The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #50 Lon Warneke

Profile by BCB reader Ross

October 8, 1936: The Chicago Cubs trade P Lon Warneke to the St. Louis Cardinals for 1B Ripper Collins and P Roy "Tarzan" Parmelee.

Let's play "Cubs General Manager." You are the GM of the Chicago Cubs. The 1936 season has just come to an end and your team has finished five games out of first. Your 19-year old first baseman, Phil Cavaretta, hit .273 on the season and your 27-year old No. 3 starter, Lon Warneke, just finished 16-13 with a 3.45 ERA after throwing back-to-back 20 game winning seasons the previous two years. Meanwhile, your pitching-poor archrivals in St. Louis have a 32-year old first baseman in Ripper Collins who hit .292 with 13 homers in 277 at bats, but who had lost his job to youngster Johnny Mize.

You are the GM! What do you do? Well, you are the Cubs GM, so of course, you trade your No. 3 pitcher for that over the hill slugger. That's what you do.

There was certainly more to it, though the full reasoning behind the trade is now obscured by time. Hindsight and statistical analysis show that it could have been injury related. At any rate, when the Cubs sent Warneke to the Cardinals for Collins and Parmalee, it likely resulted in the loss of 5-10 wins in the 1937 season. At any rate, the 1937 Cubs finished in second place, three games behind. Collins, who was leading the league in homers on August 10th, broke his ankle in a home plate collision and was lost for the season.

This trade was a key moment in the career of the man nicknamed the "Arkansas Hummingbird"; either for his darting fastball or his hobby of singing, depending on which source you read. His was a fascinating life made up of a near-Hall of Fame career of great highs, a few near-misses of a world championships, two re-inventions of his career following his playing days, and a somewhat strange death.

Warneke was born on March 28, 1909 in Mount Ida, Arkansas to Luke and Belle Scott Warneke as the fifth of six children, and got his start playing baseball in grade school, where the teacher would take the boys out behind the school for games of catch. Here's his school photo:


Warneke is the tall boy in the back row on the left.

He failed to make the Mt. Ida High School baseball team in 1925, then joined the team as a first baseman in 1926 and a pitcher in 1927. After graduation, he moved with his brother to Houston, TX, where he took a job for a downtown telegraph company and threw batting practice for a local minor league team. At the age of 18 he paid his own way to a Louisiana try-out camp and told them he was a first baseman.

He was signed by the Cardinals as a pitcher, who promptly dropped him after an unimpressive debut. He hooked on with Alexandria of the Cotton States League and Cleveland took a look at him. As it happened, it rained that day and Warneke playfully went out and pantomimed rowing to second base. The scout, Cy Slapnicka, was unamused and wrote, "He's a screwball. Forget him."

The screwball description was accurate, however. Though not quite on the par with fellow Arkansas native Dizzy Dean, he was a country boy who enjoyed the night life and who had a great sense of humor. In 1928, during a season that he went 6-14 with Alexandria, his bus broke down near a swamp. Warneke waded into the swamp, caught a snake and amused his teammates by "cracking the whip" with it. He was once tossed from a game for smuggling snakes into the dugout. Warneke enjoyed music and is stated to have played the guitar, fiddle banjo and to have even traveled on the road with his ukulele.

The Indians' loss proved to be the Cubs gain, as they were not dissuaded by his flaky reputation. They acquired him on August 23, 1929 and he made his debut with the Cubs on April 18, 1930 season, walking five, allowing two hits and five earned runs in one inning of work against Cincinnati. He found himself in Reading, PA for the remainder of the season. By 1931 he had established himself in the Chicago bullpen and was 2-4 with a 3.23 ERA. But despite his nice numbers, there was no way anyone could have foreseen what was to happen in 1932.

Simply, at the age of 23, Warneke was the National League and perhaps professional baseball's best pitcher in 1932, easily mentioned in the same breath with Lefty Grove, Lefty Gomez, Wes Farrell and Carl Hubbell. He was 22-6, the NL's only 20 game winner and the league leader in ERA at 2.37, winning percentage at .786 and shutouts with four. He helped the Cubs to a 90-64 record and a World Series meeting with the Yankees. However, the Yankees prevailed in the Fall Classic, with Warneke losing game two to Lefty Gomez, 5-2. That series became famous as a result of Babe Ruth's alleged "called shot" off of Charley Root in game three.

Warneke was 18-13 in 1933, earning a spot on the inaugural All-Star team by posting a team best 2.01 ERA and four shutouts as the Cubs finished third. He opened in 1934 with a flourish, throwing back-to-back one hitters on the road - including a no-hitter for 8.1 innings in the season opener on April 17 at Cincinnati - and finished the season with a 22-10 mark and a 3.22 ERA, again appearing in the All-Star game, but again the Cubs finished third.

The 1935 season would be the one that put them back into the postseason, and they did it in spectacular fashion, winning 21 consecutive games to carry them to 100 victories and a four game lead over the Cardinals. Warneke provided the exclamation point, beating the Cardinals and Paul Dean with a 1-0 two hit shutout in the game that clinched a tie for the pennant. He finished with a 20-13 record and a 3.06 ERA. He opened the World Series with a 3-0 four-hit shutout in game one against the Detroit Tigers, but the Detroit came back to win the next three, including an 11-inning game three where Warneke came back on two days rest to pitch in relief and allowed a single run.

With his back up against the wall, Warneke started game five. Leading 2-0 in the sixth inning, he felt a "something" in his right shoulder and reluctantly came out of the game. "I don't give a damn if it's the World Series. Your arm is more important than any ballgame," Cubs manager Charlie Grimm is alleged to have yelled when Warneke argued against his removal. While the Cubs held on to win, the Tigers prevailed in game six, 4-3. Warneke had thrown 16.2 innings, allowing just nine hits, walking four, striking out five and posting a 0.54 ERA. He accounted for both of the Cubs wins.

Warneke wasn't quite his old self in 1936, going 16-13 record and right in the midst of a three-way battle between the Cards, Giants and Cubs in which the Cubs finished second behind the Giants. Following the season, despite his 100 wins in a Cubs uniform and perhaps spooked by the 1935 arm problems, he was dealt to the Cardinals.

Warneke fit right in with the fun-loving Cardinals' squad, even played banjo and singing in 3B Pepper Martin's "Mudcat Band," which was quite popular and even got some radio play. He posted an 18-11 mark with the Cardinals, but had a 4.52 ERA. His hits allowed and walks were way up, while his strikeouts were down. In 1938, as the Cubs returned to the post-season with a just-good-enough 89-win season the Cardinals plummeted to sixth place, with Warneke posting a 13-8 mark with a 3.97 ERA in just 197 innings, a career-low at the time. The Cardinals bounced back to second in 1939 as Warneke went 13-7 with a 3.78 ERA.

But just when one might have expected his career to take a further downturn, Warneke found himself getting better at the age of 31. He bounced back for a 16-10 mark and a 3.14 ERA in 1940, then in 1941, highlighted his 17-9, 3.15 ERA performance with a no-hitter on August 30 against the Reds. In the 2-0 win he walked just one and allowed just three balls hit to the outfield. But despite being one of six Cardinal pitchers to win at least 10 games, they couldn't overcome the surging Brooklyn Dodgers, finishing 2.5 games out with a 97-56 record.

Warneke made his professional umpiring debut as an active player in 1940 in a situation that couldn't possibly happen today. When the Reds and the Cardinals make up a rained out game on May 13, 1940 at Crosley Field, neither team notifies the league office. Reds' coach Jimmy Wilson and Warneke are pressed into service as umpires until a regular umpire can be called in.

Professional baseball and the world changed on December 7th, 1941 with the United States' involvement in World War II, and in the midst of the 1942 season Warneke found himself returning to the "Friendly Confines" as the Cubs paid $7,500 for his 6-4 record and 3.29 ERA. He would go 5-7 with the Cubs, but sadly for him was the victim of bad timing, missing another shot at the World Series, as the Cardinals got it together in '42 and posted a 106 win season, taking the Yankees in the World Series, 4-1.

The 34-year-old was 4-5 for the Cubs in 1943, then spent the 1944 season and a portion of 1945 in the military. He appeared in nine games for the Cubs, going 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA, playing the final game of his professional career on September 29, 1945. He did not pitch in the World Series that year as the Cubs lost to Detroit, 4-3.

But Warneke's baseball career was far from over. In 1946, with the help of Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley, Warneke became an umpire in the Pacific Coast League. He was promoted to the National League in 1949 and served as an arbiter until 1955. He went on to become the only person to pitch and umpire in an All-Star games (1933, `34 , `36, `39 and `41 as a pitcher and 1952 as an umpire). He also had the distinction of pitching and umpiring in a World Series game.

He was known as a player's umpire, and said that he had never needed to eject a player, preferring to let them speak their piece:

"I always got along pretty well with umpires," he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "I figured most of them were in the game for the same reasons I was, because they liked baseball and because they wanted to make a living. I figured they were the same as players, and if they made mistakes and booted one now and then they were only human."

Warneke sunk into retirement for several years, appearing in the news briefly in 1961 when he was inducted into the Arkansas Hall of Fame. But he went on to become an arbiter of another sort. In November, 1962 he was elected as Garland County (Arkansas) judge and won by a narrow margin. He entered office in January 1963 and served until 1972, when he retired for health reasons.

He died of a heart attack at his home in Hot Springs, AR on Tuesday, June 23, 1976 at the age of 67. Interestingly, the ambulance dispatched to aid Warneke was involved in a broadside accident on the highway. He is buried at Owley Cemetery in Montgomery County, just about five miles from his childhood home in Mt. Ida. He was survived by his wife, Charlyne, and his two children. Interestingly, his daughter, Lonnie Warneke Luebben, became a teacher and taught future President Bill Clinton in her 11th Grade Honors English Class at Hot Springs HS.

Warneke finished his career with a 192-121 record and a 3.18 ERA, with 112 of the wins coming in a Cubs uniform. He committed just eight errors in 445 games, and had none over the last six years of his career. He was a man who truly enjoyed the game, a sentiment captured by his quote, "I was just happy to play, one game, any day."

For more on Lon Warneke (and the source of several parts of this article, click here).

Lon Warneke's career stats at baseball-reference.com

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