This post was written by Joe Guzzardi, who contributes articles here every Wednesday and Saturday.
But each year, the Yankees would have a hurler pop out from obscurity, pitch effectively for one or two seasons, then get dumped off to Kansas City or some other baseball Siberia.
Among them were Bob Grim who in 1954 won 20 games as the American League Rookie of the Year; Johnny Kucks, 18-9 in 1956 and the complete game, 9-0 winner of the seventh World Series game against the Brooklyn Dodgers; Tom Sturdivant who posted back-to-back 16-8 and 16-6 seasons in 1957-1958 and Bob Turley whose 21-7 1958 record garnered him the Cy Young Award.
In 1955, the Yankees former bonus baby Tommy Byrne turned in his career best season, 16-5. Byrne’s outstanding performance after being recalled from the minor league Seattle Rainers where he won 20 games got named the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year.
Byrne was on his second Yankee tour. Because manager Casey Stengel could not tolerate Bryne’s slow, deliberate pitching style and because the lefty had trouble finding the plate, in 1951 the Yankees’ skipper dispatched him to the lowly St. Louis Browns.
With the Browns, Byrne pitched one of the most remarkable games in baseball history. On August 22, 1951 Byrne (4-7) walked 16 batters in a 13 inning defeat and tied the previous American League record set in 1915 by the Philadelphia A’s Bruno Haas. On that fateful August day, Byrne also broke his own personal record of 13 walks he established during a June 1949 start for the Yankees.
Byrne’s 1951 line: IP 12.2; H 11; BB 16; SO 5
Remarkably Leo Kiely, Byrne’s Boston Red Sox opponent was no control artist either. Although Kiely (4-2) was credited with the 3-1 win, his line was almost as ugly as Byrne’s:
IP: 12.1; H 10; ER 1; BB 8; SO 8
In an interview with the Baltimore Sun years later, Byrne recalled his game against the Red Sox:
“After walking the bases loaded in the 13th inning, I made a 3-and-2 pitch that was borderline. I recall that that the umpire said ‘ball,’ and in came the deciding run. It may have been a strike, but I guess he was getting tired.”
Byrne won 15 or more games three times during his career. But he could never get the hang of throwing the ball over the plate. His strike out (766) to walk (1,037) ratio of 0.74, compiled over 1,362 innings is one of the worst in baseball history. Byrne led the league in walks three consecutive seasons (1949-1951) and in hit batters an astounding four straight times (1948-1951).
Despite his wildness, Byrne managed to finish up with a winning record. Over 13 seasons with the Yankees, Browns, Chicago White Sox and Washington Senators, Byrne posted a 85-69 mark and played with five World Championship Yankee teams
While Byrne’s managers were always reluctant to send him to the mound where anything might have happened, they no qualms about using him as a pinch hitter. As a batter, Byrne hit .238 with 14 home runs including a grand slam.
Byrne, it should be noted, was a beloved figure. During World War II, Byrne served in the Mediterranean as a gunnery officer on the destroyer USS Ordronaux. A graduate of Wake Forest University, Byrne eventually became the town’s mayor.
Before his 2007 death at age 87, Byrne was induced into several Halls of Fame: North Carolina Sports, Baltimore City College, Wake Forest University Sports and the Maryland Sports. Byrne was also presented the Wake Forest Birthplace Society Distinguished Service Award and in September 2007, was held on the grounds of the Wake Forest College Birthplace Museum.
More than anything else, I admire Byrne for inventing the “Kimono” pitch.
Never heard of it? Byrne, defying all the laws of human physiology threw the “Kimono” from behind his back. To the frustration of batters and umpires, Byrne toyed with the “Kimono” during spring training in 1954. When camp broke and the teams went north, Commissioner Ford Frick outlawed it.
Frick no doubt concluded that if Byrne couldn’t throw the ball over the plate from a traditional wind up, he certainly couldn’t do it from behind his back. So in the interests of batter safety, the “Kimono” pitch died a quick death.
Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, as well as the Society for American Baseball Research. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org