An Interview with Don MossiConducted by James Floto and Randy Rosenblatt in 1995.
Ukiah is a quiet little Northern California town, located at the edge of the wine country, in southern Mendocino County, roughly 150 miles from San Francisco. His baseball cards indicate that Don's birthplace was St. Helena, another small town, located in Sonoma County. He said that although he was born in St. Helena and moved back there during his major league career, he was actually raised in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, near the present site of Candlestick Park.
"Us kids played ball all day long- My Summer League team basically came out of my high school team. A lot of good ballplayers came from the San Francisco area in those days." Like Joe DiMaggio and Frankie Crosetti, Wally Berger and Lefty O'Doul, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. Scouts flocked to the Bay Area and Mossi was signed by Cleveland right out of high school.
He started with Bakersfield of the California League, where he was teammates with another California boy who would do well in the majors, Mike (the Bear) Garcia. By 1953 Don was with Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League, where he had a great season. Looking over his record, I noticed he had a great strikeout-to-walk ratio (932/385) in the majors, but that he had been very wild in his early days in the minors. He said that he changed from a two-finger to a three-finger hold on the ball around '53 and that eliminated the control problem. After his good showing in 1953, Mossi was sent to spring training of '54 with the big club. He thought he had little chance of making the pitching-rich Indians. Mossi, who like most ballplayers in those days had to work winters to support his family, says if he hadn't survived the cut he would have quit pro ball and gone into carpentry or construction. However, it was his fifth year in pro ball, and in those days a club had to put a fifth year player on the major league roster or release him on waivers. Cleveland's management obviously saw his potential, especially now that he had his fastball under control.
The 1954 Indians had one of the greatest pitching staffs of all-time, including four future Hall of Famers, Early Wynn (23-11) and Bob Lemon (23-7) in their prime and two old-timers in decline who still had fine years, Bob Feller (13-3) and Hal Newhouser (7-2). They also had Garcia (19-8) and Art Houtteman (15-7). The lineup was paced by '53 MVP Al Rosen, '54 batting champ Bobby Avila, and 1954 HR and RBI titlist Larry Doby. "Coming up in 1954 was kind of confusing. I was a little scarish of all the big stars. But they were great, they really helped us young guys out, especially Feller and Lemon. It was exciting, though, going to the World Series and all when I really didn't think I had much chance of making the ballclub in spring training."
He was, of course, present for Willie Mays' famous catch off Vic Wertz' long fly to center in the 1954 World Series. "It all happened so fast, we weren't really aware of how famous it would become. Besides, it was our team that was out, so we weren't all that thrilled about it."
Mossi spent the next four seasons at Cleveland's huge Municipal Stadium. Among other things, he saw the emergence of Rocky Colavito as the most popular player in post-War Cleveland history and saw the potentially great Herb Score cut down in his prime after a Gil McDougald line drive ruined his eyesight in 1957. Mossi says he liked pitching at Municipal Stadium, but didn't feel it was particularly a pitchers' park and that he did as well in other stadiums.
He and roommate Ray Narleski formed the nucleus of Cleveland's bullpen during those years, but in 1957 they both got a shot at starting. Although Mossi was 11-10 on a sub-.500 team and Narleski was 11-5 as a spot starter, they were replaced in the rotation by Cal McLish and Mudeat Grant in '58 and by 1959 they were both dealt (along with throw-in Ossie Alvarez) to Detroit for Billy Martin and Al Cicotte. Typical of Mossi, he doesn't complain about the lack of starting time he had in Cleveland but says he was glad for the chance to move on to Detroit and enter the rotation. "It was hard to get into a rhythm when you don't know when you're going to pitch next."
He delivered the goods in his first year in Motown, going 17-9 in 1959. He became friends with Al Kaline and Harvey Kuenn (who would rent out Mossi's Detroit home in the winter) and ace pitcher Jim Bunning, now Congressman Bunning. Another excellent pitcher on that team was Frank Lary, known in baseball annals as "The Yankee Killer". However, Mossi tamed the Bronx Bombers five straight times in 1959 and two more times in early '60, giving him seven consecutive victories over the club that boasted Mantle, Skowron, Bauer and Howard, and added Maris in 1960. "I always liked facing the power hitters, they are always swinging. I did fine against Mantle and Maris. No, it was the pesky little guys, the Bobby Richardsons and Nellie Foxes, who gave me a hard time. I gave up a few to Ted Williams, but everybody gave up a few to Ted Williams," he says, chuckling and shaking his head. Mossi, who was already experiencing arm trouble, spent 5 seasons in Detroit, compiling a 59-44 record with the Tigers.
Although Detroit was a mediocre club during most of that time, they put together a season in 1961 that would usually earn a World Series berth, going 101-61. In the year of Mantle and Maris' assault on Ruth's Record, 101 wins left them 8 games short of the Yankees. That year Bunning, Lary and Mossi won a combined 55 games for Detroit and first baseman Norm Cash put on a hitting exhibition of his own, compiling a .361 average with 41 homers and 132 rbi. His power numbers were second, however, to teammate Rocky Colavito, who smashed 45 homers and drove in 140. Detroit returned to the middle of the pack in 1962 and would remain there during the rest of Mossi's stay in Detroit. In 1964, at age 35, he was shipped to the White Sox, a club in need of left-handed relief help. Reunited with former Cleveland manager Al Lopez, Don pitched short relief, going 3-1, 2.93, with 7 saves.
That White Sox team won 98 games and finished one behind New York, but in 1965, Don was dealt to Kansas City. Mossi finished his career playing for Charley Finley, watching a new generation with new attitudes emerging, including youngsters like Catfish Hunter. To his credit, the controversial Finley helped Satchel Paige earn enough time on a major league roster to earn his pension. The ancient hurler spent most of his time sitting in the bullpen, talking to his bullpen mates. "Satchel, oh, yeah, what a character. He was a Southerner, you know, and he liked to sit around telling us stories." Listening to Satchel Paige's tall tales, however, wasn't enough to keep the man nicknamed "The Sphinx" in the game any longer. "My kids were getting older, my arm hurt, and a new attitude was coming into the game. I just flat out quit after the '65 season. I guess I made Finley mad, because if I had signed my contract he could have dealt me to another club, could have gotten something for me, but I didn't care, I had had enough."
Like lots of retired ballplayers, Don Mossi's ties with the game were basically severed when he hung up his spikes. When we entered his den, we were impressed with the photos and bats and autographed balls on the wall, but he wasn't even sure which teams were featured until we looked at the labels. He donated the one uniform he had kept from his playing days to Chicago's Italian Hall of Fame and he has no other memorabilia other than what's on the wall (one of them, by the way, was a wonderful photo of the fabled '54 Indians). He occasionally watches ball games on TV, but has been in a big league park only once since he retired: an old-timer's game at Candlestick, invited by then Giants G.M. and former Cleveland teammate Al Rosen. He exchanges Christmas cards with former roommate Ray Narleski, and Congressman Bunning paid him a visit on a junket to Northern California last year, but otherwise he has virtually no contact with the game he obviously still loves. For many pro ballplayers, the attraction to the game is largely physical, the allure in the playing of the game, not in all the trappings that are so important to many of us fans.
He is aware of the baseball card and autograph phenomenon. He mentioned that in his day Topps handed out a catalogue and players would chose from among a number of gifts. He remembers acquiring a TV this way. He says he does sign through the mail and that many autograph hounds send two cards. If they do, he signs and returns one, but keeps the other (he doesn't charge for his signature). In this way he has been able to amass a small collection of his cards for his many grandchildren.
All in all, Don Mossi is a successful man. He is in good health, has a happy family life, is fairly prosperous, and is satisfied with his lot in life. Perhaps some of today's wealthy but troubled stars, who make more in a half a season than Mossi and his contemporaries did during their entire careers, could learn a thing or two from this quiet country gentleman.
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