Alabaman Leo “Lefty” Townsend is not the same Leo Townsend who was once a Hollywood screenwriter and alleged Communist sympathizer in the 1950s.1 Nor is he the same Townsend as Ira “Texas” Townsend, a right-hander who pitched for the Boston Braves in 1920 and 1921. This Leo Townsend pitched in seven games in September 1920 for George Stallings’s seventh-place Braves, followed by one final game in May 1921. Arm trouble derailed his 1921 spring training battle with Johnny Cooney for Boston’s left-handed relief role, and would escort him out of professional baseball less than eighteen months later.
Leo Alphonse Townsend was born in Mobile, Alabama, on January 15, 1891,2 the youngest of the six children of George James Townsend and Mary A. (Manning) Townsend. His father died when Leo was nine. The earliest recording of Leo’s baseball exploits shows him pitching for the Mark Grey Recycling and Trash Company semipro team in Ohio around 1910. When not playing ball, he worked for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, which ran up the Ohio River from Alabama to the St. Louis area. In 1912, the 21-year-old Townsend traveled with a Mobile semipro squad organized by local newspaperman E.V. O’Connor for a series against a Pensacola, Florida, team. Leo was hailed as “the strike out boy who never pitches a game in which he secures less than fifteen by the fan route.”3
The next spring, Leo was given a tryout by manager Mickey Finn and the Mobile Gulls of the Class A Southern Association, providing Townsend, “a Mobile boy, a chance to work out with the local bunch.”4 He didn’t stick with the Gulls, but “the semipro pitcher from Mobile joins Pensacola, with manager Finn having landed him the gig.”5 It took him a while to report, however, as he recovered from an injured hand suffered during Mobile’s spring training. Townsend pitched for the Snappers of the Class D Cotton States League. Baseball-Reference.com shows he posted a 6-0 record in 25 games for Pensacola, but there is documentation of his losing, 1-0, to Slim Love and the Selma (Alabama) Centralites on May 16 in the seven-inning opener of a twin bill.6 Leo finished the year with the Morristown (Tennessee) Jobbers of the Class D Appalachian League, where he went 6-1 in nine games, including a 5-0, two-hit shutout of the Rome (Georgia) Romans in late August.7
In spring training of 1914, Townsend was afforded another tryout with Mobile, now under the direction of manager Bris Lord. This time he stuck.8 Not only did he ‘stick,’ completing a meteoric rise “from the lots to a Class A league” in roughly one year,9 Townsend started off with a hot hand. The “small young pitcher” was “an entire puzzle” in a 2-0 shutout over Red Styles and New Orleans on May 1.10 In June, he was showered with multiple gifts from local newspapers and his prior employer, the M&O Railroad, all after the “Mobile southpaw” had been burning it up.11 In a ceremony at home plate, he was presented with a gold watch and chain; a diamond-studded fob; a diamond set pin, and a set of gold and diamond cuff buttons.12 Along with outfielders Elmer Miller and LaRue Kirby, he was hailed as manager Lord’s star rookies for 1914.13 As of mid-July, Townsend led the Southern Association in winning percentage at .733 with an 11-4 mark,14 before finishing at 17-12 for the second-place Gulls.
Before the 1915 season, “Lefty” Townsend held out before finally earning a salary increase from Mobile in early April.15 After compiling a 12-10 record by the end of July, he went home with a strained ligament in his left arm and was placed on the ineligible list.16
In February 1916, he announced his retirement from the game, with plans to go to Texas.17 He did wind up in the Lone Star State; however, his announcement of hanging up his mitt was a bit premature. In April, Townsend signed with the San Antonio Bronchos of the Class B Texas League.18 Released in June after 10 games and a 2-4 mark, he signed with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Class A Southern Association, where he was 4-9. For the next three years Townsend bounced around Class A and B leagues with so-so results. A 29-year-old free agent in March 1920, he signed with the Charleston Palmettos of the Class C South Atlantic League.19 On May 6, he homered and tripled while scattering seven hits in a 12-3 win over Spartanburg and was given $52 by the adoring fans for the feat.20 In late June, Leo, the “Pals brilliant side whirler,” tossed a two-hit shutout over Orin “Lefty” Masters and the Augusta (Georgia) Georgians.21 Townsend was dubbed “the best southpaw in the league, even in the face of the formidable Masters.”22 After local boosters hosted a fish fry, Townsend, in his last appearance for Charleston, was shutting out the home Bamberg (South Carolina) squad in an exhibition, but rain cut the game short.23 He was selected to the “All-State” team after posting a 17-11 record with a 2.15 ERA over 31 games.24 In early September, the Boston Braves purchased Townsend.25
On September 8, Townsend made his major league debut for Boston against the New York Giants in the second game of a doubleheader loss. With his team down, 5-1, Townsend pitched a scoreless ninth inning for manager George Stallings, allowing but a single to opposing pitcher Slim Sallee. Ira “Texas” Townsend, no relation and seven years younger, also pitched for the Braves that day in the opening game.26 In his second game with the Boston Braves, Leo, “the southpaw, took Hugh] McQuillan’s place in the box, and not only pitched well, but started the big rally in [the] seventh with a single.”27 Townsend, “the former Mark Grey pitcher,” was lauded by an Ohio paper for earning the victory.28
The Sporting News took note of two Townsends being with the Braves: “He [right-hander Ira Townsend] is not to be confused with Leo Townsend, the southpaw pitcher who comes from the South Atlantic League. Both have been used in games here of late and the record keepers should see to it they get them straightened out, for both are likely to stick around awhile.”29
The next week’s edition also warned the “keepers of the record…to watch their P’s and Q’s, or rather their I’s and L’s” in reference to both Leo and Ira being on the Braves’ roster simultaneously.30
On September 11, Leo tossed four shutout relief innings against the Cincinnati Reds. The early reports were that the young lefty was pitching like “a real star as a relief chucker,” and a better deal than the $15,000 ponied up by the Cincinnati Reds for Lynn Brenton.31 Townsend lost his first decision, a 13-inning heartbreaker to St. Louis on September 18, giving up his first two runs over seven relief innings. Regardless, for the second straight week, The Sporting News commented, declaring “Lefty Townsend Makes Good.”32
On the last day of the Braves’ 1920 season, Townsend started against the New York Giants, pitching a complete-game four-hitter in the opener of a doubleheader. In a pitchers’ battle with Art Nehf, “the Boston rookie [did] the better work, but lost, 2-1.”33 By virtue of the Braves defeating the Giants in the nightcap, Brooklyn won the National League pennant.
Before 1921 spring training, Braves president George Washington Grant was bullish on his “promising rookie” southpaw Townsend.34 Leo was one of three left-handers in Boston’s camp in Galveston, Texas, along with Johnny Cooney and Garland Braxton.35 Expectations were high for Townsend, as further outlined by Grant: “Townsend is just the kind of left-hander he has been looking for to shove into the box in the sixth or seventh inning when another pitcher may be getting a little groggy and a bunch of left-handed hitters are coming to bat.”36
Townsend quipped in camp that he “holds the record for being with bad ball clubs.”37 He was listed in the Braves’ rookie directory as a 5’ 10”, 160-pound, 30-year-old lefthander with eight years of minor league experience.38 Leo was making good progress in training camp for new manager Fred Mitchell, with it being “practically conceded that Townsend will be a regular with the Braves this season.”39
However, a bad arm put him on the shelf the first month of the season.40 A report read: ““Lefty Leo” Townsend, who was going so well at the training camp, but who developed a sore arm when the club came North and has not been able to get into a championship game, appears to be coming around all right. For the past three or four days he has been able to work out quite a bit and is much encouraged by his improved condition.”41
Townsend finally returned on May 27 for the Braves against the Giants, as the first port-sider the Braves and manager Mitchell had employed, 33 games into the season. Alas, “Leo was not ready, and also had poor control.”42 He lasted only one-and-one-third innings, allowing four of the seven runs in the second inning, taking the defeat. In the second inning, “the Giants lit on him unmercifully, slamming everything he had to offer and about where they pleased.”43 A few days later, Townsend was released back to Charleston.44 His final major league career numbers ended up as two wins and three losses over 25 2/3 innings, with eight runs, 20 hits, and five walks allowed, with exactly one strikeout.45
By August, Charleston suspended Townsend because he “could not get his arm in shape.”46 He eventually recovered by September, winning a matchup with Columbia.47 Townsend returned to Charleston for 1922 spring training, but, unfortunately, this version of Leo was not well-received.48 He “vainly endeavored to stop the slaughter” in getting pounded by Charlotte in an April start.49 By month’s end he was pitching for a Treser semipro team in Pennsylvania.50 He was officially sold in May, along with pitcher Henry Thompson,51 by Charleston to the Richmond Colts of the Virginia League.52 But Townsend didn’t report to Richmond. Instead, he traveled to Kentucky, pitching for the Mt. Sterling Essex of the Class D Blue Grass League,53 He was “hit freely” in a 10-0 whitewashing at the hands of Maysville (Ohio). Townsend went 4-11 in 19 games for Mount Sterling (listed only as Townsend in Baseball-Reference). This was Townsend’s last professional season, finishing with an overall professional record of 93-88 over 243 games.
After moving back home to Mobile, Leo married a young lady named Mabel, three years his junior; the Townsends did not have any children. Leo worked as a salesman for Rhodes-Perdue and later the Nathan Furniture Company in town, with Mabel working as a clerk for Turner Supply Company. Much later, in 1955, Townsend was picked by Alabama Governor James Folsom for the Mobile County Board of Equalization.54 He spent 20 years on the Equalization Board, having final judgement on tax assessments.55 Townsend was also elected into the Mobile Youth Baseball Hall of Fame, alongside dignitaries such as Henry Aaron, Eddie Stanky, and Milt Stock.56
Leo Townsend died on December 3, 1976, at the age of 84, in a hospital in Mobile, Alabama, after a short illness.57 Governor George Wallace was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.58 Leo was survived by his wife Mabel and three nieces.59 Mabel assumed the final three years of his position on the Equalization Board.60
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources shown in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com, StatsCrew.com, and MyHeritage.com
2 According to Baseball-Reference, Townsend was born in 1891. Social Security records say Townsend was born in 1892, while his war registration said 1893.
3 “Strong Team from Mobile to Play Here,” Pensacola (Florida) News Journal, May 7, 1912: 6.
4 “Manager Finn Will Have Strong Array,” Nashville Banner, March 17, 1913: 8.
5 “Townsend Sent to Pensacola,” Pensacola News Journal, April 1, 1913: 9.
6 “Selma and Snappers Split in Double Bill,” Pensacola News Journal, May 17, 1913: 7.
7 “Townsend Blanks Romans,” Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times, August 30, 1913: 2.
8 “Only Two Mobile Players Show Up,” Nashville Banner, March 11, 1914: 10:
9 “Whole Team Graduates,” Chattanooga Times, March 16, 1915: 10.
10 “Townsend Hold Pels Scoreless While Homer Wins Game, 2-0,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 2, 1914: 11.
11 “Townsend, a Mobile Boy, Honored by Mobile Fans,” Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, June 15, 1914: 7.
12 Same as above.
13 “Bris Lord’s 1914 Rookies,” Birmingham (Alabama) Age-Herald, June 28, 1914: 16.
14 “’Lefty’ Townsend Passes Walker and Now Leads Southern Pitchers,” Chattanooga Times, July 19, 1914: 32.
15 “Townsend Signs,” Atlanta Constitution, April 7, 1915: 11.
16 “Townsend’s Disability,” Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee), August 1, 1915: 11.
17 “Pitcher Townsend Retires from Game,” (Nashville) Tennessean, February 27, 1916: 27.
18 “San Antonio Signs Townsend of Mobile,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 14, 1916: 16.
19 “O’Toole Case Recalled,” Brooklyn Eagle, March 7, 1920: 7.
20 “Pals Overwhelmed Spartanburg Bunch,” Charlotte (North Carolina) News, May 20, 1920: 12.
21 “Charleston Wins the Third from Starkmen,” Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, June 27, 1920: 17.
22 “Palagraphs,” Charleston Evening Post, August 26, 1920: 3.
23 “Rain Stops Game,” Bamberg (South Carolina) Herald, August 26, 1920:
24 J. Carter Latimer, “All State Ball Team Picked,” Watchman and Southron (Sumter, South Carolina), August 18, 1920: 6.
25 “Braves Buy Townsend,” Birmingham News, September 8, 1920: 22.
26 “Braves Drop a Pair of Games to Giants,” Boston Globe, September 9, 1920: 6.
27 “Fireworks Aplenty as Each Wins Game,” Boston Globe, September 10, 1920: 7.
28 “Townsend, Former Mark Grey Pitcher, Defeats the Reds,” Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio), September 9, 1920: 14.
29 “Expert View from Bostonese on Reds,” The Sporting News, September 16, 1920: 1.
30 “Notes,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1920: 1.
31 “Braves’ $1500 Rookie May Outshine Reds’ $15,000 Purchase,” Cincinnati Post, September 15, 1920: 14.
32 “Stallings May Be Coaxed to Stay On,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1920: 1.
33 “Braves Kill Last Chance of Giants in 1920 Race,” Boston Globe, September 28, 1920: 7
34 “Still Plenty of Cunning in Chief Bender’s Right,” Evening News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), December 31, 1920: 7.
35 “Boston Braves Expect to Get in First Section,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 31, 1921: 17.
36 “The Pepper Box,” Charlotte News, March 16, 1921: 10.
37 “Fred Mitchell Seems Perfectly Pleased with His New Ball Charges,” Brooklyn Eagle, March 31, 1921: 2.
38 “Rookie Directory: Braves,” Kalamazoo (Michigan) Gazette, April 4, 1921: 8.
39 “The Pepper Box,” Charlotte News, March 16, 1921: 10.
40 “Braves Hope to Get in a Game Today,” Boston Globe, May 7, 1921: 5.
41 “Bad Weather Again Halts Braves Game,” Boston Globe, May 15, 1921: 19.
42 “Close Decision at Plate Halts Braves,” Boston Globe, May 28, 1921: 9.
43 “Pinch Single by Earl Smith Downs Braves,” New York Tribune, May 28, 1921: 8.
44 “Charleston Gets Townsend,” Tampa (Florida) Tribune, June 3, 1921: 8.
45 Some reports claim that Townsend pitched the most innings ever in the history of the majors without recording a strikeout. However, Townsend recorded exactly one strikeout, that being St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Bert Shotton on September 16, 1920.
46 “Townsend Suspended,” Richford (Vermont) Journal and Gazette, August 19, 1921: 3.
47 “Recruits Kept Pals on Hustle,” Charlotte News, September 16, 1921: 14.
48 “3 Pals Stage First Workout,” Charlotte News, March 15, 1922: 16.
49 Eddie Brietz, “Webber Goes Great; Bees Hit Hard and Win,” Charlotte News, April 19, 1922: 14.
50 “Turners Win Opener from Treser Team,” Pittsburgh Press, April 30, 1922: 29.
51 “Two Pal Pitchers,” Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, May 10, 1922: 2.
52 “Notes,” Charlotte News, May 11, 1922: 16.
53 “Mt. Sterling 8, Studebackers 1,” Lexington (Kentucky) Leader, May 19, 1922: 5.
54 “Two Named to Mobile Board of Equalization,” Birmingham News, October 6, 1955: 73.
55 “Ex-Major Leaguer L. Townsend Dies,” Mobile Register, December 4, 1976: 6.
56 “Youth Baseball Dinner Saturday,” Mobile Register, February 29, 1976: 51.
57 “Ex-Major Leaguer L. Townsend Dies,” Mobile Register, December 4, 1976: 6.
58 “Townsend,” Mobile Register, December 7, 1976: 26.
59 “Townsend,” Mobile Register, December 6, 1976: 21.
60 “Mabel Townsend Takes Board Post,” Mobile Register, December 30, 1976: 11.