Knuckleballer Ted Lyons (1900-1986)

Chicago White Sox pitcher Ted Lyons is the fifth knuckleballer mentioned in IKA’s Knuckleball History, where we observe that his knuckleball “gave him the durability and stamina he needed to throw an impressive 356 complete games. With 260 wins and 4,161 innings pitched, Lyons was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.” His knuckleball became important after he suffered an arm injury in 1931.

Ted Lyons 1933 Goudy baseball card

At the SABR Baseball Biography Project, Warren Corbett reports that Lyons was a “Sunday pitcher” who “started only once a week for much of his career. But he completed more games than any other contemporary starter.”

Lyons never played in the minors; he spent his entire career with the Chicago White Sox [1923-1942, 1946], who posted a winning record only five times in the twenty-one years that he wore their uniform. Lyons was one of the most popular players in the team’s history, friendly to all and a clubhouse cutup except on the days he pitched, when he never shaved and his teammates knew to keep their distance.

Thomas Karnes offers a lengthy account of his career at research.sabr.org, “The Sunday Saga of Ted Lyons.”

In 1931 Lyons had hurt 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’s 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.

We found this blast-from-the-past courtesy of Google News, which supplies a facsimile of the May 23, 1936 Lewiston Daily Sun, headlined “TED LYONS’ KNUCKLE BALL IS TOO MUCH FOR BROWNS AS CHISOX WIN”:

The St. Louis Browns were unable to fathom the knuckle-ball offerings of Ted Lyons this afternoon and lost their fifth game of the season to the White Sox, 5 to 2, in the series opener.

Lyons yielded eight hits to win his second game of the season while the Chicago team made at least one hit in every inning to amass 11 off Ivy Andrews and Russell Van Atta. Lyons walked only two batters.

On August, 1942, the Spartanburg Herald alerted fans that

The amazing mound career of Ted Lyons of the Chicago White Sox appeared near an end today.

Ted Lyons 1961 Fleere  baseball card

The veteran of 20 American league campaigns hasn’t lost his ability to fool opposing batsmen, but he faces a military call that likely will balk any hope of “another season” for him.

Lyons received an order to report to a draft board in his hometown of Vinton, La., for a physical examination preparatory to induction into the army….

Lyons has been one of the American league’s top-ranking hurlers since the day he broke in. Ted came to the White Sox in 1923 direct from the campus of Baylor University at Waco, Tex., and has been a fixture with the pale hose since.

While it has been the veteran’s lot to pitch for a second-division club most of his career, that fact has never dimmed his brilliance or universal popularity. Lyons has won 255 games to tie with “Red” Ruffing of the New York Yankees for the most victories among Active American league moundsmen.

Lyons’s military service did indeed end his pitching career, although he would briefly return to the mound in 1946. He remained in the game for several more years as a manager and coach.

The Baseball Hall of Fame site asks whether we know “that it took just 67 minutes for Ted Lyons to gain a 6-0, no-hit victory over the Red Sox on Aug. 21, 1926?” Well, now we know.

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