6 Yankees.

As well as Terry pitched, he still had the misfortune of playing on the Kansas City Athletics. The team finished in seventh place in 1957 with 94 losses, and Terry finished with a combined 5-12 record and 3.33 ERA. They were briefly in second place in 1958 but ended the year back in seventh. Terry went 11-13 with a 4.24 ERA. He completed 8 games and threw 3 shutouts, one of which was a 1-0 1-hitter against Washington on August 22. Aside from a third-inning single to opposing pitcher Russ Kemmerer, Terry was perfect. “I think it’s the best game I ever pitched in my life,” he said afterwards.

Terry ended up with what amounted to two years of seasoning before he headed back to the Yankees. The trade took place on May 26, 1959. Terry and Hector Lopez went to New York in exchange for Johnny Kucks, Jerry Lumpe and Tom Sturdivant. At the time of the deal, Terry had been struggling, with a 2-4 record and 5.24 ERA. But the Yankees were even worse, having fallen into last place in the AL, so Terry was an immediate improvement in the team’s starting rotation. He ended the year with just 5 wins and 11 losses, though his ERA had fallen to 3.89. The Yankees improved to finish in third place. Both the team and the pitcher began a streak of excellence starting the following season.

Terry did a little bit of everything for the Yankees in 1960. He started 23 times and threw 7 complete games and 3 shutouts. He relieved 12 times and picked up a couple of saves. Manager Stengel juggled his pitching staff the whole season, getting the most starts from Art Ditmar, Whitey Ford, Terry and Bob Turley. Jim Coates, Bill Short and Eli Grba also made their contributions. As a result, no pitcher was an “ace,” though Ditmar’s 15 wins led the team. Terry was 10-8 with a 3.40 ERA in 166-2/3 innings. The Yankees as a whole won 97 games thanks to a mighty offense, and the team looked unstoppable heading into the World Series.

Terry was on the mound for two key games — for the opposing Pittsburgh Pirates. He started Game Four and took a 1-0 lead into the top of the fifth inning, thanks to a solo homer by Bill Skowron. Then Gino Cimoli led off the inning with a single and Smoky Burgess reached on a fielder’s choice. Terry retired Don Hoak and Bill Mazeroski but allowed a double to pitcher Vern Law to tie the game at 1. Bill Virdon then smacked a 2-run single to make it a 3-1 lead, and the Yankees fell 3-2, tying the series at 2 games apiece.

Then there’s Game Seven and Mazeroski’s walkoff home run. I’ve written about this game a few times over the years as the key players — Virdon, Coates, Bob Friend, Hal Smith — have passed away. It’s one of the most dramatic games in World Series history, with lead changes, rallies, heroes like Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra doing heroic things and unsung players like Smith and Maz hitting the biggest homers of their careers. Terry was in the game for two batters. He entered the game in the bottom of the eighth inning and retired Don Hoak after the Bucs had scored 5 runs off relievers Bobby Shantz and Coates. Then after New York tied the game at 9 in the ninth inning, Terry threw a 1-0 pitch that Mazeroski knocked out of the park to crown the Pirates as champs. Yes, Terry took the loss, leaving him 0-2 in the Series, but it’s hard to call him a goat — in the traditional sense of the word. For every ballplayer who hits his way into baseball immortality like Mazeroski did, there has to be a pitcher who gives up that hit. It just so happened to be Ralph Terry in this case.

The Yankees won the next two World Series, and Terry played a big part in those championships, so it was probably for the best that Yankees didn’t run him out of town or anything. He won his first 5 decisions of 1961, going the distance in four of them. The last win was an 11-inning game against Cleveland, and Terry struck out 8 while allowing just 2 runs on 7 hits. After he was defeated by Boston in July, he won six straight games, including back-to-back shutouts of Cleveland and Kansas City in August.

Part of Terry’s success came from a change in pitches. He had been using a slow curve as a change of pace to his fastball, but it wasn’t effective. “I guess people started getting through to me that my slow curve wasn’t as good as I thought it was,” he said. He worked with pitching coach Johnny Sain to develop something different. “We worked on a fast curve. It didn’t have too much of a curve on it, but it broke real sharp.”

Source: Iowa City Press Citizen, May 12, 1965

Terry ended up with a 16-3 record, finishing second in the AL with a .842 winning percentage. His ERA was 3.15, and though he fanned just 86 batters, his WHIP was a low 1.083, thanks to 42 walks and 162 hits allowed in 188-1/3 innings. Terry started 2 games of the ’61 World Series against the Reds. He lost Game Two after giving up 4 runs in 7 innings. Two of the runs were unearned due to a passed ball by catcher Elston Howard and an error by third baseman Clete Boyer on a Frank Robinson grounder that was followed by a Gordy Coleman homer. Terry was taken out of Game Five in the third inning after Robinson hit a 3-run homer. By then, the Yankees had taken a 6-3 lead and went on to win 13-5 to take the Series.

After a couple of years worth of bad postseason luck, Terry turned it around in 1962, when he beat the San Francisco Giants twice in the World Series and walked away with the Series Most Valuable Player Award, as well as a new Corvette convertible from Sport magazine. First thing’s first, though. In the regular season, he led the American League with 23 wins, 39 games started, 298-2/3 innings pitched and, on the downside, 40 home runs allowed. He was selected to both All-Star Teams that year and picked up some MVP votes. His 3.19 ERA and 1.051 WHIP were among the best of his career, and he reached a career high with 176 strikeouts.

Terry’s performance in the World Series against the Giants wasn’t just a career-defining achievement. It was a personal vindication, particularly after allowing the Mazeroski home run. “I’ve tried to forget it, but people wouldn’t let me,” he said after the ’62 Series had ended. “People were always reminding me of it. Only this morning I got an anonymous letter from a fan in Pittsburgh. He reminded me of that home run ball I threw to Mazeroski and said he was looking for me another like it today.”

Terry started Game Two for the Yankees after Ford beat the Giants in the opener. He lost a 2-0 heartbreaker, as Giants pitcher Jack Sanford allowed 3 hits. Terry gave up just 6 himself, but the Giants scratched together a run in the first inning on a Chuck Hiller double and groundouts by Felipe and Matty Alou. Willie McCovey added a solo homer in the seventh inning. Terry picked up his first postseason victory in Game Five with a 5-3 win. He struck out 7 and scattered 8 hits. He was given the deciding Game Seven start, and it was one of the best pitching performances of his career. He also factored into the scoring, drawing a walk in the top of the fifth inning to load the bases, right before Tony Kubek hit a double play that scored Skowron from third base. It was all Terry needed, as he tossed a 4-hit shutout. He didn’t allow a hit until the sixth inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Matty Alou bunted his way on for a hit. Terry then struck out Felipe Alou and Hiller before giving up a double to Willie Mays. Right fielder Roger Maris got to the ball too quickly for Alou to score, so Terry faced McCovey with the tying and winning runs in scoring position. McCovey hit a screaming line drive — but right at second baseman Bobby Richardson. Game over.

“I’m the luckiest man in the country,” Terry said in the locker room. “This has to be the greatest game I have ever pitched. More than that, this is a personal triumph for me. It wipes away two years of worry, two years of doubt.”

The victory celebration spilled over into Chelsea, Okla., where people ran out of their houses cheering for their hometown hero. Terry’s 70-year-old grandmother, Rose, was even watching. “I don’t know anything about the game, but it seemed like it was awful close,” she said.

Terry in his second career as a pro golfer. Source: The Desert Sun, June 7, 1967.

Terry wasn’t quite as effective in 1963. Though he won 17 games and had a 3.22 ERA, he lost 15 decisions as well. He still led the AL with 37 starts, 18 complete games and a WHIP of 1.063. The Yankees won the AL pennant again but were swept in the World Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers, backed by the pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Terry didn’t start any games, as the Yankees went with Ford twice, Al Downing and Jim Bouton. Terry pitched 3 innings of relief in Game Two, allowing an RBI triple to Tommy Davis. He was diplomatic about his apparent demotion. “I don’t care whether I start or relieve in the World Series, just so long as we win,” he said. “My main interest is to do a good job.”

The Yankees continued their dominance of the American League in 1964, with 99 wins and a fifth straight pennant. Terry, though, went a disappointing 7-11 and threw 115 innings in 14 starts and 13 relief outings. He tore a muscle in his back in spring training and was ineffective in the first half of the season. He was sent to the bullpen in mid-June with an ERA of over 7. After his troubles continued, he was benched for about two weeks before returning in mid-July with 8 scoreless innings in relief. Terry shut out the Los Angeles Angels on July 27 to give him a 3-8 record. His improved pitching lowered his ERA to 4.54 by the end of the season, but he was a non-factor in the 1964 World Series loss to the Cardinals. His sole appearance was a scoreless two innings of relief in Game Four, as the Yankees lost 4-3.

Johnny Keane took over as manager of the Yankees after the World Series, and one of the first transactions that happened under his watch was the sale of Terry to the Cleveland Indians. Technically, he became the player to be named later in a trade that had sent pitcher Pedro Ramos to the Yankees in September. Terry found out about the trade while following his other passion — golf. He was on the 13th hole at a course in Hutchinson, Kan., when the club pro said he had a long-distance call. He went to the clubhouse and found that it was a reporter on the line, asking him how he felt about playing in Cleveland.

“If I’d known that’s what it was, I’d have stayed on the course,” he said of the call.

Terry made 26 starts for Cleveland in 1965 plus a handful of bullpen appearances and had an 11-6 record and 3.69 ERA. His control was pinpoint, as he walked 23 batters in 165-2/3 innings to lead the AL with 1.2 walks per 9 innings. He tossed a shutout against the Yankees on May 5, allowing 3 hits. His one strikeout victim was Tom Tresh, who said, “He sure threw me one pitch I’ve never seen him use before. He struck me out with a kind of screwball that came up to me and broke down and out.”

Cleveland traded Terry back to the Kansas City A’s in April of 1966, in exchange for southpaw pitcher John O’Donoghue. He only one won game for the A’s in 15 appearances and missed time with an ankle injury. His contract was purchased by the New York Mets in August. Terry was 0-1 with a 4.74 ERA in 11 games with the Mets, but he did get a rematch against Mazeroski in a game with the Pirates. Terry’s first pitch was over Mazeroski’s head, as a reminder that he hadn’t forgotten the ’62 World Series. He then retired the second baseman on a pop-up.

When Terry traveled to Los Angeles, he ran into his old manager Stengel and said, “Hey Casey, I got Mazeroski out. I pitched him low.” “It’s about time,” replied Stengel.

Terry was no longer a part of the Mets’ plans in 1967. He made two appearances out of the pen, and tossed 3-1/3 scoreless innings with 5 strikeouts. But he was released in May nonetheless, ending his playing career. Before he left the Mets, he did work with one of the team’s rookie pitchers, Tug McGraw. He taught McGraw a screwball, and that help set McGraw up for a successful pitching career.

Terry appeared in 12 seasons in the majors, with a 107-99 record and 3.62 ERA. He made 257 starts in 338 appearances, and he threw 75 complete games and 20 shutouts. He also picked up 12 saves. Terry struck out an even 1,000 batters in his career and walked 446. He had a WHIP of 1.186 and an ERA+ of 102. Baseball Reference credits him with 11.9 Wins Above Replacement. His postseason record is 2-4 with a 2.93 ERA.

Terry pivoted from baseball to golf pretty quickly, becoming a golf pro at a club in New Jersey. “I think I had a few years left in baseball, but what would it have proved hanging around,” he said. “I’m 31 now. Why wait until I’m 35 or 40? I miss baseball, but now I get a kick out of watching the games on TV and visiting with the players when I get to a game. I like this life and I’m home all the time with my family now.”

Terry had won three player tournaments as an active player and finished second three other times. He picked up the sport to strengthen his legs when a car wreck after the ’57 season fractured his hip and left him unable to run the following spring training. He scored his first hole-in-one at a tournament in 1969. Terry later bought a club in Kansas and made the state his home. He invested into the oil industry, and he played on the PGA Seniors tour, starting in the late 1980s. He was grateful for his life, which had taken him from playing ball with the likes of Maris, Mantle and Stengel to playing a different type of ball with Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Roberto de Vicenzo.

There was one downside, he said. “I once told (footplayer turned golfer) John Brodie that he could win 50 golf tournaments and still be known as an NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. And if I win 50 tournaments, I’ll still be known as the guy who hung a slider to Bill Mazeroski.”

For more information: New York Times

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