PITTSBURGH – I never had the opportunity to see Elroy Face pitch. I wish I did.
It would have been fun to watch “The Baron of the Bullpen” befuddle hitters with his forkball. He had plenty of chances to throw it, too, as his 802 games pitched remains the Pittsburgh Pirates’ career record despite last playing for them in 1968.
I also wish I had the opportunity to cover Face as a player. There are very few people in the game that I’ve encountered in my 36 years covering Major League Baseball who are more fun to talk with.
Face is now 95 years old, but you wouldn’t guess it. He gets around well, and his mind remains sharp.
But the best part about Face is his brutal honesty. When Face is asked a question, he doesn’t dance around it or give a politically correct response.
That was the case on Saturday when a group of reporters chatted with Face after he was inducted into the Pirates Hall of Fame along with Bob Friend, Dick Groat and Kent Tekulve at PNC Park.
Face’s 98 lifetime wins in relief remains the National League record. The major-league record for relief wins in a season that he set by going 18-1 in 1959 will probably never be broken.
There is a certain element of luck involved in relievers getting credited for wins and sometimes they are the result of just pitching at the right time. However, that in no way detracts from Face’s accomplishments.
Before the Pirates began deploying Face primarily as a reliever in the 1950s, there was a stigma about pitching out of the bullpen. Players weren’t groomed for that role in the minor leagues and pitchers became relievers only after they had failed to show that they could be successful starters.
Face broke that mold, and it changed the game. However, ask Face if he is proud of being a pioneer and he quickly will tell you how bullpen usage has changed since his days – and not for the better in his opinion.
“We’d come in as the closer in the seventh inning. I went five innings in Chicago one night and we won the game in the 14th inning,” Face said. “The save rules today … we had to face the tying or winning run, or they had to be on base in order to get a save. Now, the guy who’s the tying run could be sitting on the bench. Three-run lead and you get a save. It’s just not right to compare the present-day records with the record I had. I don’t think that it’s right.”
Face also had a great answer when asked if he would have 50-save seasons in the modern game, though his response probably would not sit well with today’s relief pitchers.
“I’d probably have a save every time I went out there the way it is today,” Face said. “The way they pitch now, I could pitch every night. In 1956, I pitched 17 innings (over) nine straight games. And today they pitch one inning two days in a row, and they get the day off.”
Face was a workhorse, including pitching a career-high 114.1 innings for the Pirates in a major-league-leading 68 games in 1960 when the Pirates won the National League pennant. He also got the final out in three of the Pirates’ four wins when they upset the New York Yankees in the World Series in seven games.
During his 15 years with the Pirates, Face amassed 186 saves. However, saves did not become an official Major League Baseball statistic until 1969 – the year after he left the Pirates – so Tekulve holds the franchise record with 158.
Face developed the forkball in 1955 when the Pirates sent him to Triple-A New Orleans to work on his off-speed pitches. The pitch, which drops just as it reaches home plate, turned Face from a good pitcher into one of the Pirates’ all-time greats. Some believe Face should be in the National Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Asked if his forkball would be an effective pitch in 2023, Face did not hesitate to give his opinion.
“They still wouldn’t hit it like they didn’t before,” he said.
Face threw a ceremonial pitch to Pirates closer David Bednar before Saturday night’s game against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. Though they were only about 25 feet away, Face easily got the overhand toss to Bednar.
It was an impressive feat for a nonagenarian. No wonder Face believes he can still get big-league hitters out.