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Lon Warneke: A Most Judicious Pitcher

A calming presence on the mound as a player, Lon Warneke appeared in the 1933 All-Star Game, striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In part 7, Schechter describes how Warneke's temperament changed as an umpire, ending his seven-year career with 44 player ejections.

By Gabriel Schechter , March 9, 2017
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Lanky “Lon” Warneke, the Pitching Ace of the Powerful Chicago Cubs. Baseball Magazine, September 1936.

In a 1944 interview near the end of his pitching career, Lon Warneke summed up the attitude of a consummate professional:

Baseball is my business and my livelihood and I approach each game
in the same manner that a lawyer would approach a trial or a minister
would prepare a sermon. I study out each situation and figure out
the best possible solution. Once the game is over, it is over. I review it
in my mind to try to improve my game and then forget it. I put every
bit of energy and brain power I possess in each play and I have no
regrets when the breaks go against me.

Clearly, this was a man to be reckoned with, so it isn’t surprising that Warneke is the answer to a dandy trivia question: who is the only man to both play and umpire in both the World Series and the All-Star Game? He also had the moxie to give up baseball at age 46 to go into business for himself, and later spent a decade as a judge.

The pride of Mount Ida, Arkansas, the 6-foot 2-inch, 185-pound right-hander with a nasty sidearm motion was dubbed the “Arkansas Hummingbird” by St. Louis writer Roy Stockton because of his “sizzling-fast and darting form of delivery.” Like many young pitchers, he battled control, walking five of the 11 batters he faced in his Major League debut with the 1930 Cubs. While using Warneke sparingly in 1931, Cubs Manager Rogers Hornsby noticed that Warneke was taking his eye off the plate during his delivery, and exhorted him to sharpen his focus.

By 1932, the diligent neophyte had corrected the flaw and emerged as the top pitcher in the league. If the Cy Young Award had existed that year, Warneke would have won it. With his 22–6 record, he led the National League in wins, winning percentage, and shutouts, adding the ERA title with a 2.37 mark. He led the Cubs to the World Series but lost to Lefty Gomez, 5–2, in Game 2, en route to the Yankees sweep.

Warneke pitched better in 1933 with a 2.00 ERA, but poor run support held him to an 18–13 record. He carried a 1.65 ERA into the break for the Majors’ first All-Star Game, where he starred for the losing National League team. Pitching four innings in relief, he allowed just one run while striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and his triple off General Crowder triggered the NL’s only scoring rally.

Lon Warneke (front row, #23) pitched for the National League in the first MLB All-Star Game in 1933.

Opening Day of 1934 might have been the best game Warneke ever pitched, but he called it “the worst heart-break of my career.” Facing the Reds at Crosley Field, he took a no-hitter with a dozen strikeouts to the bottom of the ninth inning. After Ernie Lombardi fanned for the first out, Adam Comorosky hit a chopper that “jumped over my head . . . one of those balls that just nobody could reach”—an infield single that ruined the gem. Warneke repeated the feat in his second start, beating Dizzy Dean and the Cardinals with Ripper Collins’s double the only hit against him.

In 1934, Warneke took a 12–5 record to the All-Star Game but didn’t fare as well as he had in the inaugural. This time he surrendered four runs in just over an inning, walking Ruth and Gehrig. It didn’t slow him down long as he went on to win 22 games again for the third-place Cubs, giving him 62 wins in three seasons.

He followed it with his most satisfying campaign in 1935, despite struggling to a 3–8 record in May and June. On July 6, the Cubs languished in fourth place, 9½ games behind the league-leading Giants. That day, Warneke won in relief to raise his record to 7–9, launching one of the most torrid streaks in Cubs history. Over the rest of the month, they went 24–4 to get within a half-game of the Giants, with Warneke winning six times.

Over the summer, a three-team pennant race heated up, with the defending champion Cardinals in the mix. After splitting a doubleheader on September 2, the Cubs stood third, but then they got seriously hot. A 21-game winning streak propelled them to a runaway pennant, and No. 19 provided what Warneke called his “greatest thrill” in baseball. On September 25, the Cubs opened a four-game series at St. Louis, with a magic number of three. Warneke faced Paul Dean, both going for their 20th win of the season. Phil Cavarretta’s second-inning home run gave Warneke a lead he held onto tenaciously. In the eighth inning, Ripper Collins doubled for just the second Cardinals hit. With two outs, Leo Durocher hit a smash to left-center that would have plated the tying run, but Augie Galan made a shoestring catch to preserve Warneke’s lead. The 1–0 two-hitter gave him 20 wins for the third time in four seasons.

Warneke saved his best for the 1935 World Series even though it wasn’t enough to overcome the Tigers. Given the honor of starting Game 1 at Detroit, he lived up to his billing with a four-hitter, winning 3–0. Detroit’s quartet of future Hall of Famers—Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Goose Goslin—combined to go 0 for 13. Westbrook Pegler wrote that Warneke was “so good yesterday, his command so firm most of the time, that he had the Tigers flipping up little chip shots, like golfers approaching a green, and executed eight assists,” tying a Series record.

Two days later, in Game 3, he gave up a run in relief as the Cubs lost later in extra innings. He came back to start the must-win Game 5 at Wrigley Field with the Cubs down, 3–1. Again he came through, tossing six shutout innings to pick up the win, cementing his place as the most popular Cubs pitcher since Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown.

Warneke had one more starring turn in the national spotlight in the 1936 All-Star Game. The National League took a 4–0 lead to the seventh inning, but Curt Davis got roughed up for three runs before Warneke got the call. After walking Charlie Gehringer to load the bases, he retired Joe DiMaggio to end the threat. He walked two men in the eighth inning but struck out Jimmie Foxx to hold onto the 4–3 lead. In the ninth, he got the first two men before Gehringer doubled, but again he got the best of DiMaggio to end the game and give the NL its first victory in four midsummer classics.

In a move that was unpopular with Cubs fans, Warneke was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1936 season.

After a disappointing 16–13 record in 1936, Warneke was traded to the Cardinals, where he continued to pile up winning seasons: 18–11, 13–8, 13–7, 16–10, and 17–9. That last season, 1941, featured two more gems. On June 10 at Philadelphia, Warneke gave up a leadoff single to Heinie Mueller but held the Phillies hitless the rest of the game for his fourth one-hitter. He topped himself on August 30 at Crosley Field with a no-hitter against the Reds, facing just 28 batters and walking one.

Traded back to the Cubs midway through the 1942 season, just in time to miss another shot at the World Series, Warneke retired in 1945 with a career record of 192–121, a 3.18 ERA, and 30 shutouts, completing 56 percent of his starts. He had offers to become a minor league manager but declared, “Too many managers die young of those headaches. I want to live to be an old man.” Instead, he opted to launch an umpiring career to stay in baseball.

Warneke had had one experience as an umpire. In 1940, with the Cardinals visiting Cincinnati, no umpires showed up, and Warneke was nominated, along with Reds coach Jimmie Wilson, to work the bases. He performed well and was praised for his work. That was all the encouragement he needed.

From 1946 to 1948, Warneke called ’em in the Pacific Coast League. When he got the word early in 1949 that he had landed a spot in the National League, he said, “All my hopes in baseball have been fulfilled now.” He was assigned to a crew with future Hall of Famer Jocko Conlan and Bill Stewart. Over the next few years, the NL moved to four-man crews, and in 1955 he was partnered with another Cooperstown-bound arbiter, Al Barlick, along with Babe Pinelli and Lee Ballanfant.

Umpire Warneke watches a play during a Dodgers and Cardinals game at Ebbets Field in July of 1951.

As a player, Warneke` was not known for agitating umpires, and when he became one, columnist Ken Smith asserted that Warneke was so respected that “Leo Durocher will never bark at him: ‘What do you know about balls and strikes?’” Smith was wrong. Warneke, who was ejected only once as a player (by Beans Reardon, for arguing balls and strikes), issued a whopping 44 ejections in his seven seasons in the NL (half involving balls and strikes). Twice he thumbed Durocher, who feuded with him for years and called him “the worst umpire I’ve ever seen.”

Warneke got his All-Star Game assignment in 1952, his fourth year in the Majors. He worked the right-field line at Shibe Park in a game that was rained out after five innings. Two years later, he was honored to work the World Series as the Giants swept the Indians. He was down the left field line in Game 1 and had a great view of “The Catch” by Willie Mays to rob Vic Wertz, as well as Dusty Rhodes’s game-winning home run. The umpiring system was different at the time, and he worked the outfield lines in all four games.

After the 1955 season, Warneke walked away from baseball and headed back to Arkansas. He had owned a 360-acre farm for many years and was ready to work it himself. A few years later, he got the urge to be judgmental again. Though he wasn’t a lawyer, he ran—as an independent—for a post as a Garland County judge. He won by 192 votes, the same number as his Major League win total.

It was largely an administrative position but he did preside over civil cases involving amounts less than $500. That was the judicial equivalent of getting to work a World Series—but only the foul lines. He served in that capacity for a decade before ill health forced him to retire, and he died in 1976 at age 67.

Courtesy of The Trading Card Database




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