Tommy Byrne

[ Age 87 ] Southpaw followed the career path of his hometown hero, Babe Ruth, playing several years with the Yankees.

"It wasn't easy being the wildest pitcher in baseball," Mr. Byrne once said. "I had to work at it."

December 23, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Tommy Byrne, a Baltimore-born southpaw who pitched in four World Series as a member of the New York Yankees, died of congestive heart failure Thursday in Wake Forest, N.C. He was 87.

A 1979 inductee into the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame, Mr. Byrne was a star athlete at City College from 1935 to 1937 - leading the school to state baseball championships in his last two years. As a major leaguer, he was an All-Star whose reputation for wildness on the mound led to several years of exile from Yankee Stadium and had hitters ducking for most of his career.

Mr. Byrne grew up a fan of Babe Ruth, snagging his autograph as a child and hoping to one day play for the same team as his hometown hero. He achieved that goal and more, getting to know Ruth after the famous slugger had retired.

"I figured if Babe could be from Baltimore and do what he was able to do, I could, too," Mr. Byrne told The Sun in 1994. "He'd attend Yankees old-timer games and ... use my glove. He'd joke and call me the `Baltimore Babe' because he knew I was from his hometown."

He made his first appearance on the varsity squad at City College when a group of players persuaded the coach to call him up from the junior varsity team for a nonleague matchup against the Navy plebes, recalled former teammate Michael Kardash, who now resides in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Mr. Byrne walked the first three batters of the game on 12 straight balls, then retired the side and shut Navy out the rest of the way.

"He was wild as a hare, but when the pressure was on, Tommy would get you out," said Mr. Kardash.

Mr. Byrne signed with the Yankees after his junior season at Wake Forest University, and he won 15 games in both 1949 and 1950. He was a power pitcher, but his inability to throw strikes riled the team's ownership. His 1949 total of 179 walks set a Yankees mark that still stands.

The Yankees traded him in 1951, and he bounced around the league - making stops with the St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Sox and Washington Senators - before regaining his control in the minor leagues and becoming the first player the Yankees re-signed in the franchise's first 50 years. He was named the Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press in 1955, after posting a 3.15 ERA and 16 wins as the Yankees won the pennant.

"He was a better pitcher when he came back from the minors with a slider [in 1954]. He had better control after that," Yogi Berra told the New York Post.

Mr. Byrne was the winning pitcher in Game 2 of the 1955 World Series, limiting the Dodgers to five hits in a complete game. The following January he would be an awardee at the third annual Tops in Sports Banquet at the old Lord Baltimore Hotel.

"It wasn't easy being the wildest pitcher in baseball," he told the audience. "I had to work at it."

His final big league appearance came in the seventh game of the 1957 World Series against the Milwaukee Braves. He pitched two innings of relief and singled with two outs in the ninth inning in a losing cause.

Mr. Byrne, an 85-69 pitcher in 13 seasons, also hit .238 with 14 homers and 98 RBIs in 601 big league at-bats. A strong October performer, he had an earned-run average of 2.53 in six World Series games.

Like many players of the time, his career was interrupted by World War II. He served aboard the USS Ordronaux, which roamed the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. At a 1991 reunion in Baltimore, surviving members of the crew shared stories of a nine-team baseball league that Mr. Byrne organized aboard the destroyer, with games played during lulls at makeshift diamonds in far-off ports such as Malta and Oran, Algeria.

After his playing career ended, Mr. Byrne served as mayor of Wake Forest from 1973 to 1987. He was tapped by state leaders to use his stature as a former big leaguer to draw industry to the Research Triangle, recalled his son, John Byrne.

"He was always a people person," said John Byrne, who is serving his fourth term as mayor of Fuquay-Varina, N.C.

Mr. Byrne called his induction into the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame "one of the greatest thrills of my life."

Besides his son, he is survived by two other sons, Tommy Byrne Jr. of Fuquay-Varina and Charles Byrne of Johnson City, Tenn.; and a daughter, Susan Gantt of Andalusia, Ala. He was preceded in death by his wife, the former Mary Sue Nichols.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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