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One time: It’s brought lasting fame to Hisner

August 1, 2011

Harley Parnell Hisner (Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Star)

    (Editor's Note: The following story is used with the permission of the Indianapolis Star. Harley Parnell Hisner, father of Bellmont teacher/coach Randy Hisner, was born near Maples in Allen County. He currently resides on the outskirts of Monroeville; his wife, Anna, is at The Village of Heritage at Monroeville.)

    Harley Hisner wonders how they find him.
    The autograph requests come frequently to the Village of Heritage nursing home, about 50 so far this year. They send photos, baseballs, even two bats from a man in California who was paralyzed by a drunken driver.
    A few months ago, his grandson found a Harley Hisner autographed baseball on eBay. Asking price: $149.
    "I never charge anything," said Hisner, 84, smiling and leaning back in his chair at the nursing home, his wife of 63 years, Anna, seated next to him. "I guess somebody found a way to make some money, though."
    Why Hisner? Why do they look for him?
    Because on a cool and overcast September afternoon 60 years ago at Yankee Stadium, he was the starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. He struck out an up-and-coming 19-year-old star named Mickey Mantle twice. He gave up the final hit of Joe DiMaggio's illustrious career, an inside fastball that DiMaggio fought off for a single.
    In the fifth inning, Hisner got a hit of his own -- "a dying quail" -- to right field.    Playing mostly backups in the last game of the regular season that had no bearing on the standings, the Red Sox lost 3-0 to the eventual World Series champions. Hisner went six innings, allowed seven hits (all singles), walked four and struck out three.
    Hisner, then 24, thought it was just the beginning. Instead, it was the end for the farm kid from Maples, Ind. When he walked off the field at Yankee Stadium that afternoon, it was for the final time as a major leaguer.
    Like Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, whose story was popularized in the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams," Hisner is part of a small fraternity of men to play in one major league game.
    Graham never got the chance to bat. In 1905, he was sent in to play right field for the New York Giants in the bottom of the eighth inning. In the top of the ninth, he was on deck when the final out was made.
    In the movie, Kevin Costner's character told Graham: "It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they'd consider it a tragedy."
Hisner did touch his dream. For one afternoon it was him vs. Mantle, DiMaggio, the vaunted Yankees. At Yankee Stadium.
    "A lot of players don't make it at all," he said. "It was one game, but it was a real thrill."

Long trip getting there
    Harley Parnell "Jim" Hisner was the youngest of four boys who grew up on a farm three miles south of the tiny town of Maples in northeast Indiana. Though his high school, Hoagland, didn't have a baseball team, he and his brothers grew up playing for teams out of Fort Wayne and watching their dad play for a town team against other area communities.
    Out of high school, the strong-armed, right-handed Hisner was signed by the Red Sox -- as were two older brothers before him -- with a bonus of $5,000. He was drafted into the Army in 1945 and spent time at Fort Benjamin Harrison, where he met his future wife, who would write reports on the games for the post newspaper.
    "They would bring in the copy to me, and I noticed every time Parnell Hisner pitched, we would win," Anna said. "So one day the coach came in, and I asked him who he was. He told me to come out the next day and meet him. The next day he came into the office and asked me to go to a movie. That's how it all started."
    Hisner made a splash with Scranton, Pa., of the Eastern League in 1948, going 11-3 with a 2.48 earned run average, mostly as a starter. But the next two seasons he was plagued by a sore arm -- a problem throughout his early career -- and combined for an 11-17 record between Scranton and Triple-A Louisville, Ky.
    A call-up hardly seemed likely in 1951. He was shuffling along with a 3-13 record with Louisville when he made what he called "the salary drive."
    "I won five games in August," Hisner said. "I went the route (nine innings) in all of them. I ended up with a 7-13 (regular season) record and won the first game of the playoffs. So I got a call from Boston, and they wanted me up there right away. I went back home and said, 'We're going to Boston.' "
    Hisner knew his opportunities to pitch would likely be limited. Boston was locked in a pennant race with the Yankees, trailing by 21/2 games after a win over the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 17.
Steve O'Neill, the Red Sox manager, approached Hisner the day he arrived.
    "He said, 'I'd like to start you, but I can't,' " Hisner recalled. "I asked him why and he said, 'If you go out there and get your brains beat out, these guys would run me out of town.' "
    O'Neill told Hisner he would start as soon as the Red Sox's place in the standings was sewn up.

Taking on the Yankees
    Boston tanked at the end of the season, losing 12 of its last 13 games. After getting swept in a three-game series against the lowly Washington Senators, the Red Sox were eight games out of first place, and the five-game season-ending series at Yankee Stadium was virtually meaningless.
    In the first game of the series, Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds threw a no-hitter.
    "We didn't get anything resembling a hit off the Big Chief," Hisner said, referring to Reynolds. "We all autographed the pitching rubber from his no-hitter, and it's at Cooperstown in the Hall of Fame now. I rode in on the Big Chief's no-hitter."
    Hisner remembers the day with remarkable detail. While Boston played mostly second-stringers, Yankees manager Casey Stengel wanted to keep his regulars fine-tuned for the World Series. The lineup Hisner faced included five Hall of Famers: Mantle, DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize and Yogi Berra.
Mantle, in his rookie season, was the leadoff hitter.
    "I can still see those two curveballs I threw him," Hisner said. "He was hitting left-handed against me, and they were right where I wanted them: low and inside. Then I struck him out with a high and tight fastball. He had been sent down to Kansas City during the season, so I'd seen him when I was with Louisville and knew how to pitch him. He was striking out a lot back then."
    Hisner also faced DiMaggio in the first inning, which turned out to be the final regular-season hit for the "Yankee Clipper." Prior to the game, Red Sox teammate and fellow Indiana native Harry Taylor instructed Hisner how to pitch to DiMaggio.
    "He told me Joe couldn't get around on a good fastball anymore," Hisner said. "He said not to let him extend his arms. The first pitch was outside, and he blasted it foul into the upper deck. I thought, 'Well, I believe Harry.' So I came back inside, and he hit it to shortstop but beat it out for a hit."
    The Yankees didn't score in the first inning but got a run in the second when Berra and Bobby Brown singled and Berra scored on a sacrifice fly by Jerry Coleman. Hisner struck out Mantle again to end the inning.
    The Yankees scored again in the third when Berra laced a two-run single to right to make it 3-0. Hisner worked around two walks and an error in the fourth and settled down to retire the Yankees in order in the fifth and sixth innings.
    "I was really nervous to start," he said. "I'd never seen a stadium that big in my life. But once the game got going, I felt OK."
    Hisner's hit came in the fifth, a blooper over Mize at first base. He was lifted for pinch hitter Johnny Pesky in the seventh. Boston didn't manage much of a threat against Yankees starter Spec Shea or Johnny Sain as they combined for a nine-hit shutout.
And that was that.
    "O'Neill said, 'I'll see you next year in spring training,' " Hisner said. "I felt good that I'd be with the team again, and I think he did, too. I'm pretty sure if he would have been back with the team, I would have made it back."
    After the game, Hisner caught a taxi to the airport with teammate Bobby Doerr and headed back to Louisville to see Anna and their 1-year-old daughter, Debbie, who had stayed behind. On the drive from Indianapolis to Louisville, he listened on the car radio to Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that gave the New York Giants the National League pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
    "I should have stayed in New York for a couple more days and watched that game," Hisner said.

Sent back to the minors
    O'Neill was replaced after the 1951 season by Lou Boudreau, who played with Boston the previous year.
    "He would sit on the bench and criticize everything O'Neill had done," Hisner said of Boudreau.
    In spring training, citing his arm problems in previous years, Hisner declined to pitch batting practice. He thinks that decision might have cost him another chance.
    "I pitched in one game, against the Phillies, about the middle of spring training," he said. "Toward the end of spring training, I threw batting practice against the regulars. I was trying to knock the bat out of their hands. Ted Williams got up there, and I was throwing everything I had and he was hitting line drives everywhere. He came over afterwards and said, 'Hey kid, that's the best damn batting practice I ever had.' "
    Hisner was sent back to Louisville as a reliever. He was 1-3 with a 2.95 ERA when he was traded to San Diego of the Pacific Coast League around midseason.
Instead of getting closer to the major leagues, Hisner was falling further away. He spent the majority of the 1953 season in the Class B Big State League with Wichita Falls (Texas), going 14-5.
    "I didn't want him to give it up," Anna said. "I never did. But he was getting tired of moving around."
    Hisner played briefly in Canada in 1954 but was put on the voluntarily retired list soon after at age 27. Three years after his start at Yankee Stadium, he was out of professional baseball. He went to work full time at Rea Magnet Wire Co. in Fort Wayne, where he'd worked part-time while he played, and stayed there until retirement in 1987.
    He continued to play semipro baseball until he was 36.
    "I never played a game after the age of 18 that I didn't get paid for," he said.
    Hisner doesn't have any regrets. His memories of that afternoon 60 years ago might not shine as brightly if he'd pitched more than one major league game. Would the autograph seekers still search for him if he'd pitched a second game?
    "It's strange how things happen," he said. "I just know I was on cloud nine to be able to pitch in Yankee Stadium. Even if it was just one time."

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