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Remembering Luis Arroyo: An All-Star reliever ahead of his time

The two-time All-Star was a relief ace and the unsung hero of the 1961 World Series champions.

1963 Topps

The closer is someone baseball fans might take for granted these days. For most of organized baseball's first century, starting pitchers simply completed what they began. Every other start or so, there would be an available relief pitcher who could pick up the slack, but normal relievers were not that common. Lefty Luis Arroyo, who passed away at age 88 last Wednesday after a bout of cancer, helped make them common.

The Yankees have always been pioneers of relief pitching though. Back in the 1930s, Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy deployed a so-so righthanded starter named Johnny Murphy frequently out of the bullpen to assist Lefty Gomez, and he became one of the first modern relief pitchers. Over the next few decades more managers followed suit, tabbing other pitchers for the bullpen, like Joe Page and Jim Konstanty, who found more success in relief than in the rotation.

Arroyo was another superb pioneer in this line of proto-closers. Born on February 18, 1927 in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico to the family of a laborer on a sugarcane plantation, pitching in the major leagues was just a dream. After all, no one from the island had after pitched at the big league level. However, the year that "Tite" (as he was known) turned 15, history was made as Hiram Bithorn, a native of Santurce, became the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues when he took the mound for the Chicago Cubs on April 15, 1942. Bithorn not only appeared; he excelled, leading the National League in shutouts the following season and recording a 2.60 ERA in 249 2/3 innings.

Making the major leagues was still a long shot though. Arroyo earned fame in Puerto Rico for his excellence both with amateur teams and the professional Ponce Leones. On a trip to Florida in 1948, the president of Coastal Plain League's Greenville Greenies took notice and offered the 21-year-old a contract. He came to the United States and before long, a major league club came calling: the St. Louis Cardinals. They saw how he baffled hitters in the minors, even throwing a no-hitter at one point, and he joined their impressive system.

For the next five seasons, Arroyo toiled away in Columbus, Rochester, and Houston waiting for his shot at the big leagues. He had to spend a couple years in the Dominican Republic too, as he developed arm trouble and could only pitch winter league ball for a time. At last though, on April 20, 1955, Arroyo became just the 11th Puerto Rican-born player in major league history, just three days after his most famous fellow countryman, Roberto Clemente, became the 10th.

In his first taste of major league ball, "Tite" dominated, notching a 2.44 ERA, eight complete games, and a shutout in the first half. NL All-Star manager Leo Durocher was impressed enough to make Arroyo and pitcher Vic Power the very first Puerto Rican-born All-Stars. For awhile, it looked like that milestone would be the only footnote worth remembering about Arroyo. He struggled badly down the stretch and did not fare much better for the Pirates when he was dealt to Pittsburgh early the next season. He was transitioned to the bullpen, demoted to the minors, traded to the Reds, and failed to build much momentum despite a decent 10-game cameo with Cincinnati in '59.

However, a 1.15 ERA season in the minors in '59 and a superb winter in San Juan showed that Arroyo wasn't quite finished yet. He continued to excel for the Havana Sugar Kings in Cuba. The team had to quickly move up to the States and Jersey City when Fidel Castro took over private industries, but that only brought him closer to his future home. The Yankees had been watching, and they purchased him from the Reds on July 20, 1960. He was the first Puerto Rican to ever play for them.

The 33-year-old Arroyo was a revelation for Casey Stengel; since Ryne Duren's collapse, he had been desperately seeking someone to stabilize the bullpen beyond veteran Bobby Shantz. American League hitters struggled with Arroyo's screwball, which dipped out of the batters' eyes at the last moment, leading to either strikeouts or very weak contact. He had a 2.88 ERA in 29 games down the stretch, helping the Yankees win the AL pennant. His old friend Clemente and the Pirates shocked them to win the World Series in seven games. The next year would be one to remember.

Arroyo was back for more in spring training of '61 after another strong year in San Juan. He missed a month due to a freak line drive that broke his wrist, but when he made his season debut on April 20th, he embarked on one of the most successful relief years in franchise history. He had a 2.19 ERA in a league-best 65 games and 54 games finished while recording an impressive 119 innings out of the bullpen. Although saves were not an official statistic yet, he led the league in that category too, saving 29 games. His efforts earned him another All-Star appearance and even a sixth-place finish for AL MVP. The World Series offered sweet revenge, as the team that gave up on Arroyo, the Reds, lost to the Yankees in five games while Arroyo record a 2.25 ERA and a victory.

The Yankees had one of their best teams ever in 1961, paced by Roger Maris's record-breaking 61 homers and Mickey Mantle's 54. Even beyond the "M&M Boys," they were a mashing club, also setting a major league record with 240 homers as a team, one that lasted 35 years. Arroyo was also a huge part of their success though, and he teamed up with ace Whitey Ford to create a formidable tandem that baffled the opposition. Ford won the only Cy Young Award of his career that year thanks in large part to Arroyo saving 13 of his 25 victories. In his book Pinstripe Empire, Marty Appel told a couple great stories about their friendship:

[Arroyo] was there so often to save Ford, it brought back memories of Gomez-Murphy, and Whitey loved it. On Whitey Ford Day, held on September 9, Arroyo was driven in from the bullpen under a giant Life Savers package to everyone's amusement. Thirty-nine years later, at a second Whitey Ford Day, Arroyo was there again. Ford hadn't seen him in many years, and Whitey had tears in his eyes as they embraced. He loved Looie.

The good times would not survive much longer for Arroyo though. A not-so-well conditioned off-season led to more arm troubles, particularly with the elbow, and he was ineffective in 27 games for the '62 Yankees. He didn't pitch once in the World Series, though he did earn his second ring when they took down the Giants in seven games. Arroyo only made six more career appearances before being demoted to the minors.

Not long after the end of Arroyo's career, the modern reliever became more common. Everyone wanted their own "fireman," their own relief ace. A contemporary of Arroyo's, knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, became the first reliever to make the Hall of Fame. In the decades after Arroyo retired, Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage began Hall of Fame careers of their owns, and soon, the modern reliever was born. Arroyo helped make that happen.

Once his career ended, Arroyo became a Yankees scout for just about the duration of his life. While he was a regular at Old-Timers' Days, he also helped foster the game in a number of different Spanish-speaking locales, with Puerto Rico just being one of many. Thanks in large part to Arroyo's efforts with both the Yankees' scouting team and baseball in general, a new generation of Puerto Rican talent flourished, like Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, sluggers Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran, and of course, Yankee legends Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada.

Although Arroyo is no longer with us, his presence continued to be felt in 2015 as Puerto Rican-born rookies Carlos Correa and Francisco took the AL by storm, finishing in the top two slots for Rookie of the Year. Arroyo was truly an important figure in the history of Puerto Rican baseball, and his work both in the bullpen and his homeland will be deeply missed.

Rest well, Tite.