It was one of the most indelible images of my childhood -- seeing Ted Abernathy, who on this card (and I'm using this even though it's not a Cub photo) looks a little like... well, you decide:
Ted Herman Munster
... come into game after game after game, following his acquisition by the Cubs just before the 1965 season began, and throw the ball underhanded, not like anything I'd yet seen from a major league pitcher, and consistently get hitters out.
Not that it meant anything, in the long run, for the 1965 Cubs -- they finished 72-90, in eighth place -- but Abernathy was, for that season at least, the best relief pitcher in the game.
And he came by his unusual delivery in an unusual way. Many modern submariners -- Dan Quisenberry, Mike Myers, Chad Bradford -- have chosen the underhand delivery deliberately. Abernathy did it to save his career. When he was signed by the Washington Senators out of high school in North Carolina, where he was born on March 6, 1933, his delivery was conventional, and he made the major leagues with the Senators in 1955, as a "swing man", starting 14 games and relieving in 26 others. He had little success -- and when he injured his shoulder after 1957, he bounced up and down between the minors and the majors until 1960, when the Senators finally released him.
It was then that he began to throw underhanded, and drifted through the Milwaukee Braves organization, finally being let go by the Braves and signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1961, not making it back to the majors till 1963, when he was 30. The Indians used him as what we would now call a long man, middle relief type, although he picked up 11 saves in 1963 and 12 in 1964.
At 32, the Tribe must have thought he was washed up, so they sold him to the Cubs just before the 1965 season began.
To understand the magnitude of what Abernathy did for the Cubs in 1965, you have to remember that in the mid-1960's, the concept of a modern "closer", who throws only one inning, maybe one or two outs more than that, did not exist. Most pitchers threw complete games -- and if a starter got into trouble in the middle innings, the "middle" reliever who replaced him often finished the game.
That's who Ted Abernathy was: the rubber-armed guy who would come in and stay in. He set the club record for appearances, 84, which was tied in 1980 by Dick Tidrow and just this past season matched by Bob Howry. But he wasn't throwing less than an inning a game (76.2) as Howry did -- Abernathy pitched 136.1 innings, his career high, and a number not approached by any modern reliever. He had a 1.24 WHIP, allowed only seven home runs had a 2.57 ERA, and recorded thirty-one saves.
While that number doesn't even rank in the top 100 seasons for saves today, it established a new major league record at the time -- and saves weren't even an official statistic in 1965; they had only been "invented" and codified by Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Jerome Holtzman a few years earlier and were not made an official statistic till 1969. In fact, it can be argued that Abernathy's historic season -- he was the first pitcher in major league history to record thirty saves, although the record stood for only a year, till Jack Aker broke it in 1966 with 32 -- began the modern era's trend toward more intensive use of bullpens, and was a first step in the development of the modern closer.
The 84 appearances also set a major league record at the time, although that also didn't last long -- it was broken in 1968 by Wilbur Wood. But that was also a milestone -- until 1964, when John Wyatt of the A's appeared in 81 games, the record had been 76... and that record had stood since 1879, tied only twice, by starting pitchers Will White, Old Hoss Radbourn, and Pud Galvin, in the ancient era when often, one or two pitchers started and finished all their team's games. To appear in over 80 games in relief was a concept baseball was trending toward for many years, but not accomplished till the 1960's, and Ted Abernathy, who had the ability to throw nearly every day with his rubber arm, was at the forefront of this new trend.
The Cubs, of course, were run by short-sighted individuals at the time. When Abernathy got off to a bad start in 1966, he was summarily dispatched to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Lee Thomas, yet another in a long line of players who would hit for power elsewhere, but suddenly stop when they put on the blue pinstripes (22 HR for the 1965 Red Sox, only one for the Cubs in '66 and two in '67).
After a decent year in Atlanta, he was inexplicably put on a Rule V draft list and picked up by the Reds, for whom he had two fine seasons, even finishing 20th in NL MVP voting in 1967, when he had 28 saves and a 1.27 ERA.
The Reds must have thought he was finished at age 35, because they sent him back to the Cubs in January 1969, in exchange for catcher Bill Plummer and outfielder Clarence Jones and minor leaguer Ken Myette. Only Plummer, of those three, ever played a game in a Reds uniform, and Abernathy had a fine year (4-3, 3 saves, 3.16 ERA) as a setup man for closer Phil Regan.
Once again, the Cubs found no use for him, and two months into the 1970 season, traded him to the Cardinals for utility infielder Phil Gagliano. This puzzled those of us who knew the Cubs needed good relief pitching -- especially since after that, they picked up 47-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched three mediocre games and was sent on his way elsewhere. The 1970 Cubs also tried guys like Juan Pizarro, Bob Miller and Steve Barber in relief; none could throw as well as Abernathy.
Abernathy went on to have a couple of fine seasons with the Kansas City Royals, recording 23 saves at age 38 in 1971, then retired back to his home state of North Carolina after the 1972 season. He passed away on December 16, 2004 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Ted Abernathy was the prototype of today's closer -- a pitcher with something unusual in his repertoire, who parlayed it into several seasons that were ahead of their time in their impact on the game.