Lemon Turns from Position Player to Ace in Two Seasons

July 1, 1948

Since the end of the war, military friends have helped one another around the country get jobs and become re-accustomed to civilian life. Indians pitcher Bob Lemon might want to thank some of his old Navy buddies for helping turn him into a pitcher.

Last night, Lemon no-hit the Detroit Tigers and won his major league leading eleventh game of the season. Despite being the ace of the Indians’ pitching staff, and one of the biggest reasons the Tribe is in first place, just two years ago he wasn’t even a pitcher. Less than 12 months ago, Lemon wasn’t a starting pitcher with the Tribe, but more a project that seemed to not be progressing.

After five years in the Indians minor league system and three more years in the war, Lemon came up to the Tribe in 1946 as a third baseman competing with Ken Keltner for the starting job in spring training. Prior to an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers, Harry Heilmann and Birdie Tebbetts were discussing the strengths and prospects of their own team when Tebbetts turned his attention to Lemon, fielding grounders at the hot corner.

“I don’t care what they think about Keltner,” Tebbetts said. “But if that guy was on my ballclub, he’d be pitching. I hit against him when he was pitching for the Navy over in Honolulu and if I never have to hit against him again it’ll be too soon. He’s got it. What I mean, he’s rough.”

Heilmann doubted Tebbetts beliefs, citing that any player who was on the cusp of the big leagues could not likely make that significant of a position change at this point in their career. Tebbetts continued to tout Lemon’s abilities as a pitcher to Heilmann and several media members within earshot.

Eventually a media member relayed the story to Indians manager Lou Boudreau, but the Tribe’s leader already was aware of Lemon’s pitching possibilities. Another friend from the Navy had contacted Boudreau.

“I know,” Boudreau said. “I got a letter from Johnny Pesky last year. He told me the kid was pitching for his Navy team and advised me to forget about him as a third baseman. I don’t know though. He’s a pretty good hitter and he can run. If he can’t beat Kenny out for the third base job maybe he’ll be the center fielder we’re looking for.”

Lemon didn’t beat out Keltner for the third base job, but did open the season as the Tribe’s center fielder in 1946 and made an immediate impression on opening day in Chicago. Headed to the ninth inning, Bob Feller was leading the White Sox 1-0 with Bob Kennedy on second base and one out. Pinch-hitter Murrell Jones hit a looping fly ball over the infield that seemed certain to fall in front of the outfield and tie the game.

However, Lemon and his speed came flying in and made diving catch. His momentum kept him flying forward, doing a somersault that brought him right back to his feet and let him throw to second base for a game-ending double play.

But Lemon did not hit and eventually he was benched. As the season carried on and the Tribe was in a blowout game, Boudreau decided to give Lemon a chance to pitch, remembering the suggestions of Tebbetts and Pesky. With nothing on the line in the game, Lemon did nothing to suggest that he had the control to be an effective pitcher, despite having the speed and curve necessary. His control seemed too inconsistent to make him a regular pitcher, despite several opportunities in 1946. He was 4-5, with a 2.49 ERA in 32 games and 94 innings.

The sentiment remained pessimistic though in the spring of 1947. When Bill Veeck visited Tucson during spring training, he eagerly listened to reports on the team from Boudreau and new pitching and bench coach Bill McKechnie. Veeck asked about Lemon and his pitching prospects. McKechnie, a legendary manager and known pitching expert, had little hope.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” McKechnie told his boss. “Lemon will never be a pitcher.”

Boudreau liked Lemon’s spirit and continued to stick with him, thinking he could become a front line hurler. After spending the first half of the season in the Tribe’s bullpen, he received his first starting assignment on July 31. Despite not finishing the game, he earned his first of ten victories as a starter. After going 11-5, with a 3.44 ERA in 37 games and 15 starts a year ago, Veeck was so convinced that Lemon could be a leader of the Tribe’s staff, he doubled his salary from $6,000 in 1947 to the $12,000 he is making this year.

After his no-hitter last night, maybe Lemon will send some of that hefty raise to his old Navy buddies who believed in him before anyone else.

Photo: Cleveland Memory Project

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