Old, faithful

Ex-Red Sox Lucier, 94, still follows his beloved team

By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / March 27, 2012
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WEBSTER - On May 30, 1943, a rookie pitcher who rose out of the textile mills of the Blackstone Valley was given the ball for his first home start at Fenway Park.

“My heart was pounding like hell, I’ll tell you that,’’ says Lou Lucier, 94, the oldest living Red Sox. “You get on that mound there and you turn around and look at that Green Monster, and it felt like it was next to second base. It was so close. It looks the same today.’’

Lucier beat the Tigers, 5-1, as the skinny 5-foot-8-inch, 160-pound righthander threw a complete game and even knocked in a run.

“Just being at Fenway made you feel pretty good, I tell you that,’’ says Lucier who was born March 23, 1918, in Northbridge.

On April 20th, the historic ballpark officially turns 100. Lucier, two weeks older than his former roommate, Bobby Doerr, is legally blind and resides in an assisted-living facility, where he is revered.

He sees mostly forms and shadows, and relies on Jerry Remy’s analysis as he watches his beloved Sox on the wide-screen TV. But he’s quick to offer some analysis of his own.

When asked about the Sox letting closer Jonathan Papelbon go to the Phillies, Lucier smiles. He also went to the Phillies as a reliever after spending the 1943 and part of the 1944 season with the Sox.

“He’s all done as a closer anymore,’’ Lucier says. “The last few games he pitched for the Red Sox they really creamed him.’’

On the walls are pictures of him as an intense young man in uniform. There are also more recent photos of him with Mike Lowell and Dustin Pedroia, and sporting a tuxedo at the podium, making former Red Sox manager Terry Francona laugh, when Lucier was honored at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner in 2008.

Lucier doesn’t like the way Francona was treated after the former Sox manager guided the team to two world championships. “I think he liked the players better than he liked himself,’’ he says.

He frowns when talking about the Red Sox pitchers drinking beer during last September’s collapse. “I don’t drink,’’ he says. “Guys never drank during a game. I think that was terrible. Those guys are All-Stars.’’

Lucier reserves his harshest criticism for Daisuke Matsuzaka. “The $50 million pitcher? That was the craziest thing I ever saw.’’

From mill to mound

Lucier grew up during the Depression, with four brothers and four sisters. He was the star pitcher for Grafton High School, known for his dipsy-doodle curveball. But when his father and sister were both laid off from the cotton mills, Lucier left school and used his local star power to land a job.

“The principal came down to the house one night and wanted to know why I wasn’t going to school,’’ says Lucier. “My dad says, ‘There’s nine people living in this house, and that’s not including my wife and me. Somebody’s got to feed us.’ ’’

After graduating high school in 1936, Lucier continued his job prepping cotton bobbins for the mill and pitching for the American Weavers, a local semipro mill team. Spotted by scouts, he was signed by the Boston Braves and assigned to Class D Beaver Falls (Pa). He won one game in 1937 and quit.

“I didn’t like it,’’ Lucier says. “It was just one of those things. I was just 19 years old.’’

He went back to semipro ball, where he excelled and caught the eye of Red Sox scouts. While pitching in Woonsocket, R.I., he spied a pretty hazel-eyed girl in the stands. Two years later he married Marcella Ouellette, despite the fact she was a Yankees fan.

“It wasn’t a problem,’’ he says. “We never, ever had one fight. She roots for her team and I root for my team.’’

The Red Sox sent him to the Class C (Mid-Atlantic League) Canton Terriers where he compiled a 23-5 record, with a 1.49 earned run average in 247 innings.

The following year he was summoned to Fenway Park. Sox owner Tom Yawkey and Sox Hall of Fame player/manager Joe Cronin wanted to meet him. Marcella, the Yankees fan, waited patiently in the car.

“As I walked up the stairs, there was a box there full of money and [Yawkey’s secretary] says, ‘That’s all yours.’ I put my hand in there and I felt money. It was a $1,000 bonus.’’

The Sox assigned him to Louisville, their highest-ranked farm club. He went 13-9 with a 2.45 ERA but he also was knocked out by a line drive hit by Jo-Jo Moore of Indianapolis that hit his right ear, one of three concussions he suffered in his career.

The injury caused deafness in his right ear, and he later was rejected for military service. “I’ll always have that hum in my head,’’ he says.

In 1943, the Red Sox lost Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio to the war effort. Lucier was invited to spring training.

“But because of the war it was held at Tufts in Medford,’’ Lucier says. “I didn’t care where I was going. I was in the big leagues, that’s all I cared about.’’

His salary was $750 a month.

“That was pretty good money,’’ he says. “I compared that with my father working in the cotton mill. He was making $19 a week.’’

He made the team but suffered a shoulder injury he believes was caused by the harsh New England winter.

“It’s a mystery,’’ Lucier says. “After training for the day we went out into the frigid weather, and it affected the muscles in my shoulder. All of a sudden, I was never the same again. The Red Sox sent me to every doctor and they just said your arm will come around, but it never did.’’

Sparkling debut

Cronin did not want Lucier to make his first start before family and friends at Fenway Park.

“Little Louie’’ made his first start May 16, 1943, giving up just one earned run against the White Sox in a 4-2 complete game victory at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

“I got two hits and scored two runs,’’ Lucier says. “I got the ball. I just don’t know where the hell it is now.’’

On June 17, Lucier became a small part of baseball history. The Sox were losing, 4-1, against the Philadelphia Athletics in the seventh inning, and had two men on and Lucier due up. Cronin pinch hit and smacked a three-run home run to tie the score. Cronin hit another three-run, pinch-hit homer in the second game of the doubleheader. That feat has only been duplicated once.

“He just walked into the dugout like nothing happened,’’ says Lucier.

Lucier’s best game was against Detroit Sept. 26. He had only given up one unearned run when he faced Tigers slugger Rudy York in the bottom of the ninth.

“I had already struck him out twice, but the first pitch to him he hit over the Green Monster,’’ says Lucier. “But Jim Tabor, my third baseman, came up and hit one over the Green Monster’’ in the 10th inning for a 3-2 win.

The Sox also had him throw to Williams whenever he would pop in from military service for batting practice.

“He was a wonderful guy to me, always encouraging,’’ says Lucier. “It’s something I’ll never forget. He wanted me to throw him curveballs. I made sure I didn’t hit him.’’

Lucier was 3-4 with a 3.89 ERA in 19 appearances for the Sox in 1943 and 1944 before being sold to the Phillies in late September, 1944. In 1945 he appeared in 13 games for the Phillies, posting an 0-1 record. But despite a 2.21 ERA, he was out of the major leagues by June.

The veterans were returning home from the war. But Lucier kicked around the minors and got to pitch to some stars who were on the way up, like the great Jackie Robinson and a short and squat catcher named Yogi Berra.

In 1946, while pitching for Jersey City in the International League, Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell, the team’s GM, tried to banish Lucier to Chattanooga.

Lucier told him he was going home to be with his family and got on the next bus.

He kept pitching locally and got a job as a parts analyst at Whitin Machine Works in Northbridge where he retired with a modest pension in 1983. His beloved Marcella passed away seven years ago but his three children have given him five grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

When the Sox won the 2004 World Series, his family bought him a replica championship ring. More recently they purchased a 100th anniversary commemorative Fenway Park brick with his name on it.

He still gets a half-dozen letters a month asking for autographs and also has been to several signings at Fenway.

“It makes me feel good,’’ he says. When he curls up at night, it’s under a soft Red Sox championship blanket.

Asked the secret to his long life, Lucier shrugs. He says he loves sweets and never eats vegetables. “I might as well make it to 100,’’ he says. “I’ve only got six to go.’’

Asked to name his favorite Red Sox player, Lucier quickly picks the oldest one.

“David Ortiz,’’ he says. “Who else?’’

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