Ted Lyons. (Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, July 13, 2013 7:00 PM
When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Lake Charles native and Vinton resident Ted Lyons was in the midst of a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago White Sox. He was also just a couple weeks shy of his 41st birthday.
But despite both of those factors — ones Lyons could have legitimately used to forego military service — he enlisted in the Marine Corps in September 1942, eventually making captain three years later. To him, his age and his baseball success were irrelevant. His country needed him.
“He was 40 years old,” Lyons’ nephew, Elton Lyons, said. “He didn’t have to serve, but he felt like he had to. They weren’t going to draft him, so he decided to volunteer.”
Such stories of selflessness are legion when it comes to Lyons, who debuted with the White Sox 90 years ago. Team historian and author Rich Lindberg recounted the tale of Lyons’ arrival in Chicago in 1923, coming off a stellar career at Baylor University — Lyons didn’t spend a day in the minors — in which the right-handed hurler again displayed his generosity.
“He had $5 in his pocket,” Lindberg said. “The cab fare to Comiskey Park was 75 cents, but he gave the cabbie his $5. He essentially gave the cabbie a huge tip.”
On that night — July 2, 1923 — Lyons donned a White Sox uniform and took the mound for the club for the first time in a playing career that eventually spanned 23 years, all with the Sox. He entered the game against the St. Louis Browns as a reliever in the eighth inning and proceeded to get three quick outs in the Sox’s 7-2 loss. It was a modest debut, but the Chicago media still took note.
“ … Theo Lyons, fresh from Baylor university (Texas), hurled the eighth in impressive style,” Chicago Tribune writer Irving Vaughan reported the next day. “He is a big lad with an overhand delivery and excellent control.”
That pinpoint accuracy, along with tremendous size and strength — one contemporary account pegged him at 5-foot-10 1/2, 173 pounds, big for a pitcher of that era — became the hallmark of a career in which Lyons won 260 games for the White Sox, which remains the franchise record and which included three 20-win seasons and a no-hitter despite the fact that Chicago rarely gave Lyons a quality supporting cast behind him.
After several years of hesitation — the Southwest Louisiana native lost 230 games as well and sported a career ERA of 3.67 — Baseball Hall of Fame voters elected Lyons to the shrine in 1955, on his eighth ballot.
At the time, those in Lyons’ hometown celebrated the news, feting the newly minted Hall of Famer with a testimonial banquet, courtesy of the Lake Charles 50 Club, at the Majestic Hotel.
“ … it is fitting, even inevitable, that drawling, genial Ted Lyons should land in Baseball’s Hall of Fame,” American Press columnist Truman Stacey wrote on Jan. 28, 1955. “… from the time he was a standout sandlot pitcher in Lake Charles until the day he finally hung up his spikes for the Chicago White Sox, Lyons was all that a major leaguer should have been …
“Lyons was not (only) the finest pitcher the White Sox unveiled since the days of the 1919 scandal, he was and is a major leaguer off the field, too … there are few more popular persons in Calcasieu parish and Southwest Louisiana …”
Now, six decades later, memories of Lyons have faded in Vinton, especially since his death in a Sulphur nursing home in 1986. Vinton Mayor Kenneth Stinson said he believes that as the older generations of residents who personally knew Lyons and appreciated what he accomplished pass away, so is the White Sox great’s legacy in Calcasieu Parish. That’s despite the fact that Vinton has a park named after Lyons, one where countless youngsters continue to play ball without really understanding the historical significance of the park’s namesake.
“I would probably say most younger people just know that he was a professional baseball player,” Stinson said. “They probably do not know what he accomplished. All these hometown heroes, people just don’t know what they did.”
The story of a Hall of Famer began three days after Christmas 1900, when Theodore Amar Lyons was born to Asa Forman and Sudie E. (Fancher) Lyons. The 1910 U.S. Census lists 9-year-old Ted living with his parents — his father was a farmer — and older siblings Pearl and Elton. Ironically enough, Ted’s parents hoped their son would become a lawyer, part of the reason he ended up at Baylor.
But even after hitting the big time in the big leagues, Lyons remained dedicated to Vinton and his family. Remaining a bachelor his entire life, Lindberg noted, the pitching great was devoted to supporting his mother up until her death and retained his Vinton residency the entire time. He also returned to Vinton from Chicago in July 1942 when his father died.
The 1930 Census, for example, notes that the 29-year-old Lyons lived with his parents and Pearl on Eddy Street. By that time, Asa Lyons worked as a retailer at an auto supplier. Ted Lyons’ profession is listed as “Ball player” and his industry as “Major league.” At the time of his death in 1986, Ted Lyons was living at 1401 Loree St.,a modest, wood-frame, two-story house filled with memorabilia from the legend’s playing days.
After completing his playing career and three years as an unsuccessful manager for the White Sox, Lyons returned to Vinton, where he appeared in public frequently and supported local civic organizations. In November 1964, for example, he addressed 32 teenagers at a meeting of the Lake Charles Optimists Club.
“Youth is America’s greatest asset,” the Vinton High School alum told the audience. “… You exercise more influence than anyone else in shaping the behavior of the nation’s youngsters. There are thousands like you who are helping.”
During his sunset years in his hometown, Lyons was a member of American Legion Post 208 and was active in the First Baptist Church.
Meanwhile, Lyons’ old team took more than 40 years to properly recognize the contributions the righty made to the franchise. It wasn’t until July 26, 1987 — a year to the day after his death — that the White Sox officially retired Lyons’ number. But even then, the day’s focus was more on Billy Pierce, another Sox pitcher who was having his number retired. A lengthy Chicago Tribune article about the ceremony dedicated the vast majority of its ink two Pierce and relegated Lyons to a mere two paragraphs.
But the Vinton resident deserved, and still deserves, more attention than that, said Lindberg, who recounted some of Lyons’ more remarkable feats, including pitching 21 innings in one game and completing all 20 of his starts in 1942 at the age of 41. If the White Sox hadn’t been so generally lousy during Lyons’ career, the Pelican State boy would have easily joined the elite 300-win club, Lindberg said.
“In terms of endurance and pitching for a team that was lackluster and mediocre — which is being charitable — it was remarkable what he accomplished,” Lindberg said. “Winning 260 games was an amazing achievement.”
In addition to heroically racking up wins, Lindberg said, Lyons represented the White Sox franchise with honor and pride.
“He was the face of the franchise for decades, he and (shortstop) Luke Appling (another White Sox lifer and Hall of Famer), through the end of the 20th century,” the historian said. “He was exclusively a White Sox guy.”
And sadly, Lindberg added that Lyons is still “a forgotten figure today. He’s faded from history. But he was an amazing guy.”
Lyons’ teammates certainly agreed. In a column in the Chicago Tribune two days after the pitcher’s death, newspaperman Jerome Holtzman gathered comments about him from various people. Chuck Comiskey, grandson of team founder Charles Comiskey, said Lyons “raised me. … He was life a father to me. He was a very moral and high-class man.”
Appling, meanwhile, told Holtzman that he “never heard Ted complain. What a grand person he was. He had a heart as big as Stone Mountain. I am certainly glad I was there to know him.”
Such devotion was spurred by Lyons’ commitment to others and organizations and efforts bigger than himself, said his nephew Elton Lyons, also a Vinton resident. Elton said his uncle was extremely proud to be from Vinton and Lake Charles, and that those who knew him were likewise proud of him.
Elton, along with Lindberg, laments the fact that a proper, satisfactory biography of Lyons has never been written, with Ted’s exploits relegated to scattered media articles and other brief sources. Elton said his uncle’s character and loyalty comprised a story that “couldn’t fit in an encyclopedia.”
And for his entire life, Ted was eager to share with others, his nephew added.
“He was always willing to sit down and talk with anyone,” he said.
That was the consensus in Vinton in the days following July 25, 1986, when Lyons died. His July 27 funeral service, held at First Baptist and officiated by Revs. Lee Perkins and James Rivers, drew dignitaries from near and far — from then-Vinton Mayor Raywood LeMaire and parks and recreation director Bill McCardle to then-White Sox historian John Mander and Baseball Hall of Fame Director Howard C. Talbot — and prompted a glowing article in the July 30, 1986, issue of the Vinton News.
“Hailed from coast to coast as the premier pitcher for the White Sox,” wrote reporter Brenda Merchant, “Lyons gave his all to a profession that he loved, while residents of his hometown followed his accomplishments in awe.”
Vinton officials saw it only fitting that the Vinton Annual Invitational Little League Tournament played July 25-27 be dedicated to the memory of a man whose spirit and passion inspired southwestern Louisianans of all ages.
“The nation is in mourning for a great man,” LeMaire said at the Hall of Famer’s funeral. “Ted Lyons gave his all to baseball and to his community. He was an inspiration to many youngsters in the community and we will truly miss him.”
Posted By: Vicki On: 7/16/2013
Title: Love this article
I LOVED the article about Ted Lyons. I worked as a Paramedic & had the pleasure to transport Miss Pearl (his sister) for many years, & spent a lot of time at their home. The article didn't say that Mr. Ted took care of his sister until she died. Every time we went there, Mr. Ted took great delight in showing us his collections & baseball memoirs. Now that I'm retired I can say this; he never let us leave without a $10 bill. That was absolutely forbidden, but the way he stuffed it in your pocket, you just had no choice. He would get so offended. I took care of Miss Pearl on Thanksgiving Day one of those years & Mr. Ted made my partner & I each take $25. He said " here take this & buy yourself a Thanksgiving dinner!" He was very kind & just a pleasure to be around. Thank you so much for doing an article on this wonderful man!!