The easygoing Lemon learned to pitch in the major leagues and went on to become one of the most successful righthanders of the post-WWII period. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1976. In two trials as a third baseman before the war he failed to stick with the Indians because of his mediocre hitting. He showed a strong arm in the field, but his throws had a natural sinking effect. Upon his return to Cleveland after three years in the Navy, he turned to pitching at age twenty-six.
Although bothered by wildness, Lemon showed enough promise in his first season on the mound (2.49 ERA in 94 innings) to continue the experiment. In 1947 he was 11-5 and became the Indians’ second most effective starter behind Hall of Famer Bob Feller.
Cleveland won the 1948 pennant, as Feller, Lemon, and rookie Gene Bearden combined for 59 wins. Lemon, at 20-14, led the AL in shutouts (10), complete games (20), and innings pitched (294). On June 30, he threw a no-hitter to top the Tigers 2-0. In the World Series, he picked up two wins (1.65 ERA) as the Indians defeated the Braves.
Lemon became the leader of the outstanding Indians pitching staffs of the 1950s that also included Feller, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, and later Herb Score. In a remarkably consistent nine-year stretch (1948-56), Lemon won 20 or more games seven times. He missed the magic number only in 1951 with 17 victories and 1955 when his 18 wins topped the league. A workhorse, he led in complete games five times and innings pitched four. TSN named him the Outstanding AL Pitcher three times (1948, 50, 54).
The 1954 Indians set an AL record with 111 victories (in 154 games) as Lemon led the pitching staff with a 23-7 mark. He opened the World Series against the Giants and took a 2-2 tie into the tenth inning before giving up a three-run home run to pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes. When the Indians lost the next two, manager Al Lopez brought Lemon back on two days’ rest, but he was shelled early as the Giants swept the Series.
Lemon’s money pitch was his sinking fastball. He led the AL in strikeouts with 170 in 1950, but he was most effective when opposing batters were beating the ball into the dirt. Always slightly wild, his season bases on balls and strikeout marks were usually similar, as were his career bases totals of 1,251 walks and 1,277 strikeouts.
Lemon was considered to be one of the best-hitting pitchers of his time and was often used as a pinch hitter, totaling 31 hits in 109 pinch-hit appearances (.284). His 37 home runs lifetime is just one behind Wes Ferrell‘s record for pitchers, and his 7 HR in 1949 ties him for second on the pitchers’ season list.
After leaving the majors, Lemon pitched briefly in the Pacific Coast League, then turned to scouting, coaching, and managing. In 1966 TSN named him Minor League Manager of the Year when his Seattle team won the PCL championship. From 1970-72 he managed the Kansas City Royals, with a 1971 second place the team ‘s best mark, earning him Manager of the Year honors. He took over the Chicago White Sox in 1977, managing another mediocre team to a strong finish, and again won Manager of the Year. But Lemon was replaced the next season with the team in fifth place.
A few weeks later, Lemon began a bewildering series of ups and downs with the New York Yankees. First, he succeeded fiery Billy Martin as skipper of the third-place Yankees. The team responded to his relaxed leadership and finished the regular schedule tied with the Red Sox for the division title. New York won the one-game playoff on Bucky Dent‘s home run. After taking the LCS, Lemon’s Yankees went on to a World Series win over the Dodgers.
Midway through the 1979 season, Martin replaced him as Yankee manager. In 1981, when the player strike split the season into two parts, Gene Michael managed the Yankees to a first-half division lead, but when the team faltered in the second half after the strike, Lemon returned as manager. He took the Yankees to victory in the divisional playoff between the Yankees and second-half winner Milwaukee and then a three-game sweep of Oakland in the LCS. The Yankees lost the World Series to the Dodgers in six games. When New York started slowly in 1982, Lemon was again replaced as manager, this time by Michael.