Mel Parnell, the winningest lefthander in Red Sox history, ace of the staff during much of the Ted Williams era, and a two-time All-Star, died Tuesday after battling cancer, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported. He was 89.
“With a little luck,’’ Williams once said, “Mel would have had 200 victories easily and if he hadn’t been plagued with his injuries during the 1954-55-56 seasons, Mel would have had 250 victories. He was a great pitcher as far as I’m concerned.’’
Mr. Parnell’s career numbers speak for themselves. Pitching for 10 seasons, from 1947 to 1956, he had a 123-74 won-lost record, a winning percentage of .621, and earned run average of 3.50. Most impressive of all, perhaps, he went 71-30 at Fenway Park, disproving the notion that southpaws cannot win in the shadow of the Green Monster.
“Lefthanders have to pitch inside here,’’ Mr. Parnell said in a 1997 Globe interview, marking his induction into the Red Sox Hall of Fame. “Pitching inside, you keep the hitter’s elbows close to his body.’’
Mr. Parnell’s best season came in 1949, when he recorded a 25-7 record. He led the major leagues in wins and complete games (27). He led the American League in innings pitched (295) and was second in earned run average (2.77).
At the end of that season, he had one of his worst moments, however. Pitching in relief, he threw a wild pitch in the ninth inning that let the Washington Senators tie the game. They won in extra innings, letting the Yankees tie the Red Sox for first place. Four days later, the Yankees clinched the pennant, edging out the Sox by one game. Mr. Parnell’s greatest baseball regret, he would say, was never being on a pennant winner.
His “happiest memory’’ in baseball, he said in a 1978 Globe interview, was the no-hitter he pitched on July 14, 1956, against the Chicago White Sox. A no-hitter is never expected, but it was especially surprising in light of Mr. Parnell’s recent history. In 1953, he had gone 21-8 and earned a spot on the American League All-Star team. Yet he recorded only 12 victories over the remainder of his career, due to injuries. The no-hitter, the first by a Red Sox pitcher in 33 years, offered a fitting final flourish to Mr. Parnell’s career.
Mr. Parnell offered a final flourish to the game itself: Fielding a bouncer from pinch hitter Walt Dropo, he ran it over to first base to record the final out himself. When first baseman Mickey Vernon jokingly accused the pitcher of not trusting him, Mr. Parnell replied, “Hell, I didn’t trust myself at that point.’’
Known to fans as “Marvelous Mel’’ and teammates as “Dusty,’’ Mr. Parnell considered his second best baseball memory starting the 1949 All-Star Game. “I was more nervous in that game than any game I had ever pitched,’’ he told Cynthia J. Wilber for the chapter on him in her book “For Love of the Game: Baseball Memories from the Men Who Were There.’’
Melvin Lloyd Parnell was born in New Orleans.
Initially, Mr. Parnell hoped to be a jockey. He soon outgrew that ambition, topping off at 6 feet. Instead, he turned to baseball. He started out as a first baseman and outfielder. “Getting up to the plate and swinging that bat - that was the big thrill for me,’’ he once recalled. One day, however, his high school team was short a pitcher, and Mr. Parnell agreed to take the mound. “I was willing to do anything just to be playing,’’ he explained. He struck out 17, and there were three major league scouts in attendance. One of them was with the Red Sox.
“I made my choice to go with the Boston Red Sox and to this day I’m very happy that I did,’’ he told Wilber.
Mr. Parnell quickly rose in the organization, only to spend four years in the Army Air Force, based stateside, as part of the flight training command. He reached the majors in 1947.
He had started out as a fastball pitcher, but one look at the Green Monster changed that. “When I got into Fenway, I realized I would have to use a lot more breaking stuff,’’ he later recalled, explaining how he came to develop so formidable a slider.
Forced to retire by a bad elbow in 1957, Mr. Parnell spent a season coaching at Tulane University, in his native New Orleans. He was also general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans minor league team. He returned to the Red Sox organization to manage minor league teams in Alpine, Texas; York, Pa.; and Seattle, and scouted for the Sox.
From 1965 to 1968, Mr. Parnell served as color commentator on Red Sox radio and television broadcasts. Mr. Parnell did not shine. “Parnell’s prime problem was a monotone which refused to bend even in the most exciting moments,’’ a Globe columnist wrote in 1968 when the Red Sox announced his replacement by Johnny Pesky.
There was a nice irony to that, as it was Mr. Parnell who is credited with having popularized the term “Pesky’s Pole’’ for the right-field pole at Fenway. The name had apparently been coined by players in the early ’50s, but it was Mr. Parnell’s use of it during a broadcast that gave the nickname widespread currency.
A member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, he owned a pest-control business in New Orleans and dabbled in real estate.
“It was a great experience,’’ Mel Parnell said to Wilber of being a major leaguer, “something that I enjoyed tremendously, and I just wish that I was young enough to do it over again - especially at today’s salaries.’’
In addition to his wife, Velma (Buras), Mr. Parnell leaves a son, Mel Jr.; and three daughters, Barbara Jean, Sheryl, and Patti.