Last Friday, Corey Kluber reached a milestone, with his 1,228th strikeout, putting him alone in third place on the Indians’ all-time list (he added one more before the end of his outing).
It’ll be a while before he catches up to Sudden Sam McDowell with 2,159 strikeouts (Bob Feller stands atop the list with 2,581 Ks), but by reaching third place, he passed two Hall of Famers who were contemporaries, but took vastly different paths to their 1,227 strikeouts with the Indians: Bob Lemon and Early Wynn.
Both pitchers were born in 1920, and Lemon, growing up in Southern California, was signed by the Indians as soon as he graduated high school. Wynn didn’t even finish high school, opting to sign with the Washington Senators – like Lemon, at the age of 17.
From there, their paths diverged. Wynn made his major league debut with the Senators in 1939, while Lemon made his debut for the Indians as a September callup in 1941 – but not as a pitcher. His first major league appearance came as a late-inning substitution for Ken Keltner, and his first hit came against the Senators – against Wynn, ironically.
Lemon appeared briefly for the Indians in 1942, but spent most of the season with the minor league Baltimore Orioles, and then joined the Navy for service in World War II, missing three seasons. Wynn also joined the service, missing the entire 1945 season.
When Lemon returned from the Navy, he was used as a bargaining chip against Keltner, who was holding out, but after Keltner signed, Lemon actually started the season in the outfield. He made his first start on the mound on June 3, 1946, and the following year, was developed into a pitcher by coaches Bill McKechnie and Mel Harder as well as Al Lopez, who was then in the final season of his playing career at catcher before turning to a successful coaching and managerial career.
Harder also featured prominently in Wynn’s revitalization. Bill Veeck saw something in Wynn and tried to trade for him before the 1948 season. He was unsuccessful, but he got him after that season. At that point, Wynn was 72-87 in his career. “I could throw the ball when I got here,” Wynn said of his arrival in Cleveland. “But Mel made a pitcher out of me.”
By 1948, Lemon had blossomed into a star pitcher, with the first of his seven 20-win seasons over the next nine years. Wynn won 18 games for the Indians in 1950, but led the league in earned run average, with 3.20. He then won at least 20 games in four of the next six years.
In 1954, Wynn and Lemon both led the majors with 23 wins as the Indians, with a pitching staff that also included Bob Feller at the tail end of his career and Mike Garcia, won an American League record 111 games and the pennant. Lemon started Game 1 of the World Series against the Giants in the Polo Grounds and took the hard-luck loss as Dusty Rhodes pinch-hit a home run in the 10th inning that would have been an out in any other ballpark. Wynn got the nod for Game 2, and also gave up a home run to Rhodes on the way to a loss. In an effort to stanch the bleeding, Lopez – by then the Indians manager – started Lemon in Game 4 in place of Feller. It didn’t work. Lemon got shelled and the Giants completed the sweep.
In 1957, both Lemon (6-11) and Wynn (14-17) posted losing records. One of Lemon’s wins came in relief of Herb Score after he’d been hit with a batted ball by Gil McDougald. Following surgery in the offseason for bone chips in his elbow, Lemon went 0-1 in 11 appearances in 1958 and hung it up. By then, Wynn was also gone from Cleveland, traded to the White Sox after the 1957 season, where he was reunited with Lopez.
Wynn’s last great year came in 1959, going 22-10 and winning the American League Cy Young Award as the White Sox won their first pennant in 40 years.
Wynn had 284 wins by the end of the 1960 season, and he wanted to hang on for 300. Two years later, he’d only gotten to 299, and the White Sox released him. He was invited to their spring training the following year, but didn’t make the team. Finally, on June 21, 1963, he resigned with the Indians. In his fourth start, he left in the fifth inning with a one-run lead, and Jerry Walker nailed down the win for Wynn – his 300th and, as it turned out, final win.
In 1964, Lemon appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, and five years later, Wynn was on his first Cooperstown ballot. Ironically, Wynn got in first, in 1972. Lemon got in in 1976. By then, he’d already embarked on his second act as a manager.
Lemon was named manager of the year in 1971 for his efforts with the Kansas City Royals, and was fired a year later. By 1976, he was in the Bronx, as owner George Steinbrenner, a Cleveland native who was thwarted in his efforts to buy the Indians, stocked the front office with people with Cleveland connections. After a year as the Yankees’ pitching coach, he went to the White Sox at the behest of owner Bill Veeck. Again, he was named manager of the year for the 1977 season, and then was fired the next year.
He returned to the Bronx to guide the Yankees to their second straight World Series win, but the next year, his son got killed in a car wreck, and Steinbrenner fired Lemon shortly after that, “probably for my own good,” Lemon later said. He returned to the Yankees to manage them to the World Series in the strike-shortened 1981 season, and then was relieved of his duties the following season. Lemon retired to Southern California, where he died in 2000 – less than a year after Early Wynn died.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project