October 28th, 2012
Before there could be a Rivera or Gossage or Lyle, there had to be a Joe Page. One of seven children, Page was born on October 28, 1917, the son of a Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania coal-miner. Page began his Yankee career as a starter in 1944 when he won five of his first six decisions and made the AL All Star team as a 27-year-old rookie. Page then hurt his shoulder in a fall while running the bases, kept the injury quiet from Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy and proceeded to lose his final six decisions that season. He was used mostly as a starter the next two seasons with mostly unspectacular results which is why he ended up in the place most under-performing starters ended up back in the forties, the bullpen. But instead of treating his new status as a bullpen pitcher as a demotion, Page seemed to relish it.
By 1947 he had evolved the role into one of baseball’s first great closers, leading the league in games finished for three straight seasons while winning 34 games in the process. When the “save” became an official Major League stat in 1969, baseball historians reviewed old box scores to apply it retroactively and found that Page led the league in saves in both 1947 and ’49, while saving 60 games over that three-season period. Page also appeared in two World Series, winning and saving a game in each Classic, both Yankee victories. After slumping to a 3-7 record in 1950 with an ERA that ballooned to over 5 runs per game, the Yankees released their first-ever ace closer. He tried an unsuccessful comeback with the Pirates a few years later before hanging it up for good.
Page was the first Yankee and first Major League reliever to reach the 20-save mark when he accumulated 27 in 1949. Sparky Lyle was the first Yankee to reach the 30-save mark when he had 35 in 1972. Dave Righetti became the first Yankee to break the 40-save barrier with his 46 in 1986 and the great Mariano Rivera is the only Yankee reliever to save 50 or more games and he’s done it twice, the first time in 2001.