Sal the Barber Pitched High and Tight

SalMaglieFree

By Glen Sparks

Sal Maglie aimed for the whiskers. He liked to give batters a “close shave,” as they say.

Players and writers called Maglie “The Barber.” The right-hander hurled pitches high and tight, whipped ‘em right near the cheek. He didn’t paint the corner of the strike zone. He painted the corner of a batter’s chin.

Plus, he didn’t pick up a razor on the days that he pitched. He grew out a face full of thick, dark stubble.

Big for his day, Maglie stood 6-feet-2-inches and rarely smiled. He scowled while out there on the mound. Oh, and he sported a menacing set of black eyebrows. Yes, Sal Maglie looked the part.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Danny Litwhiler admitted it: “He scares you to death.”

Maglie, though, did more than simply instill fear into batters. He got plenty of them out. Relying on intimidation, guile and a sharp-breaking curveball, Maglie put together a fine career with several teams. He posted a 119-62 won-loss record over 10 seasons in the majors (1945, 1950-58) and a .657 career winning percentage. He made two National League All-Star squads and won 23 games for the New York Giants in 1951.

Born April 26, 1917, in the industrial and honeymoon town of Niagara Falls, N.Y., Salvatore Anthony Maglie grew up the third child and lone son of Italian immigrants Giuseppe and Maria Maglie (formerly Bleve).

Young Sal played baseball on the sly. Like many immigrant parents, Giuseppe and Maria did not understand their son’s fascination with the country’s national pastime. The boy loved to pitch, although he wasn’t very good at it in his early years. He also played lots of basketball.

Maglie kept working, at a chemical company and on his pitching. The struggles continued. One tryout, with the Rochester, N.Y., Red Wings of the International League, lasted three throws. Still determined, Maglie hooked on with a semi-pro club.

A chronic sinus condition kept Maglie out of World War II. The New York Giants, short of ballplayers, signed the pitcher and assigned him to the team’s Jersey City minor-league squad in 1942.

Following some fits and starts, Maglie made his debut with the big club in 1945. Over 13 games and 10 starts, the 28-year-old rookie went 5-4 with a 2.35 ERA. He completed seven games and tossed three shutouts. He looked like a decent prospect.

Then, things went south. Or, rather, Maglie went south. Literally. He, along with many other major leaguers, signed a deal in the upstart Mexican League, which promised fame and fortune. Maglie played the 1946 and ’47 seasons with the Puebla Parrots. Supposedly, that’s when he learned how to throw a nasty brushback pitch.

The Parrots went belly-up before the 1948 season even began. The league teetered on extinction. No problem, right? Maglie could just go back to the majors. Well, not exactly. Commissioner Clarence “Happy” Chandler had banned any player who dared sign a contract in the Mexican League.

That left Maglie with little choice. He joined a barnstorming group of fellow ex-Mexican leaguers. A few months later, though, the team disbanded. Now, what? Late in 1948, Maglie returned to Niagara Falls and bought a gasoline station. It looked like his playing days were over.

But, clearly, Maglie did not toss his glove into the closet and walk away. Eventually, he signed a deal with a minor-league club in Canada. Not long afterward, Chandler lifted the ban on all former Mexican League players. Maglie returned to the Giants in 1950. He was a 33-year-old pitcher with one season and 84.1 innings in the majors under his belt. What could the Giants brass expect? Most guys were wrapping it up by then and looking for jobs back home. Like, selling cars or, yes, running a gas station.

But Maglie, clearly a late bloomer, had many more good innings left in that right arm. He pitched in 47 games in 1950, started 16, completed 10 and threw a league-leading five shutouts. The Barber compiled an 18-4 won-loss mark (N.L. best .818 winning percentage) and topped all pitchers with a 2.71 ERA.

Maglie put up his finest year in 1951, going 23-6 with a 2.93 ERA in 298 innings. He started 37 games and completed 22. At one point, he won 10 straight games. That year, of course, the Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers battled it out in a great pennant race. Maglie started the third and final playoff game against Brooklyn. He pitched eight innings and left with his team trailing 4-1. Larry Jansen threw four pitches in the top of the ninth inning to get the win. Bobby Thomson (“The Giants win the pennant!! The Giants win the pennant!!) slammed his epic home run in the bottom of the ninth.

The Giants and the New York Yankees met in the World Series. Maglie started Game 4 and lost. He gave up eight hits and four runs in five innings. The Yankees won the Series in six games.

In 1952, Maglie went 18-8 with a 2.92 ERA. The Barber spent seven seasons as a Giant and put up a 95-42 record (.693 winning percentage). Back problems plagued him in his later years with the team. New York sold Maglie’s contract to the Cleveland Indians mid-way through the 1955 season. Early the next year, Cleveland sold Maglie to the Dodgers.

The pitcher enjoyed a comeback year in ’56 at the age of 39. He started 26 games and went 13-5. He finished the year with a 2.89 ERA, his lowest since 1950, and even threw a no-hitter. Maybe surprisingly, though, Maglie finished second in both the N.L. MVP race and the Cy Young vote. (It was the first year for the Cy Young. Maglie’s teammate Don Newcombe won the award.)

Brooklyn, coming off its first-ever world championship, made it back to the Fall Classic. Maglie started and won Game 1. He pitched a complete game, scattered nine hits and gave up three runs. Gil Hodges ripped a three-run homer to lead the Dodgers, who won 6-3. In Game 5, the Yanks’ Don Larsen threw his legendary perfect game and the Yankees won 2-0 to take a 3-2 Series lead. New York won the Fall Classic that year in seven.

Maglie pitched just two more seasons. He went 8-6 for the Dodgers and Yankees in 1957 and 3-7 for the Yanks and St. Louis Cardinals in 1958. Later, Maglie got into coaching and served as pitching coach during two stints with the Boston Red Sox. Jim Lonborg credited Maglie for teaching him the value of the brushback pitch during his early years in Boston.

Lonborg: “He said you have to be able to throw very hard inside, and create intimidation, because the more you threw inside, the farther away the outside part of the plate looked to the batter.”

Sal Maglie died Dec. 28, 1992, at the age of 75.

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One comment

  1. Bill Garvine

    Wonderful story and wonderful writing! I’ve been a Giants fan since 1958 and had heard much about “The Barber,” but, thanks to this post, I realize how much I did not know. I will go forward with a much greater understanding and appreciation for Sal Maglie thanks to your sharing the “details.” Thanks very much…

    Like

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