By: Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
“Of all time, you mean?’’ asked the man on the other end of the phone line.
“Yes, you’re the oldest living, former Expos’ player going back to when they started in 1969,’’ I told him.
“Huh,’’ the man said, very much appreciative but a little disbelieving of what he was hearing.
On April 3, 1969, one of the greatest relief pitchers in baseball history with the Pittsburgh Pirates was released by the Detroit Tigers late in spring training so he went home to North Versailles, Pa.
Not long after he got home to go golf and take up carpentry work, he went to New York City for a visit. While he was there, Elroy Face received a phone call from Pittsburgh writer and close friend Charley Feeney.
Face and Feeney had struck up a trusting friendship that started in 1966 when Feeney became a beat writer covering Face and the Pirates for the Post-Gazette. It was a friendship that lasted until Feeney died in 2014. Both lived in North Versailles about a 20-minute drive from Pittsburgh.
So on the line to New York from Pittsburgh was story-breaking Feeney, who had been kept aware of Face’s whereabouts because of his friendship with the player. The Pirates and Expos didn’t know where Face was but Feeney knew.
Feeney had the scoop in the paper that Montreal was looking for Face and at the same time, Feeney was telling Face that Expos manager Gene Mauch was interested in working him out at Forbes Field.
As soon as he could, Face was on a plane back to Pittsburgh. The date, as reported by baseball-reference.com in a story done years ago, was April 27.
“I came into the ball park and threw for Mauch,’’ Face recalled. “I threw just a few pitches in the bullpen and he said, ‘I can use you in my bullpen.’ I was happy to go with Montreal. It still kept me in baseball. It was a new experience, a new ball club.’’
So for what he recalled was a salary of about $20,000, Face suited up with uniform No. 14, not the 26 he wore for close to 15 seasons for the Pirates but a digit the Expos gave him because Bill Stoneman was already wearing 26.
“14 was a favourite number of the franchise,’’ Face remembered. “Good things happened, everything seem to happen on the 14th. It was considered their good luck charm. They thought it was a special number, a lucky one. I think they got the okay to become a major-league team on the 14th.’’
As we looked back and researched, Face was right on. After Charles Bronfman agreed to pony up and take financial control of Montreal’s team, the franchise officially became a member of the National League on Aug. 14, 1968.
And on a further note, the Expos participated in their first expansion draft on Oct. 14, 1968. So how’s that for trivia?
According to retrosheet.org, Face’s first appearance with the Expos was April 29 and his first win came May 1 against the Mets when he entered the game in the seventh inning to work two and a third innings after taking over from Stoneman.
There was even one game where Face came on in relief in the very first inning and he did his job, getting the Expos out of a bases-loaded jam. Next thing you know, Mauch lifted him for a pinch hitter. This was an anecdote Face volunteered to tell.
“Know what I just did?’’ Mauch said to Face, as Face told the story. “You’re as good to me saving a game in the first inning as you are late in the game.’’
Face went on to post a 4-2 record in 44 games for the Expos, posted a 3.94 ERA in 59.1 innings and saved five games before he got some bad news on what was believed to be Aug. 20, although the exact date isn’t known for sure. What is known by checking baseball-reference.com is that Face’s last game with the Expos and in the majors was Aug. 15, which ironically was the date of teammate Dick Radatz’s last game with Montreal.
By looking at Retrosheet again, it was noted that Face gave up solo homers to Andy Kosko and Bill Sudakis of the Dodgers in two innings of work in that last game Montreal lost 9-2.
“I’ll tell you what happened,’’ Face told this writer. “Mauch called me into his office. I was 41 years old, the oldest player on the club. Mauch said they wanted to bring young pitchers up to look at.
“Mauch asked me if I wanted to retire or be released. I said I wanted to be released. If I retired, I would get no money. By being released, they would have to pay me until the end of the season.
“It was fine with me. I was old. I wasn’t 30 or 35 years old. I was on my way down. I had 16 years in the big leagues. I figured these kids got to get up here to the big leagues some time.’’
So Face headed back home to North Versailles, took up carpentry for the remainder of the year and spent more time golfing. The following season, he hooked up briefly with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders. Then, he hung up his spikes to be a carpenter full-time, retiring as a maintenance foreman from the now-defunct Mayview State Hospital near Bridgeville, Pa.
It just so happened that the year Face left the Expos and the majors was the year the save was officially approved as a statistic but he had been a relief gem of his era for years prior to that.
“My best memory of Elroy is that he was the best reliever in baseball at the time and he should be in the Hall of Fame because for 10-15 years, he was the best in baseball,’’ said 1969 teammate and Quebec native Claude Raymond. “To me, he was the best relief pitcher I met or saw.
“He had the best forkball I saw in those days. I remember that year before I got to the Expos, I was with Atlanta and Elroy gave up a two-run homer to Tito Francona in the 12th inning on May 16. I got the win.
“Before I got to the Expos, I’d run into Elroy a couple of times and I’d ask him how he threw the forkball. The forkball became a good tool for me. I didn’t use it a lot but in key situations. That was my change-up. He had the best forkball in the world. He was such a nice guy, too.’’
There may be others but with research I conducted, Face, Raymond, Radatz and Lee Smith all recorded their last saves with the Expos. Just another trivia item.
Face is best remembered for his glitzy 18-1 season in 1959 when he won 17 in a row. This all fashioned by a pint-sized, 5-foot-8 pitcher, a self-taught forkballer, who weighed all of about 155 pounds and sometimes only 145 when the sweat and grind of a long season took its toll.
“Everything went my way that year,’’ Face said. “I actually had won 22 in a row. I won the last five games of the previous season. I went 96 games without a loss.’’
Biggest memory in baseball for Face?
“Probably the 1960 World Series,’’ he said. “I saved three games. It’s the only time in baseball history that a player from the losing team in the World Series was voted most valuable player.’’
Without trying to toot his horn too much, Face thought he should have been the MVP.
“It was a bit disappointing. The winner gets a new Corvette,’’ Face said. “A lot of the writers were from New York so they voted for Bobby Richardson.’’
Remarkably at age 88, Face has stayed healthy over the years and lives in an apartment on his own in North Versailles. He told me he gets a major-league pension of $2,500 a month and that is supplemented by social security funds, his work pension from the hospital and a state pension.
“Baseball did top up some pension money over the years but they never went back to the 1950s and 1960s,’’ Face said.
Face’s vision is fine, his hearing next to excellent as I found out on the phone. I wasn’t too sure what to expect of his hearing or the sound of his voice before I called him for an interview arranged by Pirates publicist Jim Trdinich. But he sounds like a man in his 70s, not late 80s.
“My health is pretty good. I’m taking no medication and I golf three or four times a week,’’ he said. “Nobody believes my age. I have to show them my driver’s licence. I don’t get many requests for interviews, not too many anymore. People probably think I’m not in good health.’’
But Face sure is bombarded with a lot of requests for autographs. His mail box is never empty.
“I get three or four requests a day on average,’’ Face said, as a pile of fan mail looked up at him. “On occasion, I get requests for Expos’ autographs.’’
One of those requests came from me and Face said he would send me a card of him in an Expos’ uniform with his autograph. I sent him a small cheque to cover the cost of mailing.
“I didn’t have an Expos’ card from that year but I had 8x10 photos,’’ Face said. “I had a card made up. I had a neighbour, who was a printer and he had them made up. It didn’t cost much.’’
Face’s legacy is that he was the pioneer of modern-day relief pitching with the Pirates but his short time with the Expos will never be forgotten.