Mel Parnell, winningest left-hander in Boston Red Sox history, dies

Mel Parnell is number three on the Boston Red Sox career wins list. (Getty Images)

Mel Parnell, a two-time All-Star (1949, ’51) who tossed the 11th no-hitter in Red Sox history, died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 89. Parnell played his entire 10-year career (1947-56) with Boston. He is the franchise all-time leader in wins by a southpaw with 123, and fourth all-time in wins overall behind Cy Young, Roger Clemens and Tim Wakefield. Twice, he was a 20-game winner (1949, ’51). Lifetime, Parnell had a 123-75 record with a 3.50 ERA in 289 games (232 starts). After retiring, he was also a minor league manager and broadcaster.

Melvin Lloyd Parnell was born on June 13, 1922, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Initially a pitcher at S.J. Peter’s High School, Parnell’s coach Al Kreider converted him into a pitcher. At one high school game in Behrman, Parnell struck out 17 batters in a 5-0 win. The win convinced Red Sox scout Ed Montague to make Parnell an offer, and Mel signed a $90-a-month contract.

Parnell pitched two years of minor league ball before World War II put his career on hold. In 1941, he had a 4-4 record (4.12 ERA) with Class D Centreville, and in 1942 he improved to 16-9 (1.59 ERA) with Class C Canton. Serving in the Army Air Corps from 1943-1945, Parnell participated all over the South against other teams in the service, winning the Eastern Flying Training Command Championship. He returned to pro ball in 1946, posting a 13-4 record for Class A Scranton with an impressive 1.30 ERA in 21 games (18 of which were starts).

Parnell posted a 0-2 record with triple-A Louisville in 1947, before being called up to the big leagues. He made his major league debut with the Red Sox on April 20, 1947. Making the start, Parnell took the 3-1 loss to the Washington Senators. He tossed seven frames, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits, while walking one, and striking out two. On the season, Mel went 2-3 with a 6.39 ERA.

Although his teams came close, Parnell never pitched in the World Series. After finishing in third place in 1947, the Sox nearly won the pennant the following two seasons. In 1948, Parnell was part of a staff with three 15-game winners: Jack Kramer finished 18-5 (4.35), Joe Dobson went 16-10 (3.56), while Parnell had a 15-8 record and led the staff in ERA (3.14). Boasting the “Teammates” in Ted Williams, Bobby Doer, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky, the Red Sox tied the Cleveland Indians and played a one-game playoff at Fenway to determine the pennant. Manager Joe McCarthy opted to go with 8-8 right-hander Denny Galehouse, and the Indians won the game, 8-3.

1949 was a career-year for Parnell, who for the first time was a 20-game winner, going 25-7, with a miniscule 2.77 ERA. He led the league in wins (25), complete games (27), innings pitched (295.1), HR/9 (0.2) and WAR (8). He finished fourth in MVP voting, while starting the ‘49 All-Star game. In the mid-summer classic, he allowed three hits and three runs (including a two-run homer by Stan Musial) in one inning of work.

The team fell short again in ’49, as the Sox held a one-game lead over the Yankees with two remaining. Pitching at Yankee Stadium in game one, Parnell was unable to hold a 4-0 lead and was pulled after four-plus innings of work with the game tied at four. The Yankees won the game, 5-4 on a Johnny Lindell homer. They clinched the AL Flag with a 5-3 win in game two.

“It sure would have been nice to have a pennant race every year like we did in 1949”, Parnell said. “That was a golden era for the game.  That’s what baseball was all about.”

Parnell won 18 games the following two seasons, and was a 20-game winner again in 1953. He went 21-8 with a 3.06 ERA, while leading the American league in walks (116). In the ’53 All-Star Game, Parnell pitched one inning, allowing three hits and one run on a home run by Ralph Kiner.

In 1954, he broke his left arm on a pitch by Mickey McDermott of the Washington Senators, and his career was never the same again. Between 1954 and ’55, Parnell was just 5-10. His ERA rose to 7.83 the latter season.

Parnell’s last hurrah as a player came on July 14, 1956, when he threw a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park. In a 4-0 Sox win, Parnell faced 28 batters, walking two, and striking out four. It was the 11th no-hitter in team history and the first since 1923. Lifetime, Parnell was a dominant 71-30 at the Fens.

“That was definitely my favorite moment,” he said. “Pitchers always dream of it but rarely experience the thrill of a no-hitter. I was on cloud nine.”

Following his retirement in 1956, Parnell managed four years in the minors, including three in the Red Sox organization. He managed Tulane University in 1958 and his hometown New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association in 1959.  He later did television and radio work for the Red Sox between 1965-’68. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 1997. Parnell is also in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Parnell is part of Fenway Lore for a reason other than his no-hitter. According to Johnny Pesky, it was Parnell who first coined the term “Pesky Pole” for the pole in right field. During a broadcast with Ken Coleman and Ned Martin, Pesky claimed in 2002, Mel discussed a game in which Johnny won it by a hitting a home run around the pole in right. “The fact of the matter is that the phrase really didn’t become popular until the late 1980s or early 1990s.” Pesky hit only six home runs at Fenway Park his entire 10-year career, and only one came on a day that Parnell pitched … in the first inning.

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