Tommy Byrne’s Wild Ride of 1949
by Mike Whiteman
February 20, 2022
On April 21, 1949 Yankee pitcher Tommy Byrne hurled a complete game win against Washington Senators, 2-1. It was an unremarkable contest, as the lefty allowed only five hits and four walks in a tidy (especially by today’s measure) hour and 58 minutes.
This seemingly normal start would be the beginning of a truly unique pitching season.
In 1949, Tommy Byrne was one of the hardest to hit pitchers in baseball history.
He was coming off his first full season in the majors in 1948, going 8-5, 3.30 in a swingman-type role. In his 133 2/3 innings pitched, he struck out 93 batters, a ratio which would have led the American League had he accumulated enough innings. He would have also led the league with his 5.3 hits allowed per nine innings.
In addition, Byrne walked 101 batters in those 133 2/3 innings.
The lefthander featured an above average fastball and a nasty curve, both of which he frequently had problems locating. He at times worked methodically slow and liked to chat with the batters he was facing and to players in the opposing dugout. This created distraction not only for opponents but sometimes even his own fielders, who generally appreciated up tempo pace from their pitchers.
In short, a Tommy Byrne start was exhausting to all who watched.
Bottom line was he was effective, and manager Casey Stengel made him a member of the 1949 rotation. His numbers backed it up – Byrne was 15-7, 3.72 on the season, and the Yanks were 21-9 in games he started. It made for a solid number three/four starter season.
It wasn’t that easy though.
In games he won, Byrne was 15-0, 1.65. In games he lost, he was 0-7, 7.84. Now all pitchers are better when they win than when they lose, but this spread was significant. By contrast, staff ace Vic Raschi was 21-0, 2.20 in games he won and 0-10, 5.54 in games he lost.
In Byrne’s top five starts by game score he was 5-0, 0.50, allowing thirteen hits in 36 innings.
In Byrne’s worst five starts by game score he was 0-2, 25.87 ERA, walking 19 in eight innings.
There wasn’t much middle ground with Byrne, when he was on, he was very good. When he was off, watch out!
Some memorable starts from 1949:
June 8 – Hurled a 10.2 inning complete game – a loss to Detroit. He yielded only four singles and… thirteen walks. Among the free passes issued were three in the eleventh inning before Vic Wertz’s walk-off single.
June 16: Couldn’t get past the second inning, allowing three hits and seven walks.
June 23: Throws a one-hitter, yielding six walks.
June 29: Removed in the first inning after allowing three hits and three walks
August 12: Complete game win over Philadelphia – nine innings, six hits, eight walks, ten strikeouts
August 27: Two hit shutout, walking six batters.
By the end of the season, Byrne had yielded 5.7 hits per nine innings, 28th best of all time, twelfth if one takes out those who achieved their feats in the short season Negro Leagues and 2020 MLB season. In what was clearly a different era, he led AL in 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He also walked 179 batters in 196 innings pitched – an 8.2 walk/9 IP ratio. He hit thirteen batsmen, leading the AL.
Stengel started Byrne in Game Three of the 1949 World Series against Brooklyn. After hurling three hitless innings, he yielded a leadoff solo HR to Pee Wee Reese. He then allowed a single and two walks, and Casey pulled him.
Byrne continued to be an unconventionally effective pitcher into the 1950 season and was named to the AL All-Star team. In fact, if you combine his second half 1949 and first half 1950 performances one gets an 18-5, 3.76 season…albeit with 162 walks in 215 innings.
Unfortunately Byrne struggled in the second half of 1950 and after a disastrous start to the 1951 season in which he had a 6.86 ERA and walked fifteen batters per nine innings, he was dealt to the St. Louis Browns.
That wasn’t the last the Yanks would hear from Tommy Byrne.
After bouncing around the AL during three ineffective seasons from 1951-1953, Byrne found himself in the minors in 1954. He reinvented himself as a pitcher, adding offspeed and breaking pitches to arsenal. After a 20-10, 3.15 season for Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, he was brought back by the Yanks in September as a reinforcement for the stretch run.
Byrne’s second stint was much different than his first – he was 15-5, 3.15 in 1955 while gaining some MVP votes, and 30-16, 3.42 overall from 1954-1957. He walked about five batters per nine innings, two less than his previous stint in Pinstripes. He played solid role for three AL pennant winners in his second round with the Yankees, not only on the mound but at the plate, hitting seven home runs.
After his career ended, the mathematics major at Wake Forest College was successful in multiple business ventures and served as mayor of Wake Forest.
Perhaps The Sporting News got it right when in 1949 they cited Byrne “the joy of the Yankees one day, the despair of his pilot the next time out and always a grand guy to know and have around”.