Bob Lennon hit 64 home runs for the Southern Association Nashville Vols in 1954, but his most memorable homer came on April 30, 1957, when he was playing for the Chicago Cubs. “It was what I had dreamed about,” he recalled in a 1993 interview. He hit it in Ebbets Field, where he had rooted for the Dodgers as a boy. It was his only major league home run.
Robert Albert Lennon was born in Brooklyn on September 15, 1928. His grandparents came from Ireland. His father, Martin, was a New York City policeman.
He had four brothers and two sisters. Three of the brothers joined an uncle on the New York Fire Department. A younger brother, John, played two seasons in the Giants’ farm system before a beaning ended his career.
The Lennons lived in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn. “It was like living in the country,” he said. “We had a lotta rabbits running around and fishing, crabbing.” (Unless otherwise credited, quotes from Lennon and facts about his personal life come from Al Blumkin’s 2001 videotaped interview for SABR’s Oral History Committee and a telephone interview by the author in 1993.)
He attended Brooklyn Specialty Trades High School, later known as George Westinghouse Vocational High School, and played on Police Athletic League and Kiwanis League teams. He also played club basketball and football.
When Bob was 15, a Dodger “bird-dog” scout, Turk Karam, took him to Ebbets Field for a workout in front of General Manager Branch Rickey. The Dodgers signed the promising lefthanded hitter the next year, after he turned 16. That was in early 1945, when teams were scrambling to find players who were too young or too old to be drafted into World War II.
The night before he left for spring training in Daytona Beach, his father and uncles kidded the city boy about going to a farm team: “You’re gonna pick tomatoes, corn. You’re gonna work on the farm all day long and then at night you got to play ball.”
He was assigned to Thomasville in Class D North Carolina State League. But the Dodgers released him after 12 games because they thought he was too slow.
When he returned home, a doctor diagnosed a thyroid deficiency and prescribed medication. The Dodgers invited him to spring training in 1946 and were surprised at how fast he was.
Assigned to Daytona Beach of the Class D Florida State League, he played in an exhibition against the Dodgers’ AAA Montreal farm club and Jackie Robinson.
Some of his teammates began calling him “Archie” because his Brooklyn accent reminded them of a character on a popular radio comedy, “Duffy’s Tavern.” The nickname stayed with him throughout his career.
When the season was over, he joined a barnstorming team headlined by the recently retired slugger Jimmie Foxx. He was promised $15 a game, but sometimes got only half that when the crowd was small.
In 1947 he moved up to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the Class B Mid-Atlantic League. After 106 games he hurt his knee – the first of many injuries. “When I look back on it…a lot of things went wrong,” he said years later. In his 17-year career, Lennon played as many as 130 games only five times.
The Giants drafted him off the roster of the Newport News, Virginia, Dodgers in the Class B Piedmont League and sent him to Sioux City of the Class A Western League in 1948. In his fourth professional season he was making about $280 a month.
The Sioux City club was playing in Denver on August 16, the day Babe Ruth died. They observed a moment of silence in the ballpark in the Babe’s memory. Standing in left field with his cap over his heart, Lennon recalled, “I said, ‘Please, lord, let his strength, his home runs… come into my body. The next time up, I hit a home run. I said ‘Oh, my god.’”
He moved to Jacksonville of the South Atlantic League in 1949, where he hit just 13 home runs in 553 at-bats. The 1950 season was split between Jacksonville and the Giants’ top farm club at Minneapolis in the American Association.
Like many other young ballplayers, Lennon was drafted into the Army when the Korean War began. He missed the 1951 season, but was released before his two-year hitch was up because of back trouble.
In May 1952 he rejoined Minneapolis. He got off to a good start with eight homers and a .295 average in 50 games. But when the Giants called up outfielder Dusty Rhodes from Nashville in July, Lennon was sent down to AA to replace him in the Vols’ lineup. With the two teams, he totaled 23 homers in 428 at-bats. He returned to Nashville the following year, hitting 24 homers in 399 at-bats.
In 1954 Vols owner Larry Gilbert changed his batting stance: “I was pretty much a stand-up hitter, with my bat [held high], you know, and I had trouble with the high pitch.” Gilbert put him in a deep crouch, “way down with my bat almost right in the catcher’s face. I was protected from the high pitch. If I was standing, it would be here [letter-high]. If I was down, I’d be lower and I could come up and hit it good.” When he sprang out of the crouch, a letter-high pitch would be waist-high.
He “hit it good” 64 times in 1954. That set a Southern Association record, but did not lead organized baseball.
The same year, Roswell, New Mexico, where a UFO either did or did not land seven years before, was visited by identified flying objects: 72 homers hit by a gas station owner named Joe Bauman for the Rockets of the Class C Longhorn League. Bauman’s record for the most home runs in organized ball stood until Barry Bonds hit 73 for the Giants in 2001.
Lennon’s big year got a big boost from the Vols’ home park, Sulphur Dell. The right field fence was just 262 feet from home plate. Lefthanded pitcher Lefty Gomez complained, “We couldn’t pitch sidearm because we scraped our knuckles on the right field screen.”
Sulphur Dell’s right field resembled a puny par-three hole on a golf course, with the tee at home plate, shooting at a tiny elevated green just a 79-yard chip shot away.
The base of the fence-262 feet down the foul line-stood 25 feet above the infield. The slope began gradually a few steps behind the first baseman, then shot up at a 45-degree angle. It leveled off 235 feet out, forming a ten-foot-wide shelf. Then the 45-degree climb resumed to the fence. To negotiate the hillside, Lennon said, “You got to know how to run with the short leg and the long leg.”
In the Southern Association’s 61-year history, eight players hit as many as 40 home runs in a season. All swung lefthanded and all played for the Vols. In 1948 33-year-old Charlie Workman, a wartime big leaguer, set a Southern Association record with 52 homers for the Vols.
When Lennon broke Workman’s record, he hit 42 of his 64 homers in the Dell. George K. Leonard of the Nashville Banner and The Sporting News, referred to it as “Nashville’s dainty little park…which is literally tailored for lefthanded power hitters.” Writing in mid-season, Leonard added, “But there has been nothing cheap about the majority of Lennon’s round-trippers.” (TSN, 6/23/54)
As the magical season flew on, Bob recalled, “I couldn’t believe it myself, what I was doing.”
Sportswriter Leonard analyzed Lennon’s sudden power surge: “In previous years…[h]e couldn’t hit southpaws. He dissipated much of his power in an awkward stance, and he had a distressing habit of ‘running away’ from lefties.” The writer noted that Lennon hit 19 of his first 54 homers off lefthanders.
Lennon explained his new approach this way: “More confidence, a changed stance, a shortened swing and not giving ground up there.” (TSN, 9/1/54)
He broke Workman’s league record with his 53rd homer on August 24 in Little Rock.
On August 29, the Vols honored Lennon before a Sunday doubleheader. Fans received an 8-by-10 photograph of the hometown hero. The crowd of 5,419 was the largest since Opening Day for the last-place club. The team presented him with an ebony Louisville Slugger engraved with a list of his accomplishments, but leaving his final home run total blank. (TSN, 9/1/54) The bat occupied a place of honor in his home more than 45 years later.
Lennon celebrated the day with his 56th homer.
He won the Southern Association Triple Crown and posted an OPS of 1.145. His league-leading totals included 139 runs, 210 hits, 64 homers, 161 RBI, .345 batting average, .734 slugging percentage and 447 total bases. He hit two home runs in a game nine times, three in a game twice and four in a doubleheader, but, in his recollection, no grand slam. He homered once in every 9.5 at-bats. He struck out 97 times in an era when few players fanned 100 times in a season. Despite his dominating performance, he drew only 65 walks.
As he approached Ruth’s 60-homer mark, a local television station aired several of the Vols’ games. He recalled photographers crowding behind home plate popping flashbulbs every time he batted; they were allowed on the field in those days.
On the season’s final day, with his car packed and waiting outside the ballpark, he clubbed three homers in a Labor Day doubleheader. Then he and his wife started driving to New York to join the big club. When he arrived at the Polo Grounds, manager Leo Durocher was annoyed that he hadn’t taken a plane.
He was not the rowdy manager’s favorite, nor vice versa: “Leo, to me, was a big loudmouth…A lot of the players, they wouldn’t say so, but they didn’t like him.” It probably didn’t help their relationship when Durocher introduced the rookie as “Bob Lemon” at a banquet the following spring.
He spent the last three weeks of the 1954 season with the Giants, watching them clinch the National League pennant. He pinch-hit three times, popping out off Hal Jeffcoat of the Cubs in his first big-league appearance, later lining out to right field (“a guy made a diving catch”) and grounding out.
As a September call-up, he was not eligible for the World Series. He sat in the stands as the Giants swept the favored Cleveland Indians, winners of 111 regular-season games: “I was up in right center when Willie Mays made the catch,” the back-to-the-plate grab of Vic Wertz‘s long drive. Teammates voted him a $500 share of the Series money.
Breaking into the Giants’ outfield was a considerable challenge. They had Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, Don Mueller (a .342 hitter in ’54) and World Series hero Dusty Rhodes as well as Mays. First baseman Whitey Lockman and third baseman Hank Thompson could also play outfield. “There would be ten outfielders trying to make the club,” Bob recalled.
He was sent down to Minneapolis before the 1955 season started. The Sporting News reported, “Manager Leo Durocher said Lennon took too many pitches, and insisted on maintaining his wide-open stance which seemed to leave him vulnerable to smart pitching.” (4/20/55)
In fact, he was not considered a prime prospect. During his 1954 heroics, sportswriter Leonard referred to him as a “veteran.” Although he was only 25, he was playing his ninth minor-league season.
Writers described him as blond and powerfully built at six feet and 200 pounds, a speedy centerfielder with a strong arm. While he was hitting all those home runs, he occasionally filled in as a relief pitcher. His Nashville manager, Hugh Poland, praised his hard work and pleasing personality.
Back in Minneapolis in 1955, he enjoyed the Millers’ home, Nicollet Park, with its 279-foot right field fence. Organized baseball’s reigning home run king before 1954, lefty-batting Joe Hauser, had hit 69 homers while playing for Minneapolis in 1933.
Lennon spent parts of four seasons there, but 1955 was the only time he played anything close to a full schedule: 114 games, 31 homers in 422 at-bats. That was the second-best home run output of his career.
He missed six weeks of that season with a separated left shoulder that weakened his throwing arm and may have stunted his major league career.
According to Jerry Casserly of the New York Daily News, he had hit 19 homers and driven in 62 runs in 45 games before the injury.
The 1955 Millers won the American Association pennant. In the final round of the Association playoffs, Lennon was a central figure in one of those improbable situations that The Sporting News called “Knotty Problems of Baseball.”
Stew Thornley tells the story at http://stewthornley.net/millers_protests.html. Omaha’s Stu Miller carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of a scoreless third game of the series when he was ejected for arguing a checked-swing call on Minneapolis’ Monte Irvin.
After order was restored, Association President Ed Doherty overruled the ejection and put Miller back on the mound. Then Lennon broke up the no-hitter and the scoreless tie when he torched Miller for a long home run. However, Omaha came back to win.
But wait a minute: After the game, President Doherty conferred with the umpires and managers and split the baby: he ruled that Miller’s ejection would stand, but he reversed the checked-swing call on Irvin, the reason for the ejection.
For those of you keeping score, Miller was no-hitting the Millers. The next night, the seventh inning was replayed with Irvin back in the batter’s box, Lennon’s homer wiped off the scoreboard, and Miller’s no-hitter intact-but Miller was banished.
Against reliever Bob Tiefenauer, Irvin reached on an error and was sacrificed to second (Thornley writes), “bringing up Bob Lennon, whose home run the night before (which was erased from the official records by the protest) had been the first hit for the Millers. This time he tripled off the center-field fence 400 feet away-narrowly missing another home run-to score Irvin and give himself the possible distinction of being the first player to ever break up a no-hitter twice in the same game.”
The Millers went on to win the Association playoffs and beat International League champion Rochester in the Junior World Series. Lennon tied a Junior Series record with four home runs, the last one giving Minneapolis the lead in the seventh and deciding game.
When he went to winter ball that year in the Dominican Republic, the team owner offered hitters a $10 bonus for every base. “I was just going for another $10,” he said ruefully, when he tore tendons in his ankle trying to stretch a double into a triple.
The Dominican team sent him to a “voodoo doctor.” He recalled, “This guy was a little, little man. He looked about eighty years old.” The “doctor” manipulated Lennon’s ankle, painfully: “‘Okay,’ he says, ‘Tomorrow, all better. You can play. Tomorrow the pain is gone.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You gotta believe.’” The ankle bothered him all the next year and eventually required surgery by a medical doctor.
He went to spring training in 1956 with Giants, but his ankle and shoulder still hurt and he couldn’t throw well. That season, he said, “I was on a yo-yo up and down” between Minneapolis and New York. He enjoyed a few good days-3 for 4 off the Pirates’ ace Bob Friend, a pinch-hit double. But, he remembered, “Then you go back to the bench.” General manager Chub Feeney complained that he wasn’t hitting any home runs.
When Giants sent him back to Minneapolis for the third time in 1956, he threatened to quit. Instead, the Giants traded him to the Cubs the next spring with pitcher Dick Littlefield for third baseman Ray Jablonski and catcher Ray Katt.
Twelve days after the trade, in Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn boy tagged Sal Maglie for his only big-league homer.
The next day he went 0-for-4 and took a seat on the bench. His arm was still bothering him: “I couldn’t throw too good.”
When interviewed decades later, Lennon felt his frequent injuries and limited playing time killed his major-league chances. He remembered the difficulty of sitting on the bench for two weeks, then being sent up to pinch-hit. “I felt that I could have hit a lot of home runs and, you know, did some damage up there,” he said.
After only 22 plate appearances in 1957, his major league career ended: 38 games, 79 at-bats and a .165 average. The Cubs sent him to San Diego, a Cleveland farm club.
At the end of the Pacific Coast League season, Detroit claimed him on waivers. He joined the Tigers at Yankee Stadium, but as soon as he was issued a uniform, the club informed him that they were returning him to the Cubs. They said they had just found out about his bad arm.
In 1958 the Cubs proposed cutting his meager salary in half, and Lennon said, “I quit.” Instead, Chicago sold him to Montreal of the International League: “They paid what I was getting, you know, seven thousand, whatever it was.”
He was a unanimous choice for the all-star team, but hurt his ribs when he ran into an outfield wall and finished the season with 25 homers.
During that season, Bob and his wife, Florence (Shearman), who had no children, adopted a baby girl with the help of the Montreal team physician’s connections. They named her Kathleen. Their son Bobby was born soon afterward, and Billy and Debby came along later.
He returned to Montreal in 1960, but was traded to St. Paul, the Dodgers’ other AAA team. The following year, with Syracuse, Minnesota’s AAA farm club, he hit only .228 in 88 games. He decided to call it a career.
He said his wife urged him to quit: “We had our third child that year…and I wasn’t going anywhere…I wanted to keep playing, but I’d just bounce around Triple-A or maybe Double-A.”
When he wasn’t playing winter ball, he had worked in the off-seasons as an ironworker. He had his union card (Local 580 in New York) and easily found a job. But he acknowledged that the break from baseball was painful: “I missed it every spring…the first three or four or five years…From, what, [age] 16 to 33, that was my life.”
Lennon later did some “bird-dog” scouting for the Yankees. During the 1990s he underwent two open-heart surgeries. In 2001 he said he still got a couple of requests for autographs every week: “Sometimes they want to send you money. Hey, I’m just glad somebody remembers me.”
Two walls of his den in Dix Hills, New York, were covered with baseball memorabilia, including the ebony bat from Nashville, autographed balls and photos of teams and teammates. High on a corner shelf stood a tall silver trophy engraved with the Southern Association records he set in 1954.
In interviews late in his life, Lennon showed no sign of resentment about the “unbelievable” money today’s players make. He did not like the designated hitter rule- though he quickly added, “If I was playing, I would.”
Would he change anything if he could do his baseball career over? The 72-year-old replied, “I wouldn’t change anything.” Then, after a moment’s reflection: “If I would change anything, I just wish I wouldn’t, you know, get hurt so much.”
Lennon died on June 14, 2005, at his home. He was 76. His wife, four children and six grandchildren survived. His only surviving sibling, his sister Mary Reynolds, described him as a gentle, loving man.
He is buried in Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, New York.
Al Blumkin’s February 4, 2001, videotaped interview with Lennon is available from the SABR Oral History Committee (www.sabr.org). The video includes shots of memorabilia in Lennon’s den.
The author interviewed Lennon by telephone on September 22, 1993.
The Sporting News provided weekly coverage of Lennon’s 1954 season, beginning with the June 9 issue.
His death notice appeared in Newsday, June 15, 2005. Several family members provided reminiscences in the newspapers online guestbook at http://www.legacy.com/Newsday/Guestbook.asp?Page=Guestbook&PersonID=14263272
Facts about Sulphur Dell come from the author’s recollection and September 1993 interviews with Nashville Banner sportswriters George K. Leonard and Fred Russell, whose career began in the 1920s.
Information about Sulphur Dell and Nicollet Park from Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1992).
Portions of this article are adapted from Warren Corbett, “There Used to be a Ballpark: Nashville’s Sulphur Dell,” The Diamond, March-April, 1994.
Former Vols second baseman Buster Boguskie was interviewed by the author in September 1993.
Minor league home run data from SABR’s Minor League Stars, Vols. I-II-III (1984, 1985, 1992). Southern Association 40-homer men from Vol. I.
Lennon’s minor league stats from Old Tyme Data, Shawnee Mission, Kansas.
Charlie Workman is the same player listed in encyclopedias as “Chuck Workman.” The author talked to one of his Nashville teammates, one fan and two contemporary sportswriters who spontaneously called him “Charlie.”
SABR member Stew Thornley (http://stewthornley.net) provided details of Lennon’s seasons with the Minneapolis Millers.
Jerry Casserly, “What Ever Happened to…Baseball’s Bob Lennon, the Home-Run Kid,” New York Daily News, (n.d.), 1976. Article provided by Rich Hanson.
Jimmy Murphy, “Boro Roots for Lennon To Make Giant Grade.” (undated clipping, probably 1957, in Lennon’s Hall of Fame file)
For more about Sulphur Dell, see these references provided by SABR member Nelson Eddy:
Ted Power, “Babe’s Last Visit,” Nashville Tennessean, October 18, 1991
Grantland Rice, “1901: Nashville Led ‘Base Ball Boom,’” Taylor-Trotwood Magazine, (n.d.) 1910. Reprinted in the Tennessean, October 8, 1978. Rice coined the name “Sulphur Dell.”
Fred Russell, “Grantland Rice Gave it a Name…’Sulphur Dell,’” Nashville magazine, February, 1997.
Joe Hatcher, “Remembering Old Times: The Vols & Sulphur Dell,” Tennessean, January 22, 1978.
Ken Beck, “‘Sulphur Dell Sights, Smells Linger On,” Tennessean, September 18, 1977.
Hugh Walker, “Buffaloes and Ball Players: The Story of Sulphur Dell,” Tennessean, March 2, 1969.