Games People Play: How a Cardinal Becomes an Angel, 5 January 1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It wasn’t as earthshaking a deal as the one 90 years later that made Albert Pujols an Angel after years of stardom as a Cardinal, but it was certainly a lot less expensive and didn’t work out as disappointingly, either.

Today’s highlighted artifact is a “Notice of Player’s Release,” issued by the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League, informing pitcher George Lyons that he was being released as part of a trade with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, what has been called a “high-minor league” organization formed in 1903.  Previous posts here have given some of the history of the league and the franchise.

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George Lyons in an early mention of his professional baseball career, Chicago Tribune, 11 July 1915.  He did not, however, play for a Canadian baseball league—the Ottawa team was in Iowa!

Lyons, nicknamed “Smooth” for the ease of his delivery, was born in 1891 in Bible Grove, Illinois, a little farming hamlet roughly halfway between St. Louis and Terre Haute, Indiana and named because hunters in the area found a bible among a grove of trees.  He grew up in the village and was a laborer doing odd jobs before becoming a professional baseball player.

His first appearance was in 1914 with the Ottawa Indians of the D classification Illinois-Missouri league where he was 12-8 .  The following year he played for the Clinton Pilots, a team based in an Iowa town and part of the Central Association, but his record was a paltry 1-9, so it isn’t surprising that he did not play in the 1916 campaign.

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A report on Lyons’ major league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Star and Times, 7 September 1920.

When he registered for the draft during the First World War in May 1917, the 5’11 1/2″ 180 pound righthander was still living in his hometown while playing for the Wichita Joggers of the A-level Western Association.  Lyons entered the military for wartime service appearing in just six games in 1918, though he returned after being mustered out once the war ended and remained with the club through the 1919 season.  Overall, he compiled a record of 27 wins and 38 losses.

In 1920, he pitched for another Iowa franchise, the Sioux City Packers, and led the club in starts (40) and innings pitched (278) and sporting a record of 15-20 (though the team fielded a losing record.)   But, he finally achieved the distinction of making it to the majors, joining the Cardinals, a club that finished 75-79 and in fifth place in the National League, in September.  The team did have a Hall of Famer in the great second baseman Rogers Hornsby, who hit .370 and the ace of the pitching staff was Bill Doak, who won 20 games while losing 12 and had a good ERA of 2.53.  Lyons appeared in seven games, starting two and had a record of 2 wins and 1 loss with an earned run average of 3.09.

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Mention of Lyons’ trade from St. Louis to the Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Examiner, 5 January 1921.

But, when it was time to make roster decisions for the next season, Cardinals manager Branch Rickey decided to release Lyons, though the document specifies that the action was “subject to recall on or before August 15, 1921.”  Additionally, a reference to “see Pertica agreement,” is to the fact that Lyons was one of three players sent to Los Angeles in a trade for Angels pitcher Bill Pertica.

Lyons was also not recalled to St. Louis and spent the season in Los Angeles, which was equivalent to a Double-A franchise, appearing in 41 games and was evidently a part-time starter, given his 232 innings pitched.  Still, he had a respectable 14-14 record for a team that included former major league star with the Reds and Tigers and future Hall of Famer, Sam Crawford.

george lyons release cardinals 5 jan 1921
This “Notice of Player’s Release” from the Homestead’s collection certified Lyons’ move to Los Angeles, “subject to recall on or before August 15, 1921,” though this did not happen and he played three seasons with the Angels.

In 1922, Lyons completed his second campaign with the Seraphs, as they were often nicknamed, and kept his even consistency by going 17-17 in 40 games, but with 333 innings, which led the team.  His third full season as an Angel was the best of his career, as the “demon Angel pitcher,” in the colorful phrasing of Los Angeles Times sportswriter Harry A. Williams, finally compiled a winning record, the only one he ever had, with 18 wins and 16 losses.  His trio of campaigns in Los Angeles were easily the best years of his baseball career, though his control was often pointed out as his major handicap.

Lyons, at age 33, did make one last trip to the majors, though, in 1924 when he was traded by the Angels to the St. Louis Browns of the American League.  One of the players sent to Los Angeles was Charley Root, who later was a star hurler with the Chicago Cubs after a stellar pair of 20-plus win seasons with the Seraphs.

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Lyons’ first performance as an Angel, Los Angeles Times, 7 April 1921.

Another middle-division club, the Browns finished 74-78 led by Hall of Fame player and manager, George Sisler, whose 257 hits in 1920 remained a major league record for over 80 years, and who was in Los Angeles scouting when he spotted Lyons and wanted him for his club along with an Angels catcher.  Years later, people were calling the deal “Sisler’s Folly” for giving up Root.

Lyons, who was paid $4500 for the season, appeared in 26 games, mostly as a reliever and was 3-2 with a 5.21 ERA, above the team showing of 4.57.  He made his final appearance on 23 September 1924.  While the Browns were not memorable as a team, they did sport players with great names like Urban Shocker, Baby Doll Jacobson, Dixie Davis and Boom Boom Beck.

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Lyons hailed as a “hurling hero” for a win against the Oakland Oaks, Times, 22 June 1923.

From there it was a trade from the Browns back to the minors and the storied Toledo Mud Hens, of the Double-A American Association, where one of his teammates for part of the 1925 season was outfielder Hack Wilson, who later became a star slugger with the Chicago Cubs, belting 56 home runs in 1930.  Lyons, who pitched 230 innings in 38 games (again, likely an occasional starter), reverted back to general form by finishing 14-16 with a 4.70 earned run average.

The 1926 season had Lyons on the roster of Toledo and then the Columbus Senators of the same league, though this is no record of any appearances with either franchise that year.  Still, the aging hurler stayed on with Columbus for two more campaigns, but his skills were greatly diminished by then.  He finished 6-14 in 1927 as a starter in 167 innings in 22 games, but the 1928 season, his last, was abysmal, as he went back to relief, pitching just 82 innings in 22 contests and went 0-11 with a 7.24 ERA.

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Lyons as a new member of the pitching staff of the major league St. Louis Browns of the American League, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10 March 1924.

Yet, Lyons continued to play baseball, although at a regional level.  He was a pitcher for the Peoria Tractors  of the Three Eye League when, in the 1930 census, Lyons, who’d recently married and was living with his in-laws in Nevada, Missouri, in the western part of the state south of Kansas City, listed himself as a “Prof. Base Ball Player.”  His career finally ended around that time and, a decade later, he worked in a paint and wallpaper store and had a farm in the nearby hamlet of Deerfield, where he lived his wife, two daughters and brother.  Lyons lived until 90 and died in 1981.

As for that release, Branch Rickey, the manager and president of the Cardinals in 1921 and a former (albeit, for one season) major leaguer and professional football player, was fired by the team in 1925 but encouraged to stay on as “business manager,” really what became known as “general manager.”  Rickey pioneered teams developing their own minor league “farm system.”  The decision to move him to the front office also worked on the field as Rogers Hornsby as player-manager led the Cards to the club’s first World Series title in 1926.

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The trade of Lyons and Angels catcher Tony Rego, arranged by Browns manager and Hall of Fame player George Sisler, was touted as a major improvement for the Browns, but was later called “Sisler’s Folly” when Rego and Lyons lasted only the 1924 campaign and pitcher Charley Root, who was sent to Los Angeles in the deal and was a star for two seasons, went on to be a sensation with the Chicago Cubs. Santa Ana Register, 20 March 1924.

During the Great Depression, Rickey’s front office acumen and the team’s famed “Gashouse Gang” yielded two more championships in 1931 and 1934.  A fourth title came in Rickey’s last year in St. Louis in 1942.  From there, he was lured to the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he remained as president and general manager for nine seasons and acquired a 25 percent stake in the team.  Rickey’s everlasting fame was his signing of Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract in 1945 and who debuted in the majors for the 1947 season, which was the breaking of the notorious “color line.”

In 1950, when Rickey’s contract expired, Walter O’Malley, who was consolidating control over the team, decided to reduce Rickey’s power with the Dodgers.  After Rickey declined a new contract that did just that, O’Malley offered to buy the quarter share he owned.  When Rickey, stung by O’Malley’s maneuverings, turned to a friend to sell his share for $1 million, O’Malley had to beat the offer to get his majority stake in the team.

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Lyons was shipped by the Browns to the minor league Toledo Mud Hens after a disappointing 1924 season and never returned to the majors, though he played in the minors for several more years. Dayton [Ohio] Herald, 17 December 1924.
Rickey then became general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates for five seasons and, though the team did not perform well finishing last in four of the campaigns and seventh in the other, he signed and developed players, like Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat, who were keys to the Bucs’ 1960 World Series title.  In his late 70s, Rickey became chief executive officer of a new proposed major league, the Continental League, but it never got off the ground as the team owners of the American and National leagues convinced Continental League owners to join their leagues.

After a short and difficult return to the Cardinals as a consultant and special adviser for the 1963 and 1964 seasons, the octogenarian finally retired and died at the end of 1965 at age 83.  Notably, his grandson Branch B. Rickey is the commissioner of the reconstituted Triple-A Pacific Coast League, which actually fields teams as far east as Nashville.

The “Notice of Player’s Release” is an interesting document, albeit of a journeyman pitcher whose major league days were fleeting, but whose career peaked as a top hurler for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League during the first part of the Roaring Twenties.

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