On paper, the job of the modern relief pitcher is to slam the door on enemy rallies. In reality, the responsibility of the guys who come in from the bullpen is to infuriate, intimidate and dominate opposing hitters. The man who set the early standard for today’s closers was Joe Page of the New York Yankees. Page’s enormous physical presence and playful arrogance made him one of the most reviled players in the game during the 1940s—Ted Williams once called him the “Big Baboon.” When the southpaw had his rising fastball and sneaky spitter working, hitters didn’t have much of a chance. But the thing that made Page great was that, even when he didn’t have his best stuff, he was utterly undeterred. He dared hitters to beat him. More than six decades later, this is still the quality that separates the men from the boys when the game is on the line.
Joseph Francis Page was born on October 28, 1917 in Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania. (Click
here for today's sports birthdays.) He grew up in the town of Springdale on the Allegheny River, near Pittsburgh. Joe was the eldest of seven children—four girls and three boys. As soon as he was able, Joe began working in the mines. He would rise before dawn, take a ferry with his father over to Barking, and work there as a breaker boy. Breaker boys assisted elderly and incapacitated miners, removing impurities by hand from hunks of coal as they ascended from the depths.
Joe’s ticket out of coal-mining country was his powerful left arm. He honed it on the local ball field, which was carved out of a hillside in such a way that batters had to run uphill to first and downhill home. Joe’s budding career almost ended before it began after he nearly lost a leg in a 1936 car accident. He suffered a compound fracture of his left fibula that required surgery and a five-month hospital stay. Between the ages of 18 and 20, he was discouraged from competing in any sports, and for the most part he seems to have followed doctor’s orders.
Joe had not attracted much attention from scouts as a teenager, and he went completely off the grid during his convalescence. However, a couple of years working in the mines—in Western Pennsylvania this was not considered strenuous activity—added a thick layer of muscle and a few miles per hour to his fastball. He joined a local semipro team that traveled in a truck owned by the local meat market. When the tires wore down, the players stuffed sod into the casings, wired them to the rims, and off they went on another ball-playing adventure. One day a neighborhood girl, Kay Corrigan, asked if she could get a ride to the game with the team. The players turned her down, but Joe overruled them. That day, he hit the game-winning homer. Joe and Kay were later married.
Joe soon found himself pitching in Pittsburgh’s amateur league. At this point, he stood 6-3 and weighed around 200 pounds. Sometimes when he sneered at hitters, he seemed even bigger. Several teams instructed their scouts to report on Joe, but no one was overly impressed. In 1939, the hometown Pirates gave him a tryout but did not sign him. The following year, Yankee scout Bill Haddock, swayed by the 22-year-old’s towering presence, advised Paul Krichell to take a closer look. New York eventually signed Joe to a contract in 1940.
That summer, Joe broke in with the Butler Yankees in the Class-D Pennsylvania State Association, a six-team outfit that went belly-up during World War II. Butler was close enough to home that friends and family were able to watch Joe pitch. His manager was Shaky Kain, a career minor leaguer who pitched in the Yankees system during the 1930s. Among Joe‘s teammates was a 17-year-old first baseman from Scranton who had been signed by New York a year earlier. Joe Collins would bat .300 that season, and the two would become teammates on the Yankees in 1948. Joe (the pitcher) went 11–3 in 16 games with a 3.67 ERA.
In the offseasons of his minor-league career, Joe kept in shape by working for a local aluminum company. He was part of a crew that loaded 60-pound blocks of metal into boxcars. Prior to his departure for spring training in 1941, Joe and Kay were married.
The 1941 campaign saw Joe move up the ladder to the Class–B Augusta Tigers in the South Atlantic League. The team’s manager and second baseman, Arky Biggs, had been playing in the minors since he was 15-years-old. At 32, he was the old man of the team. Joe’s teammates included Bill Bevens and Ralph Houk. Joe started and relieved that season, appearing in 40 games and splitting 24 decisions. Normally those numbers would not have created much of a stir. But Joe’s resilience in a dual role—and a no-hitter against Savannah—made the New York brass take notice. Joe ended up pitching 201 innings for Augusta and posted a 4.39 ERA. Wildness was a problem all year; he walked a batter every other inning and got hit hard when he pitched from behind in the count. When his fastball was hopping, however, Joe was something to behold.
The big promotion came in the spring of 1942, when Joe moved up to the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ best farm team. He went 7–6 in 20 appearances, including 13 starts. He was part of a rotation that included Randy Gumpert and Tommy Byrne. The Bears won 92 games and copped the International League pennant by 10 games.
Newark finished second to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1943, but Joe did his part to keep the Bears in the hunt. He made 23 starts and five relief appearances, logging 186 innings along the way. Joe won 14 games and lost five, with three of his victories coming via shutouts. He completed a total of 16 games and led the team by a mile with 140 strikeouts. His 119 walks were troubling, but during wartime ball, beggars could not afford to be choosers.
Joe was able to avoid military service after being classified as 4-F. His leg injury had not mended particularly well. In fact, he sometimes picked tiny slivers of bone out of his leg that had worked their way up as high as his hip. Joe also suffered from a stomach ulcer. He drank a lot of milk between meals.
Few doubted that Joe Page would find himself in the Bronx the following year. Sadly, three members of Joe’s family would not be around to enjoy his big-league career. During the 1943 season, Joe’s mother passed away. Eight months later, his oldest sister was hit by a car and died a few days later. The following summer, his father suffered a heart attack and died while in the hospital for a minor procedure. Everyone in Joe’s family now depended on him. It was good training for his eventual role as a relief ace, but it would take a few years for him to find himself as a major leaguer.
The 1944 edition of the Yankees was a far cry from the pennant-winning clubs of the past three years. Gone from New York’s lineup were high-profile stars like Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller and Spud Chandler. Joe got into his first game on April 19, pitching two hitless innings mopping up a loss to the Boston Red Sox in the second game of the season. He earned his first start 11 days later. Joe pitched into the seventh inning against the Senators, allowing two unearned runs before giving way to Hank Borowy. The Yankees beat Washington 3–2, with Joe getting the victory and Early Wynn taking the loss.
Manager Joe McCarthy eventually inserted Joe into the rotation, and he made 15 more starts. His record stood at 5–1 in mid-June and later he was named to the American League All-Star squad. His fifth victory was an 11-inning complete game against veteran Mel Harder and the Cleveland Indians. In his next outing Joe didn’t survive the second inning. It got ugly after that. The Yankees lost each of Joe’s next seven starts, and his record fell to 5–7. In his final two starts, he gave up 11 runs in less than two innings. After getting shelled in a July relief outing against the Detroit Tigers, Joe was banished to Newark for the rest of the season.
In a sport full of tough guys and hard drinkers, Joe stood out among his peers when it came to after-hours activities. He may have been drinking milk between breakfast and lunch (and lunch and dinner). But between dinner and breakfast it was mostly the hard stuff. Joe’s carousing concerned McCarthy early in the season, but winning helped the team look the other way for a while. Once things went South, the Yankees—already fading from pennant contention—punched his ticket to Jersey without hesitation. People who followed the Yankees closely got the distinct feeling that, as long as McCarthy was running the show, Joe would never fulfill his potential.
In terms of his toughness, Joe was strong physically. But as a rookie he had a hard time tuning out the bench jockeys. The better ones were able to get under his skin. Al Simmons, then coaching for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, especially seemed to have Joe’s number. This would soon change.
In 1945, Joe looked to reclaim his roster spot in spring training but spent the first two months of the season on the shelf with a sore arm. He pitched primarily out of the bullpen for the Yankees upon his return. McCarthy put him back in the rotation in the final month, when the season was basically a lost cause. Grasping this opportunity, Joe won five of his six September starts and finished the year 6–3 with a 2.82 ERA—the best mark on the team among hurlers with 100 innings or more. Wildness was still an issue; he walked almost as many batters as he struck out. But he was one of those guys who could get himself in and out of trouble with the kind of popping fastball that brought the fans out of their seats. There wasn’t much of that in the Bronx in 1945, as the team finished a dismal fourth.
Joe figured he had proved himself as a major-leaguer at this point. That explains why he nearly quit baseball the following March. Because of post-war housing shortages in St. Petersburg, the Yankees had to get creative with their rooming situation during spring training. They often had to split their squads and keep one group on the road. One day Joe found himself assigned to a team populated almost exclusively with Yankee farmhands. He packed his bags and stormed out of the team’s hotel in Bradenton. Joe ran into traveling secretary Red Patterson in the lobby and informed him that he could make more money pitching semipro ball around Pittsburgh than toiling for Newark again. It took Patterson all day to convince Joe that he was unquestionably headed for the Bronx.
Joe’s touchiness may have had something to do with the attention he was drawing from McCarthy. Again and again during the spring of 1946, the manager tried to hammer home to Joe that he had to turn the corner on his career and start thinking of the team before he disappeared on one of his nocturnal jaunts. Joe felt he was being picked on.
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Joe began the 1946 season as a member of a rotation fronted by Chandler and Bill Bevens. McCarthy, suffering from a touchy gall bladder and exasperated by Joe’s late-night antics, finally lost his patience with his talented lefty and ripped him in front of the team during a team flight out of Detroit. McCarthy quit two days later, after only 35 games.
In mid-July, Joe’s record stood at a lackluster 5–4. The team stashed him in the bullpen for most of the second half. In August, the Yankees asked waivers on him, presumably to farm him out. But the Senators claimed Joe, so New York had to pull him back and keep him on the big-league roster. Joe made a few spot starts, pitched fairly well and finished 9–8 with a 3.57 ERA in 136 innings. The Yankees, finishing out of the running for the third year in a row, went shopping for a new manager.
The man they chose was Bucky Harris. Dubbed the “Boy Wonder” when he led the Senators to the World Series at the age of 27 in 1924, Harris was now a baseball lifer. He reached the Bronx after stints with the Tigers, Red Sox and Phillies. With baseball fully recovered from its wartime talent drain, Harris had lots of quality pitchers in camp when it came time to set his starting staff. He liked Joe’s arm but was skeptical about his chances of being a consistent contributor. Like his predecessor, Harris believed that Joe drank too much off the field and was sometimes unwilling to push himself on it.
Yankee co-owner Larry MacPhail hatched a plan with Harris designed to keep Joe in check. Every other week—right before payday—MacPhail would ask his manager how Joe was doing. If Harris gave the thumbs-up, MacPhail would peel $250 off his bankroll and hand it to Joe as a bonus for good behavior. If Harris felt Joe was getting too wild, MacPhail would keep the money. As the story goes, Joe’s eyes lit up when he heard that he might get $250 every fourth night. MacPhail had to explain what “fortnight” meant. Still, this turned out to be a good system. Joe got paid eight out of 11 times. Early in the year, however, it was looking like Joe might not be around at all to collect his bonus.
The 1947 season was 31 games old and the Yankees had just made a quick burst from 5th place to 2nd when they faced the Red Sox in front of a packed house on a Monday night in the Bronx. Joe had logged six appearances to that point, and the Yankees had been losers in every game. He was resistant to Harris’s idea of making him a full-time reliever, feeling he would be marginalized by the switch. Joe was on the verge of being shipped back to the minors at this point, and everyone knew it.
Fate intervened in the 32nd game of the ’47 campaign. The Yankees had beaten up the Sox the day before 17–2, but now the Bostonians were returning the favor. Spec Shea was getting cuffed around, and Harris sent word for Joe to prepare for another mop-up job. Joe climbed over the low railing of the bullpen and relieved Shea with no one out in the third inning and two men on. The menacing Ted Williams stood in the batter’s box. Joe took one look at the slugger and, as he later recalled, said to himself, “Well, Page, it’s goodbye Broadway, hello Market Street”—referring to Newark’s central thoroughfare.
In the tense dugout, Harris grimaced as Williams reached on an error, then watched in horror as Joe threw three straight balls to the next batter, Rudy York. At this moment, Harris later admitted that, Joe was literally one pitch away from the minors. York was taking all the way on the next two deliveries, so Joe fired a pair of fastballs across the plate. The payoff pitch was a perfect curve, which caught York by surprise. He waved helplessly at it for the first out. Joe fanned the next batter, Bobby Doerr, and then got Eddie Pellagrini on a pop-out to right field to end the inning. As Joe later learned, the paperwork for his demotion was being prepared by the team’s front office staff as he strutted off the field to the adoring roar of 75,000 fans. Harris called MacPhail and told him to hang on to it.
Joe went the rest of the way, allowing Boston two hits and three walks while striking out eight. It was a transformational moment both for him and the Yankees. And for Harris. He had been hired to bring home the American League flag after a three-year drought, and he knew instantly that a confident and focused Joe could be the piece he needed to get the job done. He sent Joe to the mound 49 more times in ’47, with 48 of those appearances coming in relief.
The night of the Red Sox game, Joe had been sitting about 10 feet away from his teammates in the bullpen. When he returned to the pen the next day, he plunked himself down in the same spot. He would maintain that approximate distance for the rest of the season—and the balance of his career.
The Yankees moved into first place in June and opened up a double-digit lead over the Tigers and Red Sox a week after the All-Star Break during a magnificent 19–0 run. Joe figured directly into five of those victories, with two wins and three saves. His looming presence in the bullpen no doubt played a part in other New York triumphs, as it forced enemy managers into early game-altering decisions. One sportswriter summed up it up as follows: “If you’re going to beat the Yankees you have to get your runs before the seventh inning...or you get Joe Page.”.
Joe Page, 1950 book
Joe’s new role was recognized that July when he was picked as an All-Star. He pitched the final inning and a third of the Midsummer Classic to earn a save in the 2–1 AL win. Soon everyone was calling New York’s new relief ace “Fireman Joe.”
The nickname fit because Joee was the man who rushed to the scene to extinguish fires. However, the story behind the moniker was a bit more complicated. During World War II, countless thousands of New York apartments were occupied by workers lured to the city by war-industry jobs. When the veterans returned from overseas in 1945 and 1946, the few remaining apartments disappeared quickly. Joe and Kay ended up renting a room from a retired firefighter named Dan Malkin, who lived with his wife in a Bronx building. Malkin gave Joe a red NYFD shirt that he often wore to the ballpark.
Joe’s newfound success did little to dampen his postgame club-hopping. He became fast friends with the team’s more famous Joe—DiMaggio—who was also a night owl. The two spent so much time together that the other players started teasing Joe. DiMaggio’s nickname for his happy-go-lucky, blue-eyed friend was the Gay Reliever (when gay meant carefree). The Yankee Clipper drew the line, however, when it came to heavy drinking. He often chided Joe about how his carousing hurt might hurt the team one day.
That day certainly didn’t come in 1947. Joe finished the year with a 14–8 record, 116 strikeouts and a 2.48 ERA in 141 1/3 innings. He qualified for a league-best 17 saves. Joe led the junior circuit with 44 games finished, was second with 56 appearances and wound up fourth in the MVP voting, which DiMaggio won. Joe received seven first-place votes—one less than Joltin’ Joe and four more than MVP runner-up Ted Williams.
Joe’s relief appearances ranged in length from a third of an inning to near complete games. But down the stretch Harris typically limited him to just an inning or two. The Yankees finished the year 97–57, 12 games ahead of Detroit.
Joe’s story got even better in the postseason. Against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a wild World Series, Joe saw action in four games. He saved the opener for Shea, pitching the final four innings of a 5–3 victory. He allowed a run on three singles in the fifth inning and another run on a wild pitch in the sixth, but in the final two frames he did not surrender a hit.
Joe entered Game 3 in the sixth inning with Brooklyn up 9–7. The Dodgers put runners in scoring position in each of the three innings he pitched, but they could not get another run across. The Yankees cut the deficit in half on a Yogi Berra home run, but the potential game-winning rally in the eighth withered when DiMaggio rapped into a double play.
Joe’s next appearance also came in a loss. Harris called him into Game 6 in relief of Karl Drews with Jackie Robinson on first and one out in the fifth inning. Joe struck out Dixie Walker and got Eddie Miksis to pop out, ending the threat. Joe ran into trouble in the sixth, however, when he yielded hits to Bruce Edwards, Carl Furillo, Bobby Bragan and Eddie Stanky. Bobo Newsom came in the game and allowed two of Joe’s runners to score before retiring the side. The Yankees were ahead 5–4 at the start of the inning. They trailed 8–5 when it was over. Brooklyn won 8–6, with Joe getting charged with the defeat.
Aching to redeem himself, Joe settled into his customary spot in the bullpen for the start of Game 7. Harris started Shea on short rest, and the Dodgers blew him off the mound. Bevens relieved him, but he was pulled for a pinch-hitter during a fourth-inning rally that saw New York take a 3–2 lead.
Harris now had to make the biggest decision of his Yankee career. He stood by as Frank Crosetti phoned coach Johnny Schulte in the bullpen. MacPhail was in the dugout, too. “Schulte says the Indian is knocking the glove off his hand,” reported Crosetti, referring to Allie Reynolds. “Page hasn’t got a thing.”
“What do you say?” Harris asked his boss. “This decision means more to you than it does to me.”
“You’ve called him up to now...” MacPhail said.
And so it was Joe. He swung his legs over the bullpen gate and walked to the mound, jacket slung over his shoulder, like a guy going to work on a Monday morning. He retired the Dodgers in order in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. With the score 5–2, Miksis singled for Brooklyn with one out in the ninth, but Joe put out the fire by getting Edwards to ground the ball to Phil Rizzuto, who started a series-ending double play. Joe was credited with the victory. A few of months later Sportfolio, an influential magazine of the era covering all sports, pro and amateur, named Joe Page its Professional Athlete of the Year for 1947.
Joe DiMaggio & Joe Page, 1947 newspaper story
The 1948 campaign didn’t go nearly as well for Joe and the Yankees. The team finished third in an exciting three-team tussle with the Indians and Red Sox. Joe led the league in appearances and games finished, but his ERA ballooned to 4.26 and he was 7–8 with only 16 saves. Joe was sharp during the season’s first three months, but he lost some of his stuff after the All-Star break.
At that point, Joe had begun to get under Harris’s skin. The manager had intended to pitch him in the All-Star Game to make a point to Bob Feller, who had begged out of the contest at the last moment. Funds generated by the Midsummer Classic went to the game’s elderly and indigent, and Harris was offended by Feller’s suspicious absence. The New York skipper intended to pitch Yankees the entire game to illustrate his club’s unselfishness. But the morning of the game, Joe was useless. He had run into some old friends in St. Louis the night before and was now sporting a big-league hangover.
A couple of weeks later, Joe got clobbered by the Indians in a relief outing and was never quite the same after that. His ERA ballooned over 8.00 during July and August, during which time the Yankees fell from second to fourth place.
Joe regained his bearings in 1949 under new manager Casey Stengel. A master when it came to getting the match-ups he wanted, Stengel went to Joe late in the games versus anyone carrying a bat. He ran his southpaw out to the mound a league-high 60 times, and Joe responded by leading the AL in games finished for the third year in a row. In a nice bounce-back year, Joe finished with 13 wins and 27 saves, a 2.59 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 135 1/3 innings. At season’s end, he was third in the MVP tally behind Williams and Rizzuto. Williams himself said Joe was more deserving and claimed the Red Sox would have won the pennant by 10 games had they had Joe in their bullpen.
As it was, the Yankees and Red Sox went down to the wire, with Boston owning a one game lead with two to play—both against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. In the first game, the Red Sox opened an early 2–0 lead. Stengel pulled an ineffective Allie Reynolds from the game in the third inning and sent Joe into battle. Cool as ever, he pointed out a pretty girl in the stands to teammates as he walked in from the bullpen.
Joe proceeded to walk the first two batters, forcing in two runs to make the score 4-0. Stengel strolled out to the mound to see if there was a problem. “I’ll get us out of this,” Joe assured his manager.
True to his word, he went the rest of the way, hurling 6 and 2/3 innings of one-hit ball. The Yankees tied the score in the fifth and later won 5–4 on a Johnny Lindell homer in the eighth inning. Joe’s 13th win of the year is still considered one of the great clutch pitching performances in history. The fact that McCarthy was Boston’s skipper made this moment extra-sweet for Joe. The following day, Vic Raschi outpitched Ellis Kinder to win 5–3 and nail down the pennant.
The Dodgers and Yankees tangled again in the World Series. After the teams split a pair of 1–0 pitching duels, New York swept the remaining three games. Joe got the win in pivotal Game 3 with one of his patented multi-inning relief jobs. He came in for Tommy Byrne in the fourth inning with one out and the bases loaded. Joe got Luis Olmo to pop out and retired Duke Snider on a grounder to second, extinguishing the fire. Johnny Mize broke a 1–1 tie in the top of the ninth with a two-run single, and Jerry Coleman plated a third run to make the score 4–1. Joe allowed a pair of homers in the ninth, but Stengel stuck with him and he got Bruce Edwards looking to end the game.
1948 Baaseball Digest
Joe made one more appearance, in Game 5, in relief of Vic Raschi. He took the mound in the seventh inning and preserved a 10–6 New York lead. Joe allowed two base runners in the ninth inning but struck out Snider, Robinson and Gil Hodges to preserve the victory. He received the Babe Ruth Award as World Series MVP.
That winter, the Yankees raised Joe’s salary to $35,000. It was the biggest contract ever given a non-starting pitcher. Joe wasn’t the game’s first ace reliever, but with his new deal he forever glamorized the role of “closer.”
The extra cash was great, but alas Joe’s career took a turn for the worst in 1950. He relieved twice in a May doubleheader against the A’s and felt something go pop in his hip. Joe lost the “rise” on his fastball and the sharp break on his curve, and he could only get by on his swagger for so long. By mid-September, his ERA was over 5.00, and he was not on the roster when the Yankees defended their world championship over the Phillies that October.
Joe injured his arm during spring training in 1951 and ended up splitting the year betweenNew York‘s farm clubs in Kansas City and San Francisco. His now-aching left wing could manage a grand total of only 36 minor-league innings. Joe caught on with Syracuse for a few games in 1952 but packed it in after three appearances.
Joe wasn’t quite through with baseball. He went home to Pennsylvania and reinvented himself as a sinker-baller. By moving his fingers around the seams, he could get the ball to break left or right. He also still threw a spitball—something he did not admit until 1955, when his playing days were done. That magnificent hopping fastball was a distant memory at this point. He threw just hard enough to make the ball dance, and sometimes not even that hard.
In 1954, Joe caught on with the Pirates. During spring training, a young pitcher named Elroy Face studied Joe intently. He was too scared to talk to him, but he watched intently whenever Joe threw. Face could see that Joe had lost his fastball, but he was intrigued by the way the veteran lefty got the ball to move with his split-fingered grip. Face spent that season at Ft. Worth working on this pitch, also known as a forkball. His skipper there, Bobby Bragan, was named manager of the Pirates in 1956. One of his first acts was to make Face a reliever.
Joe Page, 1951 Bowman
As for Joe, Pittsburgh used him in a mop-up role during the early days of 1954. He was effective for about a month, but then the bottom dropped out. After allowing seven runs to the New York Giants in an inning of work, the Pirates gave him his walking papers. A year later, Joe and Kay were divorced. Fortunately, he had saved enough to buy a bar near his home.
Joe actually operated two bars in his retirement years—The Bullpen in Irwin and Page's Rocky Lodge near Laughlintown, Pennsylvania. He rermarried, wedding a woman named Mildred Brown and they had three children. Joe was a regular at the Yankees’ Old Timers’ Day in the 1960s. In 1970, while in New York for the event, he suffered a heart attack. His life was saved by open-heart surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, but a few years later he developed throat cancer.
Joe was a victim of identity theft in the early 1970s, when Dick Schaap interviewed a man in a bar who claimed to be Joe Page. Schaap ran a story in Sport magazine, which painted Joe as a degenerate drunk. Joe sued the publication for $1.5 million and later settled for $25,000. He died of heart failure on April 21, 1980 at the age of 62.
In the big leagues today, relief pitchers are as vital to a team’s fortunes as any MVP slugger or Cy Young ace. Many games, in fact, inclduing those in the postseason, fall into the hands of a reliever who may face no more than one batter. That was never Joe’s role. He took a starter’s mentality into every relief appearance. When he got into a game, he saw it as his to finish. That hard-charging attitude proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Joe’s career lasted just eight seasons. He appears on only two major Top-10 lists for the Yankees: saves (7th with 76) and games finished (7th with 178). But his impact is felt to this day. Whenever a New York reliever gets a key out, nails down a victory in the ninth or signs a multi-million dollar deal, he owes a small debt of gratitude to “Fireman Joe.”
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