The 1948 season for the Cleveland Indians had a little bit of everything. It had struggles. It had turmoil and tragedy. It had a photo-finish pennant race and Major League Baseball’s first play-in game to decide a league champion. It also had breakout seasons, monster home runs, a triple play, and even a no-hitter.
Just a few years earlier (and to be fair, even just a year prior), pitching a no-hitter would have been the least likely of things that Bob Lemon would have thought about doing while wearing a big league uniform. Yet on June 30, 1948, he did just that as his professional trajectory continued a turn that ultimately took Lemon to the Hall of Fame and a long career affiliated with the Major League game.
Lemon spent 13 seasons on the mound for the Indians, winning 207 games in 460 appearances, but his first trip to the mound came four and a half years after making his big league debut in a pinch-hitting performance on September 9, 1941, a little less than two weeks before his 21st birthday. Lemon played just five times that season and five more in 1942 with the Indians, serving only as a pinch-hitter late and a defensive replacement at third base.
Like so many others of his era, Lemon quickly found his career derailed as a new obligation took center stage both in his life and globally. Lemon was off to serve in the war efforts in the United States Navy, sacrificing his 1943 through 1945 seasons. But while away, he did catch the attention of several fellow big leaguers, including Detroit’s All-Star Birdie Tebbetts (Air Force) and Boston’s Johnny Pesky (Navy).
Lemon’s path to a spot with the Indians at third base remained blocked, even after coming back from the war. Ken Keltner had eight years in the Majors at the position and was a five-time All-Star from 1940 to 1944 before he missed the 1945 with his own commitment to the Navy. Keltner and Lemon entered spring of 1946 as the Tribe’s options at the hot corner, but the job went to the veteran Keltner and Lemon instead saw early action as the team’s center fielder.
His time hurling in the Navy did not go unnoticed, however.
“I don’t care what they think about Keltner,” Tebbetts said during the exhibition slate in 1946. “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.”
“I got a letter from Johnny Pesky last year,” Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau shared that same spring after being alerted by the media of some of the whispers making the rounds about Lemon’s arm. “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.”
Boudreau did not forget those conversations and turned to Lemon on May 12 of that season, sending him to the mound in the seventh inning of a lopsided 8-1 contest in the second game that day with the St. Louis Browns. He threw three innings, giving up a run on two hits with a walk and three strikeouts. Boudreau used him twice more on the mound that month, plus seven times each in June, July, and August before eight more outings in September (including a complete game victory on September 15).
Midway through the 1947 season, Lemon got more opportunities to start from Boudreau. He went 11-5 in his first season fully dedicated to the craft, throwing six complete games along the way, including his first shutout.
Lemon’s role in the success of the 1948 club often gets overlooked. Still with little experience pitching at the professional level as a whole, he started the season as the number two man on the staff behind Bob Feller. Where Feller had his ups and downs all season, Lemon was the opposite, carrying the staff and sitting at the top of the league’s leaderboard in many key pitching stats throughout the early part of the season. His first four games were complete game efforts, with the final of that a solid 8-0 shutout of the Washington Senators on May 7. A tough three-game stretch followed, as he gave up 12 runs on 23 hits with nine walks over a 22 1/3 inning span, but he responded nicely with back-to-back four-hit shutouts over Washington and Chicago to close out May on a positive note. He established a new career-high with 11 strikeouts while blanking the Senators for the second time in a row.
The pesky Yankees and Red Sox, both of which remained around all season long to challenge Cleveland and the Philadelphia Athletics in the top half of the American League standings, got to him early on in June, but Lemon got back on track with a 10-strikeout gem in a four-hit shutout of those second place A’s on June 20. It completed the day’s doubleheader sweep for the first place Tribe and moved the A’s behind the Yankees in the standings.
Lemon went the distance again in a tough loss to the Senators on June 25, giving up one earned run and two more unearned in a 3-2 defeat. He was back out to the mound on his usual four days of rest on June 30 to close out the month in search of his eleventh win of the season in his third matchup with the Detroit Tigers (after going the distance against them on April 23 and May 2 in a win and loss, respectively).
Pitching on the road for the first time since making six consecutive road appearances from May 29 to June 12, Lemon stood in front of 49,761 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit as the 39-23 Indians took on tough left-hander Art Houtteman and the host Tigers (29-34).
Houtteman, already pitching in his fourth big league season despite entering the day just 20 years of age, was off to a tough start for the Tigers. While things had not gone his way all year long, he pitched his best game of the season to date, limiting the Indians to just six base runners, but the Indians’ Lemon proved to be that much better in the contest as Houtteman’s tough luck continued.
When Lemon took the mound in the bottom of the first, he pitched with the only runs that he needed on the day. Dale Mitchell reached on an error to start the game and scored an unearned run on a double by Boudreau. He advanced to third on an error on that play and scored the inning’s second unearned run on a sacrifice fly to left by Hank Edwards.
Lemon made quick work of the Tigers in the first. Johnny Lipon fouled out to catcher Jim Hegan. Eddie Mayo flied to Edwards in right. George Kell drew a walk with two outs to bring up the cleanup man Dick Wakefield, but he grounded to Johnny Berardino at first to end the inning.
Houtteman retired the side in order in the second and Lemon matched it, striking out Hoot Evers before a groundout by Pat Mullin and a flyout by Sam Vico. The Indians threatened again in the third when Mitchell singled with one out, moved to second on a stolen base, and advanced to third on a groundout by Berardino, but he was stranded there on a flyout by Boudreau. Lemon kept it a 2-0 game with a three-up, three-down third, getting Bob Swift to ground to third, his counterpart Houtteman to fly to Wally Judnich in center, and Lipon to ground to third.
Houtteman locked in on the mound in the fourth and fifth, retiring the side in order in both innings to give him eight straight retired. Lemon outdid him, setting down 12 straight with a perfect fourth and the first two batters of the fifth before Vico walked with two down (Swift was retired on strikes to strand him at first). Mitchell’s running catch robbed Kell of a hit in the middle of the fourth when he raced towards the stands, leapt, and caught the ball before crashing to the ground.
“I got wonderful support,” Lemon shared after the game. “You don’t see many catches like that one Mitchell made in the fourth.”
The Indians added another hit to their total in the sixth as Mitchell opened the inning with a single to center, but he was forced at second as Houtteman worked his way out of the inning on a pair of grounders and a flyout by the top part of the Tribe lineup. Lemon handled business easily again in the sixth, getting a pair of grounders back to the mound around a flyout to left by Lipon.
Houtteman walked his only batter of the day in the seventh, issuing a free pass to Keltner with two down in the inning. Lemon had a similar inning in the bottom half, walking Wakefield with one out before a pair of ground ball outs from Evers and Mullin left the Tigers six outs away from standing on the wrong side of history.
Berardino singled to right with two down in the eighth against Houtteman, but the Indians could not pad their lead for Lemon against the young southpaw. The Tribe’s budding ace came back out in the eighth and got Vico in the air and pinch-hitter Fred Hutchinson the same way before striking out Houtteman to leave him three outs away from a no-hitter.
Houtteman handled Edwards and Judnich on grounders in the infield to open the ninth and got Joe Gordon to line to left as he completed his ninth inning with just two unearned runs allowed and five hits scattered in a strong overall performance, but a victim of circumstance, he had to hope upon hope that his teammates could find a way to strike through in a last ditch effort against the tough Lemon.
With three outs between himself and baseball immortality, Lemon faced off with pinch-hitter Vic Wertz to open the inning. After taking the first pitch out of the zone for ball one, Wertz smashed a one-hopper back at Lemon that he snatched from the air before it could get by him and back up the middle for the first out. Mayo stepped in for his fourth at bat of the day and fouled a pitch off down the left field line, but Lemon won the battle and struck him out for the second out. That brought the biggest hurdle of the game back to the box in Kell, who was the closest to registering a hit on the day after just missing foul before his walk in the first ahead of the robbery committed by Mitchell in the fourth. Kell took a first pitch in tight that, luckily for Lemon’s sake, nicked Kell’s bat for strike one. Lemon’s nerves may have gotten the best of him as the next one too was wild and went past Hegan all the way to the backstop for ball one. Lemon pulled it together and caught the plate with his third offering and Kell bounced a knee-high sinker into the ground in front of the plate and back towards Lemon. The pitcher nabbed his second chance of the inning, jogged part of the way towards first, and lobbed an underhanded toss to Berardino for the final out of the game.
Lemon’s no-hitter was the first in the Majors in 1948 and marked the third straight season that the Indians had accomplished the feat, following the second of Feller’s career in 1946 and a remarkable effort from Don Black in 1947. It was the 12th in the 48-year history of the Cleveland franchise.
“Gee, what a thrill it was when that last out was made,” Lemon said. “The fellows on the bench didn’t talk to me from the sixth inning on. I thought at the time it was funny but wasn’t quite sure what was happening.”
“That guy pitched a hell of a game,” Tigers skipper Steve O’Neill said after the game about Lemon. “But why did he have to throw it at us?”
It was a tough loss from Houtteman, who dropped to 2-10 on the year. Pitching in front of his own hometown crowd with the host club, he limited the Indians to a pair of unearned runs on five hits with a walk in a complete game effort.
As history recalls, things worked out pretty nicely for the Indians. The team added Satchel Paige in the days to come, stayed within striking distance despite dropping out of the top spot in the division for a while, did not lose hope after a brain aneurysm suffered by Black during a September at bat cost him the remainder of his year (and, in essence, his career), and rode two eight-game winning streaks, a six-gamer, and four more down the stretch in the final couple months of the campaign to force a one-game playoff against the Boston Red Sox to break the tie between the two 96-58 clubs atop the American League. Gene Bearden went the distance in an 8-3 win in that game before the Indians captured the best-of-seven series in six games for their second (and last) World Series championship.
Lemon, not surprisingly, was a big part of the success for the Tribe the rest of the way. He won 20 games with 20 complete games (AL-high) and ten shutouts (MLB-high) while also leading the AL with 293 2/3 innings pitched and a 1.27 WHIP that would have led the league if the stat had existed back then. He was named to the first of his seven straight All-Star teams that year and it marked the first of seven such occurrences that he reached the 20-win plateau in a season. He earned the win in each of his World Series starts that season, allowing four runs (three earned) over 16 1/3 innings to claim two of Cleveland’s four wins over the Boston Braves.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project