Duren lived hard and fast, but left lasting impact
Well-liked flamethrower battled alcoholism, served as counselor
If you seek out information on the town of Cazenovia, Wis., on Wikipedia, you will find only one name under "Notable people."
That would be former Major League pitcher Ryne Duren, who passed away Jan. 6 at his home in Lake Wales, Fla.
The headline announcing Duren's death in the New York Times provided the summary: "Ryne Duren, 81, Pitcher; Made Batters Nervous."
The stories of Duren's blazing fastball and poor eyesight were legendary.
"I've never seen a pitcher with more velocity on his fastball," said former teammate and longtime baseball executive Lee Thomas. "The only problem Ryne had as a pitcher was his control. He wore thick-lensed eyeglasses, but he still seemed to have problems with his vision.
"When I was a young player with the Yankees, it always seemed to me Ryne would use that fastball and his poor eye sight to intimidate the hitters. He would usually start off by throwing one of his warmup pitches to the backstop. That had a way of putting a little fear into the hitters."
The stories of Duren's arm strength and pitching prowess are stuff of legend in the small village of Cazenovia, pop. 325, and the surrounding area.
"They wouldn't let Ryne pitch in high school after he hit one player and broke his ribs," recalled longtime friend Marty Koenecke, who owns Marty's Steak House in Reedsburg, Wis., a favorite stop for Duren during his trips to his hometown.
"He ended up playing second base on the high school team because he couldn't see well enough to play the outfield. And at second base, he was told to throw underhand to first base so he wouldn't hurt anyone," said Koenecke.
Koenecke said Duren told him his strength came from working in a feed mill and tossing around bales of hay as a youngster.
Duren finally got a chance to get on the mound as a member a Sauk County team that was made up of older players from the area.
"My father was the catcher on that county team and he would tell me stories of Duren's fastball," said Jim Cunningham, a local businessman in Reedsburg.
"Dad would say that after a game his left hand would be so swollen from catching Duren's pitches that it was nearly impossible for him to do his chore of milking the cows."
It is more than just the pitching accomplishments of a 10-season Major League career that Duren is remembered for in his hometown and local community.
Duren overcame a battle with alcoholism that led to the end of his playing career, as told in the book "I Can See Clearly Now" with author Tom Sabellico, to become an addiction counselor in Stoughton, Wis., and help other people during the final four decades of his life.
"I went to Florida to visit with Ryne during the final week of his life, and he told me the thing he was most proud of was helping others after he had overcome his addiction to alcohol. He was surrounded by his family and seemed to be very peaceful and content," said Koenecke.
"He became much prouder later in life and that's why he wanted the book written of what he accomplished off the field rather than on the field, because he felt that he screwed up a bit with the alcoholism when he was on the field and could have been much better," said Sabellico.
The New York Times, in its obituary, reported: "Duren remembered how in August 1965, pitching for the original Washington Senators, he was hit hard by the Yankees in relief while suffering from a hangover, had some drinks afterward, then left his car on the way home, climbed a bridge and started shouting. The police brought Manager Gil Hodges to the scene to talk him down. A week later the Senators released Duren, and he was finished in baseball."
One of Duren's teammates on that Senators team was Chuck Cottier, now a scout with the Washington Nationals after a career as a player, manager and coach.
"I can still remember how Ryne came into the clubhouse with scratches all over his face and body," recalled Cottier. "He said a gang of guys had been chasing him. It was really sad to witness. You could see and sense that his career was coming to an end and yet you could still recall what a great arm he once had. He really was a good guy."
Duren broke into the Major Leagues with the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 at the age of 25 and was to enjoy his best years as a member of the New York Yankees from 1958 through May of 1961, when he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels.
Duren was a three-time American League All-Star with the Yankees. He led the league in saves with 20 in 1958 while posting a 2.02 ERA and finished second in the AL with 14 saves the next year while recording an ERA of 1.88. He pitched in a combined five World Series games for the Yankees in 1958 and 1960 with an ERA of 2.02.
Despite his early success with the Yankees, Duren was traded to the expansion Angels and a young Thomas was part of the deal of players headed west.
"I'll never forget that just after I checked into my room at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, there was a knock on my door and when I opened it there stood Ryne.
"He had a set of keys in his hand and said a friend had made arrangements for him to have a brand new Lincoln to drive and he didn't want to bother with the car and thought I might enjoy it for a few days," recalled Thomas.
"It was typical of Ryne in that he was just a big, good-natured guy who wanted to be liked and enjoyed life.
"I know he went through some rough periods in his life, but I saw him recently at a card show in New Jersey and I was really pleased to see that he seemed to be doing well," said Thomas.
Ryne Duren's journey from little Cazenovia was filled with amazing stories of an incredible fastball, the fast lane at times and ultimately a journey home, knowing he had used his own life experiences to help others.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice-president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.