If an American League team played the Tribe for a four game set in the late 1940s/early 1950’s, they better had come up with a straight flush, because it was very difficult to top the Four Aces. And of those Four, the most dominant, might just have been Robert Granville Lemon.
Lemon, a San Bernardino, CA native, attended Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, CA where he was the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) and State Baseball player of the year in 1938. He was signed as an amateur free agent that year by the Indians and played 75 games for the Oswego Netherlands (Canadian-American League - C) and 7 games for the Springfield Indians (Middle Atlantic League – C), mostly as an outfielder. In 1939, he switched to shortstop while at Springfield. In late 1939, he switched back to the outfield and moved up to the New Orleans Pelicans (Southern Association – A1). 1940 brought another promotion, to the Wilkes-Barre Barons (Eastern League – A).
Between 1940 and 1941, he would play 189 games at third base. After a brief cup of coffee in 1941, he would get promoted to the Baltimore Orioles (International League – AA) and get one more cup of coffee. Although his average had dropped to .268 in 1942, he did have a spike in power that year, rising to a .440 slugging and 21 home runs. However, he was blocked by Ken Keltner, not to mention the Tribe had just signed Al Rosen that year.
So at this point, Lemon’s career could have stalled out. Luckily, in 1943, duty called as Lemon joined the Navy. While in the Navy, he played on the Navy baseball team. At some point, that team had a rash of injuries to the pitching staff, and Lemon filled in. He had only had two brief 1 inning stints in the minors, but became an All Star starting pitcher during his Navy stint.
After the war ended, Lemon opened the season with the Indians as the starting CF in 1946. But over the team’s first 20 games, Lemon was batting a mere 180/241/220. At some point during those first 20 games (most likely April 20-21), manager Lou Boudreau met with Detroit’s Birdie Tebbetts, a fellow All-Star in 1941-42. Tebbetts (a future Tribe transaction and manager) must have played with Lemon during his military stint and notified Boudreau of Lemon’s pitching abilities. Boudreau gave him a shot at pitching in the majors and he pitched a very nice 133 ERA+ (2.49 ERA in 94 IP) mostly as a reliever in 1946.
Starting in 1947, Lemon would embark on perhaps the best pitching decade ever for a Tribe pitcher. He accumulated a 197-111 record, starting 327 games and relieving in 69 more. He had 31 shutouts, 21 saves and allowed only 167 HR in 2613.1 IP (0.6 rate). His ERA of 3.18 would be good enough for a 122 ERA+. He also led the league in wins 3 times, complete games 5 times and shutouts once. He would make seven All-Star games and finish in the MVP voting seven times as well, all but one in the Top 10.
As he was a former outfielder, he would become one of the better hitting pitchers also. He hit 213/272/345 (83 OPS+) with 20 HR as a pitcher. He would also be used successfully as a pinch hitter, hitting 288/326/425 with 2 HR in 86 PA.
After his playing career, Lemon coached for a few seasons before becoming the manager for the Seattle Angels (Pacific Coast League –AAA). He would get his initial shot at managing in the bigs for the Royals in 1971. Interestingly, while managing for the White Sox in 1978, Bill Veeck "traded" him to the Yankees for Billy Martin. Lemon would win the World Series in 1978, but get dumped halfway through 1979 when Steinbrenner wanted Martin back. He would return to the Yankees in 1981 after Steinbrenner had another blowout, this time with Gene Michael, leading the Yankees to another AL pennant, albeit in only 25 games. Sadly he would only manage 14 more games in 1982 before Steinbrenner went nuts again and rehired Gene Michael.
Lemon would be voted into the Hall of Fame in 1976, on his twelfth try. And his #21 uniform would be retired by the Indians in 1998, shortly before his death in 2000.
A Brief History
In four seasons, Lloyd Brown accumulated a close to league average 4.34 ERA (109 ERA+). He would pitch 3 shutouts in only 44 games started and save 11 games in those four seasons. He was acquired from the Red Sox for Bill Cissell and released after the 1937 season.
Although Superchief Allie Reynolds is most famously known as a key Yankee hurler of the late 40s and early 50s juggernauts, he was originally a Tribe signing in 1939. As a rookie in 1943, he led the league in strikeouts with 151 in only 198.2 IP. His best season was perhaps in 1945, 18-12, 44 games, 30 games started, and 3.20 ERA (101 ERA+). With Dutch Meyer and Jack Conway manning second base in 1946, the Tribe decided to deal Reynolds to the Yankees for proven veteran Joe Gordon. As good as Reynolds was, he may not have cracked the later Big 4 rotation of the Tribe during those years (Lemon, feller, Wynn, Garcia).
After the debacle of trading Rocky Colavito in late 1959, the Indians went about reacquiring him before the 1965 season. They had however missed his 5 prime seasons (26-30 years old). He was still very good for the Indians in 1965, 287/383/468 140 OPS+, making the All Star game and finishing 5th in MVP voting after cranking 26 HR and driving in 108 (leading the league). In 1966, he would crank out 30 dingers, but slumped badly otherwise, 238/336/432 119 OPS+ and only driving in 72. He got off to another poor start in 1967, 241/329/366 104 OPS+, and was traded to the White Sox for Jim King and Marv Staehle (PTBNL) on July 29.
After Frank Robinson was named as manager prior to the 1975 season, George Hendrick switched from #20 to #21. In 1975, Hendrick would make the All Star game as the lone Tribe representative. He would finish that year at 258/304/431 107 OPS+ and would actually improve on that in 1976, hitting 265/323/448 127 OPS+ in his age 26 season. So, as he was entering his prime, what did the Indians do? Trade him to the Padres for Johnny Grubb, Fred Kendall and Hector Torres. Brilliant.
Midway in 1979, the Indians traded stickbat Paul Dade to the Padres for Mike Hargrove, making up for that previous Hendrick deal. The Human Rain Delay would be a very solid player for the Tribe, hitting 292/396/382 115 OPS+ 3538 PA in his seven seasons. He would finish 21st in MVP voting in 1981 and of course begin that secret Bromance with Casey Blake later as the Indian manager.
The final player to don #21 (Hargrove would wear it during his manager stint), would be the highly touted Texas product, Greg Swindell. The number two overall pick in the 1986 draft, Swindell would only make 3 starts for the Waterloo Indians (Midwest - A) before sticking in the majors as a 21 year old. He struggled those first 2 seasons, but from 1988-1991, he would be the leader of the staff, 52-45, 3.60 ERA, 113 ERA+, 128 GS and 613 K in 879 IP. He would be an All Star in 1989. But his overall record of 9-16 in 1991 was very deceiving. A 3.48 ERA (120 ERA+) in 238 IP and a league leading 5.45 K/BB ratio. That would only buy him a ticket out of town to the Reds for Jack Armstrong, Scott Scudder and Joe Turek. Swindell would return as midseason free agent pickup in 1996, but wore #12 that year.
The One Year Wonders
Jimmy Zinn, Joe Sprinz, Ken Holloway, Ralph Winegarner, Leo Moon, Jeff Heath, Jim King, Tommy Harper, and Johnny Grubb all wore uniform #21 for only one season.
The All-Time List
Jimmy Zinn SP, RP (1929) 4-6 18 G, 11 GS 5.04 ERA 105.1 IP 89 ERA+; hadn’t been in majors since 1922
Joe Sprinz C (1930) 7/16-9/28 178/245/200 13 OPS+ 51 PA
Howard Craghead RP (1931, 1933) 0-0 15 G, 0 GS, 6.26 ERA 23 IP 75 ERA+
Leo Moon RP (1932) 7/9; 0-0 1 G 0 GS 5.2 IP 11.12 ERA 46 ERA+
Ralph Winegarner RP (1932) 8/22-9/25: 1-0 5 G 1 GS 1.04 ERA 17.1 IP 470 ERA+
Lloyd Brown RP, SP (1934-1937) 1936: 4/18-8/4; 23-33 135 G 44 GS 4.34 ERA 456.1 IP 109 ERA+; traded by Red Sox for Bill Cissell
Jeff Heath LF (1936) 9/13-9/27; 341/386/634 145 OPS+ 44 PA; switched to #24 in 1937
Johnny Humphries RP (1938-1940) 11-14 79 G 8 GS 6.37 ERA 165.1 IP 72 ERA+; traded to White Sox for Clint Brown
Clint Brown RP (1941-1942) 4-4 48 G 0 GS 3.56 ERA 83.1 IP 110 ERA+; traded from White Sox for Johnny Humphries
Allie Reynolds SP (1943-1946) 51-47 137 G, 100 GS 3.33 ERA 787.1 IP 97 ERA+; traded to Yankees for Joe Gordon
Bob Lemon SP (1947-1958) 203-123 428 G 345 GS 3.26 ERA 2756 IP 119 ERA+; broke in as a 3B in 1941 and 1942 (wore #38 and #42); played CF and pitched in 1946 (#6); numbers only include 47-58; 7 time all star; finished in MVP voting 7 times
Rocky Colavito RF, LF (1965-1967) 261/356/438 about 125 OPS+ 1525 PA; second tour with Tribe; 5th in MVP in 1965, All-star in 65 and 66; traded by Athletics with Cam Carreon from White Sox for Tommie Agee, Tommy John and John Romano to the White Sox; traded to White Sox for Jim King and Marv Staehle (PTBNL).
Jim King PH (1967) 143/182/143 -3 OPS+ 22 PA
Tommy Harper LF, RF (1968) 217/295/374 103 OPS+ 266 PA; traded by Reds for George Culver, Bob Raudman and Fred Whitfield; drafted by Pilots in 1968 expansion draft
Frank Baker LF, RF (1969, 1971) 232/286/337 55 OPS+ 384 PA; traded with Alan Foster and Vada Pinson to Angels for Alex Johnson and Jerry Moses
George Hendrick LF, CF, RF (1975-1976) 262/313/440 117 OPS+ 1224 PA; also #1 in 76; All-star in 75; traded to Padres for Johnny Grubb, Fred Kendall and Hector Torres
Tom Veryzer SS (1978-1979) switched to #15 in 79 after Hargrove arrived 256/298/314 70 OPS+ 663 PA; traded by Tigers for Charlie Spikes
Mike Hargrove 1B, LF, PH (1979-1985) 292/396/382 115 OPS+ 3538 PA; 21st in MVP in 81; traded by Padres for Paul Dade
Greg Swindell SP (1986-1991) 60-55 153 G 152 GS 3.79 ERA 1043 IP 108 ERA+; traded to Reds for Jack Armstrong, Scott Scudder and Joe Turek
Statistics and such
Other fun facts, the uniform #21 has been worn 60 times by 22 different players covering 55 seasons of a possible 83 seasons since 1929. Uniform #21 was shared in a season five times, 1930, 1932, 1936, 1967 and 1979.
Obviously, Bob Lemon was the easy first choice for #21. However, there were some decent options for second best, your choice for second best?
Allie Reynolds (0 votes)
Rocky Colavito (15 votes)
Mike Hargrove (7 votes)
Greg Swindell (3 votes)
Other (explain below) (0 votes)
25 total votes