Johnny “Buddy” Lewis overcame defensive struggles at third base to forge a fine career, hitting .297 in 11 seasons with the Washington Senators. His career was interrupted in his prime when he served nearly four years in the Air Force, where he flew more than 350 missions and received honors for his service in World War II. When he returned in 1945, Lewis nearly drove the Senators to the American League pennant, hitting .333 to lead the club to within one game of the flag. Lewis was one of the most popular players in Senator history, and he was a personal favorite of team owner Clavin Griffith.
John Kelly Lewis was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, on August 10, 1916. He played his first organized ball for the Gastonia American Legion team, at the age of 12. Though he later described himself as “not much of a ballplayer” as a youngster, Lewis enjoyed five years as the third baseman for the Gastonia Legion team, earning raves for his slugging bat.
When he was 17, a scout for the New York Giants discovered Lewis. After a brief tryout in New York, the Giants declined to offer Lewis a contract. Back in North Carolina, Lewis enrolled at Wake Forest, where he spent one year on campus before signing a professional contract with Chattanooga of the Southern Association in 1935. With Chattanooga, Lewis earned his reputation as a rock-handed third baseman. His wild throwing arm drew considerable attention.
“It got so that every time I threw to first, the right field bleacher fans would duck,” Lewis said. “Steady practice finally cured my wildness.” Luckily, Lewis’ prodigious exploits with the lumber overshadowed his shaky defensive play. At the age of 18, Lewis was one of the best hitters in the American Association, and his performance resulted in a contract with the Washington Senators, who had plucked several players from Chattanooga in the past, including Cecil Travis. Chattanooga manager Clyde Milan, a former Senator outfielder, recommended Lewis to the Nats.
At the tail end of the 1935 season, 19-year old Johnny Lewis made his big league debut with the Senators. The much ballyhooed prospect appeared overmatched at the major league level, collecting just three hits in 28 at-bats in eight games, for a dismal .107 batting average.
The following spring, Lewis was invited to the Senators spring training camp, where he played his way onto the big league club. Hitting over .450 in spring games, Lewis earned the third base job, supplanting Travis, who was switched to shortstop. Ossie Bluege, the Senators’ former third sacker, saw the writing on the wall: “There’s my succesor,” Bluege admitted, “and he’ll make this club a whale of a third baseman.” In the first few weeks of the 1936 season, Lewis continued his hot-hitting, and by May, he stood alongside Joe DiMaggio as one of the premier rookies in the American League.
In the big leagues, Lewis roomed with Cecil Travis, a fellow southerner and former Chattanooga standout. Whereas Travis was shy and humble, Lewis was outgoing and aggressive, even at a young age. The handsome Lewis, who was a large man at six-foot-one, was an immediate hit with the ladies in Washington D.C. Though both were popular bachelors, Lewis was likely to spend his road trip evenings out on the town with an attractive admirer, while Travis stayed tucked safely in his hotel room.
In his rookie campaign, the lefty-swinging Lewis scored 100 runs, earning a spot behind leadoff man Ben Chapman. He batted .291, tailing off a bit in the second-half, though he still managed 175 hits, 21 doubles, 13 triples, and six homers, all of them hit on the road or of the inside-the-park variety. Like most Washington hitters, Lewis would rarely reach the deep fences at Griffith Park. Teammate Buddy Myer, a former batting champion, tutored Lewis on the art of bunting, so much so that his nickname rubbed off, and Johnny became known as “Buddy.”
In 1937, 20-year old “Buddy” Lewis solidified his standing as one of the best young hitters in the circuit, batting .314 as he played in every game and paced the loop in at-bats, with 668. Among his 210 hits were several of the bunt variety, enough that he paced the AL in that category, thanks in large part to the advice of Myer, who had coached him for hours on laying down the perfect bunt-hit between the pitcher and second baseman. Batting in front of Joe Kuhel and Travis, Lewis scored 107 runs and drove in 79, while swiping 11 bases.
In the off-season, Lewis worked hard to receive a good contract from Griffith, who was quickly becoming Buddy’s greatest fan. Though Griffith had his favorites, including former Washington great Walter Johnson, Lewis was near the top of Cal’s list. But the Nats’ owner never let personal feelings interfere with contract negotiations, and he and Lewis haggled for a period prior to the 1938 tipoff. Finally, Lewis won out, securing a sizable raise. During his years with the club, Lewis was known as a tough negotiator, a skill he utilized later as a succesful businessman in North Carolina.
In 1938, Lewis earned his first All-Star selection, joining New York’s Red Rolfe as third basemen for the squad. The worst stretch of Lewis’ career came in August of 1938, when his mysterious defensive problems were at thier worst. During a four-game series against the Yankees, Lewis committed eight errors, leading to nine unearned runs. Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich noted that Lewis had committed 11 errors in six games against the Yankees in just over a week. But to his credit, Lewis failed to let his defensive woes affect his hitting. His average still hovered near the .300 mark and he batted in 91 runs from the #2 spot in the order, while crossing the plate 122 times.
In the first month of the 1939 season, Lewis suffered from an illness (diagnosed as a type of influenza known as “grippe”) that knocked him our of the lineup for nearly two weeks. When he returned he posted the highest batting mark of his career, hitting .319 with 49 extra-base hits, including a league-best 16 triples.
In spite of his fine offensive numbers, Lewis struggled in the field, often in spurts. In 1939 he made seven errors in one week, on his way to 32 for the season. His fielding woes in 1938 had resulted in 47 errors and a terrible .912 mark with the glove. His miserable play at third was not lost on manager Bucky Harris, who often criticized Lewis’ defensive work in the papers and the clubhouse. In 1940, Harris used the emergence of young infielders Jimmy Bloodworth and Jimmy Pefahl as the impetus to get Lewis out of his infield. Bloodworth moved into second base, Pefahl took over at short, and Travis moved from short to third. That pushed Buddy to right field, where Harris felt he could do far less damage with the leather.
Free to focus on his hitting, Lewis responded with one of his best seasons in 1940, batting .317 with 190 hits. In July, the Detroit Tigers offered Griffith 0,000 for Lewis, but the Washington owner declined. The Tigers, in the midst of a pennant race, wanted Lewis as their third baseman. The hard-swinging Lewis set a career-high with 74 walks in 1940, and scored 100 runs for the fourth time in his five-year career. Unfortunately, the Nats finished in seventh place with 90 losses, marking four straigh losing seasons for the club.
In April of 1941, Lewis was informed by his North Carolina draft board that he would be required to report for active duty in late May. The news was critical for the Senators, who had been hit hard by the loss of players to service in the early stages of World War II. A few weeks into the season, Lewis applied for an received a 60-day deferrment, which stretched his report date to August 11. Arguing that his baseball income was the sole support for his unemployed parents, Lewis was allowed to play baseball until his reporting date. In July, Lewis was granted a second extension, this time until the end of the season. He hit .297 in 149 games in ’41, scoring 97 runs, while collecting 72 RBI. On September 24, he played his last game for the Senators before heading home to pack for army training. He was 24-years old and had six years in the big leagues under his belt. It would be nearly four years before he would play baseball in the majors again.
In the Army Air Force, Lewis rose to the rank of captain and piloted transport planes. He flew more than 350 missions “over the hump” in India, and received three Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Air Medals during his flying career. In the summer of 1945, just a few weeks before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Lewis was discharged from the service. Within a week, he was in uniform at Griffith Stadium, taking batting practice.
When Lewis returned to the Nats late in July of 1945, he was just five pounds above his playing weight prior to leaving for the service. In his first 17 games back, Lewis hit .333 and filled manager Ossie Bluege’s third spot in the order. While Detroit’s Hank Greenberg was making headlines for struggling in his return from the war, Lewis was performing brilliantly, winning one game with a clutch three-run double, and another with a two-run single.
Lewis had been back in the Senator lineup for less than a week, when on July 31, 1945, he was honored at Griffith Stadium. In a ceremony prior to a doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s, Lewis was given several presents and awards. Team owner Griffith, choking back tears, said, “This is the moment I have been praying for.” Major General Elwood Quesada, commanding officer of the Ninth Tactical Command in Europe, wished Lewis good luck in his return to the diamond. “Buddy flew 368 missions over the hump in India,” Quesada said,” and every man in the Air Force is pulling for him to have a .368 average on his return to baseball.”
Buddy’s efforts helped the Senators scratch their way into the pennant race in the summer of 1945. Immediately following his return to the lineup, the Nats won 23 of 33 games to inch within one-half game of the first place Tigers. But as the Senators kept winning, so did the Tigers. Even after a seven-game winning streak in early September, Lewis and the Senators were one game behind the Bengals. They were a half-game back when the Tigers came into Washington to play a crucial five-game series on September 15, that included two doubleheaders. Detroit took three from Washington, and the Senators finished second, one game back.
Lewis had appeared in 69 games in 1945, and the Senators had gone 43-29 after his return, thanks in large part to his .333 average, 14 doubles, seven triples, two homers, 37 RBI, 37 walks, and 42 runs scored. He had posted a .423 on-base percentage, the highest mark of his career.
In 1946, 29-year old Lewis was back in right field for the Senators, hitting .292 in 150 games, with 82 runs scored and 45 RBI. The team however, slumped to fourth place. In 1947, he batted just .261 in 140 games, struggling against left-handers in particular. At one point, Detroit lefty Hal Newhouser retired him in 18 straight at-bats. At the end of the season, Lewis’ career average was exactly .300, with 1,500 hits to his credit.
Late in the 1947 season, Lewis suffered a hip injury when he collided with teammate Stan Spence near the outfield wall at Griffith Stadium. The injury kept Lewis out of the lineup for several weeks and sent his batting average below the .300 mark when he returned. The injury and his obligations back in North Carolina, led to Lewis’ surprising decision to retire after the season. The popular outfielder sat out the entire 1948 campaign, devoting time to his automobilde dealership in Gastonia.
But in December of ’48, Lewis was lured from retirement by Griffith, inking a one-year deal worth more than ,000. Griffith was certain Lewis could step in and contribute to the team, despite his year-off. “He’s only 32 years old, has been a clean liver and never showed any signs of slowing down,” the Old Fox said of Lewis. “I think he’ll move in as the best hitter on our ball club. Certainly he’s the most dangerous.”
In 1949, Lewis proved rusty, batting just .249 as his career average dipped below the .300 mark. However, he continued to be valuable in the clutch, hitting .405 as a pinch-hitter. On February 15, 1950, Lewis announced his retirement in a letter to Washington owner Calvin Griffith. Citing the illness of his business partner as the reason for his retirement, Lewis turned his back on a ,000 salary offer from Griffith.
Having started his career as a teenager and missed his prime season in the war, Lewis had still managed a fine career, batting .297 in 1,349 games, with 1,563 hits and 830 runs scored. He averaged 100 runs scored, 188 hits, 30 doubles, 11 triples, and 69 walks per season.
Recalling his early struggles as a teenage ballplayer and the taunts he heard over his erratic fielding, Lewis was philosophical: “No matter how bad things get, a young player should never get discouraged,” Lewis said, “Just keep trying, and don’t duck tough luck.”