Clem Labine was a closer before baseball had closers

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Long before relief pitchers had signature songs that blared through ballpark speakers to announce their entrance into a game, long before relievers were given big contracts fro racking up saves, and long before pitchers even really received credit for pitching well out of the bullpen, Brooklyn’s Clem Labine was perfect for the role.

“I love relief pitching, I really do,” Labine told a newspaper reporter in 1956 when he had a remarkable season for the Dodgers out of the bullpen.

As much as any pitcher in the 1950s, Labine demonstrated how critical a good pitcher could be out of the bullpen in tough situations. But unlike the ace closers of today, Labine was used by manager Walter Alston when the game was at a crucial stage. In ’56, for example, the righty was summoned in the 7th inning 16 times, and he pitched five innings of relief three times that season.

Ironically, Labine’s first huge success in the big leagues came as a starter. In his rookie season if 1951 he was called on to start the second game of the three-game pennant playoff with the New York Giants and he responded by tossing a shutout. Yet, the Rhode Island native never cracked the Dodger rotation and it didn’t bother him one bit. Clem preferred to pitch in tight spots.

“I like coming in when the game is up for grabs,” Labine said.

In the 1953 World Series Labine showed that he wasn’t shy about pressure games. He was used in relief in Games One, Four, and Six. He earned a save but also lost two games to the Yankees. In the ’55 Series when the Dodgers finally beat the Yanks, Labine pitched in four games, earning a save and finishing every game he pitched in. For his career, Clem pitched in five World Series and won three Championship rings: two with the Dodgers (1955, 1959) and one with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1960).

Like Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all-time, Labine was famous for having a devastating pitch in his arsenal. Labine had an excellent sinker that dove sharply out of the strike zone, often inducing weak grounders and strikeouts. In both 1956 and 1957 he led the National League in saves while also winning 15 games out of the pen and making the All-Star team. He was a trusted part of Alston’s pitching staff, who liked having on the mound with the game on the line. Like a star shooting guard on a basketball team, Labine wanted the ball in his hands when it counted.

“He had the heart of a lion and the intelligence of a wily fox,” Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said, “and he was a nice guy, too.”

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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