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Ashway: Iron Mike Marshall, too smart for baseball’s good
Denton Ashway

Mike Marshall was one of those wonderful curmudgeons who steadfastly marched to the beat of his own drummer.

In this era of ever-increasing mollycoddling of pitchers, Marshall’s records become more stunning with each passing arm injury.

Marshall passed away last Monday in hospice care in Zephyrhills, Florida. He was 78. No cause was divulged.

In 1974, Marshall became the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. The numbers he put up that year were amazing. By today’s standards, they are downright unbelievable.

That year, Marshall appeared in 106 games for the NL champion Dodgers, still a record for appearances in a season by a pitcher. But that’s just the first mind-boggling number. He finished 83 games, saving 21. His record was 15-12, with a 2.42 ERA.

In one stretch, he pitched in 13 consecutive games. He once pitched four innings one day and came back the next to pitch another inning. Today, pitching four innings gets you four days off to recover.

In his only postseason appearances, he pitched in two games in the NLCS, and all five games in the World Series, allowing only one run in 12 innings. He saved the Dodgers’ only World Series win by picking pinch-runner supreme Herb Washington off first base.

Here’s another mind-boggling stat: he pitched 208 1/3 innings in 1974. In 2019, only six pitchers threw more innings. All starters, of course. In 2018, the number was five. In 2017, only two. Chris Sale of the Red Sox led the majors with 214 1/3 innings pitched. Sale had shoulder inflammation in 2018, elbow inflammation in 2019, and Tommy John surgery in 2020.

Marshall also holds the American League record for most appearances in a season, 90 with the ’79 Twins. That was one of three seasons in which Marshall logged over 90 appearances. Only five other pitchers have appeared in 90 games once. The last to do so, Pedro Feliciano of the Mets in 2010 pitched only 62 2/3 innings.

So, how did Marshall become “Iron Mike”?

After his rookie season in 1967, his arm was so sore he couldn’t lift it to shave. As he later told the Los Angeles Times, he studied X-rays and high-speed film, concluding that he was throwing the ball incorrectly. If he could deliver pitches by rotating his wrist into his body, with his thumb pointed down, he could minimize the stress on his arm.

This resulted in Marshall becoming a leading practitioner of the screwball, which breaks in the opposite direction of a curveball or slider. Oddly, the pitch is rarely thrown today.

Marshall’s studies led him to earn three degrees from Michigan State. First in kinesiology, the study of the mechanics of bodily movement, and finally earning a doctorate in exercise physiology.

This led Marshall’s teammate on the 1969 Seattle Pilots, Jim Bouton, to observe in his book “Ball Four” that “I’m afraid Mike’s problem is that he’s too intelligent and has too much education.”

He was certainly more than the baseball establishment could handle. Here’s a quote from his website: “Without listening to what I have to say, ‘traditional’ baseball pitching coaches, orthopedic surgeons, bio mechanists, general managers, and almost everyone else that coaches baseball, believe that all baseball pitchers will eventually suffer injuries.”

Warming to his topic, Marshall told the Times, “I remember the sportswriters in Los Angeles come into the locker room and ask, ‘How are you able to do this? You’re going to break down.’ I said, ‘Hey, it’s simple. Its kinesiology, and all you have to understand is what he latissimus dorsi muscle can do for you. And then you get to use the triceps brachii and the inner teres. It’s right there.’ And they’d walk away.”

Unable to get a coaching job within the establishment, Marshall opened his own baseball clinic in Zephyrhills in 1994. He had his students throw hard every day, using heavy balls and weights on their wrists. He even had students throw weighted trashcan lids to understand how to get the right spin axis on pitches. Finally, the mainstream has come around to discussing “spin rate.”

“Nobody who’s gone through this program has ever gotten hurt,” Marshall told Sports Illustrated in 2001. “These kids are now injury proof.”

Marshall maintained deep resentment over baseball’s unwillingness to listen to his ideas. “They’re still teaching the same motion of the first guy who won a ballgame,” he told the Kansas City Star in 2007. “There’s not one of them who knows anything of the science. They think Sir Isaac Newton invented the Fig Newton.”

He told the Times, “They just didn’t want my ideas to get in. That’s ridiculous. But that’s the small-mindedness of Major League Baseball. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And if I get in, everybody will know that they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

“You spend your lifetime working on something that everybody ignores, and then you’ll understand.”