Many baseball historian’s call the 1919-1925 Baltimore Orioles the best minor league dynasty team of all time. Seven straight pennants, every one of those seasons with 100 or more wins. Minor League Baseball even listed 6 out of the seven pennant-winning teams in their “Top 100 Minor League Teams of All-Time list. Problem is, except for brief mentions in Lefty Grove biographies or hard to find books by James H. Bready, no one has really written about them.
It’s a part of baseball history that has been sorely overlooked, and that’s why I became very excited when about 10 years ago my old pal Dr. Bob Hieronymus called and told me he was having an author on his syndicated radio show who’d written a book about his grandfather, Jimmy Lyston, a member of the 1921 Baltimore Orioles. In fact, Dr. Bob said, the book wasn’t just about his grandfather, but about a succession of generations of the Lyston’s playing pro and semi ball in Baltimore. When the book arrived it exceeded all expectations – this was one of the best books on minor league baseball’s glory years that I’d ever read. The author, Jimmy Keenan, traces his relatives as they navigated through the bush leagues from the 19th century to the 1930’s. As an outsider baseball historian, a book like this means so much more to me – for every Mickey Mantle and Hank Greenberg, there were thousands of Jimmy Lyston’s whose story will never be told. Fortunately for us, Jimmy Keenan was a talented enough writer, loving grandson and baseball historian, to pay the ultimate homage to his family’s personal connection to the national pastime. So here’s my short overview of Jimmy Lyston, utility man on the 1921 Orioles.
While some ballplayers complain they never catch a break, Jimmy Lyston had one break too many.
The 18 year-old Lyston was signed by his hometown Baltimore Orioles in 1921. The teenager had been around the Baltimore Orioles for many years, at times a bat boy and later moving up to peanut vendor and finally part of the groundskeeping crew. At the time, it was customary for Orioles owner-manager Jack Dunn to allow the groundskeepers to chase down balls during batting practice. That’s where Dunn discovered Jimmy Lyston.
Lyston was invited to spring training in 1921. Dunn’s veteran catcher Ben Egan took a group of prospects south a few weeks early each spring to teach then the ropes about being a pro-ballplayer and weeding out the weaker players before the rest of the squad arrived. The teenager impressed Egan with his peppery fielding around second base. When he was put into the outfield he did just as well. By the time Jack Dunn arrived with the veterans, Jimmy Lyston had made the cut. Though Dunn was enthusiastic about Lyston’s talent, he already had future big leaguer Max Bishop on second, and the outfield of Rabbit Lawry, Merwin Jacobson and Bill Holden was set in stone. With those veterans entrenched in the lineup, Lyston could not expect to play regularly, and Dunn knew this would be ultimately detrimental to the teenager’s development.
The Orioles had working agreements with a few select minor league clubs in lower leagues where they could send their inexperienced players. When the Orioles broke camp to start the ’21 season, Jimmy Lyston was handed a ticket to join the Waynesboro Villagers of the Blue Ridge League. However, almost immediately after joining the team he suffered a broken finger and returned home to Baltimore to recuperate.
This was a good break. The Orioles began suffering a series of injuries to many of their regulars, and manager Jack Dunn tapped the now-healed Lyston to be their utility man. The versatile Lyston could play both second and outfield, and it is the latter that he usually found himself. The hometown teenager garnered a lot of favorable press and the fans liked to see the scrappy kid from East 22nd Street hold his own on a club as formidable as the Orioles. Virtually every starter on the early 1920’s Orioles made the majors, and the way Lyston made headlines it looked like he would share the same destiny. A songwriter even penned a song about Lyston which included the verse, “Dunnie made a star out of the Babe and he’ll make a star out of you.”
The bad break came in early August when Lyston was hit by a mudball thrown by Newark pitcher “Happy” Finneran. The youngster was unaware he had broken his arm and kept playing for three more weeks until Dunn noticed he was unable to throw. The team doctor discovered that the arm had been broken just below the elbow and the nerve damage so severe that he’d never be able to throw a baseball again.
Lyston proved the doctor wrong, but the injury kept him from advancing to the majors. After seven seasons of pro ball, he became a Baltimore Police Captain, had two daughters along with six grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.
He’d probably tell you that that was the best break of all.
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I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Lystons by Jimmy Keenan. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a book that better documents the life of a typical 1920’s minor league ballplayer than Keenan has done. Besides being a valuable look at the life and times of roarin’ 20’s baseball, Keenan’s book is a heart-felt tribute to the man who raised him and played such an important part in his early life. There are only so many times you can re-read the same retread bio’s of Satchel Paige and Cal Ripken – “The Lyston” shines a bright light on a part of baseball history that is rarely told and that is unceasingly interesting. I also recommend Keenan’s book about turn-of-the-century Detroit Tigers pitcher Win Mercer – the perfect combination of Deadball-Era baseball and mystery.
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Tomorrow you’ll meet the Orioles jack of all-trades, a guy who played first base, outfield and catcher at different times during the ’21 season: Wade Lefler.
You can see the whole 20-card index of players HERE.
The set of 20 art cards are available for pre-order HERE IN MY STORE