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Remembering Bob Lemon

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The original turnaround artist

Well, there are three things that the average man thinks he can do better than anybody else: build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team.

-Rocky Bridges

After seeing this quote from Rocky Bridges, I must admit that I am guilty of two of these sins. I feel confident about my fire making skills. I’ve been making fire for fifty years, I love burning things and I did raise two Eagle Scouts, who have formidable fire making skills of their own. Growing up, I was the pyrotechnic expert among my friends. If something needed burned, I was your man. Running a hotel? I’ve stayed in a lot of them, more than I care to count, but I will admit I don’t know squat about running a hotel. My expectations are so low when it comes to hotels that I’m happy if they get my reservation right and they stock the bathroom with decent toilet paper.

Now managing a baseball team. That’s a different story. I’m certain that anyone who’s been reading this website for the last ten years thinks he or she at one time or another, could have managed the Royals better than the current incumbent. I know I have. I’ve spent countless hours screaming at the television over things as mundane as bullpen usage, bunting with a man on second and no outs or pitching to Jim Thome when first base is open. Didn’t do a bit of good. Ned did it anyway and most of the time it seems like it blew up like a cheap firecracker. Hell yeah, I think I could manage these guys just as well. How much brainpower does it take to give Chris Owings 130 at bats or continue to bring Brandon Maurer out of the pen to get his head bashed in yet again?

Yeah, I know he won a World Series and I know he’s the all-time wins leader in Royals history. Those are solid accomplishments, though it could be tempered with the argument that anyone could have managed the 2014-2015 teams. Just roll those guys out and let them play. Stay out of their way and try not to make too many stupid decisions. I would further argue that those two teams were probably the two best in Royals history. I know, I know. That is hard for me to say, because it means the 1977 club is now the second best.

Yes, Ned has won 709 games in Kansas City. He’s also lost 782. That’s a .476-win percentage, virtually the same win percentage that he had in Milwaukee. Does that make him the best manager in Royals history? Jim Frey took the team to the 1980 World Series and you never hear his name mentioned with the best. Dick Howser took an undermanned 1985 team to the title. He’s thought by many as the best. Whitey Herzog won three straight Western Division titles and the only thing separating those teams from three World Series appearances were a powerhouse Yankee team. Whitey has many fans who believe him to be the best. My vote goes to Herzog, but there is one manager, who I believe to be overlooked that could lay claim to being #2.

In the history of the Kansas City Royals, there are only six managers who have had winning records (not counting interim managers). Those six all managed in a span between 1973 and 1994, which can now conclusively be termed the Golden Years of the Kansas City Royals. Jack McKeon started it off in 1973 and went 215-205 (.512) before giving way to Herzog who went 410-304 (.574). Frey followed Herzog with a 127-105 (.547) effort before being replaced by Howser who managed the club to a 404-365 (.525) mark. John Wathan came next and guided the club to a respectable 287-270 (.515) mark before being replaced by former teammate Hal McRae who willed his teams to a 286-277 record (.508).

That’s the entire list of Kansas City baseball managers who have compiled winning records. The next highest win percentage belongs to the elegantly named Robert Granville “Bob” Lemon who took a ragtag bunch of expansion draft choices, washed up castoffs and street free agents to a 207-218 (.487) mark between 1970 and 1972, thus laying the framework for the Golden Years run between 1973 and 1994. For his efforts, I believe Lemon may very well be the second-best manager in team history. Lemon had some advantages that Yost seems to be lacking.

For one, he had an owner, Ewing Kauffman, who was dedicated to putting a winning product on the field. Even though Kauffman had ample success in the business world, nothing was more important to him than his baseball team. Lemon also had one of the greatest General Managers of all time supplying him with talent. Cedric Tallis orchestrated a series of brilliant trades between 1969 and 1974 that goes unmatched in Royals history. And Tallis pulled this off before free agency and before the Royals farm system started supplying the big-league club with talent. Paul Splittorff was the first player drafted by Kansas City to make his debut, which occurred in 1970. He was joined in 1971 by a trio of drafted pitchers: Lance Clemons, Jim York and Monty Montgomery. The first position player drafted by the Royals to make his debut was outfielder Jim Wohlford, who came up for a 15-game cup of coffee at the tail end of the 1972 season.

Lemon guided the Royals to their first winning season ever, in 1971. That club finished second in the American League West with a record of 85-76. They narrowly missed another winning season in 1972, finishing at 76-78. Kauffman publicly declared that he wanted a younger manager (Lemon was a spry 51 at the time) and fired Lemon. The resulting age discrimination suit cost Kauffman another year’s salary paid to Lemon. Once that was settled, Kauffman hired the bombastic 42-year-old McKeon, who in a little over two and a half seasons managed to alienate most of the stars on the roster, before Kauffman had enough and replaced him with the affable Herzog.

This is the story of Bob Lemon and the wondrous baseball life he led.

Bob Lemon was born September 22, 1920 in San Bernardino, California. He was the California state high school baseball player of the year in 1938 and signed with the Cleveland Indians at the age of 17. He quickly rose through the Indians minor league system and made his major league debut, as a third baseman, on September 9, 1941 at the age of 20. He played in five games, getting five at-bats and collected his first hit, a pinch-hit single against Hall of Famer and future teammate, Early Wynn.

He then missed the 1943-45 seasons while serving in the U.S. Navy. While playing Navy ball, Lemon got some work as a pitcher, a skill that would serve him well later. Upon returning from the war, Lemon won a spot as the starting centerfielder for the 1946 Indians. On April 16, 1946, opening day, Lemon made a terrific catch to save Bob Feller’s 1-0 win. With the tying run on second and one out in the bottom of the ninth, Chicago White Sox pinch-hitter Jake Jones roped a drive to right-center field. Lemon sprinted to his left and at the last instant dove and fully stretched his body to make the catch. He sprang to his feet and threw to second, doubling off the runner, ending the game. Feller called it “the greatest outfield play I have ever seen.” That’s high praise, considering both Feller and Lemon were in the dugout to witness Willie Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder grab on a Vic Wertz drive in the 1954 World Series.

Soon, Lemon was struggling against major league pitching and lost his job in the outfield. “I could hit anything else they threw at me, but not the changeup, and word got around pretty quick,” Lemon said in later years. “Pretty soon that’s all I saw. Fastball out of the strike zone. Curveball out of the strike zone. Then the damn changeup.”

Indians manager Lou Boudreau had heard from several opposing players, including Ted Williams, Bill Dickey and Birdie Tebbetts about Lemon’s skill as a pitcher. Boudreau decided to give Lemon a shot as a pitcher. Lemon struggled with the new position in 1946, but during the 1947 season, Cleveland pitching coach Mel Harder taught Lemon the slider and he finished 1947 with an 11-5 record. Lemon developed into a star in 1948 when he came out of spring training with a “sidearm crossfire fastball” to go with his devastating curve and slider.

On June 30, 1948, Lemon tossed the only no-hitter of his career, a 2-0 win over the Detroit Tigers. He finished the season with a 20-14 mark, which included 20 complete games and 10 shutouts and a 2.82 ERA. The 1948 season started a run where Lemon won 20 or more games in seven of the next nine seasons. He led the American League in wins three times, complete games five times (including a career high 28 in 1952) and innings pitched on four separate occasions.

By 1957 Lemon, due to age and injuries, was out of gas. He was moved to the bullpen and on May 7, 1957 had one last day in the sun when he was brought in to relieve Herb Score, who had been felled by a Gil McDougald line drive. Lemon pitched 8 1/3 innings, only giving up six hits to earn a 2-1 victory. Lemon had surgery in the off-season to remove more than 20 bone chips from his elbow. He tried valiantly to pitch in 1958, but Father Time claimed him. Lemon retired after being released by the Indians on July 2, 1958 with a career record of 207-128 and a 3.23 ERA. He was also a decent hitting pitcher, ending with a .232 career average while stroking 37 home runs. He made seven consecutive All-Star teams between 1948 and 1954 and picked up MVP votes in seven seasons. He ended his career with 48 WAR and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Leon started his coaching career with the Indians in the 1959 season. He came to Kansas City as a pitching coach for the 1970 season and became the Royals manager when Kauffman fired Charlie Metro on June 7, 1970. Not only did Lemon do a bang-up job with his young team, he also led the Royals pitching staff to new heights. Look at the Royals pitching staff numbers from 1970 to 1973, with 1973 being the first McKeon season:

ERA Hits Runs Walks Home Runs WHIP ERA+

1970 3.78 1,346 705 641 138 1.358 99

1971 3.25 1,301 566 496 84 1.265 105

1972 3.24 1,293 545 405 85 1.229 93

1973 4.19 1,521 752 617 114 1.475 97

2018 4.94 1,542 833 549 205 1.460 89

I threw in the 2018 staff numbers for comparison. Its obvious Lemon knew how to handle a pitching staff. Hits allowed, runs allowed, walks and home runs allowed all dropped significantly under Lemon’s guidance. Under McKeon, the staff gave up 38% more runs while hits allowed increased 17% and walks allowed increased a whopping 52%. McKeon’s staffs ERA+ was similar and some of the increase in hits, runs and home runs has to be attributable to the Designated Hitter coming on board in 1973. Lemon’s staff kept the ball in the park, gave up very few walks and consequently, gave up very few runs (3.53 per game). The 2018 Royals staff gave up a whopping 5.14 runs per game.

Regardless, Kauffman didn’t want to lose McKeon, so he unceremoniously unloaded Lemon. Many Royals spoke out against the change, including Lou Piniella, who said, “Lemon deserved to manage the club next year.”

Lemon resurfaced as the manager of division rival Chicago White Sox for the 1977 season. Taking over a team that had finished in last place, Lemon led the Sox to a 90-72 record, which was enough to win Lemon the A.L. Manager of the Year award. Lemon was fired by the White Sox on June 30, 1978 after a disappointing start to the season.

He wasn’t unemployed long. On July 23, 1978, Yankee manager Billy Martin went into a drunken monologue after a game in Chicago about his boss, George Steinbrenner, and his star player Reggie Jackson. Martin let it be known that “the two deserve each other. One’s a born liar and the other’s convicted.” Martin’s statement was factually correct, but you can’t say that about your boss to the national media. The Yankees then flew to Kansas City for a series with the Royals and when Martin sobered up the next morning, and read the quotes, he knew his time with the Yankees was over, at least for awhile. In a tearful press conference at Crown Center, Martin resigned, and Lemon was named the new manager of the Yankees.

Under Lemon’s low-key approach, the fourth-place Yanks played .705 ball the rest of the way, surging to a 48-20 finish and overtaking the Boston Red Sox, before dispatching the Sox in a one-game playoff. They followed that with a four-game beat down of the Royals in the Championship Series. The World Series was almost a foregone conclusion as New York spanked the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. For this, Lemon won his second Manager of the Year award.

Alas, nobody managed the Yankee’s long in those days, and Lemon was no exception. Steinbrenner fired Lemon in June of 1979, and replaced by Martin. Lemon worked as a scout for the Yankees before being named manager a second time in September of 1981. The move was the sixth managerial change in New York since the 1978 season. Lemon reportedly received several other offers to manage, one from the Indians, which he curiously turned down.

Lemon, always regarded as one of baseball’s finest men once said, “If it wasn’t for baseball, I’d probably be pumping gas at my father’s station.” He was

“I’ve had a hell of a life. I’ve never looked back and regretted anything. I’ve had everything in baseball a man could ask for. I’ve been so fortunate. Outside of my boy getting killed (his youngest son Jerry died in car accident ten days after Yankees won the 1978 World Series). That really puts it into perspective. So you don’t win the pennant. You don’t win the World Series. Who gives a damn? Twenty years from now, who’ll give a damn? You do the best you can. That’s it.”

Lemon was immensely popular with his players and I often wondered if Kansas City should have kept him longer. Lem, as he was known, was also fond of a cocktail or three. His nose would turn a bright red after he’d had a beverage or two. Once on the Yankee bus, on the way back to the hotel after a road game, the bus stopped at a corner convenience store. When one Yankee asked why they had stopped, Graig Nettles, one of the all-time great quipsters, said, “We got to get more batteries for Lem’s nose.”

Lemon suffered a stroke in his later years, and after several years of failing health, passed away on January 11, 2000 at the age of 79.