Sunday, January 9, 2011

RIP Ryne Duren

Ryne Duren passed away this weekend. He was one of baseball's alltime great characters. I had the priviledge of interviewing Mr. Duren  last year for my book, Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. I wrote him a letter explaining the book and asked for permission to conduct an interview. He wrote me back, gave me his cellphone number with the best time to call, and added "Glad to help, Ryne." When I called, he was happy to talk to me and explained that he was, "Doing what I love, driving through back country Wisconsin roads on my way to dinner." The thought of the man famous for his poor vision driving along winding roads with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the phone was somewhat unnerving, but I didn't hear a crash and he made it to his destination. Mr. Duren was extremely open and helpful and provided lots of funny stories. At the conclusion of the interview he explained that, at 80 years of age, he still found time to travel delivering his message on the perils of alcohol addiction. "The answer is always yes whenever people ask me to come talk," he said. "Money is never a factor in whether or not I come."
The following is an excerpt from the book:
Ryne Duren, 35, was already a legend when the Reds purchased him from the Phillies May 13. His reputation preceded him to Cincinnati. When first discovered in the tiny Wisconsin town of Cazenovia, his fastball exceeded 100 miles per hour. He was said by most baseball men of the time to be faster than anyone other than Bob Feller. The problem was that no one, especially Ryne, knew where the ball would go when he turned it loose. It was reported that he had not been allowed to pitch in high school after breaking a batter’s ribs. Later, another problem was found: he couldn’t see. His vision was measured at 20/70 and 20/200—almost legally blind. He was rumored to have once hit a man in the on-deck circle. 
            When he finally made it to the big leagues, Ryne was smart enough to use these stories to his advantage. His warm-up routine when he came into a game from the bullpen classically started with a nasty heater flung up against the backstop. He squinted in at the plate through coke-bottle thick, darkly tinted glasses. Strong men had to battle their better judgment before stepping into the batter’s box against Rinold Duren.  “Part of that was an act,” Duren says with a chuckle. “It started in New York. I was a pretty good drinking buddy of some of the New York writers and they told me, ‘Hey, throw one up at the stands.’ They needed something to write about. Of course, it didn’t hurt me when the batters didn’t want to dig in.”
            The story about hitting a guy in the on-deck circle was partially true. “It was Jimmy Piersall in Boston,” Duren remembers warmly. “Ted Williams used to come up from the on-deck circle and watch you pitch when you warmed up, to get a closer look at the timing. Sometimes he would take a practice swing as the ball crossed the plate. But he was Ted Williams, what are you going to do? Then one day, I’ll be damned if Piersall didn’t come over and do that. Well, he was no Ted Williams. So I threw a ball in his direction. I didn’t get too close, it was just to get his attention. He shouted, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you?’ I said, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you. You’ve got yourself confused with a hitter.’ That’s probably where the story got started.”
            Ryne Duren was soon found to be a guy who also liked to have fun, which allowed him to fit in with the Reds quickly. “The Reds were about the rowdiest team I ever played on,” he says. And he had played on the Angels and Yankees of the early sixties—teams known for their enjoyment of off-field activities.
            “We had a bunch of guys who had a lot of fun together,” says catcher John Edwards. “Deron Johnson, Maloney, O’Toole, Nuxhall. Ryne joined in. We goofed around a little bit. Ryne Duren thought the telephone was the greatest invention there ever was. He would call all around the world. He called Princess Grace in Monaco. He called President Johnson at the White House--I think he almost got in trouble over that one.”
          Bat boy Mike Holzinger recalls an incident in which Duren answered the phone in the Crosley Field bullpen before a game. “It was Mrs. DeWitt, she was looking for one of the coaches or something,” says Holzinger. Unfortunately for the owner’s wife, Ryne Duren did not just use a phone for communication but used it for fun as well. “He started giving her a real hard time, talking back, laughing and refusing to help her. Finally I heard her shout over the phone, ‘Who is this?’ Ryne answered, ‘Gordy Coleman’ and hung up.”
            There was a dark side to the Ryne Duren story, however. He was an alcoholic. In an era when most players drank, Ryne seemed to drink differently. Teammates on other teams had noted that he had trouble knowing when to stop.  Many times he woke up with no memory of the preceding night—only broken doors and furniture and a black eye to give him hints. “One time in New York, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle told me I shouldn’t drink,” says Duren of those two noted Yankee milkshake drinkers. “They said I was a different type of drinker.”
            “I was so addicted to alcohol that it was part of my makeup and personality,” Duren continues. “I think I was probably irreversibly addicted from a very early age. Alcohol is a drug and if you don’t understand it as such it’s pretty dangerous.” Duren lost more than one baseball job during his career because of off field, alcohol-fueled incidents. That was the reason the Yankees had dumped him, the Angels had let him go and the Phillies had sold him to the Reds. In the early sixties the term “alcoholic” was rarely used and never used associated with baseball. Many players during those years ruined their careers and lives without ever getting treatment. “I knew a lot of guys who drunk themselves to death,” says Duren. 
* * *
          After baseball, Ryne Duren successfully underwent alcoholic rehab and spent years as an alcoholic counselor and speaker. He was one of the first to speak out to organized baseball about the problem of alcoholism. He proudly told me that he had not had a drink in 41 years. He did not say how long it had been since he had tried to call Princess Grace.
          Ryne Duren, a great baseball character and a great guy who remade himself and tried to help others overcome the same demons which he had battled--we're going to miss him.


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