Ex-Yankee Byrne is wild Irish rose, without the thorns

January 14, 1994|By John Steadman

His style was the kind you see in baseball picture books -- classical. Everything about Tommy Byrne suggested he had the pitching ability that could open the door to the Hall of Fame. There was only one reservation -- lack of direction, or finding the strike zone -- which precluded such a coveted career conclusion.

Byrne's talent was enormous, which is why the New York Yankees were reluctant to give up on the vast potential he brought with him. They kept waiting for the stylish left-hander to throw strikes. So did the rest of the American League. Then, after he was traded away, Byrne found control and became the first player the Yankees ever re-signed during the first 50 years of their glorious history.

It was generally believed if the Yankees rejected a player they would never bring him back, but with Byrne they broke precedent. After he won 20 games at Seattle in the Pacific Coast League, they rescued him from the minors and he helped them win the 1955 American League pennant.

Not only was he baseball's Comeback Player of the Year but the Associated Press voted him the comeback performer in all sports, amateur and professional. He beat out boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, the runner-up, and, in third place, the whole Michigan State football team.

Now Byrne returns to his native Baltimore tonight at the annual Tops In Sport banquet to become the first recipient of the Maryland Professional Baseball Players' Association award for achievements by a former player off the field.

Byrne became a diversified business success, owned his own golf course (only others played there, too) and was twice elected mayor of Wake Forest, N.C. Tommy Byrne, as they say in the country, didn't come in on a load of coal.

He's a member of both the Maryland and North Carolina athletic halls of fame and demonstrates a loyalty that's exemplary, as witness the reunions of his old Baltimore schools, Blessed TC Sacrament and City College, which he has gone to considerable inconvenience to attend.

His closest Yankees friend and teammate was the much-respected Charlie Keller. And, yes, at Keller's 1990 funeral, held at a packed church in Middletown, the Byrne family made the trip from North Carolina to be there. Tommy was the only Yankee present to pay final respects to one of baseball's most admired heroes.

Byrne was a power pitcher. His left arm fired bullets and he had a curveball that exploded. The fact he lacked control was as frustrating for him as it was the Yankees. In 1951, after having Byrne for 11 years (with time out for World War II), they traded him to the St. Louis Browns.

It was there that Byrne put himself in the record book in a left-handed sort of way. He gave up 16 walks in a 13-inning game, the most in major-league history, and threw 248 pitches, losing, 3-2, to the Boston Red Sox.

"I got Buddy Rosar to pop up six straight times," he recalled. "Then, after walking the bases loaded in the 13th inning, I made a 3-and-2 pitch that was borderline. Umpire Bill McKinley said 'ball' and in came the deciding run. It may have been a strike, but I guess he was getting tired."

Byrne always felt if he could get batters to swing he had a chance to get them out. However, upon further review, there was another element involved.

"My fastball was usually moving and jumping around," he said. "It would come in on right-handed hitters and because of the movement the pitch would be in on their bats and they'd foul them off instead of popping up. That meant I had a lot of extra pitches to throw."

The greatest player of all, Babe Ruth, was his inspiration. "I figured if Babe could be from Baltimore and do what he was able to do, I could, too," Byrne said. "He'd attend Yankees old-timer games and was jovial, genuine and sensible. We loved him. We didn't have many left-handers in the 1940s so he'd use my glove. He'd joke and call me the 'Baltimore Babe' because he knew I was from his hometown."

Byrne, who never made the mistake of taking himself too seriously, frequently talked to hitters. "I liked to tease Ted Williams," remembered Tommy. "He enjoyed it. Once I told George Kell I'd throw him a curve and did just that. He singled so I looked over at him taking a lead off first base and hollered, 'I didn't cross you up, now did I, George?' "

During 13 seasons in the majors, he won 85 games, lost 69. Byrne was in four World Series and a member of seven World Series teams. He was the Yankees' "Wild Irish Rose," the song Thomas Joseph Byrne would bellow in the shower room and be asked to sing at victory parties.

He personified the lyric -- truly baseball's "Wild Irish Rose" but also possessing the qualities inherent in a gentleman.

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