The 81st Greatest Royal of All-Time is submariner Ted Abernathy.
Ted is still seventh in Royals history in saves
When the Royals acquired reliever Ted Abernathy from the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Chris Zachary in 1970, he became the oldest player ever to suit up for the Royals in their two year history. The thirty-seven year old had assembled an impressive Major League career, and he proved he still had something left in the tank by posting a 2.30 ERA in 195 innings and 40 saves over the next two and a half seasons for the young franchise.
Ted was from Stanley, North Carolina and immediately signed with the Washington Senators out of high school. In his first minor league season he won twenty games and posted a 1.69 ERA in 255 innings with 293 strikeouts. He pitched just seven games the next year, and lost the entire 1954 season serving his country in the Korean War.
When he returned to the States, he made his Major League debut with the Senators and posted a 5.97 ERA in 119 innings for the hapless franchise. He spent much of the next season in the minors, logging 231 innings for AAA Louisville. In 1957, he put up a 6.78 ERA in 85 innings and injured his shoulder. He spent the next two seasons either in the minor leagues or on the disabled list with his shoulder issues. In May of 1960, the Senators released him and it looked like Abernathy's career was over at age 27.
Instead of packing it up and heading back to North Carolina, Abernathy changed his pitching motion switching from a three-quarter delivery and became an effective sidearmer and submariner. He was one of the first notable submariners, a pitching motion that would later be adopted by Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry.
After proving himself in the minors for two more seasons, he finally got a shot in 1963 with the Cleveland Indians. He posted a 2.90 ERA in 59 innings as a reliever. He regressed in 1964 with a 4.32 ERA and was sold to the Cubs. In 1965 he posted a 2.58 ERA in 136 relief innings, led the league with 84 appearances and led the Majors with 31 saves. His 31 saves were a single-season Major League record, although saves were still not yet an "official" MLB statistic.
Back in those days, the best pitcher in the bullpen was a "fireman", a rubber-armed reliever asked to pitch as many as three or four innings a game if needed. Abernathy fit that role like a glove. He bounced from the Cubs to the Braves to the Reds, back to the Cubs and to the Cardinals, posting outstanding relief numbers. In 1967 he posted a 1.27 ERA in 106 innings with Cincinnati, again leading the league in saves. Twice he was named "Fireman of the Year." He has been ranked as the 88th best Cub in franchise history.
By the time the Royals acquired Abernathy in 1970, he was showing some wear and tear but was still very effective. The Royals didn't pick up Abernathy until July, and he racked up nine relief wins and twelve saves in thirty-six games down the stretch while posting a 2.59 ERA. He stabilized a young bullpen that had struggled to find consistent relief help for its young starting pitchers.
"He's almost impossible to hit when you only get one shot at him. You see the overhand stuff all the time, then this guy comes in there throwing the ball from out of the ground."
-Ken Berry, California Angels
Abernathy returned in 1971 and again led a solid bullpen with Tom Burgmeier and Jim York. "Abby" put up a 2.56 ERA in 81 innings with the second most saves in the league - 23. That bullpen helped the Royals post the fifth best ERA in the league and their first winning season in team history. That year, Abby became just the 33rd pitcher in MLB history to appear in 600 games. To show how the game has changed, there are now 166 pitchers with 600 games.
Abby pitched one more season for the Royals in 1972. He was used very sparingly as Manager Bob Lemon sat Abernathy in favor of younger bullpen arms like Burgmeier, Al Fitzmorris and Bruce Dal Canton. Nonetheless, Abernathy posted a 1.70 ERA in 58 innings for the Royals at age 39.
I'm not sure why, but that winter, the Royals flat out released Abernathy. They did pick up a young reliever named Gene Garber, and wanted to see another young reliever named Doug Bird, so perhaps they wanted to go younger, but what team wouldn't want a guy that posted a 1.70 ERA?
Abernathy never pitched in the big leagues after that season. Upon his retirement he was seventh all-time in saves. Today he is sixty-fourth.
He is still seventh in franchise history in games finished and saves.
Ted Abernathy died in 2004 at the age of 71 in his home state of North Carolina.