Lewis, Buddy

Primary Positions: Third base, right field
Birthplace: Gaston County

First, Middle Names:  John Kelly Jr.
Date of Birth:  Aug. 10, 1916  Date and Place of Death: Feb. 18, 2011, Gastonia, NC
Burial: Cremated

High School: Lowell High School, Lowell, NC
College: Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC

Bats: L Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1, 175
Debut Year: 1935        Final Year: 1949          Years Played: 11
Team and Years: Washington Senators, 1935-41; 1945-47; 1949

Awards/Honors: NC Sports Hall of Fame, 1975; All-Star, 1938, 1947; Boys of Summer Top 100

Career Summary
G             AB         H           R            RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1349    5261    1563    839     607      71        .297     .368     .420     +29.1

The “baby of the American League” is what they called Buddy Lewis when he broke in as the starting third baseman for the Washington Senators in 1935.[I] He was all of 19 years old, just a year or so removed from American Legion ball back home in Gastonia, North Carolina. Sportswriters speculated whether one razor blade would last him the season.

He may have been a fresh-faced teenager but there was a reason why he was starting in the majors. He could hit, and he only got better as he matured — and presumably needed more razor blades. For nine seasons, Lewis was a reliable presence atop the Senators’ lineup, hitting close to .300 each year. No telling how much better he would have been if he didn’t take three years off to fight a war. Unlike so many ballplayers who spent World War II entertaining troops by playing ball, Lewis was in the thick of it, flying transport planes on almost 400 missions over the Himalayas to ferry supplies and commandos behind enemy lines. He came back a hero, though he never thought of himself as such, and one of the most decorated of major leaguers with a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal.

But he wasn’t the same player. Time robbed him of skills and the war stanched his appetite for a game. He played only two full seasons after he returned, and his batting average diminished. Though only 33, the lifelong Gaston County resident retired and returned home where he owned a car dealership that gradually made him wealthy. He lived a long, quiet life, became a respected elder and a devoted supporter of the American Legion, where his baseball career had begun.

Elected to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1975, Lewis remains among North Carolina’s baseball elite. His +29.1 Wins Above Replacement puts him in 20th place on the Tarheel Boys of Summer Top 100. His .297 lifetime batting average is eighth on the list of natives with at least 1,000 major-league at bats. His 93 triples are fourth. He’s among the leaders in eight other offensive categories.

John Kelly Lewis Jr. was born in 1916 near Gastonia. He was the second youngest in a brood that grew to eight. His mother, Ada Mae, obviously had her hands full, while his father worked in local cotton mills.

Called Buddy since childhood, the youngster rode his bike to town when he was 12 to play for the local American Legion baseball teams. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship. As a teenager, he starred for the Post 23 teams that won back-to-back state championships. Almost 30 years later, he coached the team to the state finals. He would be a lifelong contributor to the organization and would serve in various administrative roles.

Lewis graduated at the top of his class in high school and could have received an appointment to West Point Military Academy, but he turned it down when told he would have to give up baseball because of a service commitment after graduation. He instead entered Wake Forest College near Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1933 and hit .350 for the junior-varsity team the following spring.[1] After Lewis led Post 23 to the second state championship that summer, the New York Giants invited the 17-year-old to work out with the team. Manager Bill Terry had received a letter from a friend who had seen the kid play in the series. Lewis took ground balls and traveled with the team for several weeks, but Terry wouldn’t let him hit and certainly didn’t put him in a game. Lewis did get a front-row seat to history, however, when he watched the Giants’ Carl Hubbell fan five straight future Hall of Famers in the All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds in New York.[2] “I didn’t do so good up there in the infield workouts,” Lewis remembered a few years later. “I had never seen that many people before.”[II]

Bill Terry, the player-manager of the NY Giants, was one of the best first baseman of his era, but he wasn’t known for his kind disposition.

Despite his nervousness, he thought the Giants would have offered him a contract had he not insisted that it include money for college. Terry was considered among the best first basemen of his era, a future Hall of Famer himself, but he could be surly and gruff. He said no. “Terry is a rather cold-blooded fellow,” Lewis remembered afterward, “and he just said, ‘Kid, go back to the minors, and if you ever come back to the big leagues, I’ll buy you.”[III]

Lewis went home to Gastonia instead. Awaiting him was a wire from Joe Engel, the owner of the Senators’ Class A club in Chattanooga, Tennessee, along with $11 for a one-way train ticket. Report immediately, Engel wrote. He, too, had heard from a friend. “They gave me a new pair of shoes,” Lewis said of the “bonus” he received for signing with the Senators. “It wasn’t much, but it was what I needed.”[IV]

In his first full season with the Lookouts in 1935, he hit .303 and was named to the All-Star team. The Senators called him up in September. Though his teammates generally ignored him, the kid was awed to be on the same field with players he only knew from the sports pages. He seemed overmatched at the plate, however, managing just three singles in 28 plate appearances.

His bat awakened the following spring in Florida when the teenager hit better than .400 and became the talk of the Grapefruit League. “Lawsy me,” gushed Manager Bucky Harris, himself a boy wonder a decade earlier when he became the Senators’ skipper at age 27. “If he isn’t a major-league hitter, then I might as well jump into one of Orlando’s 33 lakes.”[V]

Ossie Bluege, the Senators’ premier glove man at third who had been with the team for 12 years, watched Lewis hit and saw the handwriting on the wall. “[I]n the last four years we’ve had a dozen third basemen trying to take my job, but they didn’t have a chance.” he observed. “I’m through now, though.”[VI] The veteran became the rookie’s teacher and biggest booster. Lewis, even later as an old man, always called him “Mr. Bluege.”

The kid had only 172 professional games on his resume when the 1936 season began. When it was over, he was a star. Lewis hit better than .300 most of the year and finished at .291. He would have been the American League’s Rookie of the Year if not for a fellow named DiMaggio up in New York. [3] “As long as I’ve been in baseball,” Clark Griffith, the 66-year-old owner of the Senators, said, “I’ve never seen an infielder who looked so good in his first year as a big leaguer.”[VII]

Ossie Bluege, right, mentored the young Buddy Lewis. Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, said he was the best young infielder he had ever seen.

Lewis got better each year. He hit .303 from 1937-41, scoring about 100 runs a year while peppering the outfield with about 50 extra base hits each season. He was an All Star in 1938 when he hit a career-high 12 home runs and drove in 91 runs, but the next season may have been his best when he hit .319 and led the league in triples with 16. In the years leading up to the war, Lewis was the second-best third baseman in the American League after the St. Louis Browns’ Harlond Clift.

There was nothing special about his defense, however. He bobbled too many ground balls, and his throws to first base could be erratic. Lewis ranked near the top of the league in errors each season. In one stretch of nine games in August 1938, he was charged with an embarrassing 13 errors, four of them in a doubleheader. He finished the season with a league-leading 47 miscues. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post was blunt about it. Lewis was, wrote the venerable sports scribe, “something of a butcher.”[VIII] A switch to the outfield was inevitable. Lewis began playing more games in right starting in 1940. Though he led the league four times in assists out there, he still made too many errors.

Lewis switched uniforms the following year. Drafted in March, he was allowed to finish the season and reported for basic training three weeks before Pearl Harbor. He had taken some flying lessons and hoped the Army would train him as a pilot, but he was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to become part of a mechanized cavalry unit. He was about to be shipped to North Africa when the transfer to the Air Corps finally arrived. Lewis had dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, of diving out of the sun to pounce on the enemy, but once again the Army had other plans. It trained him to fly trucks instead, the lumbering C-47 transports that its pilots lovingly called Gooney Birds.

Assigned to the 1st Commando Group in India in 1943, Lewis spent two years flying his C-47 that he named “The Old Fox,” Griffith’s nickname, over the eastern Himalayas and across the jungles of Japanese-occupied Burma to take critical supplies to Allied forces in China. He often took their wounded back with him. He also towed gliders full of commandos behind Japanese lines and then flew 20 feet off the ground to snatch them and their planes up with hooks.

Crossing what the pilots called The Hump on routine missions was hazardous enough. The Himalayas include some of the tallest peaks on Earth, including Mount Everest. Several reach more than 7,000 feet into the sky. The winds swirling around them are often vicious, and the weather can be atrocious and unpredictable, a dangerous combination for airmen in the days before sophisticated guidance systems. The Army Air Corps lost more than 600 planes in those mountains, with 1,600 crewmen killed or missing.[4]

Crews that made it then had to contend with the thick jungles of Burma, now Myanmar. “Let me tell you, you didn’t want to go down over those jungles,” Lewis said decades later. “They gave me two pieces of advice. They said the day I crashed in Burma, if I survived, to come out of the plane with a baseball in my hand. I’m serious. They told me it might just save my life because the Japanese love baseball and they will take care of you. The other advice was that I was given a cake of cocaine to carry in my pocket. If I crashed in the jungle, and the natives found me, to give it to them and they would get me out of the jungle and to safety.”[IX] 

Don’t let the nice weather fool you. Army propaganda photos like this one were always taken when the sun was out. Buddy Lewis and the other pilots who flew The Hump in C-47 transports were rarely treated to such grand views.

Lewis flew 392 missions over The Hump before being awarded his commendations and discharged as a captain in July 1945. He reported to Griffith Stadium the next day and was back on the field six days later. Though he hadn’t picked up a bat in almost three years, he hit .333 in the last 69 games of the season as the Senators contended for a pennant. They finished second behind the Detroit Tigers.

He followed that up with a .296 average in 1946, a season highlighted by a 17-game hitting streak, but that would be his last Lewis-like year. His batting average plummeted more than 30 points the following year to its lowest level for a full season, though he made the All-Star team for the second time. Lewis retired at the end of the year to devote more time to his Ford dealership back home. “I had changed so much that baseball didn’t mean as much to me as it did before the war,” he said years later.[X]

Baseball, though, can exert a powerful gravitational pull. “I never realized how much the game was a part of me until I stayed out of it last season,” Lewis said in the spring of 1949. “When I saw those lineups and scores in the papers, I felt lonesome for baseball.”[XI] He found a partner to run the dealership and returned to the Senators with a $16,000 contract, or the equivalent of about $200,000 in 2022.

He should have stayed home selling cars. A leg injury limited him to pinch hitting for a month. Then he was in and out of the lineup. He hit .245 in 1949, dropping his career average below .300. He returned home for good to run his businesses, which by then included a bowling alley.

A bachelor throughout his baseball career, Lewis met Francis “Frankie” Oates on a blind date. “He was pleasant, but he seemed a little quiet,” she remembered decades later. “He never even told me he had played baseball.”[XII] She only found out when she saw a picture of him with Ted Williams. Frankie Oates married this quiet man in 1951 and had three children with him.

Lewis lived more than 60 years in Gastonia after retiring from baseball. He became a successful businessman, American Legion coach and a leader in his community – Chamber of Commerce president, head of the Rotary, deacon in his church and all the rest. He never talked much about his days as the baby wonder of the American League or as the heroic Army pilot crossing The Hump. The town wanted to honor its favorite son in 2003 by naming a new park after him, but Lewis wouldn’t hear of it. He was a lifelong friend of Allen Sims, who donated the land, and thought it only right that the park be named for him. It was. Fittingly, a ballfield at Sims Park was named Buddy Lewis Field. He reluctantly spoke at the field’s dedication ceremony and quietly signed autographs for kids who never saw him play. After he sold the Ford dealership in 1974, Lewis could be found at the local country club on most nice days playing golf. He lived to be 94, dying in 2016 after a long bout with cancer.

[1] Now a university, the private school was founded in Wake Forest, North Carolina, in 1834. It moved to its current campus in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1956.
[2] The players Hubbell struck out consecutively: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Fox, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin. Hubbell is Hall of Famer himself with more than 250 career victories, but the strikeouts in that All-Star Game are what most remember about King Carl.
[3] Joe DiMaggio hit .323 with the New York Yankees in his rookie season with 125 runs batted in. He led the league in triples with 15.
[4] This WWII Army propaganda film provides a quick glimpse of the 1st Commando Group’s mission in India: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiLJdgjs12s.

[I] Associated Press. “Lewis Sets First-Year Goal of .300.” Charlotte (NC) News, April 29, 1936.
[II] “Buddy Lewis Three Years Away From Majors.” Chattanooga (TN) Daily Times, March 14, 1935.
[III] Gammon, Wirt. “Just Between Us Fans.” Chattanooga (TN) Daily Times, July 10, 1935.
[IV] Cary, Kevin. “Sims Turf Named After Buddy Lewis.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, July 27, 2003.
[V] “Buddy Lewis’ 4-for4 Boosts Sticking Average to Even .400; Stroke Secret of His Power.” Evening Star (Washington, DC), Match 30, 1936.
[VI] Corbett, Warren. “Buddy Lewis.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/buddy-lewis/.
[VII] Ibid.
[VIII] Ibid.
[IX] Ibid.
[X] Ibid.
[XI] Ibid.
[XII] Cary.