SABR

Johnny Lindell

This article was written by Rob Neyer.

John Harlan Lindell, Jr., who reinvented himself as a pitcher after a decade as a Major League outfielder, was born in Greeley, Colorado, on August 30, 1916. He was the only child of John Harlan Oliver Lindell and Laura Lucille (Evans) Lindell. The family moved to Southern California in 1925 and John attended high school there. He reportedly spent five months at the University of Southern California on a track and football scholarship, before being discovered and signed by New York Yankees scout Bill Essick.1

Lindell began his professional career in 1936 as a pitcher with the Yankees’ Joplin, Missouri farm club in the Class C Western Association, where he went 17-8. Two years later Lindell was in the high minors, and over the course of four seasons pitched in the Pacific Coast League with Oakland, the International League with Newark, and the American Association with Kansas City. In 1940, his second season in Kansas City, he went 18-7 with a 2.70 ERA.

Lindell broke camp with the Yankees the next spring, but appeared in just one regular-season game—pinch-hitting on April 18—before getting sent to Newark. In 1941, his only full season with the Bears, the Yankees’ top farm club, he went 23-4 with a league-leading 2.05 earned run average, plus three more victories in the playoffs. For those feats, The Sporting News named Lindell Minor League Player of the Year.2

When he reported to spring training in 1942, Lindell was widely expected to win a job on the big-league staff, particularly with the military draft beginning to take its toll on the Yankees’ roster. Shortly after signing his 1942 contract, Lindell said, “Last spring when I was here I had only a fair curve and my natural sinker have improved all around, especially on control. And I have picked up a slider.”3 A few weeks later Yankees manager Joe McCarthy announced that Lindell would indeed make the Opening Day roster.4

What Lindell wouldn’t do is crack the Yankees’ rotation. He lost that job to (among others) Hank Borowy, one of his Newark teammates in 1941. Lindell instead pitched most often in games already decided, and didn’t pick up his first decision until the second game of a doubleheader on the last day of June, when he pitched 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief and knocked in the winning run in the top of the ninth inning to beat the Philadelphia Athletics, 4–3.

A month later, sportswriter Dan Daniel reviewed the spring’s top pitching prospects and found Lindell a serious disappointment:

“Lindell came up from the Newark farm team last spring with the flamboyant and promising label, ‘No. 1 player of all the minor leagues.’ For the Bears he had piled up the majestic total of 26 victories. From a lofty pinnacle Lindell looked down on Hank Borowy, Virgil Trucks and Hal White, fellow products of the International League.

. . . But the Lindell fastball no longer is in evidence, the Lindell curve hangs high temptation before the batters and they’re getting ready to engrave ‘John Harlan Lindell’ on that pewter mug.”5

Lindell finished the 1942 season with two wins, one loss, and a 3.76 ERA in 52 2/3 innings; he did not appear in the Yankees’ World Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that fall.

With so many Yankees going into the service in 1943, Lindell might have expected another shot at breaking into the rotation that spring. But McCarthy apparently had already given up on him as a pitcher. According to columnist Joe Williams, Lindell’s “small, stubby fingers” limited his speed, leaving him to get by with “tricky stuff, sliders and such. That’s what Lindell was winning with in the minors; it wasn’t good enough in the majors.”6

Lindell had not hit much with the Yankees in his limited 1942 opportunities, but apparently he’d looked better than his .250 batting average would indicate. After the season he’d worked out at first base, and in the spring of 1943 McCarthy said, “I know he can hit, but I don’t know if he can hit playing every day.”7

Nevertheless, with 1942 regulars Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich in the service, McCarthy made Lindell an outfielder. It was a successful transition, as Lindell got off to a fast start, made the All-Star team, and led the American League with a dozen triples.

The 1943 World Series was a rematch of 1942, and this time Lindell played a key role, despite collecting just one hit in four games. In Game Three, with the Yankees down 2–1 in the eighth inning, Lindell led off with a single and moved to second on the center fielder’s error. Snuffy Stirnweiss laid down a bunt, and St. Louis first baseman Ray Sanders threw to third trying to nab Lindell. Standing six feet four and weighing around 220 pounds, Lindell barreled into third baseman Whitey Kurowski, knocking Kurowski down and the ball from his glove. The Yankees now had two on and nobody out and eventually scored five runs in the inning on their way to a 6–2 victory. They also won Games Four and Five, and the Series.

In 1944 the Yankees’ roster—like every other Major League roster—was further depleted by the draft. Lindell remained, and not coincidentally enjoyed the best season of his career. He led the American League in total bases and triples, was third in home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage, and fourth in hits.

Regarding the draft, Lindell had been classified 2-B because of his off-season job as a shipyard worker back in California. Later there was some suggestion that an old head injury—the result of a beaning, or perhaps high-school football action—might keep him from passing the physical. But after a postseason 1944 USO tour that took him and four other baseball personalities to the South Pacific, Lindell was classified 1-A. And after playing in forty-one games for the Yankees in the spring of 1945, he was ordered to report for induction on June 8. He spent the rest of the year in the Army.

Of course, everything changed in 1946. With DiMaggio, Henrich, and Charlie Keller all back from the service, the outfield was exceptionally well-stocked. Lindell’s other position, first base, was manned by Nick Etten, who had knocked in 111 runs in 1945. Etten got off to a slow start, and there was talk about replacing him with Lindell. Though Etten never really did hit much in 1946 (or afterward), most of Lindell’s action came in the outfield, spelling the three regulars.

Lindell played much more in 1947, mainly because of Keller’s chronic back problems. He went 9-for-18 in the World Series and led the Yankees with seven runs batted in as the Bronx Bombers defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games.

According to David Halberstam in Summer of ’49, by the late 1940s “Lindell was the team rogue. He was exuberant, generous, and crude, and his humor seemed to dominate the locker room… Even DiMaggio was vulnerable.”

His teasing was generally good-natured, however, and he was generous with the younger players. When the team arrived in New York, he would take them to his favorite hangouts near the Stadium, including one where the specialty of the house was something called “The Lindell Bomber.” “Try one, you’re going to love it,” he told the young Charlie Silvera … It turned out to be the biggest martini anyone had ever seen – as big as a birdbath. He was the bane of management because his off-field activities were so outrageous. He liked to boast about how much money [Yankees general manager] George Weiss had spent putting private detectives on him.

With Keller healthier in 1948 and the Yankees adding Yogi Berra to the outfield mix, Lindell was just a part-timer for the third-place Yankees. Yet he hit well when he did play. His playing time fell still further in 1949, and this time his numbers fell as well. Late in the season, though, Lindell enjoyed his single biggest moment as a Yankee.

On the last Saturday of the season, the Boston Red Sox arrived in the Bronx for a two-game series that would decide the pennant. Boston led New York by one game in the standings, so there would be no tie; if the Yanks didn’t win both games, they were out.

The Red Sox jumped to an early lead, but the Yankees bounced back and the score was 4–4 into the bottom of the eighth inning. With Red Sox right-hander Joe Dobson on the mound, Casey Stengel sent two left-handed pinch-hitters to face Dobson, who retired them both. The right-hand-hitting Lindell who was in the starting lineup only because the Red Sox started left-hander Mel Parnell, was due next; he’d collected two hits in the game already and Stengel didn’t make a move, even though the lefty-hitting Charlie Keller was available on the bench. Lindell rewarded his manager’s confidence by driving a high fastball into the left-field seats to give the Yankees a 5–4 lead they wouldn’t relinquish; it was just his sixth home run of the season, and his first since July.

Lindell started again in the season finale, which would decide the pennant. His single in the eighth started a two-out rally that proved decisive. Though the Red Sox scored three runs in the ninth, the Yankees won 5–3.

Ever since 1946, with so many of the Yankees’ prewar stars returning from the service, there had been rumors and suggestions regarding Lindell’s relative worth to the Yankees and to other clubs; surely, the arguments went, the Yankees’ fourth outfielder could be a starter for a lot of teams. Though there was interest in Lindell, the Yankees had the luxury of hanging on to him as long as he could hit.

In the spring of 1950, Lindell didn’t hit. Keller was gone and Henrich was old, but now the Yankees had Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, and Cliff Mapes fighting for time in the outfield. When the thirty-three-year-old Lindell went 4-for-25 in his first seven games, management finally deemed him expendable, selling him to the Cardinals in the middle of May. Lindell sounded thrilled at the trade in his comments to the newspapers. “Every day I’d hear new rumors about which club I was going to be sent to soon,” he said. “The way I look at it, I got a swell break being sent to a first division club like the Cardinals. Why, I might have been sent to the White Sox, Browns, or Senators!”8

But Lindell fared no better in the National League, batting .186 in thirty-six games with St. Louis, and wound up being sent to the Minor Leagues, where he also failed to hit, first with Columbus in the International League, then later in the summer with the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars. In 1951, Lindell bounced back to hit .292 with the Stars … but he and his manager actually had something else entirely in mind.

While still playing for the Yankees late in the 1948 season, Lindell had started pitching again. Only on the sidelines, but this time he worked on developing a dependable knuckleball.9 So while he did play outfield and first base with Hollywood in 1951, he also pitched in twenty-six games. Relying largely on his knuckleball, Lindell went 12-9 with a 3.03 ERA.

Lindell returned to Hollywood in 1952, this time primarily as a pitcher. He was a sensation, going 24-9 with a 2.52 ERA and earning Most Valuable Player honors in the Pacific Coast League. Shortly after the Stars captured the PCL championship, Lindell’s contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In training camp with the Pirates in the spring of 1953, the thirty-six-year-old Lindell gave a great deal of credit for his comeback to Hollywood manager Fred Haney and Stars catcher Mike Sandlock, both of whom had also joined the Pirates. “He helped me greatly,” Lindell said of Sandlock. “It was he who nursed me along, gave me encouragement and acted as my tutor and counselor. My luckiest break, next to coming back to the big leagues, was when Haney and Sandlock were brought up to the Pirates with me.”10

About his pitching style, Lindell observed, “I’m no great shucks as a pitcher, really. About all I possess is a knuckleball, I have a dinky slider and a straight ball. No curve whatsoever. I throw the knuckleball about 85 percent of the time. It’s a pretty difficult pitch to hit except that half the time I can’t get it over the plate.”11

Lindell’s assessment was accurate. Hurling for Haney’s Pirates and (later) Steve O’Neill’s Philadelphia Phillies, Lindell led the National League with 139 walks and 11 wild pitches while going 6-17 with a 4.66 earned run average. He fared little better the next spring with the Phillies, who released him on May 10.

That summer Lindell tried to find work in the Pacific Coast League again, but his “dead arm” just wouldn’t come around. The previous winter he’d been a guest instructor at 7-Up’s baseball clinic, held at Hollywood’s Gilmore Field. After admitting he wouldn’t pitch again, Lindell took a position as athletic director of the 7-Up Foundation, attending dinners and luncheons, traveling all over Southern California and generally playing the part of the local hero and former Major League star.12

Lindell held that position for the rest of the 1950s. He joined the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961, serving for most of the decade as head of the franchise’s speakers’ bureau.

In 1985 Lindell died of lung cancer in a Long Beach, California, hospital, three days before his sixty-ninth birthday. He left behind his wife, the former Esther Kent, whom he’d married in 1938, and two children, Teresa and John Harlan Lindell III.

 

This biography is included in the book "Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.

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