SABR

Ted Abernathy

This article was written by Bob Hurte.

Normally when a pitcher sustains a serious arm injury, it might have a career-ending ramification. But adversity did not seem to bother Ted Abernathy. Instead, he made a habit of treating setbacks like challenges. He adapted by becoming a sidearmer and then a submariner. He appeared in 681 big-league games, saving 148 of them, from 1955 to 1972 – an era when relievers racked up much lower saves totals than they did in subsequent decades.

Theodore Wade Abernathy was born to Wade and Genora Abernathy (née McGinnis) on March 6, 1933, in the tiny hamlet of Stanley, North Carolina. They both farmed and worked at the textile mill. Stanley got its name from an elusive prospector who panned for gold in a nearby creek during the early 1700s. It was one of the oldest towns in Gaston County.

The Abernathys had two sons, Ted and Richard. Ted was the older and he grew up to be a strapping 6’4” and 215 pounds. His size led him into athletics. He starred in basketball, but he made his biggest impression on the baseball diamond, playing at Stanley High School and the American Legion team in Gastonia.

Abernathy began pitching with a typical overhand motion. This changed because of an arm injury that occurred during his freshman year in high school in 1948. A ball was hit into the outfield, and pitcher Ted quickly rushed to back up home plate.  After fielding the overthrow, he saw the runner heading for second and threw it down to second. Suddenly, he heard a loud “Pop!” His arm went limp. Ted found out later that he had torn two muscles in his shoulder. His baseball season ended at that moment.

Yet instead of feeling sorry, Abernathy decided to change his delivery, converting to sidearm. He felt no pain by throwing that way, plus it seemed to add velocity to his pitches. Ted went on to compile an outstanding record in high school. Professional scouts began showing up at the games he pitched. Chick Suggs, a scout for the Washington Senators, offered him a contract and signed him before the 1952 season. The Cincinnati Reds offered a similar deal – but Washington’s proved to be more attractive to him, since there was a better chance for him to play near home.

Abernathy began his professional career at Roanoke Rapids, a Class D team in the Coastal Plain League. He became a sensation, going 20-13 with a 1.69 ERA while leading the league with 293 strikeouts. That year he also married his high school sweetheart, Margie Clemmer. They knew each other because of sports before they started going out; their first date was at a local bowling alley. The couple eventually had two sons, Ted and Todd.

Following his exceptional season at Roanoke, Abernathy was promoted to Chattanooga of the Double-A Southern Association in 1953. He pitched there for only a month before being drafted for the Korean War. Still, he was able to complete a 4-1 record before entering the service.

Abernathy served in the Army with the medics. He drove an ambulance while also working in the hospital wards. Since he was an avid car enthusiast, his time in the army allowed him to tinker with autos. While stationed at Fort McPherson, Georgia, he played on a very strong service baseball team that also featured Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell and Norm Siebern. Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell, then a scout for the Detroit Tigers, said, “You’d think Abernathy was the pitcher with the big league background. He looks like a better prospect than Mizell.”

When Ted completed his military obligation, he was discharged as a corporal. He got out in time to join the Senators for spring training 1955 – and became the talk of camp, drawing comparisons to Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell for what was then a “side-arm, sort of underhand delivery.” He made the team, having successfully climbed from Class D to the majors in a little more than one season of professional ball.

Washington used Abernathy both as a long reliever and a spot starter. He went on to win five games against nine losses during his rookie season. His debut as a Senator came on April 13, 1955 during a 19-1 drubbing by the New York Yankees. When he entered, New York was winning 4-0. He struck out Andy Carey, and then Mickey Mantle blasted a three-run homer. Ted pitched two-thirds of an inning, allowing only Mantle’s homer.

Abernathy got his first start on June 25. He pitched eight innings, allowing eight hits and four runs while striking out two. He lost to Detroit 4-0 – but five days later, on June 30, Ted won his first game. He pitched eight innings, allowing five hits, one run, and walking seven with four strikeouts. Camilo Pascual and Spec Shea finished the game, giving up a run in the ninth. The Senators held on to beat Boston, 3-2.

Two of Abernathy’s five victories in 1955 were shutouts – the only ones of his major-league career. His first happened on July 24, as he beat Detroit 3-0 during the second game of a doubleheader. Before this gem, the Tigers had hit 15 homers over the past seven games. Washington lost the first game of the twin bill, which carried a little more significance than Ted’s first shutout; it was also future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning’s first major league victory. Abby’s second shutout occurred on September 11, also against Detroit. It also came against Frank Lary and during the second game of a doubleheader. This time he won 1-0, giving up just four hits.

Abernathy’s rookie season was not great but offered much promise. Among other things, when Senators team owner Calvin Griffith proposed a 15-player trade with the New York Yankees that winter, Yankees general manager George Weiss insisted that Abernathy be included in the deal because his scouts viewed the young sidearmer as one of the American League’s brighter prospects. Neither Griffith nor Charlie Dressen wanted to part with Abby, though.

The 1956 season was an enigma. After his previous season, combined with the way Dressen was hyping him that spring, Ted felt like a significant thread in Washington’s future. Yet instead of traveling north with the Senators, he stayed behind to be reassigned to Louisville of the American Association. Dressen did not view it as a demotion but an opportunity for Abernathy to work on his control.

Ted made his debut at Louisville on April 18 that season, pitching a five-hitter, winning 9-2 while striking out 12. He followed up that performance with a seven-inning three-hitter that ended in a draw, and then an 11-inning, 2-1 win over Omaha on May 1. Even with his pitching success, he spent most of the 1956 season at Louisville. Ted was voted as the “Colonel of Year,’ made the All-Star team, and also led the league with 212 strikeouts. Although he finished at 12-16, 3.90, the Senators called him up in September.

It was an extremely cold afternoon in Boston on September 26 when Ted sustained his second serious pitching injury. That night, in front of slightly more than 2,000 fans, Ted went six innings, surrendering seven runs (five earned) in an 8-4 defeat. After the game his elbow swelled to the size of a cantaloupe. The injury bothered him for the balance of the season and during spring training in 1957. When he began favoring his elbow, he hurt his shoulder, and subsequently missed the entire 1957 season and lived with the pain over the next three seasons. Ted returned to the Chattanooga Lookouts, posting a 9-9 record in 1958.

Washington sent Abernathy to Triple-A Miami for the spring of 1959, hoping that the warm weather might be therapeutic. It did not seem to work and he returned to Single-A Charlotte. On the surface the move seemed like a demotion – but it actually placed him on the road to recovery. While at Charlotte he met Phil Howser, the team’s business manager. Howser listened to the hurler’s medical history, then suggested he go to see Dr. Richard Wren, an orthopedist. Wren prescribed shots and ultrasonic heat treatments. The doctor also informed Abernathy that if the elbow did not improve after three weeks, he should get surgery. Ted consulted with Calvin Griffith for his recommendation. Griffith suggested the operation.

After two and a half hours on the operating table, Dr. Wren presented Abernathy with a handful of bone chips and calcium deposits. The doctor also straightened and untangled the ligaments attached to Ted’s shoulder.

Abernathy rejoined the Senators for 1960. He changed his pitching delivery again – this time he dropped down to an underhand or submarine motion. He copied it from his Senators teammate, Dick Hyde. Abernathy’s new arm angle was really low – “My knuckles scraped the pitching mound sometimes,” he noted over the years. Another benefit was that he threw without pain for the first time in several years.

Even with the apparent success from the surgery, the Senators still released him after one month and two ineffective appearances. He would not reappear in the majors until 1963. At first he was in a state of shock, but undaunted, Ted contacted Louisville, by then an affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves. The newborn submarine pitcher began his climb back to the majors. At first, the road was slow but eventually he began to get traction. Abby spent two and half weeks with the Austin club (Double A) before returning to Louisville. He helped the Colonels win the Junior World Series.

Abernathy began the 1961 season with Vancouver, the Braves’ new Triple-A farm club, but the Milwaukee front office apparently was not enamored with him. The Cleveland Indians purchased his contract in mid-July and assigned him to Salt Lake City, also in the Pacific Coast League. He went 7-3 overall that year, with a 3.72 ERA. In 1962, he became a member of the Jacksonville Suns, Cleveland’s new top affiliate, which went on to win the International League flag. Ted made a strong contribution with a 1.88 ERA in 45 relief appearances.

Abernathy was very sharp in 14 outings for the Suns in early 1963: 2-1, 0.35 ERA, just 11 hits allowed in 26 innings. On May 27, 1963, he returned to the majors with the Indians and entered his first game for the Tribe the following day. Abby came in for Jack Kralick during the bottom of the ninth with men on second and third and the Indians leading 3-2. He walked pinch-hitter Charlie Maxwell intentionally to load the bases before getting Nellie Fox to line into a game-ending double play, recording his first big-league save. Ted admitted to reporters that he liked bullpen work. He had not made a start in the minors or majors since 1959.

There was a time when relievers were typically sore-armed pitchers who tried to extend their career in the majors. Bullpen roles had not yet been defined; nor did quality relievers become a more highly valued commodity until the late 1950s/early ’60s. Then Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman created a new statistic called the “save.” He saw the need to accurately measure a reliever’s true value. At first the save was recognized unofficially, beginning in 1959, until it became an official stat in 1969. Holtzman kept track of saves for The Sporting News during his brainchild’s infancy. Saves and wins together determined the winners of the Fireman of the Year Award for both leagues.

As a member of the Indians, Abernathy appeared in 43 games during the 1963 season. He saved 12 games while posting a 7-2 record and a 2.88 ERA. While he seemed to establish himself as a reliever, Ted’s position in the bullpen diminished when Cleveland purchased Don McMahon for the 1964 season. He fell off to 2-6, 4.33, although he still picked up 11 saves. Hoping to enhance his status, Abby experimented with the knuckleball to add to his repertoire. Dick Bertell, his catcher the next season, would say, “It’s really something. It is a rising and floating knuckler. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Now that Abernathy was no longer prominent in the Indians’ plans, Cleveland showcased him for trade during spring training. On April 11, 1965, around 12:55 P.M., manager Birdie Tebbetts called him into his office to inform him that the Chicago Cubs had bought his contract. Within three hours Ted was in a Cubs uniform, just a day before the start of the season.

On April 12 Abby relieved Larry Jackson to get his team out of the first inning. The first St. Louis batter he faced, Bob Gibson, reached base on an error by the shortstop. Ted retired Curt Flood on a groundout to Glenn Beckert, ending the inning. During the second inning, he retired Lou Brock, Bill White, and Ken Boyer, all on groundouts, and then departed. The game went 11 innings, but was tied 10-10 when called because of darkness. “I was hoping I’d get a chance to pitch,” said Abernathy, “but I didn’t think they’d be asking me to work on Opening Day.”

The Cubs felt they had found a solution for their bullpen woes. Abernathy was responsible directly and indirectly for four of Chicago’s first six victories. Manager Bob Kennedy felt that Abby made him look like a genius. For instance, between April 12 and April 24, Ted pitched ten innings, allowing no runs. He got his first save as a member of the Cubs on April 17, relieving Cal Koonce. On April 22 he earned his first win. Through June 20, Abernathy played a part in 57% of the Cubs’ 28 victories.

Since he was new to the National League and there were no other submarine pitchers there at the time, most people felt that he would dominate until NL batters became familiar with him. Instead, he became the league’s most dominant and hardest-working reliever. His 84 appearances broke the big-league record of 81 set just the previous year by John Wyatt of the Kansas City A’s. Abby capped his stellar season by winning his first “Sporting News Fireman of the Year” award. The Cubs’ bullpen ace finished the season at 4-6 with a 2.57 ERA and a new record for saves with 31.

Abernathy still worked frequently for the Cubs early in 1966 but got off to a slow start. After Abernathy was presented with his 1965 Fireman award on May 14, he was traded within two weeks to the Atlanta Braves, who were interested in improving their pitching staff. When the Braves came to Wrigley for a three-game set, the Cubs showcased their submariner. A deal was finalized on May 28, 1966; Abernathy, who was in a Cubs uniform when informed of the trade, walked over to the visitors’ clubhouse and changed into a Braves uniform.

On the day of the trade, Abernathy immediately pitched against his former team, going 4 2/3 innings. He entered during the bottom of the eighth with the Braves winning 5-4. The first batter he faced was Ron Santo, who walked and advanced to third on a sacrifice and groundout. Lee Thomas – whom the Cubs had received in return for Abernathy – then singled to right to drive home the tying run. Abby eventually lost the game by giving up a three-run homer to Santo in the bottom of the 12th. He surrendered 9 home runs in 93 innings pitched that season, which was a high ratio for him. Like most submariners, he had a fine sinker and induced a lot of ground balls; over his big-league career, he gave up just 70 homers in 1148 1/3 innings.

Abernathy finished up the season with a record of 5-7, 4.55 and eight saves, four for Atlanta. Clay Carroll led the Braves with 11 saves; veterans Chi Chi Olivo and Billy O’Dell had seven and six. Once again Ted found himself expendable. The Braves wanted to protect some of their younger arms and shifted him to the roster of Richmond, their Triple-A affiliate. The move opened an opportunity for any team to select him in the Rule Five draft. The Braves did not suspect that anyone would do so.

However, the Cincinnati Reds had a glaring need to strengthen their bullpen. So, on November 28, 1966, they used their first pick to fill this need by selecting the 33-year-old Abernathy. Reds manager Dave Bristol, who had played against Ted in American Legion ball in North Carolina when both were teenagers, was instrumental in the choice.

The Reds opened their 1967 season on April 10 against the Dodgers at Crosley Field. Jim Maloney started for the Reds against Bob Miller.  Maloney did not have his best stuff that day, but both Abernathy and the Reds offense bailed him out in a 6-1 win. Deron Johnson had a single and a homer. Two other Reds also hit homers. When Maloney was pinch-hit for in the seventh, Ted came in. He immediately retired the side in order. He gave up a harmless hit in the ninth but shut down the Dodgers with no runs. He chalked up four strikeouts, punching out Bob Bailey to end the game.

Abernathy appeared in 14 of Cincinnati’s first 25 games. He pitched 22 innings while allowing just six runs and nine hits. The Reds won 15 of their first 20 games; Abby won or saved nine of them. Eventually the club slowed down and finished fourth, but this was no reflection of Ted’s performance. He had an exceptional year, going 6-3 and posting a microscopic 1.27 ERA with 26 saves (later revised to 28) in 70 games. That was good enough to win his second Fireman of the Year Award. Ted was one of only four relievers to capture the award twice. The others were Dick Radatz, Stu Miller and Lindy McDaniel. In The New Bill James Historical Abstract, Bill James ranked Abernathy’s 1967 performance eighth in his list of the top ten most valuable relief seasons ever.

The knock on Ted over the years was his inability to string together consecutive successful seasons – but he broke away from that trend in 1968. He maintained his torrid pace well into the season. Although he allowed a run in his second outing, his ERA soon fell below 1.00, remaining there until late July.

On June 23, he won both ends of a doubleheader against the Cubs. He entered the first game during the eighth inning with Chicago up 7-6, and though he gave up one of his infrequent scores, he tossed a scoreless ninth and the Reds rallied for three to win, 9-8. Abby was not done yet. He entered the second game, also in the eighth inning with the score tied, and pitched four scoreless innings. Cincinnati pushed across a run in the bottom of the 11th, earning the reliever his second victory of the day.

Even with a touch of bursitis, Abernathy led the Reds in appearances for the second year in a row, with 78. His record of 10-7, 2.46 with 13 saves was good enough for second behind Phil “the Vulture” Regan for The Sporting News Fireman award in 1968. Based on his fine season, Abby felt he had cemented his important place in the Cincinnati bullpen. That June, however, Cincinnati obtained old teammate Clay Carroll from the Braves. “Hawk” posted 17 saves for the Reds over the rest of the season, and that October the team acquired Wayne Granger. At the age of 35, Abernathy was expendable.

Ted was traded back to the Cubs for Ken Myette, Clarence Jones and Bill Plummer on January 9, 1969. The deal united the NL’s top two relievers of 1968; Regan and Abernathy combined with Hank Aguirre to form a solid bullpen. Unfortunately it was not enough to derail the “Miracle” Mets.

Abernathy had had a good year in 1969 (4-3, 3.16 with three saves in 56 games). The 1970 season, however, became a microcosm of his major league career. It began in Chicago, where he appeared in 11 games, chalking up a save. At the end of May, he was traded to St. Louis for Phil Gagliano, after which he appeared in another 11 games in a little over a month, chipping in both a win and a save. Just when Abby thought he had found a home, Cardinals general manager Bing Devine sent him across the state to Kansas City for minor league pitcher Chris Zachary. The GM’s explanation was simply that it was part of baseball – players moved around.

The Royals were happy to get Abernathy. Wheeler-dealer Cedric Tallis foresaw more value in the deal – which not only brought a proven reliever but also allowed the team to trade Bob Johnson to Pittsburgh, picking up two players who became a part of their future, Freddie Patek and Bruce Dal Canton. Abby went on to lead all AL relievers in Fireman Award points from July 2 through the end of the season. He finished with a record of 9-3, 2.59 and 12 saves for Kansas City.

Ted pitched two more effective seasons for the Royals. In 1971, he pitched 63 times, going 4-6, 2.56 with 23 saves and finishing third for the AL Fireman award. Tom Burgmeier got more chances to finish games in 1972, even though Abernathy’s performance was much better (3-4, 1.70 ERA and five saves). The 39-year-old vet ended his major league career on September 30, 1972 against the Oakland A’s. He entered the game during the fifth inning for Monty Montgomery and successfully got Reggie Jackson to ground out to first and Dave Duncan to pop out to third.

Abernathy did not return to Kansas City for the 1973 season. Cedric Tallis appreciated the fine job that he had done for the Royals, but felt that it was time for a change. Returning home to North Carolina, Ted played one more year of professional baseball before hanging up his cleats. He appeared in 18 games for the Wilson Pennants of the Carolina League (2-1, 3.86).

After his professional baseball career, Abernathy worked at Summey Building Systems in Dallas, North Carolina. Later he worked for his younger son Todd at his landscaping business. Abby enjoyed playing softball and “tinkering” with old cars during his retirement. He was also active in several organizations such as Major League Baseball’s Alumni Society, the Masons (Gaston Lodge #263 and York Rites), and the Oasis Shriners.

Abernathy suffered from Alzheimer’s during his last years. He was residing at Belaire Health Care Center in Gastonia, North Carolina until his death from an undisclosed illness on December 16, 2004, at the age of 71.

Submariners are a rare and distinctive breed of pitchers. They tend to get late starts in the majors, but they can turn out to be both durable and effective. Ted Abernathy was an important part of the historical chain. Prominent early submariners included Joe McGinnity, Carl Mays, and Elden Auker. In the 1970s, two more first-rate relievers emerged: Kent Tekulve and Dan Quisenberry. Tekulve consistently credited Abernathy’s influence over the years. In November 2011, the Cincinnati native said, “Ted was who I copied my delivery from after I decided to move away from my natural sidearm delivery. I watched him as a kid when he was with the Reds.”

“He had the ability to make great hitters look bad,” said Todd Abernathy after his father passed away. “He’s almost impossible to hit when you only get one shot at him,” said the Kansas City Royals’ 1971 yearbook. “You see the overhanded stuff all the time, then this guy comes in there throwing the ball from out of the ground.”

 

Sources

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 867.

Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 115.

Rory Costello, “Below-the-Belt Deliveries,” Inside Sports, August 1991, 14.

James Enright, “Strong Cubs Bullpen Manned by A. L. Rejects,” The Sporting News, June 3, 1969, 4.

Jim Ferguson, “He’s Underhanded About It!,” Baseball Digest, December 1966, 40.

Joe Gergen, “Abernathy Busy Pitcher for the Reds,” United Press International, April 25, 1967.

Jerome Holtzman, “Abernathy Repeater as Fireman of the Year; Rojas Tops in A.L.,” The Sporting News, October 28, 1967, 29.

Jerome Holtzman, “Submarine Hurler Torpedoes Batters,” The Sporting News, June 8, 1965, 14.

Jerome Holtzman, “Super Mechanic Souping up Cubs’ Motor,” The Sporting News, June 12, 1965, 5-6.

Walter L. Johns, “Baby-Faced Kid Abernathy, 19 [sic], Chuck’s Hope as ‘New Blackwell,’” The Sporting News, March 23, 1955, 15.

Earl Lawson, “There’s a Pay Boost in Abby’s Future,” The Sporting News, July 6, 1968, 19.

Joe McGuff, “Lyttle Takes Root as Royal Gardener of Future,” The Sporting News, February 24, 1973, 50.

Wayne Minshew, “Abernathy Top Dog in Teepee Bull Pen,” The Sporting News, June 11, 1966, 11.

Shirley Povich, “Senators Sounding Sirens for Fireballer Abernathy,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1954: 6.

Shirley Povich, “Own Farms Barren, Griffith Seeks Talent from Rivals’ Chains,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1955, 12.

Tracy Ringolsby, “Relief Pitching Comes of Age and Pay,” Baseball Digest, July 1990, 73.

Herman Weskopf, “Highlight,” Sports Illustrated, May 15, 1967.

Ted Abernathy obituaries, Gaston Gazette, Associated Press, December 2004.

The Sporting News, December 1954 - February 1973.

Kent Tekulve, email to author, November 12, 2011.

Ted Abernathy Jr., email to author, November 30, 2011.

Frank Thomas, letter to author, November 16, 2011.

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