Happy Birthday Boy! Don 'The Sphinx' Mossi turns 82

As we head into 2011, Big League Stew will honor one birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career highlights and lowlights. Players will be culled from both past and present. Today we light the candles for a player who is one of the inspirations for the term "winning ugly."

You probably haven't heard much about Don Mossi's career and if you've heard of it at all, it's probably because his historical claim to fame was his face.

As Bill James once wrote:

Don Mossi had two careers as a major league pitcher, one as a reliever and one as a starter, and he was pretty darned good both times. No one who saw him play much remembers that, because Mossi's ears looked as if they had been borrowed from a much larger species, and reattached without proper supervision. His nose was crooked, his eyes were in the wrong place, and though he was skinny he had no neck to speak of, just a series of chins that melted into his chest. An Adam's apple poked out of the third chin, and there was always a stubble of beard because you can't shave a face like that.

Mossi may not have had movie star looks, but he really was a pretty darned good pitcher and deserves to be recognized for it. The left-hander won 101 games, saved 50 more, and retired with a career ERA of 3.43 in 12 seasons, 15 percent better than the league. He came up as a reliever because the 1954 Cleveland Indians had one of the greatest pitching staffs ever, with Hall of Famers Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Bob Feller in the rotation, and Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser in the bullpen. But the rookie Mossi was terrific, posting a 1.94 ERA in 93 innings in 1954, and he pitched four scoreless innings in the Indians' World Series loss to the Giants. He was so good the following season that he actually garnered an MVP vote, and he made the All-Star team in 1957, the first year he pitched primarily as a starter.

Best year 1961: 15-7, 2.96 ERA, 240 1/3 IP, 34 starts, 12 CG, 2.91 K/BB

Mossi's best season was probably 1961, when he set personal bests in starts, innings pitched and ERA as a starter, and led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio — all during the expansion year of 1961, when league offense soared, and Mantle and Maris led an assault on Babe Ruth's home run record. Mossi more than held his own against both during his career: Maris only batted .174 against him, and Mossi held Mantle to .289 with just three home runs in 137 plate appearances, well below the Mick's lofty standards.

Worst year 1957: 11-10, 4.13 ERA, 159 IP, 22 starts, 14 relief apperances, 6 CG, 1.70 K/BB
Mossi made his All-Star appearance during one of his weakest campaigns; he went 11-10 with a 4.13 ERA in 1957, and actually wound up back in the pen in 1958. The Indians traded him to the Tigers that offseason, and he joined their rotation and immediately set about some of his best work. 1957 wasn't quite dreadful, but it was his worst season by ERA+, and he clearly wasn't suited to the double duty of alternating between starting and relieving, as he posted a 4.08 ERA as a starter and a 4.43 ERA as a reliever. Fortunately, the Tigers gave him a second chance at the rotation.

Claim to fame: One of Bill James' most famous quotes is about Mossi, and it comes just after the passage I quoted above:

Don Mossi was the complete, five-tool ugly player. He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure ... man, you never saw a player who was uglier in the clutch.

But James wasn't alone in his fascination. Mossi's birthday — and legendarily ugly baseball card that Josh Wilker wrote about — inspired two Reds employees to hold a party in his honor every year for more than a decade from 1974 to 1986, the 12 years equalling the length of Mossi's career. Hundreds of people attended the parties, and Mossi was good-natured about the odd tradition, even sending them some of his own memorabilia for them to display. It may sound unkind to spend so much time harping on one man's personal appearance, but Mossi has borne it all with grace. Indeed, Bill James began his piece by writing:

"I have always kind of identified with Don Mossi."

Happy birthday, Don Mossi!

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