September 22 – Happy Birthday Bob Lemon
Only eight men in baseball history have accomplished what Bob Lemon did in 1978, which is managing a New York Yankee team to a World Series Championship. Only five of those former Yankee skippers are now in Baseball’s Hall of Fame and Bob Lemon is one of them. Unlike fellow Hall of Famer’s Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bucky Harris and Casey Stengel, however, Bob Lemon got into Cooperstown for his pitching accomplishments and not his managing career.
Born in San Bernardino, CA on September 22, 1922, Lemon was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball from 1947 through 1956. During that span he compiled seven 20-victory seasons and a won-loss record of 197-111 for the Cleveland Indians. He started his managing career in the minors in Hawaii, in 1964 and got his first big league skipper assignment with the Royals in 1970. That lasted for two and a half seasons. Bill Veeck then hired him to manage the White Sox in 1977 and Lemon led the team to a 90-72 record. His Windy City success was short-lived, however and when the Sox got off to a 34-40 start the following year, the guy everyone called “Meat” was fired.
The timing couldn’t have been any better. Billy Martin was then feuding with Yankee superstar, Reggie Jackson and drinking heavily. Between the booze, the constant probing of the Big Apple sports media and the pressure of working for George Steinbrenner, Martin seemed to be on the verge of suffering a nervous breakdown. Lemon’s old Cleveland Indian teammate, Al Rosen, was then working for Steinbrenner as Yankee President and the Boss had grown up in Cleveland and loved hiring ex-Indian stars. When Martin made his famous “One’s a born liar and the other’s a convicted one.” charge, Rosen called Lemon and asked him to take over the Yankees. At the time, New York’s record was a decent 52-42 but they were fourteen games behind the wickedly hot Red Sox.
Lemon employed the exact opposite managing style of the mercurial Martin. He pretty much made out a lineup card and then sat back in the dugout and watched his players play. The Yankee team responded to his almost grandfatherly approach by winning 48 of their next sixty-eight games including the legendary playoff game at Fenway and went on to win their second straight World Series that year. Author Maury Allen wrote in his book “All Roads Lead to October,” that Neville Chamberlain would have loved Lemon because he “brought peace in our time” to the Yankee clubhouse. Never-the-less, afraid of a fan backlash for his removal of the popular Martin, Steinbrenner had already orchestrated the now-famous announcement during the 1978 Yankee Old Timer’s Day that Lemon would be promoted to the GM position after the 1979 season and Billy Martin would again be Yankee manager.
That winter, Lemon’s youngest son was killed in automobile accident. Al Rosen claimed the tragedy took the life out of his old teammate. Lemon started drinking heavily and didn’t seem focused when he returned to manage the Yankees in 1979. When New York got off to a lackluster 34-31 start that season, Steinbrenner fast forwarded the return of Martin and the Yankee managerial position became a game of musical chairs that would continue for the next fifteen years. Lemon would get one more shot at Skippering the Yankees in 1981, replacing Gene Michael with just 25 games remaining in that crazy, strike shortened, split-in-two-parts season.. The Yankees made it to the World Series but they lost to the Dodgers in six games. Lemon’s second tenure as Yankee field boss ended 14 games into the 1982 season when he was replaced by Gene Michael and the game of musical chairs continued. Lemon passed away in January of 2000 at the age of 79.