Saturday, November 15, 2003

Ryne Duren: One Day at a Time by Tim Hinely

Baseball and alcohol have always seemed to go hand in hand (at least as much as football and alcohol) and baseball has always had its share of drunks, guys who liked to tip more than a few back during their careers. Mickey Mantle was said to be sloshed on many an occasion while wearing the Yankee’s pinstripes. Old-time slugger Hack Wilson was said to be someone you wouldn’t wanna be around while he was hoisting a brewski and the same with Albert “Mr. Happy” Belle. In 1985 Sam McDowell called himself “the biggest, most hopeless, and most violent drunk in all of baseball.” Then there’s Bob Welch and Darryl Strawberry...well, we don’t even wanna get into those guys.

But what about Ryne Duren? Rinold George Duren Jr.? Who’s Ryne Duren, you say? Well, ol’ Ryne was probably baseball’s biggest AND most hopeless drunk (no, fuck you Sam). Duren’s career last for 11 years (from 1954-1965) and in that time span he played for seven different teams but perhaps his most prominent years were with the New York Yankees from 1958-1961.

For starters, the few photos I’ve seen of Duren made him look like nothing more than a reject from Revenge of the Nerds on a truly bad bender. He didn’t have the brash good looks of a Mantle or a Yogi Berra (snick snick) but what Duren lacked in Mel Gibson-ish looks he more than made up for in his fastball. Duren was known as baseball’s first “truly frightening power reliever.” He wore these thick coke-bottle glasses, probably couldn’t see a damn thing when he was straight, much less schnockered and this guy threw wall to wall heat. Rumor has it Mantle told him he was the fastest ever and even an authority as uh, knowledgeable as Tony Kubek said Duren tossed the ball faster than the Texas Tornado, Nolan Ryan (and Duren’s 87 strikeouts in 76 innings in 1958 and 96 strikeouts in 77 innings in 1959 is no small feat).

But alas, the powers that be in the office of the Yankees decided it was time to get rid of ol’ Ryne after the 1961 season. His game was falling off, his arm seemed to be losing strength, and, as Duren himself puts it, “By that time I was boozing quite a bit and my body was beginning to deteriorate. That’s why the Yankees got rid of me in 1961.” Well, there you have it. But this is no case of a guy quietly exiting the majors for comfy/pickled retirement years of lazing in the Lazy Boy. The life of hell was just beginning for Ryne Duren.

It all came down to self-esteem and Duren had none of it. “All I wanted out of life was for people to like me,” he once said. One time, while trying to impress Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, Duren got so loaded that both Mick and Ford came over to him and told him he couldn’t handle his liquor and to stop it. So completely hurt and embarrassed by this episode, Duren began to drink all by himself. Back in those days the apparent method of alcohol “rehab” was to trade the lush to another team. And this happened to Duren five more times from 1961-1965.

After hearing how hopeless of a drunk Duren was no team in baseball wanted him and a week after he tried to jump off a bridge he was out of baseball for good. From this point on Duren tried too many self-destructive acts to mention. He passed out with a cigarette and burned his house down. He zonked out while driving and slammed into another car. He blacked out one time and awoke face down in a swimming pool. He eventually was arrested for drunk driving and then, his wife left him.

On New Year’s Eve in 1965 he tried to cash in his own chips once again by parking his car on a railroad track in San Antonio, Texas. He sat there hoping to get creamed by the locomotive but instead the cops came and arrested him before the train could plow him down. If it wasn’t for bad luck, Duren would have had no luck at all. After that incident he hung around with the bums for a while before checking himself into the San Antonio State Mental Hospital. After 82 days there drying out with tranquilizers he went on the wagon for nearly a year, but didn’t have the strength to stay sober.

After a stint at the DePaul Rehabilitation Hospital he tried to kill himself a third time by sitting in a Milwaukee motel room for ten days and attempting to drink himself to death. After lapsing in and out of consciousness for a week, a stroke of better judgment came to him. As Duren puts it, “As a human being I was one big mess,” he said, “But I felt helpless to do anything about it.”

After a few more false starts at sobriety Duren was finally able to make it work with his third try at rehab. Duren finally stopped drinking in May of 1968 and since then he has devoted his life to helping professional and college athletes deal with alcohol and drug problems. In 1972 he became director of the alcohol rehab program at the Stoughton Community Hospital in Wisconsin and he even married a nurse he met there. He worked at that program until 1980. Since then he has written three books about his life, career and comeback from alcoholism (the same disease that apparently killed Mantle).

Today Duren, 73, still lives in his native Wisconsin and still works as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor. He works with a group called Winning Beyond Winning which is a group of ex-athletes helping people prevent the kind of life he (and many others in pro sports) have experienced.

Author’s note: Some of the information from this article came from a book called Baseball Babylon by Dan Gutman and two Internet articles on baseball; one by Chris Olds (entitled “One Baseball Card Can Reveal a lot From the Past”) and one by ESPN’s Rob Neyer (entitled “Loose Cannons Sometimes Go Astray”).

Tim Hinely loves the Pittsburgh Pirates and lives in Portland, Oregon. He has been publishing his own zine, Dagger, for several years now. Send him $3.50 to see a copy to: PO Box 820102 Portland, OR 97282-1102 or write at:

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