Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Half-Hour With Howard Nunn

On Thursday, The Common Man hinted that he wasn’t done talking about Howie Nunn, the relief pitcher who toiled for three seasons for the Cardinals, Reds, and Mets in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Curious about the abrupt end of Mr. Nunn’s career and the lack of details surrounding his time in the big leagues, The Common Man contacted Mr. Nunn and he graciously agreed to be interviewed about his career. Howard Nunn is 73 years old, retired, and currently living in North Carolina, just a few minutes from his hometown. He was very generous with his time and very patient, as he endured some technical difficulties on The Common Man’s end. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation:

TCM: First, Mr. Nunn, thank you very much for the agreeing to speak with me today, I greatly appreciate it. First thing, I would want to know more about the kind of pitcher you were. Can you describe what you threw and, if you were telling someone how you saw yourself as a pitcher, what would you say?

HN: Well, I was a fastball pitcher, and I threw the slider and I threw a knuckleball occasionally. Basically, the sinking fastball was my best pitch. I don’t know, we didn’t have any guns to tell you what the speed was. They would give you an estimate of speed. But as far as today, they’ll tell you how fast a guy is throwing in a heartbeat.

TCM: You were primarily a reliever. In the minors did you start?

HN: I mostly relieved. Well, I only relieved in the big leagues, except for one exhibition game I did start. That was against Cleveland in 1962. We won that game 6-2 and I went 9 innings.

TCM: I’m interested in your knuckler, is that something you came up with or that you developed later?

HN: It’s just something I played around with in semi-pro ball, as a kid, I’d just throw one occasionally. But it was not really a pitch you could rely on, because I never learned to control it. I’d throw it occasionally to a batter just to show it, but I never got hurt or helped by it too much.

TCM: So in 1954 you were signed by the Cardinals. Do you remember the name of the scout who signed you?

HN: George Furrel [not sure of the spelling here]. He was one of the Furrel boys from Greensborough. I can’t think of all of their names. There were three brothers who all played pro ball. And George was scouting for the Cardinals when he signed me. Big bonus. Nineteen and fifty-three, I was seventeen and I graduated from high school. And I signed in September of that year, but of course I didn’t have to report until the spring of ’54. That was back when they paid big bonuses. $500. It’s ridiculous. It wasn’t even a token payment, but that’s what it was.

TCM: So you spent five years in the minor leagues with the Cardinals, and then in 1959 you debuted with them. How did you get the news they were calling you up?

HN: Well, they sent me a contract. I guess it was in the ’57 or ’58 season, I think this is right, I was with Houston in the Texas League and had decent years there. I don’t know whether they were protecting me or whatever, but they called me up and I went to Spring Training. And they were impressed with me enough that I stayed with the club. And in ’59 I won back-to-back games in relief. Could have won the third game, on the third day in a row in relief. But I came in and Ernie Banks was the batter. He hit a ground ball single. It was a ground ball between short and third that went to left field for a base hit. I had won two games on the previous two days before that. If I had gotten out of that I would have won three in a row. [note: This occurred on May 6, 7, and 8 of 1959. Nunn did win games on consecutive days, but entered the third game with the bases loaded and one out (it looks like manager Solly Hemus really liked to ride the hot hand). Play-by-play data on shows that he walked Randy “Handsome Ransom” Jackson to bring in the run before getting Big George Altman to ground into a double play.]

TCM: Now you were called up that year and you played with another rookie, Bob Gibson.

HN: Yes, he and I talked a lot. Gibby was real tempermental. He was a keen guy, and that’s why he became such a great pitcher. He was like, I don’t know, he might have had one win in five or six. I don’t know. But he was not having a good year. [note: Gibson was 3-5 that year with a 3.33 ERA, but started slowly, giving up three runs in 2.2 innings in the first half of the season.] He was having a horrible time, saying, “Send me back to Omaha; I’m tired of this.” But they never did; they weren’t stupid enough to give up on him.

TCM: Well that seemed to work out okay for him.

HN: He was a real, real competitor, and he was nice guy. I haven’t talked to him in a while. He was moody, real moody, but when he crossed that line and on the mound he was strictly business.

TCM: You also played with a couple of other all time greats that year, and one player who is particularly revered by today’s players, Curt Flood.

HN: Yes, I knew Curt. He was the centerfielder there. After the Cardinals sent me out, there was a lot of controversy with Curt. But he made baseball better for the people playing it. It gave them a little leeway. Because these owners were butchering the ballplayers money-wise. But of course what it is today is ridiculous.

TCM: You also played that year with another all-time great at the end of his career, Stan Musial.

HN: One of the greatest men who ever played the game. A perfect gentleman. You could be a rookie, but he was just as nice to you as if you were a season veteran. And he was a great one, a natural hitter. He could hit the ball.

TCM: In 1961, your contract was purchased by the Cincinnati Reds. Did you make that team out of Spring Training then?

HN: Oh yes, I went straight on in. Matter of fact, I pitched in relief, as usual, in Philadelphia. That was on a Sunday afternoon, I went seven and two-thirds innings in relief of Jim Maloney. He was real wild that day. I came in with the bases loaded in one out. And Bobby Del Greco hit into a double play. And I pitched seven and two-thirds innings in that game, and the most I had pitched in that year was like two or three innings. [Note: this was on June 18, and Mr. Nunn’s recollection is spot on.]

Anyway, we went on back to Cincinnati for an off day on Monday, and played, I think, the Cardinals when they came in on Tuesday. And I was up throwing after pitching seven and two-thirds innings. Didn’t get in the game, but the next day I relieved against the Cardinals. No problem. But then the Dodgers were coming in and I relieved against them. I was into my second inning against the Dodgers in like the fifth inning, and I had two strikes and no balls on Frank Howard and left loose with a hard slider that was like a knife that went straight through my elbow. The next pitch I threw I barely reached home plate, and Frank Howard struck out. And I walked off the mound and into the dugout and my arm just felt exactly dead. It was just like it had no feeling in it. And they said I had tore something apparently inside the elbow. And that was before arthroscopic surgery and all these things that they have today. [Note: Mr. Nunn’s recollection here is pretty solid. He did strike out Frank Howard that last inning (looking), but he also faced Norm Sherry, Ron Perranoski, and Maury Wills to close out the inning (an incredibly impressive feat, given that he had just shredded his elbow.] So I went on from there and that season they put me on the disabled list. And I stayed the rest of the season and played the Yankees in the World Series. I was there in uniform, but I wasn’t eligible because I wasn’t on the active roster. I was disabled.

But then that winter, the Reds sold my contract to the New York Mets in their first year in existence. The sad thing about it was that I had a piece of paper where they signed me with no conditions and I was outright to the Mets. And I went to Spring Training with them. And I was unaware that I was on a “look-see” basis. I think the draft price was $25,000 if they took a man off the roster. But the Mets told me that in Spring Training… As a matter of fact, the first ballgame that the Mets ever played was against the New York Yankees exhibition game in Spring Training, and I was the winning pitcher. Roger Craig started the game and I relieved in the eighth inning or ninth inning and later on we won in 11 innings, 4-3. And that was the first time the Mets ever played. Then they turned around at the end of Spring Training, they called me into the office and said, “You’re going back to Cincinnati.” I said, “What do you mean I’m going back to Cincinnati?” “Well, you were on a ‘look-see basis.’” They would have had to pay $75,000 to keep my contract, and they felt it was too big a risk. And all the while I thought I was a member of the Mets, but actually I was on a “look-see basis.” If they did it today, well, a man can live fairly well off the income, you could probably sue ‘em for it, the way the game is covered up today. [Note: Baseball says that on December 21, 1961, “The New York Mets purchased Howie Nunn from the Cincinnati Reds.” On April 2, 1962, it says that the Mets “returned” Nunn and two other players to their respective teams “following a previous purchase.” Perhaps these were deals conditional on the players breaking camp with the big club, but they do not seem to be part of the initial expansion draft.]

In 1960, the Reds finished 67-87 and 6th in the National League. But in 1961, your team surprised everyone and, not only competed, but won the National League Pennant. Were your teammates surprised at that success? Were you surprised at that success? [Note: Here, there were some technical difficulties, and Mr. Nunn was not able to hear my exact question. His answer, however, is an important reminder that Cuba was still open in 1960, and American ballplayers were still playing there. Also, his answer hints at the power dynamics between players and ownership and management at that point.]

Well yes. The previous year, in 1960, I pitched in Havana, Cuba, and they moved the club to Jersey City. And I had had a tremendous year, like a 1.91 earned run average, about 12-6. I had had a real good season. But you know, you go in [to Spring Training] on a “look-see basis” and they look to see what they can use, kind of like an old horse. They take what they need and put the rest out to pasture. But that’s a long time ago.

TCM: In 1961 and 1962, your manager was Fred Hutchinson.

HN: One of the greatest men I ever knew. But he would fight you in a heartbeat. A good manager.

TCM: And in 1962, during Spring Training, you were with the Mets, and you would have been managed by Casey Stengel, wouldn’t you?

HN: Stengel. Cookie Lavagetto was a coach. Red Ruffing was the pitching coach. Rogers Hornsby was the batting instructor. Stengel was the manager.

TCM: Did you have much contact with Casey? What did you think of him?

HN: Sure. I went in to ask him why I was pitching any more than was. And the next thing I know he’s talking about the cutoff play from the outfield, how the outfielders and infielders had to work together to hit the cutoff man. I just walked out of the office. He was talkin’ that Stengelese, and I couldn’t understand. He never answered a question. He just talked around everything.

TCM: Your major league career ended in 1962 and you were only 26 years old. Did you stay in the game after that? Where did you go?

HN: I tried to stay on but the arm wouldn’t do it. I still had the fastball, but I couldn’t throw a breaking pitch or anything. It would blow out the elbow or it would just pop right out like you hit it with a sledgehammer. I went down to Macon, Georgia, Double-A ball. I relieved down there for a while. But it got so I wasn’t throwing well, and I decided to give it up.

TCM: Was that a hard decision for you to make?

HN: Not really. When you can’t excel or can’t do anything that is half of what your capabilities are, you have to let it go.

TCM: What did you do after you were done with the game?

HN: I did shop work for 43 years. I was the plant manager. But I finally gave that up and have been retired for about five years.

The Common Man wishes he had had more time (and stronger interviewing skills) to really delve into more of these topics with Mr. Nunn. In particular, exploring the labor relations of that day, why Fred Hutchinson was so special to him, and discussing his experiences with the Reds in more detail. But The Common Man took up a great deal of Mr. Nunn’s time on a Saturday morning, and is just pleased to have learned as much as he did. Great thanks to Howard Nunn for all his help.

The Common Man plans to make this a semi-regular feature here, interviewing players who are available and willing to talk about their time in the big leagues. If you have any requests, The Common Man is more than willing to take them.


BillP said...

Awesome. Amazing how many great stories he came away with in just a couple years.

alton nunn said...

howie is my cousin, we meet every year at the family reunion in stokes co nc. i didn't know him till about 20 tears ago. alton nunn

Anonymous said...

This is my great uncle Howard. He passed away Friday evening. He will be missed.