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Babe Pinelli: Far From a One-Pitch Posterity

Ending his career with a bang, Babe Pinelli’s last game behind the plate was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. In part 8, Schechter explains how the hot-tempered third baseman heeded the advice of legendary umpire George Moriarty, who recommended curbing his temper before embarking on a career calling balls and strikes.

By Gabriel Schechter , March 16, 2017
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Source: Public Domain

Posterity has long since declared that Babe Pinelli will be remembered solely for his controversial call of strike three on Dale Mitchell to finish off Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. But that would be unfair. For one thing, the implication is that because it was Pinelli’s final game, consciously or subconsciously he widened his strike zone to end his career with a bang. Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, maintained that Mitchell was right to say the pitch was outside, but “Pinelli was more right. . . . Pinelli, umpiring his last game, ended with his finest, his most perceptive, his most truthful moment.”

In fact, that was Game 5 of the Series, and Pinelli worked two more games on the bases before retiring. More importantly, this remarkable man should be celebrated for a baseball career that lasted four decades, including 22 years as a Major League umpire. After a difficult childhood, he did well to make any kind of life for himself, much less an important one.

Born Rinaldo Angelo Paolinelli in San Francisco in 1895, he was the son of an immigrant from Italy who lost his life in the 1906 earthquake. Ten-year-old Rinaldo went to work and never made it past the third grade. (He knew what he had missed, later putting his two sons through Notre Dame.) An ironworker and sign painter in his teens, he was also a street fighter and amateur pugilist. When he tried to play sandlot ball with older kids, they chased him, made him cry, and called him “Baby.” That became “Babe,” and it stuck.

His talent for baseball and his love of the game soon conquered all. “After work I’d play till dark,” he said, “and usually ate my supper cold.” At 5 feet, 9 inches and 165 pounds, he was built for the infield and spent most of his professional career as a third baseman. Married at 20, he gave up sign painting for baseball and launched his playing career in 1917 in the Pacific Coast League. He never played at a lower classification and reached the Majors in 1918 with the White Sox, batting .231 in 24 games.

After another season back in the PCL, during which he decked an umpire with one punch, Pinelli was sold to the Tigers, where he played 102 games in 1920. But a .229 average sent him back to the PCL, and he had his most prolific season with the Oakland Oaks in 1921, compiling 244 hits and 50 stolen bases along with a .339 average. His contract was sold to the Reds, and he spent the next four seasons as Cincinnati’s regular third baseman.

After debuting with the Chicago White Sox, and spending one season with the Detroit Tigers, Babe Pinelli settled in playing third for the Cincinnati Reds from 1922 to 1927.

In 1922, Pinelli led the National League in games played and topped third basemen in putouts, assists, and errors. He batted .305 with career highs of 167 hits, 72 runs batted in, and 77 runs scored. He was nearly as good two years later with a .306 average and 70 runs batted in, again leading NL third basemen in putouts and assists. His specialty was the hidden ball trick, which he pulled successfully at least four times.

But it wasn’t all fun and games for the hot-tempered Pinelli, who met his match in teammate Adolfo Luque. His feud with the Cuban hurler peaked one day when Luque challenged him to a gun duel. That didn’t materialize, and the biggest trouble he found on the field was a 1926 ejection for fighting Boston coach Art Devlin.

His average fell to .222 that season, and by the end of 1927 he was back in the PCL for good. He could always hit in his hometown and logged four more .300 seasons before calling it quits on his playing career at age 37. His high point came in 1929 when he slugged three home runs in a game (he hit just five in 774 games in the Majors), two of them grand slams, and drove in 11 runs (he admitted stealing the catcher’s signals). In the Majors, he finished with a .276 average and 723 hits; add his 1,404 hits in the PCL and it totals 2,127, more hits as a professional than any other player who went on to a significant umpiring career.

As a Major Leaguer, Pinelli had been known for the quirky behavior of visiting the umpires’ dressing room before games to pick their brains about their techniques and experiences. Though teammates told him that his temper would prevent him from realizing his long-term goal of umpiring, he continued to do his homework. When he got serious about pursuing it, he sought the advice of another former infielder turned arbiter, George Moriarty, who told him, “Because you’ve been quick to flare up, you should understand why players pop off. You should be a little more tolerant, if you keep your own blood pressure down.” He must have been a quick learner, because it took only a two-year apprenticeship in the minors (the PCL, of course) before he made it back to the National League.

Indeed, Pinelli earned the nickname “Soft Thumb” because of his reluctance to eject players. In his 22 years in the Majors, he issued just 38 ejections, and 10 of those were for fighting. Not that he was a timid. In his first game behind the plate, he called Babe Ruth out on strikes twice, and Ruth’s beef was brief. “I kept my sense of humor,” Pinelli explained. “[I] studied players carefully and discovered that each must be handled in a different way.”

He declared, “I can’t recall ever failing to get in the last word in a hassle,” and bragged about taming Leo Durocher, though it took four ejections to slow him down. It got to the point with Durocher where Pinelli would sniff the air and tell him, “That’s lovely toilet water you’re wearing, Leo. I hope you’ll stay around so I can enjoy it.” That would send Durocher back to the dugout to take his anger out on the water cooler.

Courtesy of John “J-Cat” Griffith on www.findagrave.com.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Pinelli was that he never missed a game, working exactly 3,400 in the regular season from 1935 to 1956. Add 36 games in six World Series (including four Yankees-Dodgers battles) and four All-Star Games; twice he got both plum assignments in the same year, 1941 and 1956. In the 1948 Series, he alternated with Joe Paparella in working the outfield foul lines, but he had plenty of drama behind the plate in seven Series games before the day Don Larsen toed the rubber.

  • 1941, Game 2: Whitlow Wyatt of the Dodgers held DiMaggio hitless in a complete-game, 3–2 victory over Spud Chandler at Yankee Stadium.
  • 1947, Game 2: Allie Reynolds coasted to a 10–3 triumph over the Dodgers at Yankee Stadium while another Lombardi (Vic) took his lumps as the Brooklyn starter and loser.
  • 1947, Game 6: Neither Reynolds nor Lombardi made it through the third inning of a rematch at Yankee Stadium, but ace reliever Joe Page got pummeled for the loss as the Dodgers held on to win, 8–6, and avoid elimination.
  • 1952, Game 1: At Ebbets Field, the Dodgers used home runs by Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese to help Joe Black defeat Reynolds, 4–2.
  • 1952, Game 5: The Dodgers won again as Carl Erskine pitched an 11-inning complete game and Duke Snider doubled in the winning run in a 6–5 thriller.
  • 1956, Game 1: Once again the crew chief, Pinelli called Sal Maglie’s 6–3 win over Whitey Ford at Ebbets Field, behind home runs by Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges.

Pinelli was behind the plate on June 5, 1942 when New York Giants slugger Mel Ott broke the National League record for runs batted in with 1,583.

And then there was Game 5 on October 8, 1956, when a paid crowd of 65,419 at Yankee Stadium witnessed a slick five-hitter by Maglie, marred only by Mickey Mantle’s fourth-inning home run and an RBI single by Hank Bauer in the sixth. Nobody there cared about Maglie’s performance any more than you do right now. The day belonged to Larsen, the so-called “imperfect man” who had drunkenly wrecked his car in spring training and won a career-best 11 games that season.

Employing an uncommon, no-windup delivery and surprising control—he had walked a career-high 96 batters in 179 2/3 innings in 1956 and four more in Game 2 before getting kayoed in the second inning—Larsen mowed down a Dodgers lineup that featured four future Hall of Famers. The baseball gods smiled on him three times. In the second inning, Jackie Robinson smashed a shot off the glove of third baseman Andy Carey, but it deflected right to shortstop Gil McDougald, who nipped Robinson at first. Duke Snider nearly took him deep in the fourth inning, but his drive went just foul. In the fifth, Gil Hodges lined a shot to the gap in left-center, which Mantle ran down and speared with a backhand lunge.

Pinelli realized in the sixth inning that Larsen was heading toward history. He also noticed a taut-faced Commissioner Ford Frick trying to will it to happen. Larsen sailed through the second half of his gem until encountering the left-handed Mitchell, the only substitute in the game and a career .312 hitter. “One ball, two strikes, another foul ball,” Pinelli recapped the showdown in a 1957 article, “and with the count one-two, Larsen hit the corner of the plate with a beautiful fast ball. It was easy to call—and I called it.”

After raising his fist with the emphatic strike-three call, Pinelli soberly strode off the field while Yogi Berra leaped into Larsen’s arms and the Yankees went wild in his wake. He had intended to retire and made the official announcement the day after the Series ended. NL President Warren Giles accepted the resignation “with regret,” something Pinelli never had about the call.

Was it a strike? I just watched it a few dozen times on Youtube, and here’s what I saw. Berra gave a target around the outside corner, while Pinelli, following the NL style, set up over Berra’s right shoulder, closer to the inside corner. That makes it a little tougher to call the “outside strike.” Berra reached just a little to snare the fastball, which may well have tailed over the “black” before making Berra reach. Meanwhile, Mitchell offered at the pitch but checked his swing—by 1950s standards. Back then, a batter practically had to take a full swing to have a strike called on him. Today, it would be a swinging strike at the very least. Stephen Jay Gould was right: Mitchell should have swung.

The day after the Series ended, Pinelli announced his retirement, one week shy of his 61st birthday. He returned to San Francisco and enjoyed a long retirement, dying in 1984, four days after he turned 89.

 ***

Babe Pinelli is the last of the eight distinguished player-umpires I have chronicled here. So let him give the definitive explanation of why these men chose umpiring as the way to remain in the game they loved. This is from a 1957 article:

Compared to other baseball jobs, mine has been heaven for 22 seasons. More than 50 big-league managers were fired in the past 10 seasons. They ended up with nerves twanging like banjos. Club owners worry about attendance, climbing overhead and pennant flops. Coaches are mere shadows of managers—they come and go. Ballplayers spend short careers fighting slumps, worrying about contract cuts, injuries and old age. Meanwhile, with a guaranteed pension, umpires go right on until they’re 55 or 60 . . . without a real fear in the world. Not only that, they have the best “seat” in the house, plus more executive power than most industrial big shots. If there’s anybody in the sport they must kowtow to, I’ve never met him.

Courtesy of The Trading Card Database.

 

 

 

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