BOB LEMON, 1920-2000
It's a shame so many obituaries of Bob Lemon, who died last week at 79, began by identifying him as one of a multitude of managers who passed ever so swiftly through George Steinbrenner's revolving door. Lemon was a good skipper who guided the Yankees to victory in the 1978 World Series, but he should be remembered foremost as one of the finest of the postwar pitchers, a Hall of Famer who won 20 games seven times and was, in 1954, a member of perhaps the greatest starting rotation in baseball history: the Indians' quintet of Lemon (23-7), Early Wynn (23-11), Mike Garcia (19-8), Art Houtteman (15-7) and Bob Feller (13-3).
Ted Williams often called Lemon one of the three toughest pitchers he faced, along with Spud Chandler and Hal Newhouser. "He never gave in to the hitter," recalls Al Rosen, Lemon's former Cleveland teammate, lifelong friend and, last weekend, his eulogist. "He never nibbled at the plate. With him, it was always strike one, strike two. He had a great natural sinker and a good overhand curveball and slider. He fielded his position flawlessly, and he was a good hitter too." (Lemon batted .321 in 1947 and hit 37 career homers.)
Lemon was also one of the most likable men in a game not exactly overpopulated with the species. "With Lem you never felt you were in the presence of a great player," says Rosen. "He was always just Lem, a Huckleberry Finn type. He could pitch a shutout the same day he'd been out to 5 a.m."
Lemon enjoyed his cocktails, and he was in the great tradition of barroom anecdotalists. One night at the Pink Pony, the renowned spring training watering hole in Scottsdale, Ariz., he recounted his role as Ronald Reagan's stand-in when the future president was playing Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1952 film The Winning Team: "The idea was that Alexander was making this comeback. So he nailed a catcher's mitt on the side of his barn. The director calls me over and says, 'Now, I want you to hit that mitt right in the middle.' 'Piece of cake,' says I. Under ordinary circumstances I hit that mitt nine times out of 10. Well, maybe it was the cameras or something, but I got nowhere near it. I was hitting everything on that barn but the damn mitt, and the madder I got, the worse I got.
"Then I hear this voice say, 'Mind if I try it?' It's Reagan. Now, I won't say he threw exactly like a girl, but I doubted he could hit the broad side of that barn. But I said, 'O.K., you try.' I guess I don't have to say more: One pitch, smack in the middle of that mitt. I've never been so embarrassed in all my life."