Those who spent July climbing a mountain, swimming a channel or simply sleeping in a hammock will note on glancing at the sports page that the Milwaukee Braves, as expected, are at the top of the National League standings. What they will not know is that the only reason the Braves are in first is that a young pitcher, practically lost among names like Spahn, Burdette and Buhl, has been winning games at a regular clip.
His name is Joseph Richard Jay and his wife calls him Joe, but because Joe Jay, when spoken quickly, sounds like a mispronunciation, or worse yet, a sneeze, folks around the ball park call him Joey. He dislikes the name Joey for he thinks it makes him sound like a small boy, and if there is one thing Joey Jay isn't, it's small. He is 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 230 pounds and, since he is only 22 years old, there is reason to suspect he is still growing. He has bushy black eyebrows and pale green eyes and so resembles Bob Buhl, another and better-known Milwaukee pitcher, that more than once young fans have rushed up to him asking, "Bob, can we have your autograph?"
Joey Jay is the first Little League graduate to play in the majors. He was 12 when the local league was established near his home in Middle-town, Connecticut, and he played first base, since in those days 12-year-olds were not allowed to pitch. The following year he moved up to an older league, something comparable, he says, to today's Babe Ruth League. There Joey pitched. He was fast and he was wild. One day he fired a fast ball that clipped a boy in the ribs, breaking several of them. The mother of the injured boy wailed long and loud, insisting that Joey be exiled to right field. But Joey continued to pitch, in high school and in the summer leagues around Hartford, and after a while the major league scouts, like bees after honey, came buzzing around. When he had graduated from high school in 1953, Joey received several bonus offers. The Pirates made a bid. Joe flew to Pittsburgh and had an audience with Branch Rickey. The Dodgers showed interest. The Yankees majestically told Joey, "Sort out your bids. Select the best one, but before you sign, come to us. We'll top it." In the end Joey picked Milwaukee for $40,000, mostly because his coach in the summer league, John Pollodoro, was a Milwaukee scout. Joey joined the Braves in June 1953 and spent two years doing nothing.
"That was a terrible rule, that bonus rule," says Joey today. "I got none of the experience I needed, and I took up a spot on the roster someone more deserving should have had. And what a drag I was on the club!"
During those first two seasons with the club Joey was regarded by many as plain lazy. Knowing he would not pitch, he trained loosely, drinking Cokes and eating peanuts. His waistline had a tendency to balloon.
Then, after the 1954 season ended, Joey married Lois Bruggen, also of Connecticut. People who know him well say that from then on Joey settled down.
In 1955 Joey was at last eligible for the minor leagues. In Toledo that year and with Wichita and Atlanta in 1956 Joey gathered experience. In 1957, again with Wichita, he won 17 games. More important, he acquired a lot of self-confidence.
Joey was kept by the Braves this spring, but he saw little action. Then in mid- June Manager Fred Haney, short of pitchers, gave Joey a starting assignment. Joey beat St. Louis 2-0. He lost his next three games simply because the Braves could not get him runs. The scores were 2-1, 3-1 and 1-0. When the Braves finally began producing runs, Joey won five games in 18 days. His brilliant two-hit shutout over St. Louis on July 23 put the Braves back into first place. His earned run average of 1.94 is the best in the league.
"The big difference between the Joey of today and two years ago," says his catcher, Del Crandall, "is that the kid knows himself. He has the confidence to throw his best curve at two balls-no strikes." Whitlow Wyatt, the team's pitching coach, adds, "Joey worked hard and kept in excellent condition all spring, even though he wasn't being used. When he finally got the call, he was ready."
Although Joey has established himself as a regular, he and Lois and their infant children—Stephen, age one, and Andrea, one month—plan to continue living for at least another year in their modest, rented home, 20 minutes from County Stadium. They have friendly neighbors (the local merchants have been giving them all sorts of free merchandise), a new car and, best of all, a very rosy future. Indeed, if Joey continues to pitch as he did in July, it will certainly not be long before young fans go rushing up to Bob Buhl and ask him for Joey's autograph.