Jim Lemon

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf

On August 31, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower traveled approximately two miles from the White House to Griffith Stadium take in an afternoon of baseball featuring the Washington Senators and New York Yankees, whose star, Mickey Mantle, was in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home-run record. Mantle walloped his 47th round-tripper in the Yankees’ 6-4 victory, but was upstaged by Washington’s 28-year-old slugger, Jim Lemon, in his first full season. The hulking 6-foot-4, 200-pound Lemon stole the show by belting three consecutive home runs off starter Whitey Ford, accounting for all of Washington’s runs and letting Lemon join the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio as the only players to clout three round-trippers in a game in the mammoth ballpark. An exuberant Lemon met an equally excited Eisenhower after the game, and sealed his reputation as the president’s favorite player.

Like Joe Adcock, Rocky Colavito, Ted Kluszewski, and Dick Stuart, among many others, Lemon was the kind of big, lumbering slugger that many clubs had in an era defined by powerful hitters. “Every team approached the game with the same essential offensive strategy,” wrote Bill James about big-league ball in the 1950s. “Get people on base and hit home runs.”1 Lemon averaged 28 round-trippers and 87 RBIs during his first five full seasons (1956-1960) with the lowly Senators. Plagued by injuries after the team relocated to Minnesota, Lemon retired after the 1963 season with 164 home runs to his credit in 1,010 games. A baseball lifer, Lemon served two different stints on the coaching staff of the Minnesota Twins (1965-1967 and 1981-1984) and piloted the Washington Senators in 1968.

James Robert Lemon was born on March 23, 1928, in Covington, a small town nestled in the Allegheny Mountains in north-central Virginia near the border with West Virginia. His parents, James G. and Elizabeth Lemon, raised six children (two daughters, followed by Jim, then three more sons) in the unforgiving times of the Great Depression. Like many men in the picturesque city surrounded by mountains and lush forests, the elder Jim was employed in the paper mill industry as a millwright. Young Jim (whom everyone called Bob) seemed to be a natural athlete. Always tall for his age, lanky, fast, and blessed with quick reflexes, Lemon could hit a baseball a country mile. After graduating from Covington High School in 1947, he was signed by the Cleveland Indians. Soon thereafter, he became known as Jim in order to avoid confusion with the team’s other Lemon, star pitcher Bob Lemon.

In 1948 Jim began his professional baseball career and commenced an eight-year odyssey filled with disappointments and triumphs, promotions and demotions, and a trade before he finally landed a permanent spot on a big-league roster in 1956 at the age of 28. Initially assigned to the Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Electrics in the Class C Canadian-American League, Lemon lasted only seven games before he was dropped a class to the Bloomingdale (New Jersey) Troopers in the North Atlantic League. He batted .298 and displayed his speed and power by ranking in the top ten in triples and homers (11 each).

Over the next two seasons, Lemon emerged as one of the top sluggers in the minor leagues. As a member of the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Senators, Lemon led the Class B Interstate League with 27 roundtrippers in 1949. The following season, his 39 clouts for the Double-A Oklahoma City Indians of the Texas League were the most in Double-A. He also led the league in RBIs (119), slugging percentage (.585), and total bases (275) in less than a full season.

In a fierce pennant race with the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, the Cleveland Indians called up Lemon on August 18, 1950.2 According to sportswriter Hal Lebovitz, manager Lou Boudreau wanted the hot prospect even though his squad was filled with home-run threats (Al Rosen, Luke Easter, and Larry Doby), and clashed with GM Hank Greenberg, who considered Lemon still too green.3 Batting third and playing left field, Lemon went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts in his debut on August 20. He struggled both at the plate, knocking in just one run (on his first home run) in 34 at-bats, and in the field.

Lemon served in the US Army in 1951 and 1952, and was stationed primarily at Fort Meade, Maryland. In addition to playing on his camp team, Lemon used his furlough to participate in his first spring training with the Indians in 1952. “I believe he is not only going to become a big leaguer,” said Greenberg, impressed with Lemon’s commitment to baseball, “he’s going to become a star.”4

Lemon was back with the Indians in 1953, but it was obvious that a two-year absence from Organized Baseball had taken a toll on the once-promising prospect. While playing Army ball, he had developed the habit of backing away from pitches because of wild throwers, and consequently lost his power stroke. “Greenberg told me to throw my shoulder toward the pitcher on every delivery,” said Lemon in spring training. 5 Looking confused at the plate, Lemon went 8-for-46 (.174) with one home run through May before he was optioned to “regain his swing” with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians in the American Association.6

Lemon’s career seemed to reach a crossroad in 1954 after a poor season with Indianapolis, where he batted just .218. Despite a productive offseason playing for Gavilanes in the Venezuelan winter league, Lemon’s spring training with the Indians was a bust. Still weak from a tonsillectomy before arriving in Tucson, Lemon was sent at his own request to Cleveland’s minor-league camp in Daytona Beach in mid-March.7 Not yet optioned, Lemon was working out with the Richmond Virginians of the International League when he was recalled to the Indians due to a technical oversight. Because Lemon had served two years in the service, he had to clear waivers before he could be optioned, and that was a risk the Indians were unwilling to take. Instead, they sold him for a reported $20,000 to the Washington Senators on May 12. After going 2-for-4 in his first start, on May 16, Lemon lined a walk-off, pinch-hit single to lead the Senators over the New York Yankees, 2-1, on May 26.

Despite his first big hit, Lemon was hitting just .212 (7-for-33) with no homers. His career reached its nadir when he cleared waivers and was optioned to the Charlotte (North Carolina) Hornets of the Class A South Atlantic League in mid-June. Surprisingly, Lemon resurrected his career, finishing second in batting (.346) and tying for the league lead in slugging percentage (.604). Called up in September, he started 24 consecutive games for the Senators, batting well enough (.242 with three triples and two homers) to rekindle Washington’s interest in his career.

Lemon’s rise to the big leagues hit another stumbling block in 1955. The previous year the Senators had given prospect Harmon Killebrew a hefty bonus to sign with the team; under rules established in 1947 to discourage large bonuses, Washington was obliged to keep the “bonus baby” on the team’s roster for two years. The Senators thus had little flexibility with Lemon, whom they assigned to the Chattanooga Lookouts in the Double-A Southern Association. The 27-year-old slugger “smash[ed] record breaking drives all season,” wrote The Sporting News, including a 450- foot blast over the center-field wall at Pelican Park in New Orleans.8 He was the first right-hander to clear the 30-foot-tall right-field wall at the 317-foot mark at Chattanooga’s Joe Engel Stadium (he did it four times). The highlight of Lemon’s season came in July at the league’s all-star game in Birmingham, Alabama, when he clouted four home runs and knocked in seven runs. At the subsequently staged “Jim Lemon Day” in Chattanooga in August, Lemon provided an encore by belting a grand slam in the Lookouts’ 6-4 victory over the Birmingham Barons.9 Lemon tied for the league lead in RBIs (109), paced the circuit in triples (12), and finished fourth in home runs (24). In a September call-up to Washington, he went 5-for-25 with a one home run.

Lemon arrived at spring training in 1956 with renewed confidence after leading the Mexican Pacific winter league in home runs while playing for Ciudad Obregón. According to Washington Post beat reporter Shirley Povich, Lemon was “rated roughly as outfielder number six”10 before he raised eyebrows by belting a grand slam and driving in eight runs against the Cincinnati Reds in an exhibition game in Columbia, South Carolina.11 In Washington’s third game, Lemon made his first start of the season, going 3-for-4 with a double, home run, and two RBIs in a victory over the Yankees, and won a permanent job.

In his first 15 starts (all in right field), Lemon batted .396 (21-for 53), hit six home runs (surpassing his career total of five in 233 at-bats), and knocked in 18 runs. “I never expected to play regularly,” said Lemon, astonished by his success. “I figured I’d be playing only when the opposition pitched a southpaw.”12 While the Senators were firmly ensconced in the second division all season long, and finished in seventh place, Lemon’s seemingly meteoric rise gave fans something to celebrate. Lemon went from “merely part of the bench strength,” wrote Povich, to the “biggest box office attraction in years.13 His “bat thundering with … Wagnerian strokes,” Lemon and teammate Roy Sievers assaulted Senators home-run records.14 With 27 and 29 round-trippers respectively, both sluggers surpassed the team record of 25 home runs that Sievers had set the previous season, and were the AL’s most potent long-ball combination after Mantle and Yogi Berra. En route to a team-record 112 home runs, Lemon and Sievers became just the third pair of Senators teammates to record at least 20 roundtrippers in one season. Lemon batted a respectable .271, led the team in slugging percentage (.502), and paced the AL with 11 triples.

The power surge in Griffith Stadium, one of the largest in baseball, was the result of Calvin Griffith’s decision to alter the outfield dimensions. After taking over the team upon the death of his uncle, Clark Griffith, the cash-strapped owner wanted sell more tickets by generating more offense. Consequently, the left-field foul pole was reduced from 388 feet from home plate to 350 feet, making it more attractive to right-handed sluggers, while the right-field power alley (with its famed 31-foot-tall concrete fence) remained at 373 feet. Despite the changes, the Senators ranked last among big-league clubs in attendance (431,647) in 1956.

Lemon had an erect and wide batting stance, often crowded the plate, and generated his power from a classic roundhouse swing. Baseball fans throughout the country had the chance to see Lemon’s graceful stroke when he participated on Mark Scott’s Home Run Derby television series, which aired in 1960.15 Lemon’s swing also produced a lot of strikeouts. He set a new AL record with 138 whiffs in 1956. At a time when strikeouts were frowned upon and much less frequent than in today’s game (only four big-leaguers struck out 100 or more times in 1956, compared with 105 in 2013), Lemon’s dubious record was national news. “I’m not swinging for singles,” Lemon said defiantly. “When you take that big swing, you’re bound to strike out.”16 Lemon constantly worked on his swing to cut down on his strikeouts, yet led the AL in whiffs again in 1957 (94) and 1958 (120), and finished second in 1960 (114). “There’s no difference between a strikeout and a popup as far as I am concerned,” he said unapologetically.17

Lemon capitalized on his new-found notoriety by participating in barnstorming tours in 1956, 1957, and 1958. With the migration of big-league baseball westward and the rise of televised games, the lucrative and time-honored tradition of big leaguers barnstorming to augment their income was gradually coming to a close.

Named the “hardest working veteran in camp” by The Sporting News, Lemon took manager Chuck Dressen’s advice in 1957 and began crouching more at the plate so that he would not miss the low pitch for a strike. The result was disastrous. Through his first 24 games, the big Virginian had connected for just one home run in 93 at-bats, and had knocked in only six runs. After Dressen was fired following a 4-16 start and replaced by Cookie Lavagetto, Lemon reverted to his open stance and went on a tear, belting 11 roundtrippers, driving in 35 runs, and batting .345 over a 44-game stretch from May 13 to June 27. “I was striding into the ball too much,” replied Lemon when asked about his success. “Now there’s practically no stride.”18 Mired in a slump the last two months of the season (two homers and nine RBIs), Lemon finished with a career-high .284 batting average, but his 17 homers and 64 RBIs failed to meet expectations. More troubling to Lavagetto was Lemon’s failure to develop as an outfielder.

Lemon’s defensive liabilities were no secret, but they nonetheless frustrated managers. “From the moment he had left the Virginia Hills to sign with the Cleveland Indians,” wrote sportswriter Sandy Grady, “Lemon could hit baseball where they couldn’t find ’em … [but] fly balls popped around him like hail stones. ‘Lemon will hit .900’ and ‘field .300 for you,’ ” said one scout.19 Lemon’s fielding woes were puzzling given his exceptional speed for a big man and his strong, accurate arm. The Sporting News once rated him the fastest player on the team.20 He was quick out of the batter’s box, and his sprint to first base was timed at 3.7 seconds, just as fast as Dick Groat and Frank Robinson.21 Yet, that speed did not transfer into the ability to cover large swaths of ground in the outfield — a necessity in Griffith Stadium. Lemon led all AL outfielders in errors as a rookie in 1956 (12), and in 1960 (11), finished second in 1959 and fourth in 1957. Lavagetto, irked that so many balls dropped in front of Lemon for base hits, moved him to first base in July 1957. The ill-fated experiment ended after the third game when Lemon committed three errors.

Judged by The Sporting News as “not an answer to [Lavagetto’s] right field situation,” Lemon overcame stiff competition from hot prospect Neil Chrisley, who had batted .343 in Indianapolis the previous year, to win the starting job in 1958.22 On Opening Day Lemon belted a home run much to the excitement of President Eisenhower, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch. On a team that finished in last place for the third time in four years, Lemon and his roommate Sievers provided fans a reason to cheer. They clubbed 65 home runs, matching Rocky Colavito and Minnie Miñoso of the Cleveland Indians for the most of any pair of teammates in the AL. Lemon belted 26 of those (eighth most in the AL) and drove in 75 runs, but, batted a disappointing .246. His strikeouts and outfield play exasperated Lavagetto, who benched him at least five times during the course of the season. Unsurprisingly, Lemon’s name cropped up continually in offseason trade rumors.

Lemon’s offseason knee surgery to repair cartilage ended trade rumors, but also put him behind in spring training. He lost his job in right field to 24-year-old hard-hitting rookie Bob Allison, and was relegated to the bench. Lemon might have remained there all season had left fielder Sievers not suffered an earlyseason injury. The gentle giant Lemon took over right field and was later shifted to left field, as Lavagetto shuffled his outfield. Even though Senators had a losing record every month of the season en route to their fourth last-place finish in five years, the club boasted three of the six AL sluggers with at least 30 home runs in what sportswriter Frederick G. Lieb tabbed the “New Murderer’s Row.”23 The Senators set a team record with 163 home runs, trailing only the Cleveland Indians. Harmon Killebrew, in his first full season, tied the Tribe’s Rocky Colavito for the league lead in home runs with 42; Rookie of the Year winner Allison, who ultimately settled in center field, belted 30; and Lemon clouted 33, third-best in the American League. In a career day, Lemon went 3-for-5 with seven RBIs in the Senators’ blowout victory against the Boston Red Sox, 14-2, on September 5. In the third inning of that game, he tied two major-league records by belting two home runs (including the second of two career grand slams, both that season) and driving in six runs. Notwithstanding his limited mobility in the outfield, Lemon enjoyed his hitherto best season, led the team in batting (.279), and also knocked in 100 runs.

Throughout his career, Lemon was praised as a gentleman, a sportsman, and a “big leaguer with class.”24 Quiet and unpretentious, Lemon always played in shadows of a star — first Sievers, then Killebrew and Bob Allison — and was never considered the star of his team. He played in a “partial eclipse,” wrote The Sporting News.25 A man of few words, the sandy-haired Lemon rarely complained publicly, even when he could have (such as when Casey Stengel left him off the AL All-Star team in 1959), and was a consummate teammate with a reputation of helping younger players.

He had a good voice, too. While a member of the Indians, he was part of a barbershop quartet with teammates Jim Hegan, Billy Joe Davidson, and Lou Brissie; and with Albie Pearson and Roy Sievers, he formed the “Singing Senators,” who performed on the Today Show in 1958.

In 1960 the Senators did not have a fairy-tale, worst-to-first finish in their 59th and final season in Washington. With Killebrew and Allison failing to duplicate their seasons from 1959, and Sievers having been traded to the Chicago White Sox, Lemon emerged as the team’s most consistent and dangerous slugger. By the All-Star break he was among the league leaders with 21 home runs and 50 RBIs, and it appeared he would be snubbed yet again. But when his teammate, right-handed pitcher Camilo Pascual, came down with an injury, Lemon took his place on the roster. He went 0-for-1 and drew a walk in the first All-Star game that season; and did not play in the second game. Lemon made national news on May 3 when he became the first big-league player to wear what the press described as a “Little League helmet,” a protective cap with flaps over both ears.26 (In 1953, the Pittsburgh Pirates became to first team to require its players to wear batting helmets; the NL mandated it beginning in 1956 and the AL in 1958; however, these helmets did not have ear flaps.) At 32 years of age, Lemon enjoyed his best season, belting a career-high 38 round-trippers, tying a career-high with 100 RBIs, and slugging .508. He finished tenth in MVP voting.

Lemon looked forward to the Senators’ move to Minnesota and to an excited fan base. “They are enthusiastic about us … and that does a lot for a player who’s not used to it.”27 However, Lemon’s first season in the Twin Cities was as disappointing as his final campaign in the nation’s capital was exciting. A bitter contract squabble with Calvin Griffith played out in the press, making a poor first impression on Lemon’s new fans. Off to a slow start, he suffered a shoulder injury when he was hit by a pitch thrown by Don Larsen of the Kansas City Athletics on April 24. By midseason, he had trouble raising and extending his left arm, and consequently lost his power. In his last full season, Lemon clouted only 14 home runs and knocked in 52 runs.

With just 21 plate appearances, Lemon spent most of the 1962 on the disabled list because of his shoulder. He had offseason surgery to repair the damage, but at 35, the odds were stacked against a comeback. A shell of his former self, Lemon was sold twice during the 1963 season, and concluded his final year in Organized Baseball by playing for the Twins, Chicago White Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies, batting just .218 and hitting three home runs in 156 at-bats. He retired at the end of the season. In his 12-year big-league career, Lemon hit 164 round-trippers, drove in 529 runs, and batted .262; he clouted 129 home runs over six years in the minors.

Lemon transitioned to coaching immediately after the end of his playing career. After skippering the York (Pennsylvania) White Roses, the Senators’ affiliate in the Double-A Eastern League, to a last-place finish in 1964, he accepted a job as hitting coach for the Minnesota Twins the following season. “I’ve seen Lemon work with hitters many times,” said team owner Griffith. “I’ve known few players who have studied hitting so thoroughly.”28 Rejoining many of his former teammates, Lemon was a stickler for fundamentals and one of the earliest advocates of the use of film in teaching hitting.

The Twins won the pennant in Lemon’s first season, leading the league in batting (.254) and runs scored (774). After three years with the Twins (1965-1967), Lemon signed a two-year contract to manage the Washington Senators, who had traded their skipper, Gil Hodges, to the New York Mets for pitcher Bill Denehy and $100,000. Lemon guided a talent-poor team to a last-place finish (65-96) in 1968, but was then unexpectedly fired when Minneapolis millionaire Bob Short, former owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, purchased the Senators. Short surprised the baseball world by luring Ted Williams out of retirement to manage the team.

In the 1970s Lemon directed his attention to his business pursuits, but occasionally served as a scout and hitting instructor in baseball camps. In 1981 he resumed his formal coaching career when he rejoined the Twins and served as the team’s hitting instructor for four years (1981-1984). For the next decade he was a roving hitting instructor in the minor leagues and also the hitting coach for the Elizabethton (Tennessee) Twins in the Rookie Appalachian League. His last managerial position was with the rookie-level Gulf Coast Twins in 1992.

A baseball lifer whose passion for teaching the game never waned, Lemon was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1988. On May 14, 2006, he died at the age of 78 at his home in Brandon, Mississippi. He suffered from melanoma. Survived by his wife of 54 years, Ella, and their three children, Lemon was buried at the Emory United Methodist Church Cemetery, Alleghany County, Virginia.

 

Sources

Jim Lemon player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York

Ancestry.com

BaseballLibrary.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Chicago Daily Tribune

New York Times

Retrosheet.com

SABR.org

The Sporting News

  • 1. Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 223.
  • 2. The Sporting News, August 30, 1950, 11.
  • 3. The Sporting News, March 7, 1951, 18.
  • 4. The Sporting News, April 2, 1952, 7.
  • 5. The Sporting News, March 18, 1953, 21.
  • 6. The Sporting News, June 17, 1953, 6.
  • 7. The Sporting News, March 31, 1954, 08.
  • 8. The Sporting News, July 27, 1955, 35.
  • 9. Associated Press, “Chattanooga Stages ‘Day’ For Jim Lemon,” Fort Pierce (Florida) News Tribune, August 15, 1955, 5.
  • 10. The Sporting News, March 20, 1957, 8.
  • 11. United Press, “Senators Outslug Red Legs 16-12,” Post Herald and Register (Beckley, West Virginia), April 8, 1956, 14.
  • 12. Frank Eck, “Big Jim Lemon Bends to Improve Slugging,” (Associated Press), North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript, April 13, 1957, 2.
  • 13. The Sporting News, May 16, 1956, 18.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. YouTube clips of Lemon facing Hank Aaron and Willie Mays in the Home Run Derby are available at youtube.com/watch?v=Ckb0LWrdNZs and youtube.com/watch?v=irsE3vOULuM . See Don Zminda, “Home Run Derby: A Tale of Baseball and Hollywood,” SABR.org
  • 16. International News Service,“Dressen Says Jim Lemon Has What It Takes, “ Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune, April 6, 1957, 9.
  • 17. The Sporting News, March 20, 1957, 8.
  • 18. The Sporting News, June 19, 1957, 20.
  • 19. Sandy Grady, “Jim Lemon Has His Own ‘Late Show,’ ” Unattributed article, dated May 6, 1963. Lemon’s Hall of Fame file.
  • 20. The Sporting News, April 17, 1957, 15.
  • 21. The Sporting News, November 7, 1956, 18.
  • 22. The Sporting News, March 5, 1958, 22.
  • 23. The Sporting News, July 22, 1959, 3.
  • 24. The Sporting News, July 15, 1959, 12.
  • 25. The Sporting News, September 16, 1959, 23.
  • 26. United Press International, “Jim Lemon First to Wear Little League Helmet,” Weirton (West Virginia) Daily Times, May 3, 1960, 14.
  • 27. The Sporting News, March 1, 1961, 12.
  • 28. The Sporting News, November 7, 1964, 2.