Commentary

Parnell's legacy in good hands

As the torch passes to Jon Lester, Sox legendary lefty's spirit lives on

Updated: March 21, 2012, 7:19 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Whenever he is mentioned these days, it almost always is in connection with Jon Lester.

When Lester threw a no-hitter in 2008, he was the first Red Sox lefty to do so since Mel Parnell. When Lester won 19 games in 2010, it was the most by a Sox lefty since Mel Parnell won 21 in 1953.

When Lester won 15 games in 2011, his fourth straight season of 15 or more wins, he became the first Sox lefty to do so since Mel Parnell (1948-51).

And when Bobby Valentine announced this week that Lester would be the Opening Day starter for the second successive season, the context was provided by Mel Parnell, who started three consecutive openers for the Red Sox from 1952 to 1954.

On Monday night, when news broke that Parnell had died, it came as a reminder that he and Lester shared another connection -- in 2002, Parnell was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the same diagnosis that a shaken Lester would be given four years later.

"It's something that's miserable," Parnell said in a telephone interview following Lester's no-hitter against the Royals in 2008. "Taking chemo just kills you. I'm sure it affected him. His youth was probably beneficial to him."

Lester's cancer went into full remission in December 2006, a recovery that inspired many. All of his big league success has come since, and at age 28, married and the father of a son, Hudson, Lester remains young and strong and vibrant, his best years still beckoning.

Parnell's cancer also went into remission, but at age 89 he succumbed to the disease, according to his son, Dr. Mel Parnell Jr.

[+] EnlargeMel Parnell
AP Photo/Judi BottoniMel Parnell, who recently was still watching spring training games, was a Jon Lester fan. "I have the MLB package, so I've seen him a lot," he said after Lester's no-hitter in 2008. "I'm very impressed by him."

Parnell dies as the winningest left-hander in Red Sox history (123-75), a record that Lester, who has 76 wins and is signed through the 2013 season (club option for 2014), should one day break, assuming he maintains his career arc.

Ted Williams, Parnell's Hall of Fame teammate, thought Parnell could have easily exceeded 200 victories if it weren't for a series of injuries (knee, wrist and elbow) that limited him to a dozen wins and 53 starts in the last three seasons of his career, 1954-56. Parnell underwent elbow surgery in the spring of 1957, and asked to be placed on the voluntary retirement list that June.

But the 18-year-old kid from S.J. Peters High School in New Orleans, who signed out of school in 1941 for the grand sum of $90 a month with the Sox, mastered the biggest challenge facing any left-hander in Fenway Park -- the looming menace of the Green Monster in left field.

"Left field shows 310 feet, but we measured it to be actually 297 feet,'' Parnell once told an interviewer. "I knew that I had to change my style."

Parnell had a 71-30 record at Fenway Park, a .703 percentage. Only Hall of Famer Lefty Grove (.763) and Pedro Martinez (.753) had a higher winning percentage among pitchers with at least 75 decisions. Lester is 36-15 lifetime at Fenway, a .706 percentage.

"He really knew how to pitch at Fenway Park," former Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone said in a press release distributed by the club after Parnell's death. "They would say that lefties couldn't pitch at Fenway but Mel had great success there because he was such a smart pitcher."

Parnell, unlike Lester, was not a power pitcher. He thrived because of his screwball, curve and slider, though those pitches, especially the screwball, took a fearsome toll on his elbow. His nickname was Dusty, because he kept his pitches low, resulting in plenty of ground balls.

"My slider looked like a fastball," he said. "The ball would move in on a batter. Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer were two guys that broke a lot of bats on those pitches."

The greatest disappointment of his career, he long maintained, was when manager Joe McCarthy bypassed his left-handed ace and selected a 36-year-old journeyman right-hander, Denny Galehouse, to pitch a one-game playoff against the Cleveland Indians. Galehouse was soundly beaten, 8-3. The winning pitcher for the Indians was a left-hander, Gene Bearden. Parnell said McCarthy told him before the game that because the wind was blowing toward the Monster, he was opting for Galehouse.

"I thought I was going to pitch," Parnell said. "Hell, I'd pitched a lot of games with the wind blowing out."

Parnell's greatest season came in 1949, when he went 25-7 with 27 complete games and five shutouts, and started the All-Star Game. But there would be bitter disappointment, too. Needing just one win on the season's final weekend to win the pennant, the Red Sox lost the final two games of the season to the Yankees. Parnell lost the penultimate game.

Parnell also pitched in the 1951 All-Star Game, but it was his snub in 1953 by Yankees manager Casey Stengel, who left him off the team even though he had 12 wins at the break, that provoked controversy. Parnell shut out the Yankees twice in the two weeks before the All-Star Game, then twice more -- two of the shutouts coming at Fenway, two at Yankee Stadium. He was the first pitcher to blank the Yankees four times in a season since Walter Johnson did so in 1908, long before they had become the Bronx Bombers.

As pitchers go, Parnell was a pretty good hitter. He knocked in 13 runs in 1949, batted .309 in 1951, and homered off Lou Kretlow of the White Sox in 1952. Red Sox manager Lou Boudreau batted Parnell sixth in three games in 1952.

In 1954, batting against Washington and former teammate Mickey McDermott, Parnell was hit by a pitch. The ball fractured the ulna bone in his left arm, and he was plagued by elbow problems, including a torn muscle, the rest of his career.

"We were going to go to dinner after the game," Parnell recalled. "We were good friends. He wasn't trying to hurt me. The ball just sailed on me and broke my arm."

But Parnell's finest moment would come in the twilight of his career. On July 14, 1956, he threw a no-hitter, the last by a Red Sox lefty until Lester duplicated the feat 52 years later.

The box score says there were 14,542 fans in attendance at Parnell's no-hitter, a fraction of the 37,746 who saw Lester's.

"I remember there were showers early," Parnell told me. "We were all in uniform, sitting in the dugout. The umpires sounded like they wanted the day off. They were going, 'Why don't we call off this thing?' I remember [general manager] Joe Cronin was upstairs and told them, 'Sit tight. The weather department said it's going to clear up.' And it did. It was a beautiful day."

In case Parnell wasn't aware of what was taking place on the field, his roommate, outfielder Jackie Jensen, obligingly filled him in.

"Jackie Jensen came up to me and said, 'Look, fella, you've got a no-hitter. Don't let them hit it to me. I'll be the one who breaks it,' " Parnell recalled. "He seemed to be dead serious. He didn't want to be the one to mess up the show. I said, 'Forget about it. I'm just going for the win.' "

Parnell could recall only one Chicago player coming close to a hit, on a ball second baseman Billy Goodman fielded by the bag. Like Lester in his no-no, Parnell walked the leadoff man in the ninth inning, third baseman Sammy Esposito. There were a couple of force plays, and with two outs, Walt Dropo pinch hit and hit a tapper to the right of the mound. Parnell fielded it.

"I got the ball and ran to first base," Parnell said. "Mickey Vernon, our first baseman, said, 'What's the matter, fella, you don't trust me?' "

"I said, 'Mickey, I trust you. I didn't trust myself to make the throw.' "

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
J. Meric/Getty ImagesJon Lester is likely to take over Mel Parnell's title as the winningest left-hander in Red Sox history (123-75). Lester has 76 wins and is signed through the 2013 season.

After his retirement, Parnell returned to his native New Orleans, where he and his wife of over 60 years, Velma, raised four children, a son and three daughters -- Barbara Jean, Sheryl and Patti. He coached at Tulane University and later served as general manager of the minor league New Orleans Pelicans in addition to spending several seasons managing in the Sox system.

He returned to the Red Sox in 1965 as a broadcaster for four years, including the Impossible Dream season of 1967, his most lasting contribution popularizing the term "Pesky Pole" for the right-field foul pole. His broadcast partner Ken Coleman referred to him as a "Southern gentleman." He later owned a pest-control business and worked in real estate.

His home was a trove of baseball memorabilia, and he continued to follow the Sox from afar. He said he saw part of Lester's no-hitter on TV.

"I have the MLB package, so I've seen him a lot," Parnell said after Lester's no-no. "I'm very impressed by him."

He was still watching games this spring training, his son said.

"Mel died a peaceful death," his son said in the statement released by the team. "He loved the Red Sox.

"Dad was excited about spring training and the coming season. He was able to watch a couple of the games on TV and he always watched them during the season. He had a lot of respect for Jon Lester, who was his favorite player."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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