“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
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 (1,752 2/3). 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. 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.’
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.” 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 Pennock weren’t the only ones following him. He was perhaps wise not to take the first offer.
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. 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. 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. 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 (50 2/3 innings) and struggled, with a 6.35 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. Joe McCarthy was the manager in 1948. 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. There were no large coaching staffs in his day, nothing in the way of even moderately sophisticated training programs. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 295 1/3 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. 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. 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. 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. "
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.