COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Many hitters said Bert Blyleven's curve ball was a gift from God. Depending on your personal theology and where you rank Sandy Koufax and Vin Scully in the religious pantheon, maybe it was.
I went searching for the very first curve Blyleven ever threw, and this is what I found: He does not remember it.
What he vividly recalls, though, is that he was 13 or 14 when he threw that first curve. Definitely no younger.
|Bert Blyleven had 3,701 career strikeouts, thanks in large part to a devastating curveball. (Getty Images)|
To a family from The Netherlands who settled in Southern California when Bert was a youngster and quickly grew to love the Dodgers, that was as good as gospel.
Blyleven, like so many of us, spent much of his youth listening to baseball on the radio. What separated him, though, was that he took the picture of Koufax that Scully painted with words and taught himself what would become one of the game's most lethal weapons.
He was a catcher in Little League, and "I remember Mr. Price, a fireman, was our coach and suggested maybe I get on the mound because I was throwing the ball back to the pitcher harder than he was throwing it to me," Blyleven says. "So he said, 'Do you want to pitch?' And I said, 'Sure, I'll try.' And I fell in love with it.
"And you can ask my sisters, my brother, my mother. I was always throwing the ball against a wall. Always. A block wall, I drew a strike zone with chalk."
When he became a teenager, that's when Koufax and Scully came in. A fastball-changeup pitcher, when Blyleven got serious about throwing a curve, "I started throwing the curve I actually visualized because of what Koufax did with the Dodgers.
"They had the higher mound, the 15-inch mound. It looked like a pyramid. Listening to Vin describe it, and the few games that were on TV back then in the late '60s, I watched. And I watched how Sandy's ball tumbled, like a drop. That's what we called it back then, a drop. That's how I visualized my curveball, a drop. That's what I called it in high school. Even when I signed, I think I had a 12-to-6 drop."
What resulted -- nearly 5,000 big-league innings, the fact that he's fifth on the game's all-time strikeouts list and ninth all-time in shutouts -- came through sheer determination and work.
"I had to find a grip on the baseball where I could utilize all the seams so the curve would snap off," Blyleven says. "It wasn't your typical way to hold a curveball. And I found out later that Koufax held it the same way, across the seams, and also later Bob Feller told me he held it the same way.
"Across the seams. Rather than the seams being on your middle finger's right side, mine were across the seams. And then I put pressure on my middle finger, my thumb and my ring finger. It was on a seam so it would create that tight rotation.
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"In delivery, I thought, 'Fastball, fastball, fastball ... curveball. So I didn't get into that position where I cocked my shoulder too early. So I took a lot of pressure off my shoulder. It was more wrist out front. Throwing a curve, you use more muscles on top of your arm than in your elbow. I made sure my thumb was on top of the ball when I released it. That's the only way I could get the ball to tumble."
Of the thousands of curves Blyleven threw during his 22-year career, two have stayed with him through the years.
In Seattle one night, he broke off a curve to Jim Presley that caused Presley to "run out of the box", Blyleven recalls -- and it was called a strike.
"I remember I got the ball back and I said, 'How the heck did I hold that one?" Blyleven says. "Because it started almost behind him and a pretty good hitter jumped out of the way and the ball ended up over the plate for a strike. And I don't know if I ever threw another one like it."
The only one that maybe compared came when Blyleven was with Pittsburgh and threw a two-strike curve in St. Louis one day to catcher Terry Kennedy, who was a lefty, "and he swung at it at the last second, like he was chopping wood," Blyleven recalls. "Thank goodness it was the last out, because it made everybody laugh, not only on our team, but on their team.
"It was strike three, third out, so I went back to the bench, put a jacket on and looked over at their dugout and they were still laughing at the way he chopped down. I didn't laugh. I never laughed at a hitter."
Until now, the best compliment Blyleven ever received from an opposing hitter came from Don Baylor, who said Blyleven's curve was so filthy you could actually hear the spin on the ball.
Sunday's induction will surpass even that.
And no, until now, he's never gotten a chance to talk curves with Koufax and tell the story of how he developed one of the best ever thrown.
"I can't wait until the Hall of Fame, when I can tell him," Blyleven says. "And that's going to be part of my speech, thanking him for having such a great curveball that I visualized what he did, and it became my curveball."