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/.