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Lou Boudreau Shifts Bob Lemon to the Mound in 1946

Manager Lou Boudreau is known for the "Boudreau Shift," the radical defensive position designed to thwart Ted Williams, but as Rob Neyer argues in part 4 of his series, turning Bob Lemon into a pitcher may have been the manager's greatest move. Lemon came to Cleveland as a third baseman, but thanks to his manager, he took the mound and led the Indians to a World Championship in 1948.

By Rob Neyer, April 14, 2017
Manager Lou Boudreau poses with a well wishers’ floral horseshoe following Cleveland’s win in Game 3 of the 1948 World Series.

It would, I think, be impossible today. Practically speaking.

Can you imagine an Opening Day center fielder in the Major Leagues, just a few weeks later, giving up outfielding forever and becoming instead a pitcher? And what’s more, before long a star pitcher?

Well, it happened in 1946. And our outfielder-turned-pitcher not only turned the 1948 Cleveland Indians into pennant winners and World Champions but also ultimately surpassed mere stardom with his election to the Hall of Fame.

As a young player in the Cleveland Indians farm system before the war, Bob Lemon was an outfielder, pure and simple. In five minor league seasons, he pitched just twice: one inning in 1938, another in 1941. Lemon wasn’t a tremendous prospect, but he showed enough in the minor leagues to earn September call-ups in both 1941 and ’42. He turned just 22 in September of ’42 and seemed to have a bright future in the game—as a third baseman, his primary role by then.

Then, of course, war broke out.

Lemon spent all of the 1943, ’44, and ’45 seasons in the U.S. Navy and played for some outstanding service teams. He’d played well enough for those teams, against top-flight competition, to earn an invitation to spring training with the big club in 1946, and Player-Manager Lou Boudreau liked what he saw. There was talk about Lemon taking over at third base in the absence of star Ken Keltner, who was holding out.

But Keltner signed his contract, so third base was his. Boudreau still liked Lemon’s bat, though. So on Opening Day, Bob Lemon was the Indians’ center fielder.

Lemon would start in center field in 10 of the Indians’ first 12 games . . . at which point he had gone 6 for 39 with zero runs batted in. After a few days of pinch-hitting and -running, Lemon got two more starts in center field, but he was still batting just .180, with a single RBI on the season.

Boudreau pulled the plug. Lemon would never start another game in the outfield in his professional career.

He did, however, pitch in 460 games, win 207 of those, and wind up with a plaque in Cooperstown.

Lemon had pitched some during the war, when he wasn’t playing third base, and word had gotten around that he’d looked pretty good. On May 12, 1946, Boudreau sent Lemon to the mound for the last three innings of a blowout loss to the Browns. He pitched well. Six days later, it was six innings in another blowout. Again he pitched well. Lemon would eventually get into 32 games as a pitcher, starting five of them. He was solid as a reliever, so-so as a starter. It seemed clear that Lemon really could pitch effectively in the Majors, but in which role?

Bob Lemon credited coach Bill McKechnie with helping him adjust to his new position as a pitcher.

At the tail end of the 1946 season, the Cincinnati Reds fired longtime manager (and future Hall of Famer) Bill McKechnie. That winter, Indians owner Bill Veeck scooped up McKechnie to serve as one of Boudreau’s coaches. Here’s Boudreau in his 1993 memoir:

“Pops,” as I called McKechnie, became like a father to me. He knew baseball as well as anybody I ever met, and had great influence on me and my career from that point on. I also give McKechnie credit for completing the transformation of Bob Lemon into one of the Indians—and baseball’s—best pitchers.

I knew that Pops had made a great pitcher out of Bucky Walters, who had come up through the Cincinnati Reds farm system as a third baseman, just as Lemon did in Cleveland.

I had seen enough of Lemon in 1946 to know that his future was neither as an infielder nor outfielder, but as a pitcher, and I turned him over to McKechnie.

“Pops,” I told him in spring training, “I want you to take Lemon to the bullpen, look at him, work with him, and when he’s ready to be a starting pitcher, let me know.”

You hate to let the facts get in the way of a good story, but that’s not precisely right about McKechnie and Bucky Walters. Yes, Walters did reach the Majors as a third baseman. But it was with the Boston Braves, in 1931. Then he played third base for the Red Sox and the Phillies, and it was the latter club—managed by Jimmie Wilson—that turned Walters into a pitcher. In 1937 with the Phils, Walters actually made the National League All-Star team. That said, he didn’t become a great pitcher until 1939, when he was pitching for the McKechnie-managed Reds.

Meanwhile, Lemon remembered something along these same lines . . . but with a completely different coach! “Boudreau had me working with Mel Harder, our pitching coach,” Lemon told interviewer Rich Westcott. “Finally, Harder told Boudreau, ‘He’s ready.’ So they gave me my first start. It was against Boston. I remember it well because it was my father’s birthday. I went six or seven innings, and we won. That was pretty much the end of my being a reliever.”

Close! Lemon’s first start did come against the Red Sox, in Boston. And while he didn’t go six or seven innings, he did pitch in the sixth. Oddly, he didn’t pitch all that well; Lemon wound up starting 15 games, and this probably wasn’t one of his 10 best. Still, it was good enough for Boudreau.

Once established on the staff, Lemon didn’t look back. He would remain in the Indians’ rotation for nine years. In 1948, he went 20–14 during the regular season—and earned his first of seven straight All-Star nods—before beating the Boston Braves twice in the World Series to propel Cleveland to their first (and still only) World Championship since 1920. From ’48 through ’56, Lemon averaged 21 wins and 272 innings per season, with both figures easily tops in the American League. In 1976, Lemon was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Was Lou Boudreau a managerial genius? When people talk about his managing, it’s nearly always about his “Boudreau Shift,” the radical defensive position designed in 1946 to thwart Ted Williams. And maybe I should have written about that instead. But we just don’t have any real data on the shift, so it’s practically impossible to know just how many runs it saved (and it wasn’t a new idea; radical defensive shifts had been deployed against Phillies slugger Cy Williams back in the 1920s).

We have tons of data on Bob Lemon, more than enough to know he was a tremendous pitcher for a long time, and that the Indians wouldn’t have won the World Series in 1948 without him. And so Bob Lemon is probably the smartest thing Lou Boudreau ever did.

1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians

 

 

 

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