Lefty George: The Durable Duke of York

This article was written by Gerald Tomlinson

This article was published in the 1983 Baseball Research Journal


Thomas Edward George never made much of a splash in the major leagues. His longest stay was the full 1911 season, when as a rookie, he compiled a 3-10 won-lost record for the St. Louis Browns. His greatest moment came on September 11, 1915, when he bested a fading Christy Mathewson 4-0 in a seven-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds. Lefty’s 6-22 lifetime mark in the majors does not put him on anyone’s list of all-time greats.

Yet Lefty George was one of the all-time greats albeit among minor leaguers. His record in the minors, specifically for teams in York, Pennsylvania, attracted a lot of attention in the 1920s, and it bears looking at today. The amazing part is Lefty’s durability; he was still playing in the 1940s. Any man who can pitch and win professional baseball games at the age of 57 has to be rated a phenomenon.

Lefty’s story is inextricably linked to York, where he lived for much of his life. However, it began at the other end of the state, in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, on August 13, 1886. The last of six children, Lefty played sandlot ball and attended O’Hara Public School. He dropped out of Pittsburgh High School a month before graduation to take a job on a bread wagon.

While pitching semipro ball for the Beltzhoover team in Pittsburgh, he caught the attention of Dick Guy, at that time sports editor of the Gazette Times and Leader and manager of a team called the Pittsburgh Collegians. Guy saw to it that Lefty went for a year to Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Academy and then on to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, where he pitched brilliantly.

After Staunton, Lefty entered Washington and Lee University, intending to study law. He needed money for his schooling, and it is said that Dick Guy steered him toward summer pitching jobs with professional teams in East Liverpool and Steubenville, Ohio, and with Trenton, New Jersey, of the Tri-State League. To preserve his college eligibility, Lefty apparently played under assumed names, including “George Miller,” but his statistics for those years – 1906, 1907, and 1908 – are unobtainable.

Forsaking the study of law, Lefty opted for a professional baseball career, which he began under his own name for York of the Class B Tri-State League in 1909. He put in a lot of innings that year and the next, enough to absorb a stinging 40 losses, 20 each season.

One of the wins was a big one, though. It came on his 24th birthday, August 13, 1910, in York’s old fairgrounds ballpark, when he tossed a no-hitter against Harrisburg, winning 1-0.

From 1911 to 1921 he was a steady, occasionally impressive pitcher in the high minors and a so-so performer in the majors. He turned in a 19-14 record for Columbus, Ohio, of the American Association in 1917, with a 2.67 ERA, and 20-15 for the same team in 1919.

In fact, he pitched five straight seasons for the Columbus Red Birds, 1916 to 1920, except for a brief stint with the Boston Braves in 1918. When he “retired” from baseball in 1921 – note those quotation marks – it was from the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association.

He went home to York. He was 34 years old.

Retired though he was, he was not through. He spent a lot of his over-the-hill years on the hill for the York White Roses of the New York-Pennsylvania League (now the Eastern League), starting in 1923.

In the preceding year, there had been no NYP League, and Lefty’s statistical record for the year says “Voluntarily Retired.” It was a retirement that took a lot of stamina. In 1922 the aging portsider was working in the shipping department of the American Chain and Cable Company in York. Acco, as it was called, was a big outfit, and it sponsored a strong semipro team that featured Lefty George on the mound.

When the NYP League was formed in 1923, the Acco team under Frank (Rube) Dessau transformed itself into the York White Roses of the new Class B professional league. This Acco team, in its new guise, finished second in the NYP League in 1923, 1924, and 1926, first in 1925, and third in 1927. The “elongated portside twister,” as one writer described Lefty, started off well. He won 19 games in 1923 while losing 10, posting a career-high 162 strikeouts. At age 36 he had barely begun.

Stories from this period abound. There was the Sunday game in Binghamton, a town where the fans called him Andy Gump (a prominent cartoon character of that period) because of his prominent Adam’s apple. The crowd had been shouting “Andy Gump! Andy Gump!” at him for much of the afternoon, the idea being to rattle him. In the last of the ninth the White Roses were leading 3-2, but Binghamton, with runners at second and third, had mounted a threat.

In the best tradition of “Casey at the Bat,” their star hitter strode to the plate.

“Andy Gump! Andy Gump!”

The chant went on, the volume increasing. Lefty, working on two strikes, leaned back, fired, and struck out the local Casey to end the game. As the sigh from the crowd subsided, he looked skyward and shouted out the Gumpian line: “Oh, Min! I got him!”

The crowd, partisan though it was, loved it.

Lefty’s second year in the NYP League, 1924, bordered on the sensational. He won 16 straight games, including four shutouts in a row, and blazed his way through 45 consecutive scoreless innings. He finished the season with a 25-8 record.

A pitcher with that kind of season had to have something, and Lefty did. What they talked about in York and throughout the league was his superb move to first base. No record exists as to how many runners he picked off, but the number was high. Few baserunners stole on him.

Lefty George’s Adam’s apple also attracted a lot of attention. One anonymous bard of the `20s wrote:

He’s built straight.
Only thing that protrudes is the Adam’s apple.
It bobs up and down like a cork on the ocean every time he swallows.
Lefty has the best balk motion in baseball.
Doesn’t have to wiggle a finger.
All he has to do is wave his Adam’s apple and the runner dashes back to first.

As one bewildered commentator put it, “Nobody knew where the ball was going.” Nobody,that is, except Lefty. He knew. And that knowledge helped him gain or tie for the NYP League lead in shutouts in 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, and 1928.

Most ballplayers, no matter how long or short their careers, have one year that stands out above the rest. For Lefty George that year was 1925. It was the year Lefty George, the old pro, joined forces with Del Bissonette, a young, hard-hitting first baseman from Maine, to lead York to its only NYP League pennant.

Looking a bit lined and gaunt, but just as tough and able as ever, Lefty won 27 games in 1925, the most ever in the NYP-Eastern League. He threw seven shutouts, lost only seven games, and led the league with a 2.27 ERA. At Jack Benny’s fabled age of 39, Lefty was at the very top of his form.

Lefty got some pitching help in 1925 from Chant Parkes in the latter’s first year in the NYP League. A right-hander with York that year, he was to become another fixture in the league. Ultimately he would win almost as many games as Lefty George himself. The league record book reads:

 

Most games won, lifetime

    Lefty George (LHP)              165           1923-1933

    Chant Parkes (RHP)              151           1925-1934

 

A York sportswriter called 1925 “a spine-tingling, nerve-jangling, never-to-be-forgotten season in which Frank Dessau’s White Roses and the Williamsport Grays finished the regular season all even [77-55] , then tangled in a best-of-five series that was decided in the eleventh inning of the fourth contest at Eagle Park with a dramatic home run” [by Del Bissonette].

Rivalry between York and Williamsport was always intense. The Williamsport newspapers gave much play to Lefty George. Fans there called him Grandpa many years before he became one. One jay Lefty, to their wild amusement, got himself up in a white wig and flowing whiskers, rolled out to the mound in a wheelchair, and put in three sweltering innings in his old-folks’ get-up before the heat got the better of his clowning.

In 1926 Lefty’s won-lost mark fell off to 17-14. His effectiveness could hardly be questioned, though. His 1.95 ERA was his best ever.

He put in three more good seasons, including a 20-win year in 1929. During those seven years (1923-1929), up until the stock market crashed and Lefty’s ERA soared, the canny York southpaw won 138 games while losing 73, a .654 winning percentage.

But Lefty still managed to win in double figures at the age of 46. He became the grand old man of the league, a celebrity in all the cities of the loop. “If it was announced in advance that he was to pitch on any given day in Williamsport or Wilkes-Barre,” said Speed Williams, business manager of the White Roses, “it meant 800 to 1,000 more paid admissions.”

After 13 years in the majors and high minors, Lefty had bounced back and turned in a full decade of winning seasons with the York White Roses. In 1933 he retired again. It was over. Or was it? No. There was more to come, a full ten years down the road. Like that old retired general Douglas MacArthur, and also as a consequence of war, Lefty George   to the amazement of the baseball world returned.

Common sense suggests that no one can pitch and win in the professional ranks at the age of 57. But Lefty George had been far from idle after his second retirement. He continued to play semipro ball and even returned for a brief time with the White Roses’ team of 1940.

Then came the Second World War, and it was not easy to fill the minor league rosters. Seventeen-year-old pros were few, 4F athletes were hard to come by, and experienced oldsters were suddenly in demand.

Back came Lefty George, slim and apparently fit, once more pitching for hometown York, its team by now in the Class B Inter State League. The news of Lefty’s signing in 1943 created a sensation among baseball fans and the national press, especially when it was noted that another veteran pitcher, Dutch Schesler, who had played for Harrisburg in the long-ago 1925 season, was joining the York staff. He was 43. Sportswriters added their two ages together and announced the sum: 100.

It was great copy, but could Lefty actually pitch any more, even against the weak wartime competition? He could, although not with the old effectiveness. In 1943 he appeared in 21 games, winning seven and losing eight, with a 4.71 ERA. For a youngster with a 4F draft classification that might have been a disappointing season. For a grandfather of 57 it attracted coast-to-coast attention.

In his first starting assignment, June 16, 1943, Lefty pitched a three-hit shutout against the Lancaster Red Roses. The third baseman for Lancaster that year was future Detroit Tiger star George Kell, on his way to a .396 batting average in the Inter-State League. Kell put together an impressive consecutive-game hitting streak while winning the batting crown. It was ancient Lefty George, with help from Joe Narieka, who finally held Kell hitless, halting the streak at 32.

Lefty answered the call for the 1944 season, but the old fire was gone. Not the fire of his once-great fast ball; that had been gone for years. Everything was gone. The fabulous, seemingly indestructible soupbone had finally cooled. “I just can’t seem to get my arm in shape,” he said sadly. So, having pitched a single inning in 1944, Lefty George, almost 58, retired for the last time.

The classy southpaw died at his home in York on May 13, 1955. He is not much remembered in St. Louis or even Columbus these days, but he will never be forgotten in his adopted hometown.

In 1974, at the 10th York Area Sports Night, a number of latter-day baseball stars – Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, and Greg Gross among them – joined with 2,300 Yorkers as Lefty was posthumously inducted into York’s Hall of Fame.

Virginia George, one of Lefty’s five children, was on hand that night to hear the cheers for her father from the baseball fans of York, for whose teams he had taken the mound 423 times between 1909 and 1944.

An idol of the youngsters of York, he was the most colorful, popular, and proficient moundsman many of them would ever see in person. He was a remarkable man. “In my book,” said Speed Williams, echoing the sentiments of thousands of Pennsylvania and New York State minor league fans, “there will never be another like him.”

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