Johnny Lindell: Pitcher Turned Slugger Turned Pitcher

Growing up during the 1950s in pre-Dodgers Los Angeles and rooting for the old Pacific Coast League Hollywood Stars, my baseball heroes were different from kids in New York, Chicago or St. Louis.
They pulled for the great Gotham center fielders, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider, the Cubs’ Ernie Banks or the Cards’
incomparable Stan Musial.

My favorites didn’t leave quite the same lasting impression on baseball historians. Still, at my early age, the Stars’ were good enough for me.

One favorite had an interesting if not spectacular major league career. Johnny Lindell, the Pacific Coast League’s Most Valuable Player in 1952, broke in with the Yankees in 1941 as a 24-year-old, knuckleball specialist. Before his career ended 13 years later, Lindell shifted to the outfield and then back to the mound. In addition to the Yankees, Lindell also played for the Cardinals, the Pirates and the Phillies.

Although Lindell’s pitching career started out promisingly in Newark where in 1941 he posted a 23-4 record for the Bears, Yankee manager Joe McCarthy wasn’t convinced that a knuckleballer could be effective in the bigs.

By 1943, McCarthy switched Lindell to the outfield where he put together back-to-back seasons leading the league in triples and, over the next six years hit .275 or better four times. In 1944, Lindell’s best season, he hit .300 with 18 home runs and 103 RBIs. During the 1947 World Series
against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Lindell was nothing less than spectacular. Starting in six of the seven games in left field, Lindell lead all series regulars by hitting .500

Then, abruptly, Lindell’s bat went cold. By 1950 the Yankees, understandably unimpressed with Lindell’s .190 average shipped him to the Cardinals who promptly sold him to the Stars. Once in Hollywood, Lindell played sparingly in right field and hit .247.

Then Fred Haney, the Stars’ manager, to give Lindell another go on the mound. In two late season
appearances, Haney saw enough to give Lindell’s conversion back to the hill a full chance during the 1951 spring training.

The experiment’s results exceeded Haney’s wildest expectations. Lindell, relying almost exclusively on his knuckleball, posted a 12-9 record and a 3.03 ERA. Haney also used Lindell as a substitute outfielder, first baseman and pinch hitter. The Stars voted Lindell, who hit an impressive .292 and slugged nine home runs, the team’s Most Valuable Player.

During his league MVP year in 1952, the Stars’ won the PCL title by five games over the second place Oakland Oaks. Lindell went 24-9 with a 2.92 ERA and led the league in strike outs with 190.

Although his batting average slipped to .203, Lindell remained such a threat at the plate that Haney occasionally inserted him in the clean up spot in the order even when he was pitching.

Lindell credits his catcher, Mike Sandlock, for his success. Even though official scorers charged Sandlock with 20 passed balls, Lindell was convinced that no one could have done better with his dancing knucklers.
And Sandlock, who averaged an assist a game had an outstanding arm. His .286 average earned him a promotion to the parent Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953 even though he was 38.

Lindell was also called up; Haney resigned to take the Pirates’ helm. Most observers correctly thought that the Stars were a better team than the abysmal 1953 Pirates.

Moving to Pittsburgh was an unhappy experience for all three. Lindell went 5-16 (4.71), although the company he kept did him no favors. Traded to the Phillies in midseason, Lindell went 1-1 before
hanging up his cleats for good. Sandlock hit .231 and was also out of baseball the following year.

Haney stuck it out with the Pirates until 1955. During his three seasons at the Pirates’ helm, the Buccos had a winning percentage of .353 and finished deep in last place each year.

Then, in what must have seemed to him like a miracle from heaven, Milwaukee (Henry Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn, Joe Adcock etc) tapped Haney to pilot the Braves. In Haney’s four seasons, the Braves finished second twice (1956 and
1959), won the National League pennant (1958) and the World Series (1957)

Lindell promptly returned to Southern California’s Newport Beach paradise where he played golf and fished until, at age 68, he died from lung cancer.

3 Replies to “Johnny Lindell: Pitcher Turned Slugger Turned Pitcher”

  1. Fascinating story, on many levels, e.g., that the minor-league Stars were better than the big league Bucs.

    (Was that when cheapskate Branch Rickey was running the Pirates? If so, that might explain why they were so bad. At least, that’s Ralph Kiner’s take.)

    We’re left to wonder what Lindell might have achieved on the big league mound, had Joe McCarthy let him pitch as a knuckleballer. I’m surprised to hear of a youngster coming up with a knuckler. I thought that was the sort of move typical of a veteran like Jim Bouton, whose arm had fallen off.

  2. P.S. I wonder if we might one day hear of Rick “HGH” Ankiel following in Johnny Lindell’s footsteps, by returning to pitching. In any event, thanks for a great piece of baseball history.

  3. Hi Nicolas: Yes, the Pirates when Lindell pitched for them were under the direction (if you can call it that!) of Branch Rickey, better known around Pittsburgh as the “Rickey Dinks”

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