This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Mel Parnell devoted a full decade to the Boston Red Sox, from 1947 through 1956, winning 123 games while losing just 75. He ranks first among left-handed Red Sox pitchers in wins, number of games started (232), and number of innings pitched (1,752⅔). The New Orleans native performed exceptionally well in Fenway Park, a ballpark thought to be unkind to southpaws, compiling a 71-30 mark there. In his final season, 1956, he threw a midseason no-hitter against the White Sox, also at Fenway.
Melvin Lloyd Parnell was born on June 13, 1922. His mother, Anna Mae Trauth Parnell, was a housewife. His father, Patrick Louis Parnell, was the chief maintenance man for the Panama Limited, the Illinois Central Railroad’s million-dollar train which ran from New Orleans to Chicago. The Panama Limited was an all-Pullman-car train, a companion to the City of New Orleans, which was its daytime equivalent — it featured chair cars and had no sleeping accommodations. Patrick Parnell was based in New Orleans and his job was to have the train ready to move every morning; he did that for 30 or more years. Mel had one sister, Dorothy.
“My dad and I were like brothers when I was growing up,” Mel recalls. “He took me to a lot of ball games. We used to go see the local ball club, a Double A team here, the New Orleans Pelicans. He and I would go see a lot of their ball games. During spring training, the Cleveland Indians used to train here in New Orleans and the New York Giants used to come in. On weekends, we’d always catch their exhibition series. At that time, Bob Feller was the young 17-year-old rookie right out of high school pitching for Cleveland and the star pitcher for the New York Giants was Carl Hubbell. They were the complete opposite of each other. Usually those two used to face each other on Sunday and it was a great exhibition to see those two perform [at Heinemann Park].”1
Growing up, Mel had the opportunity to play in a number of city parks. “We had a lot of baseball parks around New Orleans. As a youngster, I was playing with people much older than I was. Everyone kept telling my daddy, ‘That kid’s going to be a ballplayer.’ Of course, that was my big ambition — to be a ballplayer.”
Fortunately, no one ever tried to “correct” his natural left-handedness, though he was originally a first baseman. His senior year in high school, when the team was short a pitcher, coach Al Kreider asked if he’d want to try pitching. Saying, “I’ll play anything. I just want to play,” he became a moundsman. “They kept telling me my ball was pretty much alive and that encouraged me more and more into pitching.” Kreider gave him his nickname. “I was strictly a lowball pitcher. I threw a lot down in the dirt so he gave me that name ‘Dusty’ and it stuck with me.”
Parnell played in American Legion tournaments as well as for the Samuel J. Peters High School team. It was quite a strong team, and Parnell was such a talent that he was asked to sign his first major-league contract before he’d even graduated. Red Sox scouts Eddie Montague and Herb Pennockweren’t the only ones following him. He was perhaps wise not to take the first offer. “I was strongly scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals. Branch Rickey used to come out to my house and talk to my father. I told my father, ‘Don’t commit to them,’ because I had been told by many other fellows who had signed with the St. Louis Cardinal organization that it was a tough organization. They had so many ballplayers that you were pretty much a number and not a name. That didn’t interest me. I was skeptical of that. My high school team, seven of us signed professional. Six signed with the Cardinals. I was the only one who didn’t.
“The general manager of the New Orleans ball club — a fellow by the name of Vincent Rizzo — he suggested to the [Red Sox] scouts, ‘I want you to see the little skinny left-handed pitcher that’s pitching today.’ He brought them out to the ball park, and that day I struck out 17 and that’s when the Red Sox became interested in me. I had no regrets. However, the first time I walked on the mound in Fenway Park and looked at that left-field fence being so close, I thought maybe I made a mistake. As it turned out, everything turned out well for me and I was very happy to be a member of the Red Sox.” The 17-strikeout game was only the fifth game he’d ever pitched.
Parnell had missed a couple of years of school due to illness and injuries, but it was just a short while before he turned 19 that he signed. He first played professional ball in 1941 for Centerville, Maryland, a Class D Eastern Shore League team with which the Red Sox had a working agreement. He was initially sent to Owensboro, Kentucky, another Class D club with a Red Sox affiliation. “When I got there, I was a little skinny kid, 130 pounds. The manager was Hugh Wise, a former Tigers catcher. He said, ‘What are you supposed to do?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m a pitcher. A left-hand pitcher.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t need left-hand pitchers. I have four.’ He contacted the Red Sox and they suggested that I go to Centerville. I never played at all in Owensboro. In Centerville, we had Eddie Walls and then Eddie Popowski. I knew Eddie since that time. We kind of strung along together.”
In Centerville, Parnell threw 48 innings, winning four and losing four, posting an ERA of 4.13. He got his feet wet. After finishing up school and graduating in February 1942, he put in a full year with Canton, working under manager Pat Patterson. He had an excellent season, with a 16-9 record after 204 innings of work. His ERA was a spectacular 1.59; he ranked a close third in the Middle Atlantic League.
World War II was, of course, looming at the time and the draft board had been in touch. Not wanting to be taken as a foot soldier, Parnell enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Because he was good at baseball, he earned a pretty soft berth. “The Air Force commander at Maxwell Field, Alabama, wanted to have a good baseball team there and… I was moved around to various different sections of the Air Force to protect me for baseball.” Parnell helped train pilots for combat, putting them through their paces with calisthenics and other physical education work. He also did some maintenance work and other duties. “When I first enlisted, I went to Blytheville, Arkansas. That was a military base that was pretty much new there. Then from there I went to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. I went to B-36 school there. Of course, the B-36 [a giant bomber] never did get into use during the war. From Keesler, the commanding officer at Maxwell Field requested my transfer over to Maxwell Field, Alabama. I stayed there for the duration. It was winding down toward the end of the war and there wasn’t that big a need for pilots.” Parnell ended up as a staff sergeant.
After the war, like with many ball clubs, the Red Sox had so many players coming out of the service that they didn’t know where to send them all. Parnell suggests that for many, their assignment was somewhat arbitrary. “They pretty much just split us up by names and half went to Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the Eastern League and the other half went to Louisville. I went to Scranton and we had an outstanding team. I led the league in earned run average and we had a fellow by the name of Tommy Fine that led the league in wins and we won the pennant by 19 games. Truthfully, we had a better team than they had at Louisville. The Red Sox had so many good ballplayers that they couldn’t protect them all. Teams were taking some of the better talent away from them because they didn’t protect the guys.” Parnell’s league-leading ERA was 1.30, and he finished the season with a 13-4 season for Scranton. He struck out 111 and walked only 49. He earned himself a promotion to the big league club.
In 1947, Mel trained with the Red Sox and found himself one of six pitchers vying to fill two slots on the staff- four veterans, Harry Dorish, and himself. He and Dorish got the two slots. With Boston, Parnell appeared in 15 games (50⅔ innings) and struggled, with a 6.39 ERA, two wins, and three losses. One of those losses came in his April 20 debut. Boston had won the first four games of the year, but Parnell was tagged for three runs in the bottom of the first by the Washington Senators and lost a 3-1 ball game — even though he pitched scoreless ball on just three hits over the next six innings. The Red Sox managed only three hits. Parnell got his first major league win on April 30 in Detroit, throwing a complete-game four-hit, 7-1 win over the Tigers. He got a little more work, but was optioned to Louisville on July 9 to make room for Sam Dente. Parnell suffered a broken finger not long after arriving and figured in only four games, not that effectively.
Come 1948, he really took off. Suddenly, he was a major-league pitcher who posted a 3.14 ERA and a 15-8 record, throwing 16 complete games. What happened? “In ’47, I was moving into a pretty set pitching staff. They won the pennant the year before and they were pretty well solid. I didn’t get very much work. I guess [manager Joe] Cronin probably figured it would be better if I went down to Louisville, where I could pitch more and get some more experience. When I came back in ’48, I fit right in with the rest of the pitching staff, and of course some of the guys that were on that ’47 staff like Tex Hughson, he developed arm problems. Some of the other fellows, they kind of fell off and didn’t have a very good year. That gave me the opportunity to move right in.”
Joe McCarthy was the manager in 1948. “I liked McCarthy’s style of managing. He was tough. He was the boss and you knew it. If you committed a wrong, he wouldn’t show you up in front of anybody. It was just you and him. That I appreciated.” McCarthy was predictable, too. Mel had a regular slot in the rotation and could plan for his starts. It made a difference. He threw 212 innings in 1948. Like many veterans, he harbors a little disdain for today’s pitch counts. “I think they’re being babied too much now.”
There were no large coaching staffs in his day, nothing in the way of even moderately sophisticated training programs. Did he get much of in the way of instruction? “Not too much. We had an old catcher that was a coach and he really didn’t know anything about pitching. In all fairness to him, he was an old-timer and no doubt during his day, no doubt he was a good catcher. Catching and pitching is a different ball game. Larry Woodall. Larry, he did his best, but he just didn’t understand pitching. Only a pitcher can understand what he goes through with the arm problems and stuff like that.”
Did Parnell ever have the benefit of a pitching coach during the years he played? “Well, we had Boo Ferriss come up under [Mike] Higgins, at the end. We had some help with pitching coaches. We had Paul Schreiber and John Schulte. Schreiber had a pretty good knowledge of pitching. Johnny Murphy was in the bullpen with us. He helped us a lot. We got Johnny Murphy from the Yankees under Cronin. That was early ’47, I think he came to us and he was a big help to a lot of the young pitchers. He was the old fireman for the Yankees. He was very helpful to all the young pitchers. We’d sit in the bullpen and talk with him and you could get a lot of knowledge from him.”
There is one 1948 game he still wishes he’d pitched. He fully expected to start for the Red Sox in the one-game playoff for the pennant, October 4 against the Indians. He’s been asked about it so much, he says, that he could write a book about it. “The whole ball club thought it was my game. My family kept telling me you’ve got your biggest game coming up tomorrow, better get in bed and get some sleep, so I was in bed the night before at 9 o’clock. I got to the ball park the next morning, and as pitchers do during batting practice, you take your time getting dressed because there’s no hurry to get out on the field You’re not going to shag flies or anything. So I’m taking my time getting dressed and all of a sudden, McCarthy comes up from behind and puts his hands on my shoulders. He says, ‘Kid, I’ve changed my mind. I’m going with the righthander instead of the lefthander today because of the elements.’ The wind was blowing out. [Denny] Galehouse comes in, McCarthy tells him he’s the pitcher, and his facial expression changed completely. It was a shock to him.
The Indians thought it was a deception to catch them off-guard. Even during the first inning, Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau sent a man underneath the stands to see if Parnell was warming up, thinking that McCarthy might be trying to get a left-handed lineup and then come in with Parnell in the second inning. “McCarthy had his mind made up, he played a hunch and it didn’t work. A lot of people said that nobody wanted to pitch it. Hell, we all wanted to pitch it. That was a big game. If you pitch that game and win it, that meant something for you. It was a golden opportunity for whoever got it, to pitch it and win it. If you lost it, nothing would be said about it other than you got beat. But if you won it, it meant a hell of a lot to you.” Galehouse got through the first three innings well enough, but imploded in the fourth, and the Red Sox managed only five hits, losing 8-3.
Parnell pitched even better in 1949, the year that was far and away his best. He won 25 games and lost only seven, with an ERA of 2.77. The 25 wins were one more than the previous Red Sox record by a left-handed pitcher, Babe Ruth’s 24 in 1917. It was built on a heavy workload, just shy of 300 innings. “That was the year that everything worked well,” he summed up. Though Birdie Tebbetts was Boston’s primary catcher, Parnell preferred working with the younger Matt Batts, both in ’49 and ’50. “Birdie was getting on in age and his arm wasn’t as good as in his heyday. With a runner on first base, Birdie became a fastball catcher just in case the runner was running. Matt Batts was different. He was calling whatever pitches were working best for me. I figured I had a lot more working for me, working with Batts than working with Birdie.”
Like the year before, 1949 came right down to the very last day of the season. The Red Sox traveled to New York that last weekend needing to win either one of the final two games to take the flag. Parnell pitched the first of the two, the Saturday game. The Red Sox had a 4-0 lead after three innings, but Joe DiMaggio’s ground-rule double started a two-run rally in the fourth, and three straight singles brought the Yankees to 4-3 and drove Parnell from the game. Joe Dobson closed the gate, but another run scored in the process, tying the game. The Yankees won it in the eighth on Johnny Lindell’s home run, and won the Sunday game, too.
Oddly, Parnell walked more batters than he struck out both years, and his 134 walks in 1949 set a Red Sox record. He ascribes the high walk totals to Fenway’s short left-field fence and having to pitch very carefully, and the lack of foul territory. “I wanted to make them hit my pitch, not get his pitch to hit. I pitched a lot inside to right-hand hitters at Fenway, which lefthanders wouldn’t do. I pitched a little different ball game at Fenway than I did on the road. I wasn’t a power pitcher. I tried to make the hitter hit my pitches. And I kept the ball in the lower part of the strike zone. The lack of foul territory at Fenway Park was even more important. Any foul ball has a good chance of going into the seats, so you lose a lot of outs. You would get outs in other ballparks, where the hitter is getting another swing of the bat at you in Fenway.”
In 1950, the Red Sox scored a ton of runs – 1,002 runs to the 804 scored by their opponents. The team won 94 games but wound up in third place, four games out of first. Parnell appeared in a career-high 40 games and had the best ERA of any Sox pitcher, 3.61. He put up an 18-10 record, with 31 starts and nine relief appearances, throwing 249 innings — second only to the 295⅓ innings he threw in 1949.
In 1951, Parnell was a very good 18-11 (3.26), despite a team that fell apart in September, but he really flattened out in 1952 (12-12, 3.62). The year started out well, with a three-hit Opening Day shutout of the Washington Senators, but he was severely hampered by bursitis. A couple of weeks off beginning in late June helped. He was 12-8 after the first week of September, but lost three in a row — even to the Senators, whom he had beaten 17 consecutive games before a September 20 loss. He did hit his only major-league home run, though, on September 15, a fifth-inning solo homer off Lou Kretlow in Comiskey Park.
His last really good season was 1953, when he posted a record of 21-8 with a 3.06 ERA. One thing Red Sox fans savor in Parnell’s 1953 season — he shut out the Yankees four times. Parnell appeared in only half as many games in 1954, though, when he was hit in the left arm by his former roommate Maury McDermott. They were pitching against each other in Washington and planned to have dinner together after the game, but one of McDermott’s pitches sailed in and Parnell threw up his arm to protect himself. It hit him in the wrist and broke the ulna bone. That accident hastened the end of his career. “Lou Boudreau was the manager and Boudreau kept trying to get me back into action much quicker than I should have. I think for that reason, my arm never really developed to the point that it should have. I came back too soon.” Parnell’s record in 1954 was a very disappointing 3-7, though his ERA wasn’t all that bad at 3.70. The Red Sox team was pretty poor, too, winning just 69 games and losing 85, finishing 42 games out of first place.
He pitched only 46 innings in 1955 (2-3, 7.83). He fought his way through those seasons, and then rebounded a bit in 1956, his last year as a major-league pitcher, with a 7-6 record and a 3.77 ERA. It was in that final year, on July 14, that he threw his 4-0 no-hitter against the White Sox, the first Red Sox no-hitter since Howard Ehmke’s in 1923. “The no-hitter was naturally the thing you dream of, but never expect it to happen. From the seventh inning on, every out that was made, the fans are jumping up and yelling. My right fielder, Jackie Jensen, comes to me in the seventh inning, he says, ‘Look, fellow, you’re going on a no-hitter. Don’t let them hit the ball to me in right field. I don’t want to be the guy to mess it up for you.’ I said, ‘Jackie, forget it. All I’m looking for is a win.’ The final out was hit back to me. Walter Dropo was with Chicago, an ex-teammate. Dropo hit this ball to the first base side of the mound. I came down off the mound, caught the ball, ran to first base, and made the play unassisted. When I get to first base, Mickey Vernon, our first baseman, says to me, ‘What’s the matter, fellow? You don’t have confidence in me?’ I said, ‘I’ve got all the confidence in the world in you but I was afraid if I threw it I might throw it away.’”
Mel Parnell’s career ended with an elbow operation to try to fix a torn nerve. He figures today that if the Tommy John surgery had been available to him at that time, he might have had as much as another four or five years in his career, but it was not to be.
After a couple of in-between years, Red Sox farm director Neil Mahoney asked him to manage a team in Alpine, Texas in 1961. It was a team stocked with bonus kids from California, and what he called “a great setup. The ball park was a beautiful ball park. It was a miniature major league ballpark pretty much. They were big money kids. The following season, I went up to York, Pennsylvania in the Eastern League and managed there. The year after that, I went up to Seattle and managed in Seattle. After I got to Seattle, I realized that I was getting tired of that kind of travel and wanted to get home with my family and stay at home. So I retired. After I was home, Curt Gowdy called me and asked me if I would join him in the broadcasting booth, which I did. I regard Curt as one of the greatest.”
Parnell began broadcasting on television in 1965 and worked through a couple of lean years, but was on hand for 1967’s Impossible Dream season. “It was a great experience, really. It was great to see the ball club being a winner. It was a thrill winning it all on the last game of the season, and seeing the fans — how they reacted — was fantastic, I thought. Just a fantastic year. ”
He took an offer to work as a broadcaster in Chicago in 1969, but after the first year didn’t like it there. He tried to get out of the second year of the two-year deal but they wouldn’t let him go, until he found Billy Pierce for them and the station agreed to take Pierce as a substitute. From that point on, Mel remained in New Orleans. He had a deal with Chrysler that allowed them to use his name on an automobile dealership, Mel Parnell Plymouth. He then moved into a completely different field, with a start-up pest control business which he built from scratch, P&T Pest Control. In time, he turned the business over to his sister; she ultimately sold it.
A lifetime .198 batter, his 4-for-4 day on May 23, 1951, was an aberration, though he says with a chuckle, “I had two .300 years. One year, I was a little higher than [Ted] Williams, and I always used to kid him, “Well, Bush, I out-hit you.”
Mel’s wife had worked as a secretary, but after marriage she stayed home to raise their family. The Parnells have three daughters and a son, Mel Jr., an orthopedic surgeon. All four offspring work in the medical field. “My oldest daughter’s a nutritionist. The second oldest daughter’s a nurse anesthetist. The youngest one’s a critical care nurse, who works in intensive care.”
Mel Jr. was always interested in baseball, a left-hand pitcher, too. He played in high school, in Legion ball, in college, but from his freshman year in high school had his heart set on becoming a doctor.
Adversity dogged Parnell in later years. He suffered a stroke, had some heart trouble, beaten back cancer, and got a bad back — on top of which he lost his house and two others he owned to Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, he was well-insured and has taken it all philosophically. As he told the Associated Press in 2005, “It could be worse.”
Only Cy Young, Roger Clemens, and Tim Wakefield won more games for the Boston Red Sox than did Marvelous Mel Parnell, who was voted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 1997. The Red Sox lost one of their all-time greats when Mel Parnell died of cancer in New Orleans on March 20, 2012.
1 Mel Parnell, phone interviews, December 31, 1998, and October 13, 2006. All quotes are from these interviews.