Remembering our Roots: Looking at Pro Baseball in Tampa Prior to the Rays (Part 2)

Today we continue with Part 2 of our series on the professional players and teams who played in the Tampa area prior to the creation of the Tampa Bay Rays. Even before the advent of the Rays, baseball has always been part of the landscape of the Tampa area, even as early as the 1890′s. Thousands of players passed through the area on their way to the major leagues, or to join just another minor league franchise as they hoped for an opportunity that they never received. Failure is rampant in professional baseball, and we’ll hear about plenty of that. But there are also the stories of perseverance and success that not only interest us, but inspire us and motivate us. We’ll also learn some baseball history along the way. Today we’ll talk about the players and teams who played in the city of Tampa from 1928 through 1930.

In 1928, the Tampa Smokers, who had been an integral part of the Florida State League for the previous nine seasons, collapsed and a new Tampa franchise rose up in its place, the Tampa Krewes in the Southeastern League. The Krewes retained just one pitcher who had appeared for the Smokers the previous season, ace pitcher Cesar Alvarez, who would go 11-7 with a 2.84 ERA in 34 starts and 184 innings pitched for the Krewes. But most of the team was made up of new players. Many of those new players would never play professional baseball again. A man by the name of Cashion was the Krewes’ leading hitter, hitting .371 in 90 games with 22 doubles, 17 triples, and 10 homers. Cashion’s batting average led the league, and his .635 slugging percentage was first the loop by a longshot. Yet he never played professional baseball again. Pretty shocking.

The Krewes’ second-leading hitter was 37 year old ex-big leaguer Manuel Cueto, originally from Cuba, who hit .321 with 18 doubles, Cueto, who stood at just 5’5″ and was a catcher by trade, started off his pro career with 4 seasons for the Jacksonville Tarpons of the South Atlantic League, hitting a solid .277, and that was enough to get him called up to the big leagues as a 22 year old in 1914 by the St. Louis Terriers of the short-lived Federal League. But after a disastrous 53 plate appearances in which Cueto produced just a .093 batting average (4 hits) and a .281 OPS, Cueto was back in Jacksonville to start 1915. It is worth noting that the Terriers didn’t play Cueto at catcher a single time in his 18 games, putting him at third base, shortstop, and second base, and maybe adjusting to the new positions (he played third base extremely well but was a disaster at shortstop) prevented him from hitting like his usual self. In any event, Cueto moved on from Jacksonville to the Portsmouth Truckers of the Virginia League, and after hitting .324 in a season and a half for the Truckers, Cueto got called up to the Cincinnati Reds as a 25 year old in 1917. Cueto played marginally better in his second big league opportunity, hitting .200 with a .529 OPS in 56 games as he struck out just 17 times compared to 16 walks. He played all over the place for the Reds, playing all three outfield positions, second base, and catcher. He played especially well at his natural position, not allowing an error or passed ball while throwing 2 of the 4 baserunners who attempted to steal against him. In 1918, the Reds sent Cueto down to Chattanooga in the Southern Association for some more seasoning, but after he hit .324 in 65 games, the Reds called Cueto back up to the big leagues and the results were excellent. He appeared in 46 games, posting a .296/.406/.361 line with 5 doubles, 1 triple, and 14 RBI. He walked an incredible 19 times compared to just 5 strikeouts. Cueto played primarily the outfield and second base with less than satisfactory results but was very good in 9 games at shortstop (although his range wasn’t great- as you would expect from a catcher playing shortstop) and 6 games at catcher.

Cueto started 1919 with the Reds, who would be involved in the controversial 1919 World Series later in the year, but by that time, Cueto was long-gone. He played decently in his 29 games, hitting .250 with a .613 OPS while playing all 3 outfield positions and third base, but he hit .200 with a .541 OPS in his final 17 games after a hot start, and that was enough to send him back down to the minors leagues. Cueto still walked 10 times on the season while striking out just 4 times. In another era, he could have been considered a valuable player for his great eye and ability to put the ball in play. Cueto finished 1919 by hitting .350 in 46 games for the Rochester Hustlers of the Double-A International League.

Cueto quit the game for a few years before resurfacing as a 30 year old in 1922 with the Seattle Indians of the Double-A Pacific Coast League. Cueto moved to the Mobile Bears of the Southern Association later in the year and ended up playing each of the next five seasons with the Bears, hitting .295. After a very good season with Atlanta of the Southern Association in 1928, hitting .318 with 19 doubles and 8 triples, Cueto headed to Tampa where he spent the next three seasons, hitting .300 to finish off his pro career at age 38- until he made a 16-game comeback with a Cubs affiliate in Portsmouth at age 46 where he still hit .265. Cueto passed away just 4 years later. Cueto is an example of a scrappy player who could have carved out a solid big league career if coaches understood what he could give to their ballclubs. Cueto had an excellent eye and played great defense at catcher, but he didn’t get enough of an opportunity to prove himself.

The Krewes’ undisputed ace was Cesar Alvarez, but the teams’ leader in wins was one-time big leaguer Parson Perryman, who went 16-12 with a 3.98 ERA and a great 2.2 BB/9 as a 39 year old between the Penascola Flyers and the Krewes. After attending Emory University from 1911-1913, Perryman graduated at age 24 and went into pro baseball the following year. Perryman was very impressive in his pro debut for the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association, going 15-9 with a great 1.5 BB/9 in 34 starts and 240 IP (sorry, no ERA available). And the next season, he was in the big leagues. Perryman started the season at Birmingham of the Southern Association, going 7-6 with a 2.4 BB/9 in 20 starts and 140 IP, and then the St. Louis Browns (who would become the Baltimore Orioles) called him up to the big leagues. After arriving in St. Louis, Perryman pitched pretty well, going 2-4 with a 3.93 ERA, a 3.4 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 21 relief appearances, 3 starts, and 50.1 IP. One problem: the league ERA was 2.93, and even though his FIP was solid at 3.97, the league FIP was 3.76. Nevertheless, Perryman wasn’t so far below average that he wouldn’t be in the big leagues in the next season. But not only was Perryman in the minors for all of 1916- he never returned to the majors. After going 22-37 over the next two seasons for Birmingham and Chattanooga in the Southern Association, Perryman quit baseball to make use to the classes he took at Emory that led to his nickname: classes related to religion. But Perryman couldn’t quit the game permanently. He returned to pro ball at age 31 in 1920 with Syracuse then Akron before moving to Newark and then spending four seasons with the Galveston Sand Crabs of the Texas League. After spending some time in San Antonio at the tail end of the 1924 season, Perryman retired once again, but he came back in 1927 to pitch with Selma and then Penascola. In 1928, he started the year in Penascola before ending up in Tampa. This whole time, Perryman was an effective pitcher. His BB/9 hit 3.0 or higher exactly once and coming in overall at 2.3. His ERA is not known for a bunch of the seasons in which he played, but he did average 206.2 innings pitched per season including 268 at age 38 in 1927. He was a dependable innings-eater with great control and at times he was extremely effective. Perryman came back one final time in 1930 at age 41 with Vickburg of the Cotton States League and got hammered, posting a 7.02 ERA in 11 appearances as his BB/9 “ballooned” to 3.8. That was the end of Perryman’s frustratingly long minor league career. Perryman got off to a late start to his professional career, but we never now how good a major league pitcher he would have been if someone had given him another shot. Perryman remains the only major league pitcher to come out of Emory University.

In 1929, the Tampa franchise decided to rename the team the Smokers as it moved up to the B-level and celebrated the name’s renewal with a 77-59 team record. It was a prolific team featuring six players who had previously played in the big leagues including Manuel Cueto. But of the team’s three leading hitters, not one of them played in the big leagues. A 25 year old named Brown Braley hit .357 with 29 doubles, 13 triples, and 2 homers for the Smokers. Braley hit .325 with a .442 SLG in 7 minor league seasons and 144 games. After a career in which he never reached the pinnacle that is the major leagues, Braley retired at age 29. Someone named D. Griffin hit .315 in 85 games for the Smokers and .300 in 4 minor league seasons, all with Tampa and Penascola franchises. Another player named Lonny Singleton hit .314 with 18 doubles, 6 triples, and 1 homer. He hit .315 in 3 minor league seasons, all in Tampa. And we can keep going with these unknown hitters having great careers that included no big league time. A Jay Smith hit .287 with 24 doubles, 4 triples, and 1 homer in 138 games for the Smokers and .290 in 5 minor league seasons. And we can conclude this crazy list with a man by the name of Pop Kitchens who hit .280 in 35 games for Tampa in 1929 and hit just .239 in his professional career, but nevertheless Kitchens, a catcher by trade, lasted 23 professional seasons. Now let’s get to the big leaguers.

Lee Dunham hit .291 with 16 doubles, 9 triples, and 2 homers in 137 games for the Smokers as a 27 year old. Dunham would have made the list above if not for a brief 5-game major league stint with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1926 in which he went 1 for 4 with an RBI. He hit .310 in 8 minor league seasons while also posting a .988 Fld% at first base. He was an effective doubles and triples hitter, averaging about 20 doubles and 6 triples per season, but maybe he didn’t have enough power as a first baseman to make it long-term in the big leagues.

Another five-gamer was shortstop Joe Buskey. Buskey was a solid defensive shortstop who played nine seasons in the minor leagues, two which were with the Smokers, hitting .267 overall with just a .328 slugging percentage. After debuting as a professional at age 20 with Bradenton in the Florida State League in 1923, Buskey had a couple of middling seasons before breaking out in 1925 for the Augusta Tygers of the Sally League, hitting .298 with 23 doubles, 7 triples, 1 homer, and a .395 SLG while playing ridiculous defense in 92 games at shortstop (his 7.00 range factor per game is unheard of- the major league RF/9 that season was 4.94 and the leader (minimum 50 games played) was Dave Bancroft at 6.07). That was enough for Buskey to start the 1926 season on the roster of the Philadelphia Phillies, where he was briefly a teammate of Dunham. But after going 0 for 8 for the Phillies and posting just an .840 Fld% at shortstop in 5 games, Buskey ended up all the way down at C-level Cumberland in the Mid-Atlantic League. Buskey hit .263 with 18 doubles, 5 triples, 1 homer, and a .339 SLG in 108 games for Cumberland to finish the season and then headed back to Augusta in an attempt to revive his career. But he hit just .262 in 123 games and then he hit .273 in 135 games for Spartanburg in the Sally League in 1928. Buskey then reunited with his ex-teammate Dunham in Tampa in 1929 and 1930 before retiring after an 11-game stint with Springfield in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League in 1932. Buskey career range factor per game in the minor leagues was an impressive 5.26 including 5.63 in 458 games at shortstop and it’s a shame he couldn’t get a longer big league look.

Tex McDonald on the other hand, was a player who had his potential recognized but blew his chance. McDonald, who was nicknamed Tex for his Texas birthplace, began his pro career in Dallas of the Texas League at age 19. McDonald, a third baseman by trade, hit .256 with 4 doubles in 56 games for Dallas in 1910. He was back in Dallas for the 1911 season and the one year under his belt really helped as he had an excellent season, hitting .324 with 27 doubles, 9 triples, 5 homers, and a .438 SLG in 144 games. That was enough for McDonald to get a big league opportunity from the Cincinnati Reds in 1912, and McDonald played pretty well, posting a .257/.329/.357 line with 3 doubles, 4 triples, 1 homer, 15 RBI, and 5 stolen bases in 61 games. However, the Reds tried to use him at shortstop and that was not an enjoyable experience for anyone. But his bat was enough for the Reds to have him back on the roster for 1913. But McDonald’s lack of defensive ability really lowered him in the Reds’ estimation and after McDonald went 3 for 10 with 2 RBI’s in 11 games early in the season, playing defensively just one time, the Reds traded him to the Boston Braves for a washed up player named Johnny Kling. After the trade, McDonald had the opportunity to play some second base, and he also got some games in at second along with 1 in right field. And his bat took off. In 167 plate appearances for the Braves, McDonald posted a great .359/.422/.441 line with 4 doubles, 4 triples, 18 RBI, and 4 stolen bases in 62 games. Despite his horrid defense, the Braves were prepared to start McDonald at third base in 1914. But instead, McDonald jumped into the new third major league, the Federal League, a move he surely regretted ever since. The Braves would win the 1914 World Series, but they had three players split time at third base and McDonald could have been one of the team’s offensive stars. But he blew it. McDonald had a nice season in 1914 between the Federal League’s Pittsburgh Rebels and Buffalo Buffeds in 1914, posting a .307/.357/.461 line with 29 doubles, 13 triples, 6 homers, 61 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 136 games. He was in the Federal League’s top 10 in terms of doubles, triples, homers, extra-base hits, and slugging percentage. (He still played horrible defense, this time between the outfield, second base, and 5 games at short.) But McDonald slipped the next season, producing a .271/.346/.426 line with 9 doubles, 6 triples, 6 homers, 39 RBI, and 5 stolen bases in 87 games for Buffalo, and after the collapse of the Federal League, McDonald was without a job. No major league team wanted him back after he jumped his contract with the Braves. And while he didn’t perform badly in 1915, he didn’t perform well enough to make a major league team overlook his misgivings.

Still just 25, McDonald started a whole new career in the minor leagues tearing apart opposing pitching. In 1916 between Birmingham and Atlanta in the Southern Association, McDonald hit .313 with 23 doubles, 7 triples, and 1 homer in 117 games. The next year he slumped to .255 for Atlanta but still ranked 5th in the circuit with 14 triples. McDonald hit .286 in 68 games for Atlanta in 1918 but failed in a tryout for Double-A Salt Lake City in the Pacific Coast League and was back in the Southern Association in 1919. But McDonald was incredible for the SA’s Nashville franchise in 1919, hitting .324 with 26 doubles, 6 triples, and 8 homers in 129 games and then hitting .297 in 20 games for St. Paul in the Double-A American Association, enough to learn him a job with the PCL’s Los Angeles Angels for 1920. But he squandered another chance, hitting just .226 in 48 games before the Angels cut him. Then 30 years old, McDonald succeeded in a tryout for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Texas League affiliate, the Wichita Falls Spudders, and was one of the league’s best hitters, hitting .320 with 38 doubles, 7 triples, 8 homers, and a .456 slugging percentage in 150 games. Yet no big league team came calling because of McDonald’s earlier mistake, and he was back in Wichita Falls in 1922, when it became an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Once again McDonald put up impressive numbers, hitting .335 with 27 doubles, 4 triples, 4 homers, and a .451 SLG in 106 games. But it made no difference.

In 1923, McDonald started the season with Omaha in the Western League and just kept getting better, hitting .345 with 31 doubles, 7 triples, 8 homers, and a .513 SLG in 104 games. He had a 32-game audition for the Cardinals’ Houston affiliate and continued mashing, hitting .330 with 9 doubles, 1 homer, and a .438 SLG. As a 33 year old in 1924, McDonald returned to Houston and had another outstanding season, hitting .316 with 26 doubles, 9 triples, 9 homers, and a .481 SLG in 111 games. It would be his  last full season with one team for five years. The next three seasons, McDonald played with 7 teams, the most notable of which being Detroit’s Texas League affilate, Fort Worth, and he didn’t stop hitting by any stretch, hitting an impeccable .344 with 60 doubles, 13 triples, 31 home runs, and a .518 slugging percentage in two seasons worth of games, 288 to be exact. Yet no team cared. After retiring for a year, McDonald finished up his career as a 38 year old with the Tampa Smokers in 1929, hitting .279 in 26 games. Tex McDonald was a flawed player- he was horrific defensively- but he had a great bat and had already proven himself capable of slamming major league pitching when he made a huge mistake that derailed would could have been an excellent major league career. One mistake. If we all were judged by our worse moment, none of us would make it in this world. But that’s exactly what happened here. McDonald’s story teaches us to think about the long-term ramifications of our decisions. Yet how does it make any sense that one mistake when McDonald with just 23 years old prevented him from making the big leagues when he was a productive hitter into his late thirties? McDonald died at age 52 in Houston, Texas.

McDonald’s story is sad, but at least it makes sense. Homer Ezzell was simply a victim of bad luck. Ezzell, a third baseman. made his pro debut at Marlin in the D-level Texas League as a 20 year old in 1916 and then returned there for the 1917 season as well. But in 1918, Ezzell joined the US infantry for World War I, and he didn’t resurface in the minor leagues until 1921 with the Cardinals’ Houston affiliate in the Texas League. The next season, Ezzell started with San Antonio before moving to Shreveport, and he had an excellent season, hitting .331 with 28 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers, 55 stolen bases, and a .399 SLG. The St. Louis Browns noticed. They signed him to be a backup at third base and second base and Ezzell remained on the team the entire season, posting a .244/.287/.265 line (42 OPS+, meaning his OPS was 58% below league average adjusted to ballpark) with 6 doubles, 14 RBI, and 4 stolen bases in 7 attempts while playing solid defense.

Just before the 1924 season, Ezzell was traded to the Boston Red Sox. With Boston, Ezzell played better, managing a .271/.311/.329 line (66 OPS+) with 8 doubles, 4 triples, 32 RBI,  and 12 stolen bases in 17 attempts while playing third base, shortstop, and even one game at catcher. But in 1925 at age 29, even though Ezzell posted his best offensive numbers, his role decreased for Boston. He appeared in just 58 games, posting a .285/.351/.360 line (81 OPS+) with 6 doubles, 4 triples, and 9 stolen bases in 16 attempts, although rust was apparent for Ezzell on defense as he struggled both at third base and second base. Ezzell’s role with the Red Sox had decreased enough that by December they traded him to the Detroit Tigers. But Detroit immediately sent him down to their Texas League affiliate in Fort Worth, where he spent the entirety of the 1926 season. Ezzell bounced around the minors over the next four seasons, playing for four teams in 3 years before ending up in Tampa in 1929 and hitting .261 with 9 doubles, 3 triples, and 1 homer in 93 games to finish up his career at age 33. Ezzell had a .287 career batting average in the minors with a .365 slugging percentage in 599 games (data from his first three pro seasons are missing) while he posted a .264/.312/.313 line in 236 major league games. Ezzell was a decent hitter who was also fast and played solid defense, but he had the poor fortune of never ending up on a major league team where he got an opportunity to start consistently.

The Smokers’ 1929 pitching staff received another nice season from longtime ace Cesar Alvarez as he went 13-6 with a 2.98 ERA and a 1.9 BB/9 in 24 starts and 148 IP. But the two workhorses of the staff were two pitchers by the names of Roy Appleton and Gus Ketchum. The two have vey different stories. We don’t know anything about Appleton- other than the fact that he was an awfully good pitcher. We don’t know his birthdate, his death date, or even which arm he threw with. We can assume he was born in either Texas or Oklahoma. Appleton debuted in 1920 for the Detroit Tigers’ Texas League affiliate in Fort Worth, going 9-8 with a 2.72 ERA and ridiculous 1.4 BB/9 in 19 starts and 129 innings pitched. Appleton returned to Fort Worth in 1921, presumably hoping for a big league look, but he posted a 5.34 ERA in 8 appearances before seemingly going down with an injury that sidelined him until 1923. But Appleton returned triumphantly that season, and over the next 3 years he compiled an impressive 47-29 record split between 5 teams, four in Texas and one in Oklahoma. After going 15-16 for Paris of the Lone Star League in 1927 as he suffered an injury that would sideline him for 1928 as well, Appleton ended up with the Smokers in 1929 and registered his finest pro season, going 25-9 with a 2.71 ERA and a 1.4 BB/9 in an almost unfathomable 41 appearances (most of them starts, but we don’t know how many) and 289 IP. Appleton returned to Tampa in 1930 and posted another great season, going just 17-15 but posting a 2.22 ERA and a 1.6 BB/9 in 46 appearances and 296 IP. But the huge workload Appleton took on in Tampa was too much for him to handle and he posted just a 12-28 record in his last three professional seasons. All in all, Appleton appeared in 327 minor league games spanning 11 seasons, going 126-106 with a 1.5 BB/9 and a 2.85 ERA in the 159 of the games for which we have data. It’s shocking that Appleton never appeared in the big leagues.

Ketchum was practically a polar opposite story. His career didn’t begin until he was 25 years old in 1922, when he went 10-15 for Ardmore of the Texas-Oklahoma League in 36 appearances and 223 IP. (He actually was teammates with a pitcher named Ed Appleton who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1915 and 1916.) Later in that same season, Ketchum was called up to the big leagues by the Philadelphia Athletics, and he was dismantled in 6 appearances spanning 16 IP, walking just 4 while striking out 8. He was called up because the A’s needed a mop-up man so they didn’t have to use ace starter Eddie Rommel in relief quite as often. Ketchum played in just 3 of the next 6 seasons before finally regaining his form as a 32 year old in 1929 with the Smokers as he went 14-10 with a 3.17 ERA and a 2.6 BB/9 in 42 appearances and 264 IP. He played pretty well the following season for Tampa as well, going 4-4 with a 3.55 ERA and a 2.9 BB/9 in 22 appearances spanning 109 innings to finish up his career. Ketchum is a case of a pitcher who was brought up to the big leagues way too quickly, had his confidence shattered, and by the time he pieced himself together, it was too late.

1930 was a historic season in Smokers history in that it was the last season for ace Cesar Alvarez as he went 14-12 with a 4.79 ERA in 35 appearances and 208 IP. He went 125-100 in 9 minor league seasons, all with the Smokers. Other than Buskey, Cueto, Dunham, and Ketchum, the Smokers had one other notable player, a 23 year old named Thornton Lee.

Thornton “Lefty” Lee, a lefty sinkerballer born in Sonoma, California, attended Cal Poly University before debuting as a professional baseball player at age 21 for Salt Lake City of the Utah-Idaho League in 1928, going 1-3 and posting just a 6.51 ERA in 10 appearances as he posted a horrific 6.5 BB/9. Lee experienced similar struggles for Globe of the Arizona State League in 1929, going 11-11 but posting a 5.71 ERA and a 6.0 BB/9 in 28 appearances spanning 178 IP. In 1930, the season started with more of the same for Thornton as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association as he went 3-4 with a 5.62 ERA and a execrable 8.4 BB/9. But then later in the season, Lee moved to Tampa to join the Smokers, and everything began to change. In 34 appearances and 189 IP, Lee went 9-9 with a 3.76 ERA and a better 5.6 BB/9. And then his career started to take off. After posting a 3.23 ERA for Shreveport in the Texas League in 1931 and a 5.9 BB/9 and a 15-11 record and a 4.6 BB/9 between Wilkes-Barre (New York-Penn League) and Toledo (American Association) in 1932 (he posted a 3.50 ERA at Wilkes-Barre), Lee got things under control in 1933, going 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA and a solid 3.4 BB/9 in 38 appearances and 220 IP, and that was enough to get him a look from the Cleveland Indians at the end of the season. Lee pitched well for the Indians, going 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA (111 ERA+)  in 2 starts and a relief appearance, and the Indians gave him a spot on their 1934 roster.

Lee pitched sparingly with limit success for the Indians in 1934, going 1-1 with a 5.04 ERA (90 ERA+), 41 strikeouts (4.3 K/9), 44 walks (4.6 BB/9), and 8 homers allowed (0.8 HR/9) in 6 starts, 18 relief appearances, and 85.2 IP.  But in 1935, Lee was an effective pitcher in a league that posted a 4.46 ERA, going 7-10 but with a 4.04 ERA (113 ERA+), 81 strikeouts (4.0 K/9), 71 walks (3.5 BB/9), and 6 homers allowed (0.3 HR/9) in 32 appearances including 20 starts, 8 of which were complete games and 1 of which were shutouts, and 180.2 IP. His 4.04 ERA was third among the team’s starting pitchers, yet he ranked just 6th on the team in wins. The Indians kept him on the team for 1935, but he pitched more in relief and much less effectively as he went 3-5 with a 4.89 ERA (105 ERA+ in a league with a 5.04 ERA), 49 strikeouts (3.5 K/9), 67 walks (4.6 BB/9), and 2 homers allowed (0.1 HR/9) in 43 appearances, 8 starts, 2 complete games, and 3 saves in 127 IP. The Indians had seen enough. They included Lee in a 3-team deal that sent him to the Chicago White Sox.

As soon as Lee was acquired by the White Sox, he became their most dependable pitchers. Thornton went 12-10 with a 3.52 ERA (132 ERA+) for the White Sox in 1937 with 80 strikeouts (3.5 K/9), 60 walks (2.6 BB/9), and 16 homers allowed (0.7 HR/9) in 30 appearances, 25 starts, 13 of which were complete games and 2 of which were shutouts, and 204.2 innings pitched. He ranked second in both ERA and innings pitched for the 86-win White Sox. The next season, Lee tossed 40 more innings while retaining just about the same effectiveness, going 13-12 as the White Sox slipped to 68 wins but with a 3.49 ERA (142 ERA+), 77 strikeouts (2.8 K/9), 94 walks (3.4 BB/9), and 12 homers allowed (0.4 HR/9) in 33 appearances, 30 of which were starts, 18 of which were complete games and 1 of which was a shutout, and 245.1 IP. (Keep in mind that the league itself walked more than it struck out as most pitchers were finesse pitchers in those days, and Lee was no exception.) Lee had absolutely terrible luck as he posted a 3.65 ERA in his 12 losses, including 6 complete games. Lee had an impressive hitting season for a pitcher, hitting .258 with 4 homers and 16 RBI. Lee slipped a little bit in 1939, going 15-11 as the White Sox returned to 85 wins but with a 4.29 ERA (113 ERA+), although he did get his strikeout to walk ratio back over 1, striking out 81 (3.1 K/9), 70 walks (2.7 BB/9), and 15 homers allowed (0.6 HR/9) in 33 appearances, 29 of which starts, 15 of which were complete games and 2 of which were shutouts, totaling 235 IP. Lee was two different pitchers when he won and when he lost, and his 15-11 record was actually no fluke. In his 15 wins, Lee posted an outstanding 2.54 ERA with 12 complete games, but in his 12 losses, his ERA was an awful 7.57 ERA with just 2 complete games. He posted a 4.04 ERA in his 4 no-decisions. Over the next two seasons, the White Sox began to see more and more of the good Lee.

In 1940, the White Sox won 82 games, but Lee went just 12-13 with a 3.47 ERA (128 ERA+), 87 strikeouts (3.4 K/9), 56 walks (an outstanding 2.2 BB/9), and 13 homers allowed (0.5 HR/9) in 28 appearances including 27 starts and an incredible 24 complete games including a shutout, spanning 228 IP. In his wins, Lee’s ERA was a ridiculous 1.75, while his ERA in losses wasn’t so terrible at all at 4.34 (the league ERA was 4.38). However, in 1941, Lee, had a season for the ages.

In 1941, the White Sox slipped to 77-77. But none of that at all was the fault of their 34 year old ace, Thornton Lee. Lee was an All-Star and on the season he made 34 starts among his 35 relief appearances, and a league-leading 30 of those starts were complete games and 3 of those complete games were shutouts. His one relief appearance happened to be a save. Thornton’s 34 starts and 1 relief appearances spanned 300.1 innings, the second-most innings pitched in the American League behind only Bob Feller. And in those 300.1 innings, Lee was practically unhittable. He went 22-11 with an incredible 2.37 ERA (174 ERA+), pacing the league by 0.60 runs per 9 innings ahead of his nearest competitor. He struck out 130 (3.9 K/9), walked 92 (2.8 BB/9), and allowed 18 home runs (0.5 HR/9). He finished 4th in the AL MVP voting, trailing only three legendary players: Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams, and the aforementioned Bob Feller. Lee’s pitching WAR (wins above replacement) was 8.2 easily the highest among major league pitchers, and his 8.7 overall WAR factoring in a .254 batting average with 5 doubles and 8 RBI. Lee had an absolutely marvelous season. But the huge workload he undertook cost him in coming seasons.

In took three years for Lee to surpass the 300.1 innings that he threw in 1941. Lee pitched to a 3.32 ERA in 1942, but he missed until July and threw just 76 innings after an injury to his left arm. In 1943 he slipped to a 4.18 ERA, but he still threw just 19 starts and 127 IP as he was limited by injury all season. Then in 1944 injury struck Lee in July after he had thrown 13 appearances totaling 94.1 IP. But he returned in September for two starts, and he showed flashes of his previous self, tossing a complete game 5-hitter on September 24th, although he did allow 3 unearned runs in a 9-3 White Sox win over the Senators, and then on September 29th against the Red Sox, he tossed 10 innings of 4-hit ball, allowing just 1 earned run and 2 unearned runs in a 4-3 White Sox win in 10 innings. Those two starts were a sign of things to come for Lee.

In 1945 at age 38, Thornton Lee showed his last season of sustained greatness. For a White Sox team that went 71-78, Lee was the team’s only dependable pitcher, going 15-12 with a great 2.44 ERA (135 ERA+), 108 strikeouts (4.3 K/9), 76 walks (3.0 BB/9), and 7 homers allowed (0.3 HR/9) in 29 appearances, 28 of which were starts and 19 of which were complete games with 1 shutout, and 228.1 IP. It was his last hurrah. Over the next 3 seasons, Lee tossed 162.2 IP of 4.20 ERA ball with the White Sox and New York Giants before retiring at age 42. For his career, Lee was actually under .500, going 117-124 despite a 3.56 ERA and a 119 ERA+, meaning his ERA adjusted to ballpark was 19% better than league average. He had an awfully good career for a starting pitcher who never was a full-time starter in the major leagues until age 28. For a 5-year stretch from 1937 to 1941, Lee’s age 30 to 34 seasons, Lee went 74-57 with a 3.35 ERA and a ridiculous 136 ERA+. If he had been able to sustain that type of success for a longer period of time, his career could have ended in the Hall of Fame.

Lee tossed one more season in the minor leagues as a player-coach in 1949 for Phoenix Senators in the Arizona Texas League before finishing his baseball career as full-time manager of the Globe minor league franchise he had played for in his second year as a professional, managing the team to a 48-102 season but keeping the franchise together through turmoil as it moved to Miami, Arizona in midseason. Lee’s son Don pitched 9 seasons in the big leagues. Lee died in 1997 at age 90 in Tucson, Arizona.

Unlike every other player I talked about here, after faltering initially with the Indians, Lee was given one final chance by the Indians and took advantage, making a nice career for himself and tossing one remarkable season. Lee’s career teaches us that we have to take advantage whenever we’re given opportunities.

This three year microcosm of Tampa baseball franchises tells us the story of baseball history. Professional baseball is filled with failure. That’s the reality. Baseball has always been a very unstable profession with so few stories of success. But those occasional successes are what keep us going.

We’ll continue our look at professional baseball in Tampa in coming days.

Part 1 of this series is here.

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Tags: Tampa Krewes Tampa Smokers Thornton Lee

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