Abernathy, Ted

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Stanley

First, Last Names: Theodore Wade
Date of Birth:  March 6, 1933   Date and Place of Death: Dec. 16, 2004, Gastonia
Burial: Gaston Memorial Park, Gastonia

High School: Stanley High School
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-5, 215
Debut Year: 1955       Final Year: 1972          Years Played: 14
Teams and Years: Washington Senators, 1955-57; Senators, 1960; Cleveland Indians, 1963-64; Chicago Cubs, 1965-66; Atlanta Braves, 1966; Cincinnati Reds, 1967-68; Cubs, 1969-70; St. Louis Cardinals, 1970; Kansas City Royals, 1970-72

Award: Fireman of the Year, 1965, 1967

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
681    63      69       149      3.46   1148.1 765      16.0

One of the best relief pitchers to come out of North Carolina, Ted Abernathy occupies a special niche in the evolution to the modern major-league bullpen. He and a few of his contemporaries — Clay Carroll, Stu Miller, Don McMahon and Hoyt Wilhelm of Huntersville – are the first links in a decades’ long chain that ended with Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith and the other great closers of the modern era.

When Abernathy debuted in 1955, pitchers who started games were expected to finish them, as it had been since the days of Cy Young and Kid Nichols. Relief pitchers were either sore-armed veterans trying to hang on or inexperienced kids hoping to impress. Managers turned to them only in dire emergencies, usually with the game’s outcome already determined. None would think of bringing one in at an important juncture late in a game to preserve a lead.

Fourteen years later, when the well-traveled Abernathy was done scrapping his knuckles in the dirt of every big-league pitching mound with his unusual submarine delivery, managers viewed their bullpens differently. They still expected their starters to go the distance, but the good pens had a quality reliever who could take over if the starter faltered and who could pitch well enough to hold on to the lead. There was, by that time, even a statistical category to quantify what that pitcher did. The “save” didn’t exist as an official stat when Abernathy was a rookie.

He accumulated 149 of those new-fangled saves. While that’s good enough for third place among N.C. pitchers, the total isn’t much by modern standards – Rivera and Hoffman, for instance, have more than 600 career saves. But those numbers helped spark a profound strategic change in the game and they marked a pretty good finish for a pitcher who re-invented himself at least twice to become one of the most effective relievers of his era.

A Star in Stanley

Ted Abernathy restored to an underhanded throwing motion after a shoulder injury and surgery. Source: MLB

Abernathy and his two brothers grew up on a farm during the depths of the Depression in Stanley, a small community in northern Gaston County, where their parents, Wade and Genora, also worked in a textile mill.

At Stanley High School, Abernathy had a normal overhand pitching delivery. After an arm injury, however, he found that throwing sidearm was less painful. Abernathy used the new delivery to help Gastonia’s American Legion team win a state championship and to impress scouts when he pitched in an industrial league after graduating.

The Washington Senators signed him before the start of the 1952 season and sent him to Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the first stop in their minor-league system. Abernathy was a sensation, winning 20 games with a 1.69 earned-run average, or ERA, while leading the league in strikeouts with 293.

Abernathy spent the next two years in the Army and was discharged in time to join the Senators for spring training in 1955 where teammates compared him to Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell, a recently retired National League all-star whose sidearm delivery and meanness made him genuinely feared by hitters.[1]

No one told Mickey Mantle, it seems. The N.Y. Yankees’ future Hall of Famer launched a long, three-run home run against Abernathy when he made his debut in relief on April 13. Abernathy was used as a spot starter and in long relief during that rookie season. He won five games, which included the only two shutouts of his career.

Sent to the minors in 1956 to work on his control, Abernathy returned to the Senators in September. On a cold night in Boston, the Abernathy who helped change baseball started to painfully take shape. He surrendered seven runs to the Red Sox in an 8-4 defeat that night. After the game, his pitching elbow swelled to the size of a grapefruit. Back then, you iced it and continued to pitch. That led to a shoulder injury that caused Abernathy to miss the 1957 season.

After pitching a year in the minors, Abernathy underwent surgery in 1959 to remove bone chips in his elbow and fix ligaments in his shoulder. He rejoined the Senators the following season, but seemed destined to be, at best, another sore-armed, bullpen castoff.  At age 30, he had made 34 starts in the majors and had appeared in 39 other games as a reliever and wasn’t very good in either role with an ERA close to 7.00.

Abernathy came back, though, throwing underhanded, a submariner, and, for the first time in years, without pain. “I was going to have to be a reliever, and a reliever with something unusual going for him is at an advantage,” Abernathy explained years later. “So, I went to the submarine pitch.”[I]

The Submariner

There haven’t been many major-league pitchers who throw that way. Because they are such a rare breed, batters have difficulty adjusting to an odd throwing motion that they may be seeing for the first time in their lives. Good hitting is all about split-second timing. Batters, from thousands upon thousands of pitches thrown toward them from Little League onward, are accustomed to seeing the ball released at specific points above the pitchers’ shoulders. It’s from those points that the hitters’ brains begin making all the calculations necessary that will get the needed body parts moving in unison to hit the ball when it arrives at home plate less than two seconds later. A ball that comes from somewhere south of the knees throws a wrench in all that, delaying the batters’ response just long enough to make a difference. [2] Abernathy threw from such a low arm angle – he literally did scrape his knuckles in the dirt — that the ball came at a hitter from shoe-top level, rising as it approached home plate. Add his size – 6-foot, 5-inches and 215 pounds – and the experience could be intimidating for the batter.

Abernathy, though, was facing the best hitters in the world. Throwing them off their game with a weird pitching motion would take some practice. After two ineffective appearances in 1959, the Senators released Abernathy. He would disappear from the majors for three years.

Abernathy used the time to hone his new delivery in minor-league way stops like Austin, Louisville and Vancouver. He put it all together in Salt Lake City, Utah, which was home to the Cleveland Indians’ club in the Pacific Coast League. Abernathy went 7-3 there in 1961 with a 3.72 ERA, all in relief. He was even better the following season for the Jacksonville, Florida,  Suns, Cleveland’s top farm club. Abernathy appeared in 45 games with a 1.88 ERA and helped the team win the International League flag.

After a strong start with the Suns to open the 1963 season, Abernathy was called up to Cleveland and recorded his first save on May 28. He established himself that year as a dependable and valuable reliever, appearing in 43 games, earning 12 saves while pitching to a 2.88 ERA. He faltered a bit the next season but still saved 11 games.

The Save Leader

Jerome Holtzman, right, sits with Don Zimmer, then the Chicago Cubs manager, in the dugout in this 2004 photo. Holtzman invented the “save.” Photo: Chicago Tribune

Wilhelm, Carroll and the others were also entering games to preserve leads. Recognizing this developing trend, Jerome Holtzman, the legendary Chicago Tribune sportswriter known in the press box as “The Dean,” in 1959 created a new statistic to quantify the value of these late-inning specialists. He compiled these saves assiduously until they became an official stat 10 years later. Using Holtzman’s numbers, The Sporting News combined saves with wins to determine the Fireman of the Year Award.[3] 

Pitching for the Chicago Cubs in 1965, Abernathy appeared in a record 84 games and set another in saves with 31. He won his first Fireman award. Abernathy won his second two years later with the Cincinnati Reds with 26 saves and a 1.27 ERA.

The knock on Abernathy had always been that he couldn’t string together two consecutive successful seasons. In 1968, though, he was almost as good as he had been the previous year. He appeared in 78 games, winning 10 of them and saving 13 others with a 2.46 ERA.

Judging that Abernathy’s time was about up, the Reds in 1969 traded the 35-year-old reliever to the Cubs, who sent him to the St. Louis Cardinals a year later.. Abernathy pitched in 11 games for the Cards before being shipped to Kansas City, Missouri. He had two more effective years and pitched his last major-league game, at age 39, on Sept. 30, 1972.

Abernathy played a year in the minors before retiring. He ended up in 681 games, third among North Carolina pitchers. His career 3.46 ERA is tied for 15th place among Tarhell pitchers with at least 500 innings.

He returned to Gaston County with his wife, Margie, his high-school sweetheart. They had married in 1952 and had two sons. Abernathy worked for a home builder in nearby Dallas and later for his son’s landscaping business.

Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Abernathy was living in a nursing home in Gastonia when he died on Dec. 16, 2004 at age 71.

Footnotes
[1] The great New York Times sportswriter Red Smith wrote that Blackwell was “built like a slouchy flyrod, being composed largely of arms and neck and ears.” Another writer thought his delivery looked like “a Picasso impression of an octopus in labor.” That unorthodox delivery combined with a surly disposition to make Blackwell feared. “I was a mean pitcher,” Blackwell said in retirement. He won 22 games in 1947 when he was the most-intimidating pitcher in baseball. Though he was a perennial all-star, Blackwell spent most of his career with the Cincinnati Reds, perennial losers. (Corbett, Warren. “Ewell Blackwell.” The Society for American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ewell-blackwell/.)
[2] Submariners are a rare breed of pitchers. Abernathy filled a gap in the chain between Joe McGinnity, Carl Mays and Elden Auker and Kent Tekulve and Dan Quisenberry.
[3] Jerome Holtzman, a Chicago native, worked for his hometown newspapers for more than 50 years. He was considered the dean of American baseball writers. After his retirement in 1999, he was the official historian for Major League Baseball until his death in 2008.

Reference
[I] Gajus, Greg. “Ted Abernathy and his remarkable 1967 season.” Redleg Nation, May 17, 2015. https://redlegnation.com/2015/05/17/ted-abernathy-and-his-remarkable-1967-season/.

 

 

 

Burgess, Smoky

Position: Catcher, pinch hitter
Birthplace: Caroleen

First, Last Names: Forrest Harrill       Nicknames: Smoky

Date of Birth:  Feb. 6, 1927    Date and Place of Death: Sept. 15, 1991, Asheville, NC
Burial: Sunset Memorial Park, Forest City, NC

High School: Henrietta-Caroleen High School

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-8, 187
Debut Year: 1949       Final Year: 1967          Years Played: 18
Team(s) and Years: Chicago Cubs, 1949, 1951; Philadelphia Phillies, 1952-55; Cincinnati Redlegs, 1955-58; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1959-1964; Chicago White Sox, 1964-67

Awards: All-Star, 1954-55, 1959-61, 1964; N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1978

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1691    4471   1318    485      673      126      .295     .362     .446     33.4

A six-time all-star, Smoky Burgess is among North Carolina’s baseball royalty. He played 18 years in the major leagues – only five North Carolina players have had longer tenures – and is second to Rick Ferrell as the top catcher produced by the state. He was also considered one of the best hitters of his generation.

“Smoky could fall out of bed on New Year’s Day and get a hit off Sandy Koufax,” said Joe Nuxhall, a teammate on the Cincinnati Redlegs.[I]

At the tail end of his career, with his catching days over, Burgess became the best pinch hitter in baseball and for years held the record for the most career pinch hits.

His .295 lifetime batting average ranks ninth among North Carolina players with more than a thousand at bats, and he’s in the top twenty in eight other offensive career statistics.

Gus Bell, a pretty fair hitter himself, thought Burgess was in an elite group. “Many, many people have said he was one of the most natural hitters of all time – in the Stan Musial and Ted Williams category,” Bell said of his Redlegs’ teammate. “The feeling was that if Smoky wasn’t a catcher and could have played every day, he would have been recognized as one of the greatest hitters of all time. I still say he was.”[II]

Forrest Harrill Burgess was born in the small community of Caroleen on the Second Broad River in Rutherford County. His roots in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains account for his nickname, whether he inherited it from his father, as some sources claim, or he earned it himself.[III] Technically, Burgess hailed from the Blue Ridge Mountains, not the taller Great Smokies farther west. Anyway, Smoky sounds better than Blue Ridge Burgess.

Burgess’s father, Lloyd, worked in a textile mill but was also a standout semipro baseball player. His mother, Ocie, like almost all mothers of her day, stayed home to care for the four children.

Forrest Hunt, Burgess’s baseball coach at old Henrietta-Caroleen High School, also known as Tri High, gave his young infielder a piece of advice: You’ll never be a hitter unless you swing the bat.[IV]

It would form the foundation of Burgess’s hitting philosophy. “Any ball I can get a good part of the bat on is a good pitch to hit,” he explained many years later.[v] It was all pretty simple to Smoky: The pitcher threw the ball; he tried to hit it.

Burgess was 16 when he signed his first professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943, but the baseball commissioner voided the deal because he judged Burgess to be too young. A year later, he signed with the Chicago Cubs and hit .325 as a 17-year-old in his first minor-league season.

There was a war to attend to, however. Burgess joined the Army in 1945 and two things happened in the military that would forever affect Burgess’s career and public persona. He ran off the road while driving a Jeep in Germany, rolling over three times and shattering his right, throwing, shoulder. He would never throw well again and would routinely rank among the league leaders in stolen bases allowed. His weak throwing would contribute to his overall poor defensive skills as a catcher.

Burgess joined the Army as a lean teenager. That’s not how he came out. “I used to be a trim 150-pounder, and in high school I ran the 100 in 10 flat,” he once explained. “Then I went into the Army. I was a mail clerk just outside Munich, and it was a snap. I’d sort the mail the day before and sleep till 11 every morning. I ate a lot of potatoes. I weighed 214 pounds when I got out.”[VI]

Throughout his career, the 5-8 Burgess endured all the adjectives: portly, hefty, paunchy, pudgy, roly-poly. “Smoky Burgess was fat,” an irreverent guide of baseball cards once reported. “Not baseball fat like Mickey Lolich or Early Wynn. But FAT fat. Like the mailman or your Uncle Dwight. Putsy Fat. Slobby Fat. Just Plain Fat.”[VII]

This was one fat man who could hit. Burgess won back-to-back batting titles in the minor leagues when he returned to baseball in 1947. That led to a spot on the Cubs’ opening-day roster two years later, but Burgess appeared in only 46 games before being sent down. He spent the remainder of that season and the next in the minors.

Back in the majors to stay in 1951, Burgess was traded after the season to the Phillies. In Philadelphia, Smoky Burgess became a major leaguer. He was an All-Star for the first time in 1954 when he hit .368. Burgess fell 55 at bats short of qualifying for the National League batting title, won by Willie Mays, because his manager didn’t play his lefty hitting catcher against lefthanded pitchers. That always irked Burgess. “That stuff about me not hitting lefties is bunk,” he said later after he had moved on from Philadelphia. “They just go percentage-crazy up there.”[VIII]

Burgess then spent four years in Cincinnati, starting in 1955. The team was called the Redlegs at the time so as not to offend patriotic sensibilities in the era of Joe McCarthy. Though he was an All-Star again his first year with the team, Burgess’s offensive numbers slipped in later seasons as his playing time was whittled. To his teammates, he was The Little Round Snowman.

Smoky Burgess rejuvenated his career in Pittsburgh where he hit .296 over six seasons. Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch

Traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959, Burgess rejuvenated his career. He was an All-Star for four of his six years in Pittsburgh, hitting .296 and knocking in 265 runs. He was behind the plate when Harvey Haddix tossed 12 perfect innings against Milwaukee before an error allowed a runner to reach first. The Braves would win in the 13th. Burgess went 6 for 18 against the N.Y. Yankees in 1960 in his only World Series appearance.

He spent the last three seasons of his career with the Chicago White Sox where, in the days before the designated hitter, Burgess became a baseball oddity. He was the only man paid to do nothing but hit every once in a while. Burgess was in his late 30s by then and he was no longer even a passable major-league catcher. His Chicago contracts specified that he would never be required to catch in a game. They even allowed him to report late on Sundays so the devout Baptist could attend church services. Some teammates wondered whether the contracts allowed Burgess to sleep on the bench during games. Smoky always denied it.

Burgess became a force off the bench. His 20 hits in the pinch in 1966 tied a 30-year-old American League record. When he retired after the following season, at age 40. Burgess was the all-time major-league leader in pinch hits with 145, a mark that would stand until Manny Mota passed it in 1979.

A man of simple tastes, Burgess returned to Rutherford County, to the small brick bungalow in Forest City where he and his wife of 20 years, Margaret, raised their family. He was co-owner of a Dodge dealership in town before joining the Atlanta Braves as a regional scout and minor-league hitting instructor. He was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.

Burgess died in 1991 at age 64.

References
[I] Erardi, John. “The Late Smoky Burgess Could Hit in Pinch.” Cincinnati (OH) Enquire, September 17, 1991.
[II] Bass, Mike. Scripps Howard News Service. “Burgess Could Hit With Best.” Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK), September 22, 1991.
[III] Shatzkin, Mike, editor, and Jim Charlton, creator. The Ballplayers: Baseball’s Ultimate Biographical Reference. New York; William Morrow and Co. Inc, 1990. 134
[IV] Sturgill, Andy. “Smoky Burgess.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/24804821.
[V] Ibid.
[VI] Bass.
[VII] Sturgill.
[VIII] Grady, Sandy. “Conversation Piece: They Want More Work.” Charlotte (NC) News, October 13, 1954.

 

Benson, Vern

Positions: Third base, left field
Birthplace: Granite Quarry

Full Name: Vernon Adair

Date of Birth:  Sept. 19, 1924             Date and Place of Death: Jan. 20, 2014, Granite Quarry
Burial: Rowan Memorial Park, Rowan

High School: Granite Quarry High School
College: Catawba College, Salisbury

Bats: L Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 180
Debut Year: 1943       Final Year: 1953          Years Played: 5
Teams and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1943, 1946; St. Louis Cardinals, 1951-53

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
55        104      21        17        12        3          .202     .291     .356     0.1

Vern Benson was a baseball lifer. Though he only appeared in 55 games over a sporadic five-year career in the major leagues, Benson devoted his life to the sport, spending more than half a century as a player, coach, scout, and minor-league manager. He was also perfect during his short but odd tenure as a big-league skipper.

Vernon Adair Benson grew up in Granite Quarry in Rowan County, the younger son of William and Ruth Benson. In a 1946 questionnaire, he credited his parents for turning him into a ballplayer by allowing him to play instead of requiring him to find a job during the Depression.

He played baseball and basketball at the local high school and for the American Legion. He entered Catawba College in nearby Salisbury in 1942. Playing only baseball, Benson set a school record with 16 consecutive games with a run scored. He would be inducted into the school’s sports hall of fame as part of its second class in 1978.

Connie Mack, the owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, was looking for wartime replacements when he signed Benson on July 29, 1943. The 18-year-old made his major-league debut two days later at Shibe Park as a pinch hitter.

But Benson was drafted a few days later and spent two years at Fort Bragg playing ball for the army before being shipped to France.

He returned to the Athletics in 1946 but made it into only seven games, four as a pinch runner. At his request, Benson was sent back to the minors in May so that he could play regularly. He wouldn’t resurface in the majors for another five years.

After his best year as a pro in 1951 — .308-18-89 with 111 walks – for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Double a team in Columbus, Benson was a late-season call-up. He appeared in 13 games and hit his first major-league homer. He played sporadically for the Cardinals during the next two seasons before retiring from active play in 1953.

Benson began coaching in the minor and winter leagues the following year and took his first major-league coaching job with the Cardinals in 1961. He was on the coaching staff when the team won the World Series four year s later.For the next two decades,

Benson coached for the four big-league clubs and even took a spin as a manager. That was 1977 for the woeful Atlanta Braves. The team had lost 16 in a row when new owner Ted Turner sent manager Dave Bristol away for a few days and donned a uniform to skipper the team. “Our attitude was, anything goes that’s legal and acceptable,” Bob Hope, the Braves public-relations director at the time told a newspaper reporter in 2015. “We didn’t have a great team and couldn’t compete financially, so we’d always say we have to keep the smoke going after the fire goes out.”

It didn’t help. The Braves lost again.

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in, ruling that Turner couldn’t manage again because of rules against a manager having a financial interest in a club.

Coach Benson was quickly pressed into service for a game until Bristol could return to the team. The Braves won, and Benson retired as an undefeated manager.

 He left coaching entirely in 1981 and returned to Granite Quarry where he worked from home for 15 years as the Cardinals’ scouting supervisor for the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.

Benson had married Rachael Lyerly in 1946. They had two daughters and a son. They had been married for almost 61 years when she died in April 2008. Benson followed her six years later at age 89.

“I was in the game 56 years and I never missed a payday,” he had told an interviewer a few years earlier. “I never made much money, but just about every year was enjoyable.”