One of the great characters of baseball history, Bob Lemon was known to have a good time between starts, or even the night before he made his start. He wore out many hotel barstools. He was a larger-than-life sort of guy, loved by his teammates because he was fun off the field and a tenacious competitor on it. Teammate Al Rosen said, “Lem didn’t want to come out of the game, [his goal] was to finish every game he started. He never gave into a hitter, never nibbled at the plate.”
Lemon was a winner: in his 11 seasons as a regular in the Cleveland rotation, the Indians finished in first or second place seven times. Relying on a “heavy” sinker that bore down out of the strike zone at the last second, Lemon won 20 games seven times and topped 20 complete games seven times, leading the league in that category on five occasions. In spite of missing almost five years due to service in World War II, Lemon won 207 games.
Manager for Hire: The Championships of Bob Lemon in Pinstripes
As a manager, Lemon won two pennants, both of them under strained circumstances as a midseason replacement. When the Yankees hired him to replace the fired Billy Martin in the middle of the 1978 season, Lemon inherited a team that was 10 ½ games out of first place. They stormed back and won the division title, the pennant, and the Fall Classic. Still, when Yankee players gathered to carve up World Series money, they awarded Lemon half a share. Only after it was reported in the tabloids did the team give Lem a full share of the money.
Once, when Lemon was managing the Yankees, he was approached by Chicago’s Don Kessinger, struggling in his first year as manager of the White Sox. “I’d like to help you,” Lemon said, “but you don’t drink.”
Williams’ Toughest Opponent
Three of the greatest pitchers of the post-war era, all Hall of Famers, were born in a 15-month span in 1920-1921. In order of birth, they are Early Wynn, Lemon, and Warren Spahn. All three missed playing time due to military service in the Second World War. All three were durable starting pitchers who starred for teams in the midwest, and all three of them struggled to tame their fastballs early in their careers. Spahn mastered his craft and was the best of the trio by far, while Lemon and Wynn (who were teammates for nine seasons in Cleveland) continued to walk quite a few batters even in their primes. Ted Williams listed Lemon among the five toughest pitchers he faced, with Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Eddie Lopat.
Ronal Reagan and The Winning Team
Sports writer Ron Fimrite once shared the story of Lemon’s participation in the 1952 film The Winning Team, a biopic of Grover Cleveland Alexander starring Ronald Reagan in the lead role. Lemon was cast as Reagan’s body double for baseball footage. In one scene, the director nailed a catcher’s mask to the side of a barn and asked Lemon to throw the ball into the middle of it. Lemon tried and missed, and the more he missed, the more furious he became. Finally, Reagan asked if he could try and on his first toss he hit the target. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life,” Lemon said.