This article was written by Thomas L. Karnes
This article was published in 1981 Baseball Research Journal
For 21 years Theodore Amar Lyons pitched for the Chicago White Sox, endearing himself as no other player to South Side fans. He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1955. Yet for all of his honors, two major aspects of Lyons’ career have never been properly assessed: the superiority of his own record to that of his team and the astonishing improvement in his performance after the age of 39 when he pitched only on Sundays.
In 1923 Ted Lyons graduated from Baylor University and went straight to the White Sox, never to receive an inning of minor league experience. Lyons — center on the basketball team, good student, class president — had just pitched Baylor to the championship of the tough Southwest Conference and had been highly rated by White Sox scouts. He joined the Sox in St. Louis on July 2 and on that same day pitched in relief against the Browns in the first major league game he had ever seen.
Lyons’ career extended from 1923 until 1942, with a brief period in 1946 following military service, before he entered the arena of managing and coaching. Our concern is that 20-year span of pitching with special emphasis upon the last four seasons when he became baseball’s Sunday pitcher.
The team Lyons originally joined still included some of the “clean” members of the 1919 Black Sox — Manager “Kid” Gleason, Eddie Collins, “Red” Faber, Dickie Kerr, and Ray Schalk, who was to be Lyons’ catcher for the next several seasons. In his youth he pitched to Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker; he gave up one of Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927; he opposed Walter Johnson and Bob Grove. He broke into the majors with Lou Gehrig in mid-season of 1923 and saw the Iron Horse depart under tragic circumstances some 16 years later.
By the time that he, himself, was a veteran, the owners deliberately arranged for Lyons to oppose young Bob Feller in games that often proved to be classics. He faced a new generation of hitters led by Ted Williams, and he “participated” in Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak in 1941. When Lyons entered the Hall of Fame in 1955 he was accompanied by Dazzy Vance and Joe DiMaggio, born 24 years apart. He first pitched when the very game was suspect until saved by Landis and Ruth; he flourished in the Golden Age when entire teams might bat .300, and balls ricocheted off Comiskey Park’s fences like so much tommy-gun fire on the South Side. And he was showing no sign of weakening when he finished the 1942 season with a record of 14 wins and 6 losses before enlisting in the Marine Corps as a private, age 41.
During these 20 years, what sort of team did Lyons play for? He joined the White Sox when they were attempting to rebuild from the wreckage caused by the Black Sox scandals. In the Lyons decades the Sox never won a pennant. The club’s peak of third place was achieved just three times, but it also finished last three times. In those years the team’s average finish was a tie with Boston for sixth/seventh place, but the Red Sox, robbed of their talent by the Yankees early in the 1 920s, turned into a powerful organization late in the l930s. Only the St. Louis Browns performed with more dismal consistency than the White Sox, and even they were last only twice. Needless to say, no Browns pitcher ever approached Lyons’ skillfulness.
The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball contains an enlightening category — a table comparing all major league pitchers’ records with those of their respective ball clubs. This analysis discloses that among the hundreds of men who have pitched since 1900, the year of his birth, Lyons ranks 20th in the number of percentage points’ differential between his own accomplishments and those of his team; but, among the first 100 hurlers in this category, only three pitched for teams with a poorer record than the White Sox. In 12 of Lyons’ 20 years his mates finished 30 or more games behind the league champion.
Let us look at the Lyons record in yet another way. All of the statistics are clear enough, and impressive enough, without embellishment. Lyons was a very powerfully built, 200-pound man standing just about six feet tall. He pitched 356 complete games, a figure that places him second only to Warren Spahn among modern pitchers. (It must be remembered that Spahn pitched for some very good clubs, and he started in 665 games compared with Lyons’ 484. In percentage of completions the Braves lefthander ranks well behind Lyons.) Lyons’ won-lost achievement of 260-230 (averaging .531) is tenth among modern pitchers with 200 or more victories. On the other hand one can make no case that he was an exceptional strikeout artist, nor did he pitch an unusual number of shutouts. He did, however, pitch a no-hit game against the Boston Red Sox in 1926. The year before, on September 19, 1925, he pitched a perfect game against Washington until two were out in the ninth. Then Bobby Veach reached him for a single. Ted won 17-0.
Let me sketch a few more highlights of those 20 years. For purposes of comparison his record will be examined in two periods — from 1923 through 1938; and from 1939, when he became a Sunday pitcher, until 1942 when he entered the Marines.
In the former term his record included 207 wins and 196 losses, a winning percentage of .513. His best year in that earlier time span was 1935 when he was 21 and 11. In both 1927 and 1930 Lyons won 22 games, in the latter for a seventh-place team. In 1935 his won-lost percentage was .652 and in 1937, .632. (Incidentally, Lyons, a switch-hitter, often pinch hit and pinch ran and in 1930 he batted .311). His five shutouts in 1925 led the American League.
Lyons worked with several catchers during these seasons — Ray Schalk, Moe Berg, and Luke Sewell — all illustrious in their day. The records indicate little difference in Lyons’ performance, irrespective of his batterymate. According to retired umpire John “Jocko” Conlan, however, Lyons liked to tease Berg, contending that this gifted multilinguist, who served a still unspecified espionage role for this country in World War II, “was brilliant but couldn’t call a decent pitch.” Regardless of the catcher, however, Lyons’ control became famous, and between 1923 and 1938 he averaged slightly more than two bases on balls per game.
But 1938 did not lead Lyons to optimism for the future. Now approaching the old baseball age of 38, he could assume that his best days were behind him, especially since his 1938 performance had fallen below his standard. Under Manager Jimmy Dykes, the White Sox had begun reconstructing the club’s pitching staff, and young Monty Stratton or even younger Johnny Rigney seemed ready to replace Lyons alongside the very able Thorton Lee. But except for Lee and Stratton, no one on the Sox staff had had a winning year in 1938, and that fall, Stratton, as is well known, lost a leg in a hunting accident. Sox pitching potential, as a consequence, appeared to be even bleaker than before.
But this unhappy outlook reckoned without Ted Lyons, whose second career began in 1939 at the age of 38 with a change in pitching style and a change in pitching schedule. In 1931 Lyons had hurl his arm badly enough that his fast ball appeared to be a matter of history. Two versions of the cause of the ailment are available. Lyons’ teammate and friend, Thornton Lee, thought that Lyons had injured it in a fight with a professional wrestler. (All of his friends stress in interviews the fact that the easy-going Lyons had energy to burn, and loved nothing better than rough-house sessions with other players. To quote Lee, “He played harder than most people fight.”)
The Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, stated that Lyons had injured his arm in an exhibition game one cold, damp day in Houston. Whatever the reason, Lyons suffered his worst season in 1931, winning only four and losing six games, helping to shove the Sox into one of their last place finishes. The arm came back but only after Lyons had spent much of that season experimenting with a knuckleball. During the next few years, he gradually extended his use of the pitch, until by 1939 it had become his chief weapon. Before that season ended, Lyons clearly had become master of the knuckler and the bane of the heaviest of hitters.
Lyons got off to a fast start in 1939, losing his first game in April, but then no more until July. By what appears to have been the combination of a matter of chance and an unusual amount of rain along the eastern seaboard, Lyons started games on Sunday, May 21; Tuesday, May 30 (Memorial Day); Sunday, June 4, and Sunday, June 11. Lyons won all of those games; and, moreover; the Sox, who finished in sixth place the year before, were drawing significantly larger crowds whenever the veteran righthander took the mound.
Precisely how and by whom the notion of a Sunday pitcher was created is still a puzzle. One Sunday morning Irving Vaughan’s column in The Chicago Tribune affirmed that “Ted Lyons, who seems to have become Dykes’ Sunday pitcher, will handle one game today.” Vaughan did not expand upon his assertion in any fashion, but it is clear that from June of 1939 through his last full season in 1942 Lyons generally started games on Sunday only.
I have sought precedent, of course, and found none — with one rather complicated exception. Over on the north side of Chicago in the same weeks of 1939, Cubs’ manager Gabby Hartnett had started Dizzy Dean only four times during May and June, and in each case on Sunday. Neither manager Hartnett nor Dykes is alive to help solve the issue, so we cannot be sure which team deserves credit for the invention. Dean, of course, was a powerful gate attraction, and he was also suffering from a sore arm and a wounded pride — all factors which might have determined just which day he might pitch. My several informants can offer few clues, although Lew Fonseca recalls that when he managed the Sox back in 1932, general manager Harry Garbiner had once or twice asked him to start Lyons on Sunday against the Yankees to help fill Comiskey Park in the lean days of the Depression. But neither Fonseca nor any other respondent thought that this had been any precedent for Lyons’ future role.
I am inclined to credit manager Dykes with the stratagem. But in any case Lyons is the only pitcher to have continued this schedule over a period of several seasons. Normally, only rain on a Sunday would throw the plan out of operation, since Dykes could scarcely afford to carry a pitcher who worked only every ten days or more, even if his name happened to be Lyons.
The results proved startling. Combining his week-long rests with almost perfect control of the knuckleball, Lyons won eight games in a row after that first loss. He completed every one of those starts, and during one stretch went 42 innings without issuing a single base on balls. The White Sox, too, seemed to play better baseball on the Lyons’ days, getting 14 runs off the Philadelphia Athletics on one Sunday, and then hammering Bob Grove of the Red Sox, who also had a banner year in 1939, for seven more the following week. The club seemed to realize that the Sox finally had something to promote, and press releases henceforth referred to Lyons as “The Sunday pitcher” and urged the fans to come out on the day the team would probably win.
“Jocko” Conlan and Thornton Lee both attest to the same belief that using Lyons once a week helped the team — except for one area. All business on the day that he worked, Lyons loved to torment and tantalize his teammates on the days that he did not. He punched, wrestled, argued with umpires, put ice down players’ backs, and frequently prompted Dykes to pray that Lyons would stay away from Comiskey Park six days of the week. Still, Lyons was by no means a clown, often pinch hitting, running, hitting fungoes to the fielders and helping younger players. Very gracious with autographs, especially to the youngsters, Lyons acquired enormous popularity all over the league, and opposing management in those Depression years were pleased to have him pitch and help fill the stadiums on Sundays, when the Sox were in town.
Even with his knuckleball darting and dipping out of Mike Tresh’s glove, Lyons evidently made little effort to strike out his opponents, but concentrated instead on letting them hit the ball.
Sox fielding by this juncture had markedly improved, what with the coming of Joe Kuhel, Bob Kennedy, Mike Kreevich, and even Luke Appling after his first few seasons. Lyons regularly rewarded his fielders with a free dinner for exceptional plays. But Conlan declares that Lyons himself was the best fielding pitcher that he ever saw, and The Tribune, reporting one August game in Washington, noted in some astonishment that Lyons had committed his first error in several years. Due to his superb control, Lyons’ games ended in speedy fashion and not just by comparison with today’s “commercialized” standards. Most of his efforts required only one hour and 45 minutes, in spite of the usual eight or nine hits that he scattered around. He and Lee once pitched a doubleheader in three hours and 15 minutes.
In 1939 Lyons failed to complete only five of his 21 starts. For curiosity’s sake, how roughly, one may ask, did the Foxx’s, Williams’s, and DiMaggios treat him, to warrant the incompletions?
The findings: in one game the umpire threw him out for intervening to protect the slender Joe Kuhel against the massive Hank Greenberg; in another (a sensational game against Bob Feller and Cleveland), Lyons sprained an ankle and had to be carried off the field; in yet another, Dykes actually relieved him, but after Lyons had yielded only three runs; the remaining two episodes were not explained by the daily accounts. One can state with honesty that, if you wanted to see the Sox on Sunday in 1939, you saw Lyons pitch a good game, which he would almost certainly finish, and which he would win. (All six of his losses occurred away from home.)
But did this part-time activity pay the ownership? Certainly the scheme of sabbatical rotation drew the fans. Lyons’ three starts against New York, for example, attracted about 120,000 people, and one of the largest crowds in Sox history saw him get three hits off Vernon Gomez to beat the Yankees on one of those occasions.
And perhaps more significantly, the Sox of 1939 were ten games nearer the perennial championship New Yorkers than they had been the previous years and finished in fourth place. To cap the season, the team won the so-called City Series from the Cubs, four games to three. This nearly annual post-season event had been won by the Sox 16 times out of the 23 played (one tie), and they had also won all five since the Cubs’ last victory in 1930. So the outcome surprised no one. Merely to embellish the record, it should be recorded that Ted Lyons won his two starts, allowing ten hits, three walks, and three runs in 18 innings, and getting four hits himself.
In sum for the 1939 season, Lyons won 14 and lost 6 for a winning percentage of .700, compiled an ERA of 2.76 (second in the league to Grove), pitched 16 complete games out of 2 1 starts, struck out 65 batters, and walked only 26 in 173 innings. And he didn’t throw a single wild pitch.
The pattern for his remaining three full seasons looked much the same. The press regularly referred to Lyons as the Sox’ “Sunday Special,” and fans and opposition clubs alike simply assumed that Lyons would pitch every Sunday, always the first contest if there were a twinbill. The year 1940 differed from 1939 for Lyons only in that the spring rains proved heavier than usual and Lyons had trouble getting enough work; thus his early record suffered, but he finished strong with the heat of summer. No change in style is perceptible; he lost one game to Boston, 4 to 3 in 12 innings, on two unearned runs. He beat the Yankees and Red Ruffing in New York before 71,000 fans by a score of 1 to 0, allowing the Bombers only three hits. He defeated the eventual pennant-winning Tigers the four times that he faced them. The Sox finished in fourth place again, only eight games behind Detroit. As usual, the Sox beat the Cubs in the City Series as Lyons took two of the four Sox victories, in one game getting three hits and driving in three runs.
In the winter of 1941, Tribune sportswriter Irving Vaughan wrote that Lyons had put on enough weight to join the Sox’ “Fat man club” at Hot Springs, Arkansas, before spring training began. But he quickly got in shape and resumed his weekly stint. In a Browns’ game Lyons once again came to the defense of Joe Kuhel and had to be restrained by much of his own team. The Yankees completely demolished the American League that year; the Sox, playing only .500 ball, finished in third place, a sorry 24 games behind the leaders. Led by Thornton Lee and Lyons, the Sox nonetheless had the finest pitching staff in the league, Lee completing 30 out of 34 and Lyons 19 out of 22 starts. The club simply did not hit.
For a change, Lyons could not win twice from the Cubs in the City Series; he had only one start, the first game. The Sox won four straight — Rigney shutting them out, Lyons and Lee allowing one run each and, Edgar Smith permitting four. The Cubs, who hit .253 against National League pitching, batted a miniscule .174 and received a grand total of six bases on balls in the four-game series. Still showing fine form at the plate, Lyons got two hits in his game.
Theodore Amar Lyons had reached the age of 41 when he began the season of 1942, his 20th and last full year as a pitcher. As usual the Sunday schedule could not be established early in the year because of postponements, and the Sox started miserably, winning just four of their first 22 games. Then Lyons ran off a string of seven wins in a row, all complete games. But the Sox reverted to normal, ending the year in sixth place and batting .246, the league’s worst figure. The clubs’ home run production was reminiscent of baseball’s early years; Wally Moses led the team with all of seven! The Sox total of 25 was, as might be expected, exceeded by several individuals of opposing teams.
But Lyons had an excellent year; he won 14 and lost 6; he walked only 26 batters in 180 innings while striking out 50; and his earned run average of 2.10 led the league. These were startling statistics. Above all, consider one more element, that of completions. Lyons started 20 games and completed 20 games, a feat that had not been achieved since Walter Johnson started and completed 26 games for Washington in 1918.
On September 28, 1942, before enlisting as a private in the Marine Corps, Lyons had one more opportunity to chastize the Cubs. In his only start of that year’s City Series he shut out the Northsiders on three hits and no walks. The time of the game was one hour and 18 minutes, presumably so he could get on about his military service. He subsequently served three years with the Marines.
Lyons returned to the familiar confines of Comiskey Park in 1946. He started — and completed — five games that year, and while he won only one game and lost four, he compiled an earned run average of 2.30. In mid-May 1946, he was named to replace Dykes as manager, a move which ended his playing career. He was then 45. Lyons continued as manager and coach for several more years, after which he retired from baseball except for some scouting.
The Chicago Tribune regularly confirmed Lyons’ Number one position in the hearts of Chicago fans. That paper accordingly sponsored a Ted Lyons day on September 15, 1940, asking the fans for dimes only, so as to appeal to the youngsters. The astonishing flood of dimes proved sufficient to give him a new automobile in addition to clothes, guns and other items. Now 80 and living in Vinton, Louisiana, he is still complying with hundreds of requests for autographs, mostly from people who have never seen him play and never lived in Chicago. He has not been forgotten.