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Cooperstown Confidential - A Tribute To Nellie Briles
Posting This For Bruce...........
A Tribute To Nellie Briles
I can’t say that I was with friends with former major league pitcher Nelson “Nellie” Briles; I simply didn’t know him that well. But I did get to know him a little bit, through an interview I did with him about the 1971 Pirates and during a Hall of Fame Weekend visit in 2001, when Nellie’s friend, Bill Mazeroski, officially entered the Hall. Based on the few experiences I did have with Nellie, I wish that I would have had more opportunities to talk baseball with him.
Articulate, thoughtful, and knowledgeable, Nellie Briles could talk baseball with anyone. More importantly, he liked to talk about other people in baseball, people that he liked. When I called him up on short notice in 2001 to ask him if we could do a program with him in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater about Bill Mazeroski, he didn’t hesitate. He was accommodating, gracious, and charming. It was as if Nellie didn’t want to lose the opportunity to honor his friend on the weekend that he was entering Cooperstown.
Nellie died on Sunday, February 13. He was far too young—only 61. In his honor, here are some excerpts from a manuscript on the ’71 Pirates, a project that Nellie happily contributed to. Nellie was an important part of that World Championship team, both on the field and in the clubhouse. Even after his playing days, he continued to do great work—he and people like Sally O’Leary—in running the Pirates’ Alumni Association, the best group of its kind in all of baseball. He will be missed.
On March 19, 1971, the newly acquired Nellie Briles threw five scoreless innings against the Mets. Pitching impressively in the early spring, Briles had taken well to the offseason trade from St. Louis. For the first time since 1968, Briles showed signs of mastering opposing hitters.
Briles’ career had undergone a serious downturn after the 1968 season, when a major change in the rules dictated that pitching mounds be lowered. The dropping of the height of the mound, from 15 inches to 10 inches, had made it more difficult for Briles to throw “over the top” with his key out-pitch, the curveball. As a result, he had pitched poorly in his last two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.
So why the turnaround in the spring of ’71? At the time, Briles credited his newfound success to his decision to eliminate his no-windup delivery. “I’ve decided to do it because of the pitching mound,” Briles explained to Bill Christine of the Pittsburgh Press. “I’m not big enough to get a lot of push off the lower mound. It’s my idea to go back to the full windup. I think it’ll give me more momentum.”
In retrospect, Briles downplays the adjustment in his pitching delivery, while crediting a change in his repertoire of pitches as the real key to his improvement in spring training. “It wasn’t so much a change in my delivery,” Briles says. “I threw a good, sinking fastball; I could ride the fastball when I had to, but I think my real out-pitch and real gem was a good overhand curveball. For me, being five-foot, 11-inches, when they lowered the mound, it seemed to affect my curveball. I just couldn’t throw it as hard. I could still get it to break, but the break was bigger [and not as sharp]. In 1970, I was struggling with not being able to throw as many strikes with the breaking ball. The adjustment that I made after the 1970 season—in fact during the ‘70 season—I started working with a slider, and working with Bob Gibson, who had a great slider. Bob was one who never really threw a real, good curveball, and so he discussed with me how he could throw a real good, hard, short slider—a quick slider. [Gibson] would change speeds on his slider to make it break bigger when he was behind in the count. He just started to educate me as to what you could do with the slider, and throw a lot more strikes with it, but still almost give a curveball effect...That’s what I started working with in ‘70, and in ’71. That was the primary change that I made.”
Nellie Briles says that one of the prime jokesters on the 1971 Pirates was coach Dave Ricketts, who had been the veteran pitcher’s teammate in St. Louis and had played for the Bucs in 1970 before being dropped from the roster on August 31. “Dave Ricketts was the No. 1 needler on the ballclub,” Briles says of the journeyman catcher-turned-coach, who was actually activated for three weeks in 1971 but did not play in any games. “That was the style we had in St. Louis. When we were winning the championships [with the Cardinals], Dave Ricketts was also there. [In Pittsburgh], we always had this constant needling going, and the only rule we had about needling each other is that we never got personal. That was off limits. We could certainly ridicule—although ridicule might be a strong word—but we could certainly make fun of each other when someone did something stupid, something great, you know, on the field...That kept the club very, very loose.”
The Pirate players’ tendencies to kid each other, without creating hard feelings, exemplified the togetherness of the team and helped establish a foundation for winning. “It was a pretty close team,” remembers Briles. “We all got along pretty well, even though you had some wild personalities, with a Dock Ellis and the Richie Hebners, and the Bob Robertsons and the [Manny] Sanguillens. It was a real diverse group. Even though the personalities were diverse, when that ballclub went on the field, I mean they were there to play baseball, and play hard. I think that’s where we had a lot of respect for one another, because when it came time to play, we were ready to play.”
Nellie Briles says the Pirate players were able to use good-natured, ethnic humor, without creating tension, because of the respect they had for one another. Without such respect, kidding and needling would not have been possible. “I wouldn’t overstress that point [about the amount of racial kidding], in my opinion,” Briles says. “But I think the only time that you can have a close ballclub, regardless of the ethnicity, or makeup of the club, is when you have a lot of respect for each other. When I say the No. 1 rule in kidding each other, or needling each other was that you didn’t get personal, and that it wasn’t serious. If you don’t respect each other, then those things do get taken personally, and in a very personal way. And it did not happen. It didn’t happen on that ballclub, it didn’t happen on the St. Louis World Championship ballclub. I would compare both championship teams very much that way.”
Briles says that winning teams like the ‘67 Cardinals and the ‘71 Pirates simply did not allow racial disharmony to infiltrate the clubhouse. “To have a winning team, there’s no room for the racial tensions, there’s no room for the improper attitudes,” Briles says, “because those things will always get in the way. When the going gets tough, when you need to win crucial games, at crucial points in the season, those things can seep in and prevent you from winning.”
Steve, Forum Admin
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I've been going to games since August 8, 1973....and on August 22, 2004, finally, a foul ball came my way. I had to reach for it, and it deflected off the tip of my right index finger. Shoot, if I was only 4 inches taller!
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