Tuesday, December 11, 2012

139. Jimmy Lyston: One of the Big Birds

In the Fall of 1988 I turned up in the city of Baltimore, Maryland for my freshman year of art school. I'd never been to the city before, in fact I never left a 40 or 50 mile radius of Manhattan until I was dropped off on Mt. Royal Avenue that Sunday in August. Growing up within subway distance of the Big Apple, I was sorely disappointed when I first arrived in Charm City - It was small. The people had weird accents. Their subway really didn't go anywhere. They only had big league baseball for less that 35 years (and American League no less!)... there was more, but they all soon became moot points, just the typical reaction of a lonely kid thrust into very different world from what he was used to. In time I grew to love Baltimore - 
the quaintness of the different neighborhoods, its people with their Cockney-Appalachian hybrid accent, the unique quirky qualities many cities sorely lack - but most of all I fell for it's rich baseball culture. The great blackball teams of the 20's, 30's and 40's were a favorite of mine to research, and later the deep major and minor league heritage of the first Orioles caught my attention. This was especially driven home in 1991 when I was doing my research for the graphics I was designing for the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I wanted the graphics for the new ballpark not to merely pay homage to those great teams and ballplayers, I wanted it to look like a place they would be proud to take the field, look around, and call home. The Baltimore fans, who I'd come to respect more than anything from the countless afternoons and nights spent in the bleachers of the old Memorial Stadium, deserved a worthy place to house their century of unwavering baseball support.

Even though I left the city over 17 years ago, I still have a soft spot for its ball clubs, the 1920's International League Orioles being a particular favorite. Many baseball historian's call them the best minor league team of all time. Problem is, except for brief mentions in Lefty Grove biographies 
no one has really written about them. It's a part of baseball history that is sorely overlooked and that's why I became very excited when my pal Dr. Bob Hieronymus called and told me he was having an author on his syndicated radio show who'd written a book about his grandfather, Jimmy Lyston, who played on the 1921 Baltimore Orioles. In fact, Dr. Bob said, the book wasn't just about his grandfather, but about a succession of generations of the Lyston's playing pro and semi ball in Baltimore. When the book arrived it exceeded all expectations - this was one of the best books on minor league baseball's glory years that I'd ever read. The author, Jimmy Keenan, traces his relatives as they navigated through the bush leagues from the 19th century to the 1930's. As an outsider baseball historian, a book like this means so much more to me - for every Mickey Mantle and Hank Greenberg, there were thousands of Jimmy Lyston's whose story will never be told. Fortunately for us, Jimmy Keenan was a good enough writer, loving grandson and baseball historian, to pay the ultimate homage to his family's personal connection to the national pastime. 

So it gives me great pleasure to finally have Jimmy Keenan tell you a little about his Grandfather, Jimmy Lyston...

Jimmy Lyston was born on January 18,1903 in the Waverly section of North Baltimore, just a stones throw away from the sites of many of Charm City’s most famous ballparks. He was the fourth child of Katherine and John M. Lyston, a major league pitcher in the late 19th century and the nephew of former professional baseball players, Bill and Marty Lyston. Jimmy’s brother John C. Lyston was a standout pitcher in the Baltimore amateur and semi pro ranks. He signed with Frederick of the Blue Ridge League in 1922.

As a youth, Jimmy worked at Oriole Park at 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue in a variety of capacities, including peanut vendor, batboy and groundskeeper. In the winter of 1921, team president/manager Jack Dunn signed seventeen-year-old Jimmy to a professional baseball contract with the International League Baltimore Orioles. Seven years earlier, Dunn, a cultivator of home grown talent, signed another Baltimore boy by the name of George Herman Ruth to an Oriole contract. Jimmy, who was an excellent student at Loyola High School and a standout quarterback on the local gridiron, turned down a football scholarship to the University of Maryland in favor of pursuing a career in professional baseball.

Dunn’s Orioles were coming off two straight International League championships and they would go on to win five more championships in a row. The 1921 Baltimore Orioles compiled 119 victories against 47 losses, the second highest win total in the history of professional baseball.

Jimmy traveled south with the Orioles to their training site in Goldsboro, North Carolina in the spring of 1921. He performed well and his steal of home off future Hall of Fame pitcher “Lefty” Grove in an inter-squad game was one of the highlights of the camp.

Jack Dunn decided in advance that Jimmy, who had now turned eighteen, would be sent to the Waynesboro Villagers of the Blue Ridge League to gain experience.

A broken finger suffered in practice shortly after his arrival in Waynesboro precipitated a trip back to Baltimore for medical treatment. While recuperating, Lyston worked out regularly with Dunn’s Birds who were in the midst of an amazing 27 game winning streak. In late June, a number of Dunn’s front line players came down with injuries and Jimmy was placed on the Oriole’s active roster.

For the next few weeks, Jimmy, a natural second baseman, saw duty at every outfield and infield position, except first base. The Baltimore newspapers regularly highlighted the great defensive plays that the youngster was making during this time. One of these excerpts from the Baltimore Sun of July 11, 1921, read, “ Lyston Makes Good – Jimmy Lyston played left field and drew the applause of the Buffalo fans by the manner in which he was pulling down flies. He also doubled with two on base, his hit giving the Birds a comfortable lead.”

All of Baltimore’s baseball fans were rooting for the Waverly lad to succeed. There was even a song written about young Lyston by a local musician who penned the verse, “Dunnie made a star out of the Babe and he’ll make a star out of you.”

In early August, on an overcast and rainy day, Jimmy was hit in the right elbow by a mudball thrown by Newark pitcher Joe “Happy” Finneran. The crafty Finnerran, a former major league hurler, knew that rubbing mud on the ball created considerable movement on his pitches and he used this trickery to great effect.
Lyston, unaware that Finneran’s pitch had broken his arm, kept playing for three more weeks until Dunn, noticing that the youngster was unable to throw, sent him to the team physician for an examination. The prognosis was not good as the doctor discovered that Jimmy’s arm had been broken just below the elbow. The Oriole’s doctor said that the break and nerve damage was so severe, there was a good chance that Jimmy would never be able to throw a baseball again.

Proving the doctor wrong, Lyston reported to the Orioles training camp at Winston Salem, North Carolina in the spring of 1922. After another good showing , he was farmed out to Waynesboro of the Blue Ridge League. Jimmy played well at Waynesboro, leading the league in double plays turned by a second baseman (53) while finishing fifth in the loop in stolen bases (23). His contract was sold to Charleston Palmettos of the South Atlantic League in 1923.

The “Class League Rule” was instituted in professional baseball in 1922 and it would have a great impact on Lyston’s career. A “class” man was generally defined as a player or manager that had participated in at least 25 games and 15 games for a pitcher in a league of higher than D classification. Some leagues differed in the variation of the rule but nonetheless, it was incorporated to keep the big name players out of the lower minors. There were also monthly team salary caps put in place for the same reason. Most leagues allowed three class men including the manager, who was usually an active player, on a team roster at any one time.

Jimmy played 33 games at the highest level of the minor leagues as a rookie in 1921 and was now considered a class man. The “Class League Rule” would follow him throughout his professional baseball career. The Baltimore native enjoyed brief yet successful stints with Wilkes-Barre (.333) in 1925, Spartanburg (.412) in 1928, and Hagerstown (.333) in 1931 but he enjoyed his best full seasons as a pro in the Eastern Shore League. Lyston posted career highs in batting average (.304) with the Laurel Blue Hens in 1923 and stolen bases (27) with the Salisbury Indians in 1924.

From 1921 through 1931 Lyston was a player on a number of semi-pro, professional and barnstorming baseball teams. During this time, he played with and against some of the true immortals of our national pastime. Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Hack Wilson, Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Home Run Baker, Red Ruffing, Frank Frisch plus Negro League icons Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Pete Hill, Jud Wilson and Biz Mackey were just some of the great stars that he crossed paths with on the diamond.

During the thirties, Jimmy played for the great Baltimore Police baseball teams that won numerous championships in the local amateur and semi-pro leagues. In 1964, Lyston retired from the Baltimore City Police Department with the rank of Captain. Jimmy married the former Edith Wade on December 26,1929. The couple had two daughters, Peggy and Nancy along with six grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

Lyston was a founding member of the Oldtimers Baseball Association of Maryland and the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association. He was elected into the Oldtimers Hall of Fame in 1960. Jimmy Lyston died on March 21,1983 and is buried at New Cathedral cemetery in West Baltimore.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Lystons by Jimmy Keenan. I don't think I've ever come across a book that better documents the life of a typical 1920's minor league ballplayer than Keenan has done. Besides being a valuable look at the life and times of roarin' 20's baseball, Keenan's book is a heart-felt tribute to the man who raised him and played such an important part in his early life. There are only so many times you can re-read the same retread bio's of Satchel Paige and Cal Ripken - "The Lyston" shines a bright light on a part of baseball history that is rarely told and that is unceasingly interesting.

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