Few paths to organized baseball were as unique as that of Joseph Mitchell Tysko’s. A collegiate pitcher in West Texas, the right-hander captured the attention of the Abilene Blue Sox after stymieing the team in an exhibition match; no other hurler had held the hard hitting Class C club to so few runs. In May 1946, after Tysko concluded the spring semester at McMurry College, the Blue Sox signed the freshman to a professional contract. The 21-year-old then promptly fashioned a record of 13-2 to lead the West Texas-New Mexico League in winning percentage (.867). Only Kenneth Wyatt (1942), Izzy Leon (1951), and Marshall Bridges (1955) surpassed this threshold in the 16-year history of the circuit (more than 20 appearances), each of whom immediately advanced, or in the case of Leon had already been in the big leagues. Despite championing by Abilene’s general manager, Tysko never rose above Class C-level play. Following a lateral move to the Middle Atlantic League, the hard throwing righty labored three years with the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Johnnies before a wrist injury resulted in a career ending 6.73 ERA (despite a record of 9-4). In 1951, a healthy Tysko mounted a bid to return to the pro ranks with a MVP season in the semi-pro circuit of southeast Ohio. But his successful campaign garnered little interest, and Tysko retired from the game.
Joseph Tysko was born on March 13, 1923, the last of eight children of Polish immigrants Wojciech “Albert” and Rosalia (Baranowska) Tysko,1 in the small village of Dillonvale in Jefferson County, Ohio, 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. The county that produced an early African-American major leaguer (Moses Fleetwood Walker) and one of the first Hall of Fame relievers (Rollie Fingers), nestled in a region boasting a rich reputation among the semi-pro circuits. Tysko and his brothers played ball on these clubs, and John, six years Joseph’s senior, led the way into the professional ranks.
In 1942, Tysko worked for a railroad line while jockeying between two semi-pro clubs to construct a combined record of 15-4.2 His successful season garnered major league attention, and the youngster was poised to sign a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds, when World War II intervened. On January 15, 1943, Tysko was drafted into the US Army and sent to basic training at Camp Rucker, Alabama. In September, the 20-year-old led the camp’s baseball team to a division championship amongst the varied military squads. Tysko’s reward was a combat assignment in the European Theater. Private Tysko spent the next two years in the thick of the Italian and post-D-day European campaigns with the US Army’s 34th “Red Bull” Division. He earned three Bronze Stars in the process, and on July 15, 1944, a Purple Heart during the Battle of the Hedgerows in Western France.3 In July 1945, two months after Germany’s surrender, Tysko was back on the mound. A member of the 104th Infantry, he tamed the difficult 143rd, an accomplished regiment that entered the contest with an 11-game win streak. He followed up the 5-3 victory with a 7-5 win against the 110th Engineers(who later got their revenge with a later 9-0 shellacking of Tysko.)
Tysko received an honorable discharge from the service on January 2, 1946. He had barely returned home when his brother John urged him to go to Texas to resume his baseball pursuits. Before the war and after graduation from Jess Orndorff’s National Baseball School at Los Angeles, John had built a solid standing in the Lone Star State. Yet little evidence exists that John ever set foot in California. Orndorff established the school in 1923 after a brief—five games—cup of coffee in MLB. During the Depression, when few could afford travel to California, the former catcher “came up with an idea to use with boys unable to come to his school: a six-week mail order course, followed by a week of personal instruction at some central location, all for $25.00.”4 Surprisingly, organized baseball readily accepted the seemingly unpromising program, and illustrious players, future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (among others), for example, served as instructors. After his 1939 graduation John joined three fellow alums at Abilene in the West Texas-New Mexico League. Possessing a blinding fastball and razor-sharp curve, the 6’1” beanpole—“Long John” to 5’10”, 165 “Little Joe”—was dubbed the circuit’s “rookie sensation.”5
But John never attained the greatness projected. His career was interrupted by four years’ service during the war. Afterward he returned to Ohio and found work with the railroad. Yet his reputation in Texas remained strong. In 1946, after rumors surfaced that his younger brother was contemplating play in the south, one semi-pro team on the outskirts of Fort Worth sent a letter to Joseph sight unseen offering fulltime employment if he would agree to pitch in the Brazos Trinity League.
But Tysko had set his sights 150 miles further west. John’s 1939 affiliation with the Abilene Apaches ensured Joseph a tryout with the revamped Abilene Blue Sox.6 But when the 23-year-old arrived in the Key City of the West, he spurned the Sox, likely taking advance of the GI Bill’s educational benefits after the war to enroll at McMurry College (now University). In 1946 the Methodist school was reestablishing its dormant baseball program, fielding only its fifth team since 1928. As a walk-on athlete and the only out-of-state player, Tysko made an immediate impression on McMurry’s athletic director Vernon Hilliard and baseball coach Jerome Vannoy. 7 On March 15, 1946, in the school’s first game in four years, Tysko was named the Opening Day starter against the Baylor Bears in Waco’s historic Katy Park.
Opposing Tysko was Bears ace Joe Garcia, the 1942 All-Southwest Conference pitcher. (Baylor did not field a team during the war years of 1943-1945.) Displaying a tremendous fastball accompanied by an exceptionally good curve and change, Tysko surrendered just five hits and struck out 13 to lead the McMurry Indians to a 5-3 win. He finished strong with two strikeouts and a weak tap to the pitcher in the last frame. Representing the small college’s first success over a Southwestern Conference team in any sport, the win was deemed “the most significant victory an athletic team at the Methodist College has scored in many a year.”8 Unfortunately McMurry did not fare as well in a second match against the Bears the next day: a 21-2 loss. To stem the bleeding Tysko was brought into the game in the last four innings.
In his next start on March 30 Tysko took a 5-4 lead into the seventh inning against the defending Southwest Conference champions Texas Longhorns. A teammate’s two out error resulted in an 11-5 collapse. In his subsequent five outings (all starts), Tysko consistently struck out 10 or more hitters. He also proved adept at the plate: collecting four hits and three RBIs in leading the Indians’ to an 11-6 win while retiring 11 straight Southwestern University batters in one contest. Indeed, the left-handed hitter finished the season with a .325 batting average (fourth best on the team). . Tysko’s 4-3 record (team: 6-6) prompted McMurry’s athletic director to declare that “[w]ith Tysko pitching we have the best college club in the Southwest.”9
Tysko’s exploits were not limited to the collegiate diamonds. At some point during the spring—probably in April10—the Indians played an exhibition game against the professional Blue Sox. Tysko held the hard hitting Brooklyn Dodgers’ affiliate to just eight hits (just one over the last three innings) in a 6-2 loss. The six tallies represented the Sox’ lowest run total in the young season. Already well familiar with Tysko, his outing against them served to further whet the club’s appetite. On May 24, they succeeded in inking the right-hander to a professional contract. Joe Langston, a righty hurler for the Blue Sox who doubled as McMurry’s assistant baseball coach during the 1946 season, appears to have influenced the signing.
Tysko realized even greater success in the professional ranks. He collected two wins over a three-day span (the second in a relief role) to facilitate a Sox five-game win. The second win, a 2-1 contest against the Clovis Pioneers, briefly elbowed Abilene into first place. Tysko won seven of his first eight decisions and finished with a league leading .867 winning percentage. At least three of his 13 wins that season were from the bullpen. One such win came against the Albuquerque Dukes in June: Tysko escaped a one out, bases loaded jam in the ninth and scored the winning run in the bottom half of the frame. At some point during the campaign, John Tysko arrived and was given a five-day trial with the team. The trial might have lasted longer had he not been called back to his job in Ohio.11
Tysko earned a second win in relief against Albuquerque. Possibly this was the June 17 victory that nudged the Sox back into first over the Amarillo Gold Sox in their see-saw battle early on. But Abilene never relinquished the lead thereafter. A late-season 10-game win streak vaulted the team to a 97-win campaign. The club’s .693 winning percentage was never surpassed in the league’s 16-year history.12 Their achievement soured somewhat when the Lubbock Hubbers eliminated the Blue Sox in the first round of the playoffs. “[D]issension on the club was a contributing factor in the collapse,” local reporter Hal Sayles declared.13 Although he had expressed a desire to settle permanently in Texas, Tysko surprised his family by returning to Dillonvale, Ohio, after the playoff loss. . He joined John and another brother (Tony) on a semi-pro club in neighboring Tiltonsville. It is believed Tysko never returned to the Lone Star State.
On December 21, Abilene executive Howard L. Green14 cordially wrote to Tysko notifying him of his assignment to the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Johnnies in the Middle Atlantic League. The 25-year-old Green wore many hats: co-owner, general manager, and official scorekeeper of the Blue Sox, he was also a sportswriter for the Abilene Reporter-News. He developed a close friendship with Tysko and tried to play matchmaker for the Ohio-native when he identified the righty as an eligible bachelor in the local paper. Green was also compelled to defend himself in print after the self-appointed official scorekeeper awarded a controversial win, which many thought another pitcher deserved, to Tysko during the 1946 season. When Green wrote Tysko in December, he closed anticipating seeing the righty shortly in Fort Worth, Texas, that is, expecting his rapid promotion to the Dodgers’ Class AA affiliate.
Though the move to Johnstown (125 miles from Dillonvale) offered an opportunity to play close to home, Tysko’s lateral move to the Class C club offered no advancement within the Dodgers system. Closer examination reveals that Tysko was one of only three Abilene players not originally signed to the organization by general manager Branch Rickey’s extensive scouting network. . The other two (Joe Langston and Ray Anderson) retired after the 1946 season. Despite a league-record .867 winning percentage, it appears Tysko got bypassed because he was not a home-grown prospect.
Tysko reported to Johnstown as one of the expected mainstays of the staff. In a preseason match against the Pittsburgh Monarchs, an African-American semi-pro team, he appeared in mid-season form with four innings of no-hit pitching. Skipper Jud Kirke selected Tysko as the Johnnies’ Opening Day starter, a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to the Erie Sailors. But in a Houdini-like performance two weeks later, Tysko scattered 17 hits but still managed to prevail in a 9-5 win over the Oil City Refiners. Injuries began to take a toll on him, but Tysko persevered. In one contest he took the mound with his injured back so bandaged one reporter thought he resembled a mummy. At some point during the 1947 season Tysko appears to have experimented with switch-hitting. He also clubbed his first professional home run (though it is unknown as to which side of the plate he hit from). Tysko threw 13 complete games, struck out 99, and earned 11 wins for the last place Johnnies. He also placed among the league’s leaders with 37 appearances while his 3.87 ERA was more than adequate for the workhorse of a mediocre ball club.
In 1948 Tysko was again on track to place among the league leaders when a collision at first base about one-third into the season waylaid the reliable hurler. He was carried off the field and according to initial reports had a knee fracture. Though x-rays proved negative, he was sidelined for a stretch. Despite a reduced number of appearances, he still finished with an impressive 10-8 mark for the middling Johnnies with 11 complete games and 75 strikeouts. Tysko also managed to hit two home runs during the campaign, one an inside-the-park homer that launched a comeback win over the New Castle Chiefs.
During the offseason rumors had it that the Dodgers would not renew their affiliation with the Johnstown club (they did indeed cut ties after the 1949 season). For his part Tysko appeared to be considering retirement. Unlike years past when he had been one of the first to sign, he did not execute a 1949 contract until late March. Despite the impressive numbers posted for the unimpressive 1947-48 Johnnies, he saw little evidence of pending advancement. When he did join the fold, Tysko earned the Johnnies’ first shutout of the season, a 3-0 blanking of the Vandergrift Pioneers in which he unveiled a new pitch to his repertoire: a knuckleball. But in May the promising start to the season came crashing down when a line drive struck Tysko’s right wrist and he was assigned to the disabled list until June 6. Apparently he returned too soon, because he struggled thereafter to a 6.73 ERA. The difficulties could not have come at a worse time. Having pitched well for the middling-to-poor Johnnies squads of the two prior seasons, Tysko would not be around to benefit from the club’s sudden success. The perennially poor Johnnies, who had not qualified for a playoff berth since the 1930 pennant-winning squad,15 raced to a first-half crown in the Middle Atlantic League’s split-season. But on August 1 Tysko retired in advance of the post-season. His poor performance, a product of the wrist injury, appears to have prompted the early exit.
Tysko likely came to regret the hasty decision. In 1951, he returned to the diamond with the semi-pro Martins Ferry (Ohio) Ferrians. With a rest of more than a year and a healed wrist, Tysko led his team to a two-hit 7-0 Opening Day win over Tiltonsville. He followed the imposing start with two one-hit gems as the Ferrians took hold of first place in the Times-Leader League. Selected as the starter in the All Star game, Tysco delivered seven innings of brilliant pitching. He also dominated in the semi-final playoffs against Powhatan: a 3-2 win in which the opposition did not hit the ball out of the infield over the final four frames (and Tysko scored the winning run). In the championship series against Bellaire, Tysko suffered a severe ankle injury that forced him from Game Three. His brother John won the game in relief. Tysko returned for the next game to capture the championship crown and was named the circuit’s Most Valuable Player. No evidence indicates that he garnered any attention from the major league scouts. Though there are hints Tysko played again in 1952, he never attracted interest again.
After baseball Tysko likely returned to railroad employ (though he may have followed his father and brothers into the coal mines of southeast Ohio). He was also a renowned mechanic. When he met Ohio native Nan White, romance blossomed. Family lore states that Nan worked as a switchboard operator for the local telephone company. When Tysko tried to call his lady friends she would not connect the call, claiming the lines were down. The ploy left the field open to Nan alone, and their resulting union produced five children: one boy and four girls.
In March 1977, Tysko entered the hospital to have his gallbladder removed. During the routine procedure the doctors discovered that the former baseball player had more serious problems: stomach and liver cancer. Radiation therapy proved useless against a disease already too far along. On July 7, four months after his 54th birthday, Tysko passed away. He was buried in St. Adalbert Cemetery in Dillonvale, Ohio.
In 1942 Tysko’s prowess caught the attention of the Cincinnati Reds. World War II interrupted his potentially dynamic career. Four years later Tysko had an opportunity to restart a professional career after a successful stint on Texas’s collegiate diamonds. But Tysko’s path to organized ball, unique as it was, may also have been a curse. Seemingly considered an outsider in the Dodgers’ organization, Tysko found little room to maneuver. He concluded a four-year career in Class C ball with a record of 43-24, 4.27 in 120 appearances.
The author wishes to thank the many contributors from the extended Tysko family for their invaluable assistance. Further thanks are extended to Tom Schott for review and edit of the narrative.
1 Alternate spellings: Tyska and Tiszka. Ceslaus appears to be Joseph’s original middle name.
2 The teams: the Holy Name Society and the Piney Fork Red Sox in the Ohio Valley Baseball League.
4 Dorothy Seymour Mills and Harold Seymour, Baseball: The People’s Game (Oxford University Press, 1991), pg. unknown.
5 “W. Tex.-New Mex. League,” The Sporting News, May 18, 1939: 8.
6 The color designation was a nod to their Brooklyn affiliation: “Dodger Blue.”
7 Hilliard, who doubled as the college’s football coach, declared Tysko the greatest punter he had ever seen.
8 “McMurry Coaches Played Hunch to Field Ball Team,” Abilene Reporter-News, unknown date.
9 “With Tysko on the Mound Indians Tough to Handle,” ibid.
10 The narrative was constructed largely from the brittle mostly undated newspaper clippings in the Tysko family scrapbook. Most dates referenced are author approximations.
11 John made a brief appearance with the rival Lamesa Lobos during this same season.
12 The source referencing 97 wins http://www.milb.com/milb/history/top100.jsp?idx=94 identifies the percentage at .708, a figure too high for a 140-game season.
14 Grandfather to movie and stage actor Ethan Hawke.
15 They did not field a team from 1939-45.