Johnnie Tyler

This article was written by Bob LeMoine

Johnnie “Katz” Tyler only played 16 games in the major leagues with the Boston Braves in 1934 and 1935, yet was a career .321 hitter. He had a strong enough bat and steady glove, and enough speed to enjoy a lengthy career in the minor leagues, making many stops along the way. When he worked as a cook later in life, customers probably didn’t know the man behind the counter once pinch ran for Babe Ruth or competed in a pre-game race with Olympic hero Jesse Owens.1 “He wasn’t the flashy, sensational type,” remembered local sportswriter John H. Whoric of the (Connellsville, Pennsylvania) Daily Courier, “but a very dependable fielder and hitter, who covered a surprisingly wide area and who was more dangerous at bat when men were on the base paths. He surprised everyone with the apparent ease that he covered the outfield and the runners respected his throwing arm.”2

John Anthony Tyler was born John Tylka on July 30, 1906, in Mount Pleasant, a borough in Pennsylvania’s coal country. His parents, George and Victoria (Zielinska) Tylka, like many families in the area, had emigrated from Poland to work in the mines and coke ovens. George worked as a coal miner, and the couple had three sons besides John: Frank, Eugene and Joseph. John considered Joseph a far better ballplayer than himself. While in college his brother was offered a contract to play in the American Association, but instead Joseph entered the priesthood.3 John’s highest level of educational attainment was the sixth grade.

Tyler believed working in the mines actually helped his conditioning.4 He didn’t have many other career choices and needed to make a living while spending the majority of his career in the low-pay minor leagues. “I used to load coal in the mine at Standard,” Tyler remembered of his earliest days. “As soon as I got home they [his teammates] were waiting for me and we’d play ball right away.”5

Tyler played for the Mount Pleasant Independents beginning in 1925. “I started out as a pitcher,” he remembered, “but didn’t do too good and so I switched to the outfield.”6 Nevertheless, he showed early mound success which led to a tryout with the Scottdale, Pennsylvania, club of the Class C Mid-Atlantic League. “John Tylka, star hurler for the Mount Pleasant Independents…is a right hander with a lot of speed and unusual control for a speed merchant. For some reason or other he signed his contract under the name of John Tyler,” wrote the Pittsburgh Press.7 He later played for Ralph, Colonial No. 4 and Filbert in Pennsylvania’s semipro Frick River League from 1926 to 1928. .

His season for Filbert in 1928 drew attention from major league teams, and in August he received a tryout with Johnstown in the Class C Mid-Atlantic League. Manager Chief Bender was so impressed with Tyler’s tryout that he put him right into a game against Scottdale. He made “three sensational catches” and drove in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly in a 5-2 win. Records do not show Tyler appearing for Johnstown in 1928, so this perhaps was an exhibition game. Still, the Johnstown management was impressed.8 The Pittsburgh Press featured a picture of seven players with the caption “Star Performers in Frick River League,” and dubbed Tyler and a player named Domen “two of the hardest hitters in the coke region.”9 Tyler was released by Scottdale the following March.10

Tyler’s professional career officially began when he played for both Erie (Pennsylvania) and Canton (Ohio) of the Class B Central League. In Erie he acquired his nickname of “Ty Ty,” because Tyler owned three dozen neckties and teammates often borrowed them.11 He was released by Canton in July, with Monte Cross of the Canton Repository remarking that “the young gardener had failed to hit and also seemed nervous in the outfield.”12 Tyler batted a combined .260 with eight home runs in 60 games. He finished the season in Iowa, with the Class D Burlington club in the Mississippi Valley League, where he batted .234 in 41 games.

Tyler played for Vicksburg, Mississippi, a Class D team in the Cotton States League, in 1930. He played in only 24 games, batting .220, and was released in May.13 At that point, he considered his career in professional baseball over. Many other minor leaguers suffered the same fate with the onset of the Great Depression that some teams didn’t survive. “I was let go just like a lot of other fellows,” Tyler remembered. “A lot [of teams] dropped out of competition because they lost their major league connections.”14 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle remarked, “His appetite was too healthy to be satisfied by the salaries they pay in the smaller minor leagues.”15

It was St. Louis Cardinals scout Pop Kelchner who found the discouraged Tyler and persuaded him to come back to the game. Tyler played in Scottdale in 1931, a Cardinals affiliate under the control of GM Branch Rickey. Rickey was looking for outfielders since future Hall of Famer Ducky Medwick, who had batted .419 for Scottdale in 1930, had been promoted to Houston. Medwick would go on to star for the famed “Gas House Gang” St. Louis champions of 1934. Tyler would never be remembered like Medwick, but he himself batted a sizzling .325 with a .522 slugging percentage with 20 home runs in 130 games for Scottdale. Tyler was considered a top prospect for St. Louis. “Tyler has a great arm and he’s getting more respect right along,” wrote the Daily Courier, adding that “he’s widely known for his terrific clouting from the port side.”16 He was promoted to Double A Rochester of the International League near the end of the season, appearing in a couple of games. Rochester sent him to Greensboro, North Carolina, of the Class B Piedmont League, to get more regular playing time in 1932.17

Tyler batted only .239 for Greensboro in 46 games and was released by the St. Louis organization. He signed with Charleston (West Virginia) of the Mid-Atlantic League in July.18 Greensboro won their first-half pennant. A change of scenery did Tyler good, as he batted .305 in 40 games for Charleston, which also won their pennant for the second-half, meaning Tyler played for two pennant winners in one season. Tyler would change scenery three times in 1933, playing for Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) of the New York-Pennsylvania League (NYPL), then in July was released and signed by Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), a Boston Braves affiliate of the same league, then finished the year back in Charleston.19 He batted a combined .280 in 108 games.

Tyler remained in Harrisburg for the 1934 season, where he hit at a torrid pace, batting .390 with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 14 games of the second-half of the season through July 26.20 His accomplishments impressed the Boston Braves management and in September, Tyler was now on to the major leagues.

The young outfielder made his major league debut on September 16. Pinch hitting in the ninth inning for Al Spohrer, Tyler struck out against Si Johnson in the Braves’ 5-2 loss. His next appearance was five days later, also in a ninth-inning pinch-hit appearance for Spohrer. He popped up to first. Tyler started in center field batting sixth in the last game of the season, the second game of a doubleheader at Philadelphia. Tyler had one of four hits in the seventh off Snipe Hansen to turn a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 win which was called after seven innings due to darkness.21

Tyler not only worked the mines but was also an undertaker in the offseason. He won himself a job with the Bees in spring training, and was on the Opening Day roster.22

Tyler played in the second game of the season, the first game of a doubleheader, on April 19, when he pinch ran for Babe Ruth, who drew an eighth-inning walk. Just a day later, the Braves sent Tyler to Scranton of the New York-Pennsylvania League.23 Tyler hit at a torrid pace for Scranton right away and was tied for the league lead in batting at .418 near the end of May.24 He hit what was reported as the longest home run ever hit at Scranton’s Athletic Park, 460 feet, on June 11.25 On August 22, Tyler was sixth in the league in batting at .350 (154-for-440) in 116 games, with 23 stolen bases. The Braves notified Scranton that Tyler would be recalled when the NYPL playoffs were over.26 Tyler went 0-for-5 in the seventh and final game of the championship series, as Scranton lost to Binghamton, 9-7.27 He finished the year batting .333 for Scranton in 505 at-bats.

It is hard to imagine in today’s game that a September call-up who bats .340 in 12 games wouldn’t get a job on a major league roster somewhere the following season. But that is the case for Tyler, as these 12 games (all doubleheaders) were the last of his major-league career. Tyler started the second game on September 21 at Philadelphia, batting third and playing left field. He went 3-for-4 in the game, including a home run off Jim Bivin. The blast “into Broad Street” beyond the right-field wall of Baker Bowl came with Buck Jordan on first base. Wally Berger followed with his own shot to left, and the Braves went on to win, 4-0.28 Tyler went 3-for-9 in the doubleheader the next day, both Braves losses, which gave them 110 losses on the year, a modern National League record at the time.29 Tyler started both games on September 24 in a thoroughly meaningless doubleheader with the Braves (36-113) playing at Brooklyn (64-83). Batting third in left field in both games, Tyler went 2-for-4 with an RBI in the opener and 3-for-5 in the nightcap. Both were Boston defeats. With hits in both games against New York on September 27, Tyler had a nine-game hitting streak. Johnnie finished 1-for-3 in the season-ending victory over New York, 3-0, ending his major-league career with impressive numbers: .321/.379/.509 with two home runs.

Tyler spent the winter in Puerto Rico.30 Before the 1936 season, the Braves, now known as Bees, sent Tyler to Knoxville of the Southern Association.31 He batted .304 with nine home runs in 131 games. Following the season, Tyler was released to Buffalo of the International League.32 He spent 1937-1939 with the Bisons, having similar seasons in batting average (.270, .279, .288), home runs (11, 12, 14), and games played (124, 141, 153).

He was traded to Toronto of the International League for Mayo Smith.33 Tyler batted .288 with five home runs in 146 games in 1940, but his batting dropped considerably in 1941 when he batted only .205 with Toronto and was sold in to San Antonio of the Texas League in June.34 He played only nine games there, and finished the year with Memphis of the Southern Association. In 1942, Tyler played only three games in Toronto, and then was sent to Williamsport, a Philadelphia Athletics affiliate of the Eastern League. He played only a few games in Williamsport and in early May was sent to Knoxville for the second time, where he batted a respectable .279 in 117 games.35

Tyler spent 1943 in the US Army, serving during World War II with the 30th Special Service Unit. When he returned, he played two final seasons for Syracuse of the International League, playing in 122 and 37 games. His nearly two-decade career in professional baseball, with stops in 18 minor-league cities, was over. “I knocked around quite a bit,” he said.36

In 1946, Tyler was living in Buffalo,37 but was back in Mount Pleasant by 1952, working in a local restaurant. He would stay in Mount Pleasant the rest of his life. He reported on his 1960 Hall-of-Fame questionnaire that he worked as a short-order cook, fountain and grill man for Burns Drug Store in Mount Pleasant.

Tyler remained single all his life, enjoying hunting, dancing, ice skating and collecting old coins in his free time.38 He belonged to the Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church in Mount Pleasant and was buried in the Transfiguration Cemetery there after he died on July 11, 1972, at the age of 65.

In 1973, Mount Pleasant created the “John A. Tyler Memorial Trophy,” which was presented annually to the championship team in the Mount Pleasant Independent Junior Baseball League.39

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Norman Macht and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources listed in the Notes, the author was assisted by the following sources:

Cassidy Lent, Reference Librarian at the Giamatti Research Center at the Baseball Hall of Fame, who provided Tyler’s file and questionnaire.

“John Tylka,” Mount Pleasant Journal, July 13, 1972:5.

 

Notes

1 “Owens to Show Speed at Opener,” Times Olean (New York), June 24, 1938:19.

2 John H. Whoric, “Sport Notes…by Jim Kriek,” Daily Courier (Connellsville, Pennsylvania), August 5, 1972:6.

3 “Pen Shots at Rookies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 1, 1935.

4 “Tyler Looms as Big League Baseball Star,” Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), May 19, 1933:21.

5 Jimmy Wolfe, “In the Sports Saddle,” Daily Courier, January 17, 1952:7.

6 Ibid.

7 “Hurler Rist on Trial With Scottdale Club,” Pittsburgh Press, April 3, 1927:66.

8 “Gets Tryout in Pro League,” Morning Herald (Uniontown, Pennsylvania), August 13, 1928:11.

9 Pittsburgh Press, August 19, 1928:43.

10 “Players Released,” Morning Herald, March 6, 1929:9.

11 “Pen Shots at Rookies.”

12 Monte Cross, “Terriers Send Perkins Against Sailors,” Canton Repository, July 23, 1929:10.

13 Carl Dillon, “Following Through,” Canton Repository, May 16, 1930:8.

14 Wolfe, “In the Sports Saddle.”

15 “Pen Shots at Rookies.”

16 “Johnnie Tyler is Fine Prospect of St. Louis Cards,” Daily Courier, August 21, 1931:14.

17 “Johnny Tyler Will Go to Greensboro,” Daily Courier, February 25, 1932:9.

18 “Tyler is Sent Back to Rochester Club; Wright Takes Place,” Greensboro Daily News, July 21, 1932:5.

19 “Former Baron Joins Senator Outfield,” Wilkes-Barre Record, July 24, 1933:13.

20 “Johnny Tyler Sets Pace at Bat and on Defense,” Harrisburg Telegram, July 30, 1934:8.

21 “Braves Clinch Fourth Place, Winning Twice,” Springfield Republican (Massachusetts), October 1, 1934:12.

22 “Sporting Tid-Bits,” Standard-Sentinel (Hazelton, Pennsylvania), February 25, 1935:9; News-Herald (Franklin, Pennsylvania), March 18, 1935:9.

23 “Farm Out Tyler and Gruenwald,” Evening News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), April 22, 1935:11.

24 Associated Press, “Johnny Tyler and Monk Joyner Tied for Loop Batting Honors,” Standard-Sentinel, May 27, 1935:10.

25 “Tyler Poles Record Homer as Miners Bow to Senators, 10 to 8,” Scranton Republican, June 12, 1935:13.

26 “Braves Recall Tyler,” Scranton Republican, August 29, 1935:14.

27 “Triplets Top Miners, 9-7, in Series Finale and Gain NYP Flag,” Scranton Republican, September 19, 1935:17.

28 “Braves Blank Phillies, 4-0,” Boston Globe, September 22, 1935:30.

29 “Braves Establish a Modern Record,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1935:9.

30 Jim Corrigan, “Sport World Jottings,” Wilkes-Barre Record, November 1, 1935:33.

31 “Sent to Knoxville,” Scranton Republican, April 10, 1936:17.

32 “Boston Bees Release Three Rookie Players,” Harrisburg Telegraph, September 17, 1936:11.

33 “Toronto Acquires Tyler from Bisons,” Democrat & Chronicle, December 5, 1939:22.

34 “Leafs Dispose of Pair,” Indianapolis Star, June 4, 1941:18.

35 Associated Press, “Red Hot S.A. Series in Store At Nashville,” Jackson Sun (Tennessee), May 12, 1942:6.

36 Wolfe, “In the Sports Saddle.”

37 “Carter Likely to Oppose Jersey in Twin Bill Today,” Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York), May 12, 1946:45.

38 “Pen Shots at Rookies.”

39 “Tyler Award Honors Mount Pleasant Champs,” Daily Courier, March 22, 1973:7.