December 31 – Happy Birthday Tommy Byrne
Tommy Byrne didn’t really have a nickname but if he did, it probably would have been “Wild Man.” This southpaw had a blazing fastball and a great biting curve but he had a real tough time throwing either of them over the plate with any consistency. Over his thirteen season big league career, the Baltimore native averaged just under seven walks for every nine innings he pitched, led the American League in that department three straight seasons and in one of them, 1951, he walked 150 batters in just 143 innings. And when Byrne didn’t walk a batter, chances were good that he’d hit him instead because the guy led the AL in hit batsmen five different times. So how did a pitcher who was so wild stay in the big leagues? There were two reasons really.
The first was that despite his aversion to the strike zone, Byrne would win games. He started pitching full time for the Yankees in 1948 and over the next three seasons his record was 38-21. He was a very effective fourth starter for New York, behind their legendary Raschi, Reynolds, Lopat triumvirate. The second reason the Yankees kept him was his ability to hit. Byrne was one of the best hitting pitchers in all of baseball. He averaged .326 in 1948 and .272 two seasons later. He was such a good stick that he was frequently used as a pinch hitter and actually had 80 pinch hits during his career.
So Manager Casey Stengel, Byrne’s Yankee teammates and even most Yankee fans would tolerate the left-handers mind-numbing spurts of wildness because he kept winning games and the team kept winning pennants in spite of them. Unfortunately for Byrne, the one guy who couldn’t tolerate it any longer turned out to be Yankee co-owner Dan Topping. On June 15th, Topping engineered a trade that sent Byrne to the Browns for another southpaw pitcher named Stubby Overmire. I read that Stengel was livid with Topping when he learned of the trade after it had already been consummated.
The Yankees didn’t miss Tommy at first because they still had the big three in their starting rotation along with a new young southpaw named Whitey Ford. Byrne, on the other hand did not find pitching for the lowly Browns anywhere near as enjoyable as pitching for the mighty Yankees. He went 11-24 during his two seasons in St. Louis and then was traded to the White Sox.
In addition to being wild, Byrne turned out to be pretty lucky too. By 1954, Raschi was gone and Reynolds and Lopat were nearing the end of their careers. Byrne in the mean time, had been sold by the White Sox to the Senators and then released. He spent most of the 1954 season pitching for Seattle in the PCL League, where he went 20-10 on the mound and hit .296 at the plate. That performance caught the attention of the Yankees and the then-34-year-old pitcher suddenly found himself back in pinstripes at the close of the 1954 season. The following year, Byrne rejoined the Yankees’ starting rotation and went 16-5 to lead the AL in winning percentage. He also pitched very well in the 1955 World Series against the Dodgers. Bryne got a complete-game 4-2 victory in Game 2 and also drove in the winning runs with his two-run single. He then held the Dodgers to just one run for five-plus innings of Game 7 before being lifted by Stengel in a game the Yankees would go on to lose.
Byrne pitched two more seasons for New York and then went back to college at Wake Forest. He ended his career with an 85-69 overall record and 72-40 as an eleven-year Yankee. He ended up getting into politics and served as Mayor of the college town for fifteen years. He passed away in 2007, at the age of 87. One of the things I learned about Byrne doing research for this post was that he was considered to be a flake. He was known for talking to opposing hitters during the game and according to Yogi Berra, Byrne’s chit chatting would drive all stars like Ted Williams and Al Rosen absolutely crazy. Often times, he would tell the hitter what pitch he was about to throw. The talking combined with his sharp biting curve ball and lack of control made Byrne Yogi’s choice as the toughest pitcher he ever had to catch.
Byrne shares his last-day-of-the-year birthday with this other former Yankee starting pitcher.