My Tribute to a Legend
Posted By: Aaron Sims
Since 2004, I’ve moonlighted as a radio announcer and then a public address announcer for a baseball team in Madison, the Mallards. It’s a fantastic place to be on a summer night. We play great music, the fans are great, the employees are top-notch, the owner is the best and the public address announcer is extremely entertaining (joking…but that could be what makes me so entertaining…joking again).
The Mallards are so similar to the Milwaukee Admirals in the approach to the family entertainment experience. Yes, we want to win, but we want to make sure you had a whale of a time at the game and we’d love for you to tell your friends and come again. Celebrity appearances, concerts, wacky promotions…it’s a pleasure to be a part of the Admirals and the Mallards.
In my time with the Mallards, I’ve had the chance to meet and become friendly with a lot of stars. One such person is legendary pitcher Ryne Duren
Duren, whose hometown is Cazenovia, WI, was a fireballing relief pitcher in the 50s and 60s. His best years were with the Yankees, where he was a member of the 1958 World Series Champions. He was a three-time all-star.
He was known for the combination of his blazing fastball and his very poor vision. "I was 200/20 in my left eye without correction, and 70/20 in my right," he explained. "Of course, my eyes were quite allergic to light. I wore dark glasses, and tinted glasses in the evening. In the twilight, I had these kind of gold-colored glasses. I guess the doctors and everybody wanted to get into the act, so I had all those different glasses." With his thick coke bottle glasses, few batters dared to dig in against Duren. Casey Stengel said, "I would not admire hitting against Ryne Duren, because if he ever hit you in the head you might be in the past tense."
Duren was a showman. In those days the Yankee bullpen was a part of the short-porch right field and only a low chain link fence served as the boundary. When called upon by Casey Stengel to relieve, he wouldn’t use the gate, but preferred to hop the fence with one hand and begin a slow walk to the mound with his blue Yankee warm-up jacket covering his pitching arm; he followed this routine even on the hottest days. When he finally took the ball and began his warmups, the first pitch was typically a hard fastball 20 feet over the catcher’s head. The succeeding warmup pitches would be thrown lower and lower (but not slower) until Duren would finally "find" the plate.
Ryne would often employ this act when throwing out a first pitch at Mallards games every summer. It was hilarious for the people that knew what was going on, including me.
Duren, however, may be best known as one of the first athletes to admit his struggles with alcohol and seek treatment. In an interview, Ryne said, "Every night could have been New Year's eve because that's how I interpreted the use of alcohol as a young person," Duren said. "I just got bad information early in life from my family, from the world around me everywhere."
He published two books, including "I Can See Clearly Now
", where he explains how in 1968, after suffering more than 25 years, he overcame his addiction, and turned his competitive spirit to helping others. He spent many years leading drug and alcohol abuse intervention programs. Among other things, Duren headed up the Winning Beyond Winning Foundation that provides cross-training for life for kids in metropolitan New York.
"We put on a summer camp for baseball, and we emphasize social skills, manners and of course alcohol and drug education and awareness," he said. "I give young people the education and information that I would have liked to have had before I got involved with alcohol. I'm not anti-alcohol, I'm just very pro-education. I think drinking and alcohol belong, but you can't use it ignorantly.”
Ryne cared deeply about people and he cared deeply about making a difference. He was always good for a visit at the Mallards games. I would be so excited to see him. He had so many stories about “Mickey, Yogi, Whitey, Johnny” etc.
He always wore his 1958 World Series Championship ring…a beautiful piece of jewelry that looks so modest by today’s standards. Still, the beauty of a ring is likely contained in the memories that ring symbolizes.
One of the hardest laughs I ever had was with Ryne, maybe because of him. He brought “The Toy Cannon” Jimmy Wynn
to our radio studio for an interview when I worked in Madison. Wynn was an excellent ballplayer known mostly for his time with Houston and the Dodgers. He also played briefly for the Brewers late in his career. His knees are shot from patrolling the outfield at the old Astrodome in Houston. That concrete underneath the artificial turf really hampered a lot of athletes. Jimmy is one of the nicest men you’d ever want to meet.
We brought Ryne and Jimmy into the studio for an interview. We had these chairs that would rise up rather high with the touch of a lever…”super” office chairs, if you will. Jimmy was telling us a story and Ryne was fidgeting in his seat. He was flicking the chair’s lever with his fingers. All of a sudden, he dropped in the chair about a foot. Without missing a beat in his story, Jimmy turned to Ryne and asked, “Are you drunk?” Knowing Ryne’s history we all laughed…hard. Ryne composed himself after a while and said to Jimmy, “I think you better clarify what happened. Some people will be wondering what you’re talking about.” It was a good-natured exchange with a couple of great people.
Earlier today I got the news that Ryne had passed away. His health wasn’t the best over the last year or so. He died with close friends and family by his side. “Blind Ryne” died a legend. “Sober Ryne” dying is a tremendous loss. Throw one tight to Ty Cobb, buddy.