Donald Mossi, former Tigers pitcher, dies at 90

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Don Mossi pitched for the Tigers from 1959-63. He posted a 59-44 record and a 3.49 ERA over five seasons in Detroit.

Donald Mossi, a crafty left-handed pitcher who pitched five seasons for the Detroit Tigers and whose distinct facial features — notably, his crooked nose and big ears — earned him the nicknames "The Sphinx" and "Ears," died last week. He was 90.

Mossi died Friday in Idaho, where he moved in 2000 to be closer to family, according to his obituary.

He pitched 12 seasons in the major leagues, first with the Cleveland Indians, where he was a member of a staff so remarkable, he was mostly relegated to the bullpen.

The staff in 1954, Mossi's rookie season, featured three future Hall of Famers, including Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, and led Cleveland to the American League pennant. The bullpen had another Hall of Famer, former Tigers great Hal Newhouser.

Mossi was 6-1 with a 1.94 ERA that season, and the entire Indians pitching staff had a 2.78 ERA. He made three relief appearances in that year's World Series, a four-game sweep by the New York Giants, and didn’t allow a run.

He pitched four more seasons for the Indians, eventually cracking the rotation in 1957 when he was an All-Star, before he was back to the bullpen the following season.

Mossi was traded to the Tigers, along with his good friend and roommate, Ray Narleski, in a November 1958 deal that sent Billy Martin to Cleveland.

It was with the Tigers with whom Mossi finally got to be a full-time member of a starting rotation, no questions asked, and he seized the opportunity, going 17-9 with a 3.36 ERA in 1959, 9-8 with a 3.47 ERA in 1960 and 15-7 with a 2.96 ERA in 1961.

The 1961 season was one of the most famous in baseball history, thanks to the home-run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle with the Yankees.

One of the biggest games of that season was Sept. 1 at Yankee Stadium, where the Tigers had come in just 1.5 games out of the first-place Yankees. Mossi was nearly flawless until the ninth inning. Mossi began the frame getting Maris to fly out, then he struck out Mantle.

But Elston Howard then singled, then so did Yogi Berra, before Bill Skowron's RBI single won it for the Yankees.

The Tigers had lost, 1-0, to fall 2.5 games back, despite a seven-strikeout, one-walk performance from Mossi — one of the best strikeout-to-walk-ratio pitchers of his era.

That was the first of eight consecutive losses for the Tigers, who never recovered. Despite winning 101 games, they finished eight back of the eventual World Series-champion Yankees.

During that season, only one of Maris' 61 homers came off Mossi, in 17 plate appearances, and none of Mantle's 54, in 18 plate appearances.

Following the 1961 season, Mossi eventually started experiencing some arm trouble, and he never was quite the same, at least as a starter. He finished his career out of the bullpen for the White Sox (1964) and A's (1965).

For his career, Mossi was 101-80 with a 3.43 ERA, plus 50 saves in an era where few racked up saves. Of his 165 career starts, 55 were complete games. He made just three errors.

Mossi was born Jan. 11, 1929, in St. Helena, California, starred in high school just outside San Francisco, and was married to Eunice Bedford on the diamond at Sam Lynn Ballpark, where he then was playing for the Bakersfield Indians, in 1950.

In retirement, he moved back to California, where he worked multiple jobs, including running multiple motels. According to his obituary, he moved to Idaho in 2000, and stayed active, hunting, camping and gardening.

Mossi's wife preceded him in death in 1995. He is survived by three children, Linda, Donald and Debra, as well as 12 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.

At Mossi's request, no funeral service is planned. There will be a private family gathering in Idaho.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984