Bert Blyleven: master of the curveball

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2011 - 11:02 AM

Many say Bert Blyleven had the best curveball of his time, and one of the best ever. A legendary voice on the radio taught the future TV personality how to "drop it off the table."

Bert Blyleven is a television man now, but he might owe his Hall of Fame career to the radio.

That's how his father came to love the Dodgers, listening to Vin Scully describe legendary curveball artist Sandy Koufax. And how a young Blyleven dreamed about throwing a Koufax-like curve -- but not before his arm was ready.

"My dad heard Scully interview Koufax one time," Blyleven said. "Sandy said, 'If I ever have a son, I wouldn't let him throw a curveball until he was about 13 or 14 years old.'"

An arthritic left elbow ended Koufax's own Hall of Fame career at age 30, so this advice stuck in Joe Blyleven's mind, as his wiry son began taking to baseball. Bert Blyleven didn't throw the pitch that punched his ticket to Cooperstown -- didn't even tinker with it -- until he was 13.

"I didn't want my dad to knock my head off, " Blyleven said. "He straightened bumpers for a living."

Joe Blyleven had moved the family from the Netherlands to Canada when Bert was 2, before landing in Southern California a few years later. Soon, he turned a backyard horseshoe pit into a bullpen for his son. The younger Blyleven honed his meticulous control from a homemade mound, aiming at a strike zone on a canvas sheet.

When he was finally ready, nobody needed to teach Blyleven the curveball. Koufax and Scully took care of that.

"I used a lot of visualization the way that Vin Scully described Koufax's curve," Blyleven said. "I didn't think curveball, I tried to create that drop because that's the way Scully described it -- dropping off a table."

Blyleven said his curve didn't really develop until sometime between his sophomore and junior year at Santiago High School in Garden Grove, Calif. Scouts took notice, and the Twins made him their third-round pick in the 1969 draft.

By 1970, at age 19, he was in the majors. By 1992, his final season, he had 3,701 strikeouts, which ranks fifth all time.

"He had one of the top three or four curveballs in the history of the game," said Jim Fregosi, who played in the majors from 1961-1978 and managed for 15 more seasons before becoming a scout. "Camilo Pascual's on that list, too."

Pascual led the American League in strikeouts from 1961 to 1963 while pitching for the Twins. It's been said that Pasqual had the best curveball of his time, passing the baton to Koufax, who passed it to Blyleven. Nolan Ryan also had a tremendous curve, but what set Blyleven's apart?

"The wonderful rotation, and the quickness of the break," said White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone, who won the 1980 Cy Young Award for Baltimore. "His curveball spun better than most of his contemporaries'. The break was very sharp. He was pretty tough to read, and he had pretty good pitches to go with it. You throw 60 [career] shutouts, it's not going to be all curveballs."

Blyleven actually was a two-pitch pitcher for most of his career, relying on fastballs and curves. Of course, there were variations of each. He threw what he called a "strike one curve" in any count and a "strikeout curve" that dived for the dirt, designed to get a swing and a miss.

Over time, he learned to alter his arm angle slightly for more variety and throw his curve at different velocities. A big key to his deception was using the same arm speed for every pitch. The curve's magic was all in the grip.

"With his hands and wrist, he could throw that thing without any seams, and it would curve," former Cleveland manager Pat Corrales once told Sports Illustrated.

When Blyleven pitched for the Indians, Hall of Famer Bob Feller asked how he gripped his curve. Blyleven showed him the unique way he held two fingers across the seams, and the way he tucked his thumb underneath the ball for extra torque.

Feller told him he did the same thing, saying the only other pitcher he'd met who'd gripped his curve that way was Koufax.

Blyleven has met Koufax only one time, a brief encounter at a charity event. They shook hands and Blyleven remembers how long Koufax's fingers seemed, confirming what he'd always heard.

"I've never talked to Sandy about the curveball," Blyleven said. "Hopefully, I'll get a chance in Cooperstown."

Bert Blyleven is a television man now, but he might owe his Hall of Fame career to the radio. That's how his father came to love the Dodgers, listening to Vin Scully describe the legendary curveball artist Sandy Koufax. And how a young Blyleven dreamed about throwing a Koufax-like curve -- but not before his arm was ready. "My dad heard Scully interview Koufax one time," Blyleven said. "Sandy said, 'If I ever have a son, I wouldn't let him throw a curveball until he was about 13 or 14 years old.'" An arthritic left elbow ended Koufax's own Hall of Fame career at age 30, so this advice stuck in Joe Blyleven's mind, as his wiry son began taking to baseball. Bert Blyleven didn't throw the pitch that punched his ticket to Cooperstown -- didn't even tinker with it -- until he was 13. "I didn't want my dad to knock my head off." Blyleven said. "He straightened bumpers for a living." Joe Blyleven had moved the family from the Netherlands to Canada when Bert was 2, before landing in Southern California a few years later. Soon, Joe Blyleven turned a backyard horseshoe pit into a bullpen for his son. The younger Blyleven honed his meticulous control from a homemade mound, aiming at a strike zone on a canvas sheet. When he was finally ready, nobody needed to teach Blyleven the curveball. Koufax and Scully took care of that. "I used a lot of visualization the way that Vin Scully described Koufax's curve," Blyleven said. "I didn't think curveball, I tried to create that drop because that's the way Scully described it -- dropping off a table." Blyleven said his curve didn't really develop until sometime between his sophomore and junior year at Santiago High School in Garden Grove, Calif. Scouts took notice, and the Twins made him their third-round pick in the 1969 draft. By 1970, at age 19, he was in the majors. By 1992, his final season, he had 3,701 strikeouts, which ranks fifth on baseball's all-time list. "He had one of the top three or four curveballs in the history of the game," said Jim Fregosi, who played in the majors from 1961-1978 and managed for 15 more seasons before becoming a scout. "Camilo Pasqual's on that list, too." Pasqual led the American League in strikeouts from 1961 to 1963 while pitching for the Twins. It's been said that Pasqual had the best curveball of his time, passing the baton to Koufax, who passed it to Blyleven. Nolan Ryan also had a tremendous curve, but what set Blyleven's apart? "The wonderful rotation, and the quickness of the break," said White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone, who won the 1980 Cy Young Award for Baltimore. "His curveball spun better than most of his contemporaries'. The break was very sharp. He was pretty tough to read, and he had pretty good pitches to go with it. You throw 60 [career] shutouts, it's not going to be all curveballs." Blyleven actually was a two-pitch pitcher for most of his career, relying on fastballs and curves. Of course, there were variations of each. He threw what he called a "Strike One Curve," in any count and a "Strikeout Curve" that dove for the dirt, designed to get a swing and miss. Over time, he learned to alter his arm angle slightly for more variety and throw his curve at different velocities. A big key to his deception was using the same arm speed for every pitch. The curve's magic was all in the grip. "With his hands and wrist, he could throw that thing without any seams, and it would curve," former Cleveland manager Pat Corrales once told Sports Illustrated. When Blyleven pitched for the Indians, Hall of Famer Bob Feller asked how he gripped his curve. Blyleven showed him the unique way he held two fingers across the seams, and the way he tucked his thumb underneath the ball for extra torque. Feller told him he did the same thing, saying the only other pitcher he'd met who'd gripped his curve that way was Koufax. Blyleven has met Koufax only one time, a brief encounter at a charity event. They shook hands and Blyleven remembers how long Koufax's fingers seemed, confirming what he'd always heard. "I've never talked to Sandy about the curveball," Blyleven said. "Hopefully, I'll get a chance in Cooperstown."
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