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Talmage, the Tribe, and the Don Mossi Connection (July 16, 1986)

I can remember standing in our new house in Cleveland, so new the walls were painted and the yard was still there, looking at the big, chocolate colored Zenith radio sitting on the dining room table.

It is the first memory I have of being in our new house and is the first memory I have of listening to a radio. It was also the first time (and among the last) that I ever heard my father, along with Mr. Jensen and Mr. Gustin, swear.

What the radio is broadcasting and what my dad and his friends are clinching their fists in ever-whitening death grips around the necks of their bottles of beer at, is the 1954 World Series. The Cleveland Indians are getting flattened, four games straight, by the New York Giants. It is not a pretty sound.

If the Cleveland Indians, the best team in the history of the game (you can look it up) could fail so utterly, fall so apart completely, against an opponent so mediocre -- well, what are the gods and Abner Doubleday trying to tell us?

There are those, however who were even more intimately connected than me to the fabulous glory and subsequent humiliation of the Cleveland Indians, and at least one of them appears to have gone on to lead a happy, normal life.

I drove out to Talmage the other day to look up a guy named Don Mossi, who is a middle-aged fellow with a great garden, a swarm of happy, yapping dogs, grandkids zooming about the lot on BMX bikes, and a big old comfy house. He works in coating operations out at Masonite.

But there was a time — starting in 1954, as a matter of baseball card record — that Don Mossi was employed by the Tribe as your basic hard throwing southpaw. In 1954, and for several years more, Mossi was a vital member of what may have been the best pitching staff in the game's history.

Today, sitting in his living room while dogs nudge and grin at him and the morning TV unreels a nonstop array of happy face game show winners, Don Mossi leans back and lets his mind roll to all those years ago.

He was a skinny kid with five years of minor league experience under his belt, trying to make a club that had names like Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia and Early Wynn penciled into the rotation.

"I thought it was bad luck, trying to make a staff like that," he said. "You don't just walk out and make a club with pitchers like those guys, but I had a real good spring where everything just seemed to come together for me."

That was spring. When the season dust had settled and 154 games had been played, the Indians had won 111 of them and Don Mossi had a 6-1, 1.43 ERA kind of year. Cleveland's record slipped a bit over the next few years of course, but Mossi’s really didn't. He stayed at the top of his game and coincidently helped carve out a place on every team roster for a relief pitcher.

There are guys in the big leagues today, and they have names like Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter, who owe a big debt to Mr. Mossi and his Cleveland teammate, Ray Narleski. Because Mossi and Narlesky (when I was a kid the names Mossi and Narleski went together like salt and pepper or rock and roll) were the originators of a fundamental change in the 20th century pitching strategy: have your starter throw five or six or seven strong innings, then bring in a fresh gun from the bullpen.

The Indians started with Don Mossi and Ray Narleski.

"Yeah, Al Lopez (Cleveland's manager) began that kind of platooning, and from there it just took off," said Mossi. "It was the first step in that direction.

"With the pitchers we had on that Cleveland staff there was no problem with any of them going six or seven innings. If any of them got in trouble, Lopez wouldn't hesitate; he'd bring either me or Ray into the ballgame right now."

Don Mossi played with and against some of the greatest players ever, and he seemed to be enjoying himself there on the couch among the rioting dogs talking about Larry Doby, Vic Wertz, Al Smith, Dale Mitchell, Hal Newhouser, Art Houtemann, Jim Hegan and Bobby Avila. He had a warm and heartfelt sentence or two for all of them and others.

Casey Stengel once said, "In every man's life there comes a time and I've had plenty of them." For Don Mossi those times included these career highlights:

"Once I struck out Ted Williams on three straight pitches. He took all three which if you know anything about Ted Williams was something he didn't do."

"I pitched a no-hitter -- well it was in relief and it took me five or six times out, but I wound up throwing nine innings of no-hit ball."

"In 1962 I beat the Yankees six straight times. I was always a power pitcher and I liked pitching against a team like they were. It was clubs like Chicago with those Punch and Judy hitters like Aparicio and Fox that gave me trouble."

In 1960 with his career at its peak, Mossi was traded to Detroit for Billy Martin. Ironically, Narleski was included in the deal so the dynamic duo stayed together.

Mossi was converted to a starter and had a good deal of success at it before winding up with Chicago and finally the old Kansas City Athletics in 1965. And that was it.

His career stats were impressive (101-80, a 3.43 ERA, 932 strikeouts against 385 walks). The most money he ever made was for a season was $27,000 which came on the heels of his winning 17 games for the Indians in 1958.

Today, people still remember the face and the name. A shopper stops in at Safeway and says, "Say, aren't you --?" And a clerk at Long’s Drugs asks for an autograph and the kids at Little League gape and buzz when a coach informs them that Mr. Mossi here used to play with the Tigers.

"Sometimes I get a call from someone asking me for some general advice for kids," said Mossi. "Aw, I never turn anybody down. If you ask me, I'll find the time to show a kid something. Nobody at Little League has asked me lately which is okay too because I hardly have enough time in the day to do the other things I like to do."

And mostly what he likes to do is fish and hunt and camp and garden. He grows all kinds of vegetables, has about 20 fruit trees in the yard, smokes fish and cuts firewood.

When the 1986 baseball season plunges on through the summer for instance, Don Mossi will be out in his garden chasing weeds. He doesn't go to baseball games -- he's never been to Candlestick Park or Oakland Stadium in his life -- and he doesn't follow the major league season at all.

"If you were to put together a list of priorities, the things that are important in my life to me, I'm afraid baseball would be way down toward the bottom," he said. "I've never been a fan at all.

"I've never watched a baseball game except when I was wearing a uniform. Oh, maybe once or twice when I was a kid growing up in Daly City, I might have gone out to Seals Stadium.

"But I find another kid, a baseball and a vacant lot, and that's where I'd like to be."

Me too. Nothing I loved better than playing a little two on two (no fair hitting to the right!) in Danny DeSantos' backyard and maybe after playing 35 or 40 innings on a Sunday afternoon going home to see how the Tribe was doing against the Senators.

"It's tied in the eighth. Washington's got the bases loaded," my dad would say, relaying the information from Jimmy Dudley on WERE radio. "Oh, don't worry, Lopez's got Mossi warming up and Doby, Colavito and Wertz are due up in the ninth." And my nine year old heart was calmed once again.

I wish someone could reassure me today. The Indians will stink up the league again in 1987 and it's very distressing. It's clear to me watching Don Mossi putter about in his yard that he doesn't exactly carry a lot of scars from the blows inflicted by the Giants on the Indians in 1954. Maybe he's a Zen master, or maybe there is a difference in the way things affect 24-year-olds and seven-year-olds. Or maybe I should ignore the sports pages and put in a garden this year.

(Ed note: Don Mossi died in Idaho in 2019 at the age of 90.)

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