Bob Turley, Pitcher With a Blazing Fastball, Dies at 82
Published: March 30, 2013
Bob Turley, a Cy Young-winning, right-handed pitcher whose blazing fastball bore in on baffled hitters like a dissolving aspirin and lifted the Yankees to a come-from-behind victory over the Milwaukee Braves in the 1958 World Series, died in Atlanta on Saturday. He was 82.
Turley, who lived in Alpharetta, Ga., died in hospice care at Lenbrook, a retirement community in Atlanta. The cause was liver cancer, his son, Terry, told The Baltimore Sun.
On a Casey Stengel team loaded with legends — including Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Moose Skowron and Elston Howard — Turley was a mainstay of a pitching staff led by Whitey Ford and Don Larsen, whose perfect game in the 1956 World Series symbolized a golden era of Yankee dominion.
They called him “Bullet Bob,” and if any proof were needed beyond the 1,265 strikeouts and 101 wins he racked up in 12 seasons in the American League, it was provided early in his career by a DuMont cathode-ray oscilloscope, whose photoelectric eye clocked his fastball at 94 to 98 miles an hour.
He was no herky-jerky tangle of arms and legs like Dizzy Dean or Cleveland’s fireballing Bob Feller, with whose fastball his was sometimes compared. Like the great Walter Johnson, he pitched with practically no windup, and had a remarkably smooth delivery for his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame. He had a curve, a slider and a change-up, but the fastball was his magic.
To a batter’s naked, unflinching eye, it was an intimidating marvel to behold: the ball perfectly hidden as Turley looked in for the sign, paused to inspect the crowd, and let fly — an incoming rocket, a white blur barely visible for just over four-tenths of a second, and then — smack! — gone into the catcher’s mitt.
“Man!” Roy Campanella, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ catcher, exclaimed after Turley struck him out three times in succession in a 1956 game. “When you see me take three swings at three fastballs and not even foul tip one, the fellow throwing ’em must have something. Maybe he was using a little gun to fire that ball up there.”
Turley, a popcorn-gobbling Midwesterner with a ski-jump nose like Bob Hope’s and personal habits — no drinking, smoking, womanizing or sideburns — that would have made George Steinbrenner proud, played eight years with the Yankees, from 1955 to 1962, winning three World Series rings and building a win-loss record of 82-52, with 58 complete games, 909 strikeouts and an earned run average of 3.64.
But his best year by far was 1958, when he won a league-leading 21 games with only 7 losses, including 19 complete games and 6 shutouts, while striking out 168 and compiling a 2.97 E.R.A. And all that was just the season’s prelude to a World Series that baseball fans still talk about as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the game.
To set the stage: The Milwaukee Braves were the defending world champions, having beaten the Yanks in the 1957 Series on the strength of three complete-game victories by Lew Burdette. The Yankees, winners of 7 of the previous 11 World Series, were burning for revenge. But besides Burdette, the Braves had Warren Spahn on the mound and the sluggers Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock.
After four games, New York trailed 3 games to 1, and the Yankee prospects looked bleak. Only the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates had come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a 7-game Series. With the Yankees just one game from elimination, Turley went to work. He threw a shutout in Game 5, picked up a 10th-inning save in Game 6 and won his second in three days in Game 7, giving up only two hits in 6 2/3 innings of shutout relief.
Turley was overwhelmed with honors. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the Series, won the $10,000 diamond Hickok Belt as the year’s top professional athlete, took the New York Baseball Writers’ Mercer Award as player of the year, and became the third to win the Cy Young Award as baseball’s best pitcher. (Starting in 1967, it was given to one pitcher in each league.)
The Yankees gave him a $7,000 raise, increasing his 1959 pay to $32,000. He rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and was lionized and hounded for autographs at banquets all winter long. “Thirty-five dinners so far, and only 10 to go,” he told Arthur Daley, the sports columnist of The New York Times, in January.
“Unlike most heroes who hit the mashed potatoes and rubber chicken circuit, however, Turley hasn’t piled on the suet,” Daley wrote. “He probably worried off the weight because speechifying fills him with dread. He’s just a simple country boy with no sham or pretense in him.”
Robert Lee Turley was born on Sept. 19, 1930, in Troy, Ill., and grew up in East St. Louis, Ill., where he starred on the Central High School baseball squad. The St. Louis Browns’ scouts spotted him, and he was signed for $600 as an amateur free agent in 1948. He played only one big-league game with the Browns in 1951 before going into the Army.
He rejoined the team in 1954, when it moved east and became the Baltimore Orioles. In a single season with Baltimore, Turley won 14 games and lost 15, but led the league with 181 strikeouts. Rivals, including the Yankees, were impressed. “It isn’t just that his ball is fast,” the Yankee coach Bill Dickey said. “It’s live. It darts and jumps when it gets near the batter.”
The Yankees acquired Turley and Larsen from Baltimore in a celebrated 17-player trade that was so good for the Yanks that the New York newspapers called it grand larceny. In his debut with the Yankees, Turley struck out 10 and beat the Boston Red Sox, 5 to 4. He went on to win 17 games that season.
After his World Series triumph, Turley had a series of declining seasons with the Yankees. He was traded to the Los Angeles Angels after the 1962 season and ended his playing career with the Angels and the Red Sox in 1963. He was a pitching coach for the Red Sox in 1964 before leaving baseball for a career in finance and insurance.
He and others founded A. L. Williams & Associates, which sold life insurance. He later became a senior national sales director of Primerica Financial Services, an investment marketing company in Duluth, Ga. Turley retired in 2001.
He is survived by his second wife, Janet; two sons, Terry and Donald; two stepchildren; and many grandchildren.