Referred to as “the original dirt player” by Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, Mark Lemke was a throwback second baseman who rarely left the field with a clean uniform.1 Standing at 5-feet-10-inches and weighing between 165 and 170 pounds, the undersized second baseman contributed in ways that didn’t always show up in a box score. Affectionately called the Lemmer by teammates, Lemke was a clutch player who will always be remembered for his performance in the 1991 World Series.
Jimy Williams, who managed Lemke with the Boston Red Sox and coached him with the Braves, described Lemke’s workmanlike approach to the game as follows: “I’ve just seen him make so many plays and be in the middle of so many rallies at key times, in big games. … He brings his own little sack lunch to the table, while all the other guys are eating filet.”2
Mark Alan Lemke was born on August 13, 1965, in Utica, New York, 40 miles northwest of Cooperstown, and grew up in Whitesboro, a suburb of Utica. He was the youngest of four children of Roger and Patricia Lemke.3 Roger, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, worked as a federal government contract administrator in Rome, New York. Patricia was employed as an employment counselor.
Mark Lemke may not be the most famous member of the Lemke clan. His family tree includes a presidential candidate. Lemke is the second cousin twice removed of William Lemke, an eight-term Republican member of the US House of Representatives from North Dakota and the 1936 Union Party presidential candidate.4 When asked about his distant relationship to the one-time presidential candidate, Lemke responded, “I have been asked about that a lot and haven’t disputed it because it sounds pretty good.”5
Mark attended Sacred Heart Elementary School and Notre Dame High School in Utica. At Notre Dame he played both baseball and basketball. According to Lemke, he actually took basketball more seriously.6 However, the diminutive guard attracted little interest from college basketball coaches.
Lemke did attract interest on the baseball diamond. He received a scholarship offer to play baseball at Purdue University and drew the attention of a scout working the upstate New York area. Cy Williams, who worked for the Major League Scouting Bureau and recommended Lemke as a high-school prospect, compared the undersized infielder to one of the grittiest players of all time, Pete Rose. “His style of play does sort of remind you of Pete Rose,” Williams said in June 1983. “That is not to say he is the next Pete Rose, but I think he has the ability and desire to become a professional baseball player. He seems to be the type of kid who uses every ounce of his ability.”7
Indeed, Lemke was the type of player who got the most out of his ability. When asked how he made it to the majors despite his size, Lemke said, “It’s kind of hard to explain. I look at guys going into the Hall of Fame and think about the fact that I played for many years with them … pretty amazing. I guess the best way to describe why I made it is I just grinded it. I was very determined.”8 Lemke also credited his family for the development of his grittiness and ability to grind on the baseball field. “I have a sister and brother who are pharmacists and another sister who is a doctor. I was the youngest so I had a lot to look up to. I also had parents who taught me the right things.”9
On the third day of the 1983 June amateur draft, Lemke was selected in the 27th round by the Atlanta Braves. Until then Lemke had his mind set on attending Purdue. After being drafted by the Braves, he was brought to Atlanta with the rest of the team’s draft picks, including future major leaguers Ron Gant and Jay Buhner. It was at that point that he started to ask himself, “What do you want to do — go to school or play ball?”10 Lemke remembered his father advising him, “You don’t want to go to school … if all you’re going to think about is baseball. … You can always go to school.”11 Lemke followed his heart and signed with the Braves.
The 17-year-old Lemke was assigned to the team’s Gulf Coast League affiliate in Bradenton, Florida, where he had his first eye-opening experience in professional baseball: “You think they are drafting you as the second baseman of the future and you go to rookie ball and all of a sudden, there are 15 other second basemen.”12 In 53 games Lemke hit .263 with 19 RBIs as the rookie-league Braves finished in second place in the Gulf Coast League’s North Division.
Lemke returned to Bradenton to start the 1984 season. His roommate that year was Tom Glavine, a left-handed pitcher the Braves had taken in the second round of the 1984 draft. Glavine, who along with Lemke traveled his way up through the Braves’ minor-league system, was embarking on a Hall of Fame career.13 Lemke hit .276 with 3 home runs and 32 RBIs before being promoted to the Anderson (South Carolina) Braves of the Class-A South Atlantic League. At Anderson, Lemke struggled to make the adjustment to higher caliber pitching. He hit an anemic .149 with 5 RBIs in 42 games.
Now 19 years old, Lemke began the 1985 season with the Sumter (South Carolina) Braves.14 Splitting second-base duties with future Braves outfielder Gant, Lemke appeared in 90 games and showed only modest improvement at the plate. He finished the year with a .216 average, no home runs, and 20 RBIs. At this stage of his career, Lemke was not highly thought of as a prospect in the Braves organization. However, the same fire and determination that characterized his major-league career allowed him to move on from his early offensive struggles.
Lemke returned to Sumter for the 1986 season and split time between third base (77 games) and second base (50 games). The switch-hitting infielder hit .272 and began to demonstrate an ability to hit for power. His 18 home runs and 66 RBIs helped him earn a spot on the Sally League all-star team as a utility infielder and a promotion to the Durham Bulls of the High-A Carolina League for the 1987 season.15
Settling in at second base, Lemke hit .292 with 20 home runs and 68 RBIs at Durham and earned a berth on the league all-star team.16 His success with the Bulls helped him emerge as a bona-fide second-base prospect for the Braves. At the end of the season, he was called up to the Greenville Braves of the Double-A Southern League and joined future Braves Jeff Blauser, David Justice, Tommy Greene, Pete Smith, and Gant, playing in six games.
Lemke returned to Greenville to start the 1988 season. It was about this time that he thought he had the ability to make it to the parent club. Reflecting back on that year, Lemke said, “I knew then I had the talent and it now was going to become the mental side of the game if I was going to make it.”17 That year he hit .270 with 16 home runs and 80 RBIs. He also stole 18 bases in 20 attempts. When the Double-A season ended, Lemke earned a September call-up to Atlanta.
Lemke made his major-league debut in Atlanta on September 17, 1988. Starting at second base in both games of a doubleheader against the San Diego Padres, he went 0-for-3 (with a walk and a run scored) as the Braves dropped a 9-4 decision in the opener to right-hander Eric Show. The next day he collected his first major-league hit, a second-inning groundball single to right field off Padres right-hander Andy Hawkins. During the late-season call-up, Lemke appeared in 16 games and finished with a .224 average.
Lemke failed to make the Braves roster coming out of spring training in 1989. After the Braves acquired left-handed-hitting Jeff Treadway during spring training, they had the luxury of farming Lemke out for another year of seasoning to the Richmond Braves of the Triple-A International League. Lemke was Richmond’s everyday second baseman and enjoyed a productive season at the plate. In 146 games he hit .276 with 5 home runs and a team-leading 61 RBIs, and was named to the circuit’s all-star team.
In a foreshadowing of what was to come to Atlanta the Triple-A Braves won the International League’s Western Division title with a record of 81-65 and went on to capture the International League championship with a three-games-to-one victory over the Syracuse Chiefs. The Braves were swept in four games by the American Association’s Indianapolis Indians in the Triple-A Classic.
After the playoffs Lemke earned his second call-up to Atlanta. He batted only. 182 in 14 games, but hit his first major-league home run on September 14 in San Diego. With runners on second and third and two down in the top of the seventh, Lemke pinch-hit for Treadway. He deposited a 2-and-0 Eric Nolte fastball into the seats in left field. The three-run shot put the Braves up 12-3 as they rolled to a 13-4 drubbing of the Padres.
Lemke made the Braves roster as a utility infielder in 1990. After working his way through the Braves’ minor-league system without a sterling pedigree, he welcomed the news that he had finally made the big-league roster. “It’s a relief. I wasn’t sitting around trying to figure out what was going on because of what happened last year.” Lemke said, referring to his being one of the last cuts in 1990. “I was hoping to work on some skills and get the most out of my three weeks here [in spring training].”18
Lemke started the season slowly. He was hitting only .171 with 6 RBIs when he twisted his left ankle when he fell in the passage from the clubhouse to the dugout during a rain delay.19 The injury landed him on the disabled list and kept him out of the lineup for six weeks. In 102 games that year, Lemke hit .226 with 21 RBIs.
During the 1990 season, the Braves started the initial stages of transitioning from perennial doormat to consistent winners. The team got off to a 25-40 start before general manager Bobby Cox relieved manager Russ Nixon of his duties and replaced him with himself. Cox fared only slightly better during the remainder of the season, guiding the Braves to a record of 40-57, as the team (65-97) once again finished the season in last place. Unbeknownst to the casual fan, Cox had begun molding the young Braves into a cohesive unit that competed on a daily basis. Years later, Lemke commented on what he thought Cox brought to the team, “I think to a man, we would all say he was the best. He gave us confidence that we could compete and win at that level and that is a hard thing with young kids,” recalled Lemke.20
This new winning attitude ushered in a new era of baseball in Atlanta in 1991, one of the longest sustained periods of success in major-league history (14 consecutive division titles), that culminated with a World Series title in 1995.
Cox returned to the dugout in 1991 and Lemke and Treadway platooned for most of the season, allowing the Braves to take advantage of Treadway’s ability to hit right-handers and Lemke’s defense.21 As the season progressed it was apparent the Braves were moving more toward Lemke as the regular second baseman, and by the end of the season he was getting most of the playing time there. He finished the season with a .234 average, 2 home runs, and 23 RBIs as the Braves completed a worst-to-first turnaround with a record of 94-68.
Twenty years later, Lemke reflected on the Braves’ reversal of fortune. “We knew we were going to be better that year, but how much better, I don’t think any knew,” he said.”22 In a separate interview he reminisced on the atmosphere during the Braves’ stretch-run battle with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “It was the most incredible ride any of us could imagine. … That September with the Dodgers was like a playoff scenario every night.”23
Lemke started six games, and appeared in all seven, in the 1991 National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In Game Two he went 2-for-4 and drove in David Justice with the game’s only run with a sixth-inning double off Zane Smith. For the series, Lemke went 4-for-20 (.200) as the Braves rallied from a three-games-to-two deficit, winning the last two games on the road, to reach the franchise’s first World Series since 1958.
The Braves second baseman caught fire in the World Series against the American League champion Minnesota Twins. Lemke played in six games and batted .417 with 10 hits in 24 at-bats, including a double, three triples and four RBIs. He was the first player to collect three triples in the World Series since Yankees third baseman Billy Johnson accomplished the feat in 1947. Lemke, who was not known for his speed, recalled that he nearly had a fourth. “A triple for a guy like myself is hard and there was one other hit I had in the Series that I thought could have been a triple but I stopped at second.”24
Had it not been for a walk-off home run by Kirby Puckett in the 11th inning of Game Six and a 10-inning Game Seven masterpiece pitched by Jack Morris, Atlanta might have won the Series and Lemke might have been named World Series MVP.25
Although the Braves failed to win the World Series, more than 750,000 fans turned out for the team’s near-victory parade. “The parade was the highlight,” Lemke said. “It was all a good experience. I don’t know if I’d want to go through it every offseason. But I enjoyed it while I was there.”26
Coming off the success of the previous fall, Lemke won the full-time job at second base in the spring of 1992. That season he appeared in a career-high 155 games. Lemke’s reliable defensive play at second base more than compensated for his modest offensive contributions (.227 batting average, 6 home runs, 26 RBIs) as the Braves went 98-64 and repeated as NL West champions.
The 1992 NLCS was a rematch of the previous year’s. Lemke went 7-for-21 with two RBIs as the Braves once again beat the Pirates in seven games to advance to the World Series. Lemke went 4-for-19 in the World Series and collected the game-winning RBI in Game Two and another RBI in Game Four as the Braves fell to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games.
After the season the Braves released Treadway, solidifying Lemke’s position as the team’s starting second baseman. He responded with an improved season at the plate. In 151 games, all but one at second base, Lemke hit .252 with a career-high 7 home runs and 49 RBIs as the Braves won their third consecutive NL West title. Despite outhitting and outscoring Philadelphia in the NLCS, the Braves dropped the series in six games. Lemke went 5-for-24 and drove in five runs, four of which came in Game Three when he hit a three-run double.
Lemke enjoyed his best all-around season in 1994. In 104 games he hit a career-high .294 with 3 home runs and 31 RBIs. He had a career-high .994 fielding percentage at second base.27 When play was suspended on August 12 because of the players strike, the Braves were 68-46, six games behind the NL East-leading Montreal Expos.
The strike lingered into the 1995 season, canceling the first 18 games of the season. Lemke lost another four weeks when he landed on the disabled list with a partially torn left hamstring in late June. The injury was so severe that Lemke reportedly had difficulty “just standing.”28 Limited to 116 games during the regular season, Lemke hit .253 with 5 home runs and 38 RBIs as the Braves captured the NL East title, their fourth division title in five years.
Lemke hit .211 in the Braves’ four-game victory over the Colorado Rockies in the Division Series. He followed that with a .167 average in the Braves’ four-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS. Advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1992, Lemke and the Braves met the American League champion Cleveland Indians. Lemke started all six games at second and hit .273 as the Braves won the franchise’s first World Series title since 1957, when they were still in Milwaukee.
Lemke’s gritty play continued to take its toll when he landed on the disabled list with a jammed thumb in late May 1996. The injury forced Lemke to miss 18 games. Limited to 135 games, he hit .255 with 5 home runs and 37 RBIs as the Braves again captured the NL East title.
The defending World Series champion Braves opened the playoffs with a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. Although he went only 2-for-12 in the series, Lemke was once again clutch as he drove in two runs in the clinching game with a fourth-inning double off Japanese sensation Hideo Nomo.
The 1996 NLCS was a hard-fought seven-game battle between the Braves and the Central Division champion St. Louis Cardinals. After falling behind three games to one, the Braves rallied to win the series. Lemke hit safely in all seven games, batting .444 (12-for-27) with two doubles, a home run, and five RBIs to help the Braves capture their second consecutive pennant.
In Game One of the NLCS, Lemke erased a 1-0 deficit and drove home two runs with a fifth-inning single to right-center. The Braves went on to win, 4-2. In Game Four, he led off the sixth inning with his only postseason home run, a shot to deep right off right-hander Andy Benes. In Game Five, a 14-0 Braves blowout victory, Lemke went 4-for-5 with an RBI single. In Game Six he added a 2-for-4 performance and another RBI single. In the seventh and final game, an anticlimactic 15-0 Braves win, Lemke went 2-for-4.
The Braves and Lemke got off to a fast start in the 1996 World Series. In a 12-1 Game One victory over the Yankees, Lemke went 2-for-4, including a sixth-inning RBI single. In Game Two he hit a first-inning ground-rule double and scored the game’s first run when Fred McGriff drove him home with a single to left field. Lemke added a second hit, a single to center, and scored a second run in the top of the fifth to help the Braves to a 4-0 victory and two-games-to-none lead in the Series. With the Series headed back to Atlanta, the Braves were well positioned to repeat as champions.
After going 4-for-8 in the Series’ first two games, Lemke managed only two more hits (an RBI single in Game Three and a harmless single in Game Four) in 18 trips to the plate during the Series’ last four games. He made the last out in the Series, when he hit a pop foul that Yankees third baseman Charlie Hayes squeezed to end the Braves’ one-year reign as World Series champions.
Lemke recalled the final out of the series. “I had [John Wetteland] right where I wanted him. … I give a lot of credit to Wetteland. I really remember that at-bat. If he had thrown a curve, I’d probably strike out. He kept throwing the fastball on the outside corner and I’d fight off the pitch. If he throws high with a fastball, I walk. He throws it over the plate and I tear it up. The only thing better I could have done was flick it a little farther (into the stands).”29
The 1996 World Series was Lemke’s last appearance in the postseason. In 62 postseason games over five seasons, he hit .272 with 10 doubles, 3 triples, a home run, and 25 RBIs. True to his career statistics, the numbers do not accurately reflect Lemke’s contributions or impact on the Braves’ playoff successes. His clutch playoff performances, be it exploding offensively as he did in the 1991 World Series or quickly turning a double play at second, often set the tone for the entire team.
For the third consecutive season, Lemke missed a considerable amount of time in 1997 due to injury. In early June he missed a week with a vision problem that helped drop his batting average to .232. On August 20, with the team headed toward another NL East division title, he sustained a season-ending sprained ankle. The injury occurred when Houston Astros left fielder Derek Bell took Lemke out with a “football-style, roll block” at second base.30 At the time he was hitting .245 with 2 home runs and 26 RBIs. Unable to recover prior to the playoffs, he was kept off the Braves’ playoff roster.
After the season Lemke, 32, filed for free agency. Hampered by injuries over the past few seasons, he found a soft market for his services. The Red Sox originally offered him only $250,000 per year, an 87.5 percent cut from the $2 million he had earned the previous year with the Braves. Lemke rejected the Red Sox twice before finally coming to terms on a one-year, $1 million contract at the end of spring training.31 The deal reunited Lemke with Jimy Williams, who was the bench coach when Lemke was in Atlanta, and former teammate Steve Avery.
Lemke, who missed nearly all of spring training before coming to terms with the Red Sox, got off to a slow start. At the end of April he was hitting a microscopic .108. He began to turn things around in May and hit .255 between May 1 and 19, raising his average to .193. However, on May 19 his baseball career effectively came to an end. In the top of the sixth inning of a game at Fenway Park, Lemke was involved in a collision at second base with Chicago White Sox catcher Chad Kreuter and suffered a concussion. The gritty Lemke returned to the lineup on May 25 against the Toronto Blue Jays and went 0-for-3. He was pinch-hit for by Lou Merloni in the top of the ninth inning. This was Lemke’s final major-league appearance.
For weeks Lemke was unable to play and suffered from concussion symptoms: fatigue, dizziness, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.32 On July 15 the Red Sox moved him to the 60-day disabled list, signaling an end to his season and Red Sox career.
As the season wound down, the Red Sox acquired second baseman Chris Snopek from the White Sox to fortify their playoff push. At the time of the move, Williams reminded everyone of Lemke’s contributions to the team. “Mark Lemke hit .187 and helped us win a lot of games,” Williams said. “Don’t always look at stats. Look at what the player does, maybe moving runners, making plays, taking an extra base. There’s a lot more important things than those stats.”33
While Williams’s comments were designed to point out Lemke’s contributions to the Red Sox that year, they also served as a commentary to his entire career. Lemke’s contributions to the Braves teams of the 1990s are not accurately measured by his career .246 average, 32 home runs, and 270 RBIs.
Surprisingly, given his tenacious style of play, Lemke is the holder of an obscure major-league record. Lemke has the record for most career plate appearances (3,664) without being hit by a pitch. One would expect a player with Lemke’s desire to do anything possible to win to have been hit by a pitch at least once in his career.
After Boston, Lemke retired but came back as a knuckleball pitcher and coach with the New Jersey Jackals of the independent Northern League East for two seasons (1999-2000). In his first year with the Jackals, who had former major leaguer Pete Rose Jr. on the roster, he made 11 appearances on the mound, five as a starter. Despite an inflated ERA of 6.68, he finished the season with a record of 5-1. The Jackals finished the year with a record of 45-40 and in second place in the NEAS’s South Division. He made only one appearance in 2000. In 2⅔ innings he walked seven, gave up nine hits and yielded 12 earned runs. The Jackals finished in last place with a record of 31-53.
Following his foray into independent-league baseball, Lemke moved to Alpharetta, Georgia, and began dabbling in real estate. In December 2003 he was reunited with former Braves teammate John Rocker as a victim in a real-estate scam. A real-estate investor allegedly bilked Rocker and Lemke out of more than $500,000. Lemke alone reportedly lost $408,000.34
In 2006 Lemke began working on the Braves’ pregame radio show and as a fill-in for radio analyst Don Sutton. “I love it, though it is something I didn’t anticipate doing,” he said. “I do quite a bit of prep work but I will tell you Twitter really helps me get ready for games.”35
Lemke, who is not married, currently resides in Sandy Springs, a suburb on the northern tier of the metropolitan Atlanta area.
Last revised: February 11, 2021
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on baseball-reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 9, 2015. Retrieved from https://ajc.com/sports/baseball/whatever-happened-mark-lemke/VmSeJBHyL0EgUnUc3cnQFK/.
2 Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
3 Patricia Lemke, personal correspondence, November 11, 2019.
4 In 1936 William Lemke accepted the nomination of the Union Party, a short-lived third party, for president. He received 892,378 votes, just under 2 percent, and no electoral votes. Lemke did outpoll Republican Alf Landon in five North Dakota counties and was the last third-party presidential candidate to outpoll a major-party nominee in any non-Southern county until George Wallace outpolled Hubert Humphrey in Kane County, Utah, in 1968.
5 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
6 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
7 Ronald Blum, “Lemke Does It Again for Atlanta,” Sumter (South Carolina) Item, October 23, 1991: 3D.
8 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
9 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
10 Fran Perritano, “Tuesday Conversation with Mark Lemke,” Utica (New York) Observer-Dispatch, April 6, 2010. Retrieved from https://uticaod.com/article/20100406/News/304069930.
12 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
13 John Feinstein, Living on the Black (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2008), 12.
14 The Sumter Braves replaced the Anderson Braves as Atlanta’s Class-A affiliate in the Sally League.
15 “Sports Notebook: Braves Patient in Pursuit of Dawson,” Atlanta Constitution, August 29, 1986: 67.
16 Gerry Fraley, “Garcia Working Out Again, May Get September Try at Third Base,” Atlanta Constitution, August 30, 1987: 59.
17 I.J. Rosenberg. “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
18 Joe Strauss, “Nixon Leaves No Doubt on Plans for Lemke: ‘He’s Got to be Here,’” Atlanta Constitution, March 25, 1990: 53.
19 “Injury Update,” Atlanta Constitution, May 30, 1990: 70.
20 “Injury Update.”
21 Treadway had a .325 average against right-handed pitchers, but hit only .250 against left-handers. Lemke hit .254 against left-handers and only .219 against right-handers. Lemke was the stronger defensive second baseman.
22 Tim Tucker, “Special Year Had Set Championship Stage,” Atlanta Constitution, August 12, 2011: C9.
23 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
24 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to … Mark Lemke.”
26 Craig Davis, “Lemke Never Walked on This Street Before,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Florida), February 27, 1992: 41.
27 Lemke had a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage at second base for the Red Sox in 1998. However, that came in only 31 games.
28 I.J. Rosenberg, “Braves Notebook: Alou Eyes Maddux as All-Star Starter,” Atlanta Constitution, June 27, 1995: 58.
30 Jack Wilkinson, “Ankle Sprain Puts Lemke on DL,” Atlanta Constitution, August 23, 1997: 138.
31 I.J. Rosenberg, “Lemke, Red Sox Reach Deal,” Atlanta Constitution, March 27, 1998: 60.
32 Gordon Edes and Dan Shaughnessy, “To Lemke It’s Not Personal: He Has Nothing Against Kreuter,” Boston Globe, June 10, 1998: 82.
33 Shira Springer and Gordon Edes, “Surprised Package Arrives,” Boston Globe, September 2, 1998: 38.
34 Ernie Suggs, “Unhappy Reunion for ex-Braves,” Atlanta Constitution, December 10, 2003: B4.
35 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever happened to … Mark Lemke.”