SABR

Gene Bearden

This article was written by Ralph Berger.

Some players have stellar careers and are elected to the Hall of Fame, but never take part in a World Series. Others have journeyman careers, but for one season they shine and bring glory to their team and themselves. Such was the case with Gene Bearden. The wounded World War II survivor pitched himself and the Cleveland Indians to the summit in 1948. Thereafter, Bearden struggled to stay in the majors. Ted Williams described Bearden as a guy who had nothing but a dinky little knuckleball. When batters laid off his knuckler, he had nothing else to offer. Still, Bearden managed to stay in the big leagues through the 1953 season.

But there is a backstory with the Bearden saga. On the early morning of July 6, 1943, the cruiser USS Helena was in the Kula Gulf in the South Pacific near the Solomon Islands, where it was part of an American task force battling the Japanese. The Helena was one of the lucky few ships in Pearl Harbor that had survived when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. The fighting was fierce in the Kula Gulf. Suddenly the Helena was struck by three torpedoes. American destroyers darted in and out trying to save as many lives as possible. From time to time they had to divert their rescue missions to one of battling the Japanese. Out of a crew of 900 on the Helena, 168 died as it sank. Machinist’s Mate Gene Bearden was one of the survivors. His head had been badly smashed open, and one of his knees was a mass of wounded flesh. Drifting in a life raft, he was picked up by one of the destroyers. For the next two years he was in the hospital, where a silver plate was inserted into his skull to fill up the part that had been gashed out, and a metal hinge was inserted into his damaged knee. Baseball at this point seemed out of the question for Bearden. His war injuries would plague him the balance of his life. He needed to take painkilling drugs and at times had difficulties seeing. Biographers agree that he also may have had a drinking problem.

Henry Eugene Bearden was born on September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas. His father, Henry, was a machinist for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and the family moved frequently. His mother, Ella, was a housewife. Bearden grew up playing baseball on sandlots in Tennessee. He graduated from Technical High School in Memphis in 1938. He idolized Lou Gehrig. Bearden was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1939. The tall, slim Bearden (6-feet-3, 198 pounds), a left-handed pitcher, began his professional baseball career in 1939 pitching for Moultrie of the Class D Georgia-Florida League, where he won 5 games and lost 11 as an 18-year-old. In 1940, he was 18-10 with a 1.63 earned-run average at Miami Beach of the Class D Florida East Coast League, and in 1941 returned to Miami Beach, where he won 17 and lost 7 (2.40 ERA). He started the 1942 season with Savannah in the Class B South Atlantic League, but was sold by the Phillies to the New York Yankees and switched to Augusta in the same league. He won 4 and lost 4 before joining the Navy, where he received basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, just outside Chicago. After basic training, Bearden attended machinist school and was eventually assigned to the Helena, where he was assigned to the engine room.

After his long recuperation from his injuries, Bearden was discharged from the Navy in 1945 and returned to baseball. He showed that he was recovered by winning 15 games for the Yankees’ farm team at Binghamton (Eastern League) in 1945, and 15 for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in 1946. Under Stengel’s guidance at Oakland, Bearden developed a knuckleball. He gripped the ball with the nails of his first three fingers and was able to deliver the pitch with virtually no spin and a sharp drop as it approached the batter.

On December 26, 1946, Bearden was sent to the Cleveland Indians as part of a five-player trade (Bearden, pitcher Al Gettel and outfielder Hal Peck to the Indians for catcher Sherm Lollar and infielder Ray Mack; Stengel recommended Bearden to Indians owner Bill Veeck). Bearden made his debut with the Indians on May 10, 1947, pitching one-third of an inning in relief against the St. Louis Browns and giving up three runs. That was his only big-league appearance for 1947 and he wound up with an astronomical earned run average of 81.00 and a trip back to Oakland for the remainder of the 1947 season. At Oakland, he put together a solid season, going 16-7 with a 2.86 earned run average, and earned a trip back to Cleveland for the 1948 season and his season-long moment in the sun.

In that season, the 27-year-old Bearden was a relative unknown among such pitching stalwarts as Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Steve Gromek. The baseball world hardly expected a pitcher with no glory trail behind him to take a team to a World Series championship. Such stuff is usually reserved for a Hollywood lot, where make-believe rules.

Invited to spring training with the Indians in 1948, Bearden earned a spot on the club. It was not until the Indians’ 12th game of the season, on May 8, in Washington, that he got his first start. Bearden admitted he was nervous but a teammate, third baseman Ken Keltner, gave him words of encouragement. He told Bearden, “Let them hit it.” Keltner told Bearden, “It’s a ten-minute cab ride to center field.” Buoyed by Keltner’s words, Bearden defeated Sid Hudson of the Senators, 6-1. He also won his next two starts, and was off to a larger-than-life season.

Bearden’s winning ways were broken momentarily on May 26 when he lost to Hudson and the Senators, 2-0. Bearden then ran off three more consecutive wins. Then a slump hit him, and he lost his next four starts. The Indians’ manager, Lou Boudreau, still went with him. And Bearden showed his appreciation by winning eight of his next 12 starts.

On September 16, the Indians and the Red Sox each had 87 wins. Boudreau relied heavily on Bearden. He started him in five of the remaining 15 games and Bearden won them all, despite pitching with limited rest between starts. Bearden’s 8-0 shutout of the Detroit Tigers on October 2 clinched a tie for the American League pennant with the Boston Red Sox.

The season ended on Sunday, October 3, and a playoff to determine the pennant was scheduled for Monday. Boudreau went with Bearden as his pitcher, though Bearden had started just two days before, on Saturday. Lou was going with the horse that got them there. Bob Lemon had pitched on Friday and Feller on Sunday. The experts scoffed at Boudreau’s choice Bearden was being asked again to pitch again so soon, and with Fenway Park’s Green Monster looming in left field, was it wise to start a left hander against the Red Sox?

Boudreau said years later that “Bearden was my best pitcher -- better than Bob Feller, better than Bob Lemon, better than Steve Gromek. He’d come through in the tough games for us all season, and I had absolute confidence in him.”

Bearden was cool and calm before the big game. He said later that he felt more nervous before his first-ever pitching assignment. He frustrated the Red Sox with his herky-jerky motion and his dead-fish-diving knuckleball, and the Indians came away with an 8-3 win and the American League pennant. For the Indians, other heroes of the game were Bearden’s roommate, Ken Keltner, who smashed a three-run homer, and player-manager Boudreau, who had four hits, including two homers. After the victory, Bearden was carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates. The man who drifted in a raft in the Pacific desperately fighting for his life was now borne as if on air to a happy celebration.

On the Red Sox side, manager Joe McCarthy’s hunch about starting veteran Denny Galehouse backfired. The aging Galehouse’s tank was empty and the loss was his last decision in the major leagues.

Arthur Daley, a New York Times sports columnist in poetic fashion summed up the days happenings. He wrote:

 “High-powered masterminding strategic concepts and Machiavellian managerial maneuvering are awesomely impressive when they work. Marse Joe McCarthy carefully studied the wind which blew out toward the short left field fence today and abandoned all notions of using his stylish southpaw, Mel Parnell. Instead he gambled on the ancient Denny Galehouse, a cutie on the hill who uses guile in place of speed. However, Lou Boudreau, who probably doesn’t know anything, risked everything on his stylish young southpaw, Gene Bearden. Fenway Park is supposed to be poison on left-handed pitchers, particularly when the wind blows the wrong way. But Bearden fed the poison in large doses to the Red Sox and killed their pennant hopes.”

As Tristram Coffin put it in his book The Old Ballgame, “Heroes aren’t the product of logic.” In the case of Boudreau and McCarthy, Lou was the dramatist or illogical one going with his hunch and feelings, while McCarthy stoically looked upon reason and logic as his allies. Bearden was the trickster with his trick knuckleball. Tricksters are usually exposed. But on this day the trickster with his dead-fish knuckler was victorious. The trickster and the illogical won the day over reason.

End of story? No way! There was a World Series to be played and perhaps new heroes would emerge. But Bearden was not about to give up center stage. He started Game Three against the National League pennant-winning Boston Braves. The Series was tied at one game apiece. Bearden handcuffed the Braves, winning 2-0 and helped himself at the bat with a double and a single, giving the Indians a 2-1 edge in the Series.

Game Six began with the Indians holding a 3-2 Series lead. Bob Lemon was the starter, and he held a 4-1 lead when he loaded the bases in the eighth inning with one out. Enter Gene Bearden with only three days’ rest. He was asked to perform more heroics. This time the Braves managed to get to Bearden by scoring two runs and coming within one run of tying the game. But the Braves’ Mike McCormick bounced a one-hopper to Bearden, who tossed him out to end the inning and the Indians held onto a 4-3 lead. Bearden returned in the top of the ninth and started the inning by walking the leadoff batter. But the fates were with him and the Indians turned a double play. Tommy Holmes then flied out to left field and the Cleveland Indians were the best in baseball. Gene Bearden was carried off the field a second time in one week. The Indians have not won a World Series since.

The 1948 season for Gene Bearden was a complete success. Winning 20 and losing 7 in the regular season with a league leading 2.43 earned run average, six shutouts and 15 complete games, it seemed he would be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year honors. However, at that time only one player, from either league, was chosen. The honor in 1948 went to Bearden’s erstwhile opponent, Alvin Dark of the Boston Braves. The Cleveland baseball writers named Bearden their Man of the Year. Lou Boudreau won the Hickok Award as America’s Athlete of the Year and insisted on passing on this award to Bearden. More fame came Bearden’s way when he played himself in The Stratton Story, a movie about Monty Stratton starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson.

Sic transit gloria. Those were the key words that described the years following 1948 for Gene Bearden. He never again was able to reach or even approach the heights he had achieved during that giddy season of 1948. In 1949, he was 8-8, with an earned-run average of 5.10. What was happening to Bearden? Was it a sore arm, an injury? Or was it Bearden’s winking at training rules? Bearden did sustain a thigh injury in 1949 that lingered and this may have played a part in his struggles.   Or was it Casey Stengel? Stengel, now the manager of the Yankees, told his players that Bearden’s knuckler dipped out of the strike zone. Soon the players were laying off the pitch, and the word spread around the league. When Bearden had three balls on a hitter, he would come in with his fastball and they would tee off on it. But Bearden did not accept Stengel’s analysis. He felt that injuries played the central role in his ineffectiveness. In 1950, Bearden started only three games for the Indians and was 1-3 with a 6.15 ERA on August 2, when he was sent to the Washington Senators in a waiver deal.

The Senators soon were aware that this was not the Bearden of 1948. In 12 games (9 starts) during the rest of the season, he was 3-5 with a 4.20 ERA. The Senators gave Bearden one last chance in 1951, but after one start (5 runs in 2 2/3 innings), he was placed on waivers and was claimed by Detroit on April 26. The Tigers hoped that Bearden would uncork the magic of 1948. But the magic was gone. Bearden won 3 and lost 4 for the Tigers with an earned-run average of 4.64. He was getting perilously close to being out of the big leagues.

But the lowly St. Louis Browns were willing to take a chance on him. Bill Veeck was now the owner of the Browns and remembered what Bearden had done for him at Cleveland. Veeck put a package deal together on February 20, 1952, with the Tigers and he made sure Bearden was part of it.

Veeck and the Browns were patient and gave Bearden the entire season to see if he could work things out and return to the form he had shown in 1948. Playing with a club that had lost 102 games the previous year was not an ideal place to work things out. The first part of the season, Bearden was used mainly in relief, with a couple of spot starts. He soon looked good enough to become a regular in manager Marty Marion’s rotation. Bearden started 14 games through the rest of the 1952 season. He won six of those starts and wound up with a record of 7-8 with a 4.30 ERA. Bearden’s pitching was modest that year, but his hitting sparkled. He banged out 23 hits in 65 at-bats for a .354 average. Manager Marion used him as a pinch-hitter in 11 games. (Bearden’s career batting average was .236. He had 10 doubles, 1 triple, and 4 home runs.)

The Browns waived Gene on March 18, 1953. The Chicago White sox became his last stop. Bearden as usual gave all he had. Working almost exclusively out of the bullpen, he had a 3-3 record with a fine 2.93 earned-run average for the Pale Hose. The White Sox did not sign Bearden the following season, and at the age of 33 his major-league career was over. He pitched four more years in the minor leagues with Seattle, San Francisco, Sacramento and Minneapolis. He won 18 games for San Francisco in 1955 and 15 for Sacramento in ’56.

Ted Williams made what turned out to be almost a prophetic statement after the 1948 season. As recalled by teammate Johnny Pesky, Ted said, “You watch, Bearden won’t win 20 games the rest of his career.” After his breakthrough 1948 season, Bearden won only 25 more games the balance of his major-league career.

Bearden married Lois Jane Shea on January 18, 1945. They had two children, a son, John Shea Bearden, who died of leukemia at the age of 51 in 1998, and a daughter, Jean Borowski, who in 2009 lived in Alexander City, Alabama.

After his baseball career, Bearden was involved in a number of enterprises. He owned several hamburger restaurants. His favorite hamburger was named the Bearden Burger. He owned a car dealership and a storage company. Bearden was also involved with American Legion baseball and helped many youngsters to enjoy the sport and to further their education

Despite his severe war injuries, Bearden lived a long life, dying at the age of 83 in Alexander City on March 18, 2004, from congestive heart failure. He was survived by his wife, Lois, his daughter, Jean, and a grandson, Jonathan. He is buried in Sunset Memorial Park in West Helena, Arkansas.

For his one brilliant season, and despite the mediocrity that followed, Bearden was elected to the Cleveland Hall of Fame as one of 100 baseball players who fans felt should be saluted for their contributions to Cleveland baseball. Still, his most noteworthy contribution was to his country, which he served proudly in World War II.

Sources

Baseball in Wartime, online

Coffin, Tristram. The Old Ballgame. New York: Herder and Herder, 1971.

Daley Arthur. The New York Times, online

Find A Grave, online

Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society, online

SABR Biographical Committee

Smith, Red. Red Smith on Baseball. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.

Shatkin, Mike, ed. The Ballplayers. New York: Arbor House, William Morrow, 1990

The Deadball Era. online.

Wikipedia, online.

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