September 5, 1920|
|Died: March 18, 2004
Alexander City, Alabama
|May 10, 1947, for the Cleveland Indians|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 5, 1953, for the Chicago White Sox|
|Earned run average||3.96|
|Career highlights and awards|
Henry Eugene Bearden (September 5, 1920 – March 18, 2004) was an American left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball who played for the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox between 1947 and 1953. He is best known for his pitching heroics during his rookie season, 1948, when he led the Indians to the American League pennant and World Series championship. Born in Lexa, Arkansas, and raised in Tennessee, Bearden was listed at 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m) tall and weighed 198 pounds (90 kg).
World War II service and injury
Bearden's rookie season was all the more remarkable because, five years earlier, he had been seriously injured in battle in World War II. Serving in the United States Navy aboard the USS Helena in the Pacific Theater of Operations, he was working in the engine room of the light cruiser when it was struck by three Japanese torpedoes on July 6, 1943, during the Battle of Kula Gulf. Forced to abandon ship as the Helena sank, Bearden fell from a ladder on the deck and sustained a fractured skull and a crushed kneecap; hospitalized until early 1945, he underwent surgeries that inserted metal plates in his head and knee to treat his injuries.
In a 1949 autobiographical article published in The Sporting News' Official Baseball Register, Bearden declined to discuss his wartime experience, saying: "I was just another gob, luckier than many, because I met up with a doctor who is, to me, the best orthopedic surgeon in the business."
Minor league pitching career
Bearden had been a pitcher in the lower levels of minor league baseball before the war. Despite 18 and 17 victory seasons in the Class D Florida East Coast League in 1940–41, he had bounced between three organizations before joining the military. In 1945, just months after his release from the hospital, he returned to baseball and won 15 games in the Class A Eastern League. Promoted to the Triple-A Oakland Oaks in 1946, he learned to throw the knuckleball under manager Casey Stengel and had another 15-victory season. He would become primarily a knuckleball pitcher, although he also threw a fastball, slider, curveball and an occasional screwball. On December 6, 1946, the New York Yankees, who held Bearden's big-league rights, traded him in a five-player deal to the Indians.
Bearden couldn't stick with Cleveland in 1947; he was roughed up by the lowly St. Louis Browns in his only MLB appearance on May 10. Sent to the Triple-A Baltimore Orioles of the International League, he jumped the team after two defeats and refused to return until Indians' owner Bill Veeck agreed to loan Bearden back to the Oakland Oaks. He then won 16 games for Stengel in the PCL.
Brilliant 1948 rookie season
Bearden earned a place on the 1948 Indians' roster out of spring training but did not appear in a game until May 8. He proceeded to win six of his first seven starting assignments, with four complete games and two shutouts, on May 22 and June 8 against the Boston Red Sox, who would battle the Indians and Yankees down to the wire for the 1948 AL title. By September 1, Bearden had fashioned a 13–6 won-loss record with an earned run average of 2.74.
Bearden lost his first September start, on the sixth against the White Sox, then won his next seven starts and also hurled effectively in relief. With his pitching complete game shutouts on September 28 and October 2, the Indians and Red Sox finished in a flatfooted tie for the league championship on Sunday, October 3. For the one-game playoff, set for Fenway Park on Monday, October 4, Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau went with Bearden as his starting pitcher, and on only one day of rest, Bearden pitched another complete game triumph, shutting down the power-hitting Red Sox on only five hits and one earned run. Cleveland won, 8–3, behind Boudreau's four hits and two home runs. The win gave Bearden 20 victories (against seven defeats) and the 1948 AL earned-run average championship (2.47).
But Bearden was not finished. In the 1948 World Series against the Boston Braves, he threw a complete game, five-hit shutout in Game 3, defeating the Braves 2–0 on October 8. An excellent-hitting pitcher, he helped his own cause at bat by getting two hits (including a double) in three at bats, and scored a run. Then, in Game 6 on October 11, he preserved the Indians' Series-clinching win for starter Bob Lemon. He allowed two inherited runners to score in the eighth inning but shut the door on the Braves, earned the save and was charged with no runs allowed himself, finishing the game as Cleveland won 4–3 to become world champions.
Sixty years later, his rookie season of 1948 was rated as the top overall rookie season of any athlete of a Cleveland professional sports franchise in The Great Book of Cleveland Sports Lists. In addition to his ERA title, he finished among the top ten American League pitchers in victories (second), shutouts (second, with six), winning percentage (second), fewest hits per innings pitched (third), walks plus hits per inning pitched (fourth), wins above replacement (fifth), innings pitched (seventh), complete games (eighth), and finished eighth in the American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting. But despite his stellar season, Bearden was not named "Rookie of the Year." Only one award was given in the Major Leagues at the time, and Alvin Dark of the National League Boston Braves was its recipient. The Cy Young Award for the most outstanding pitcher would not be instituted until after the 1956 season.
Decline in effectiveness
Dark went on to play another dozen years in the Majors, and was a multiple AL All-Star. But 1948 was Bearden's only season as an effective big-league pitcher. In 1949, he fell to 8–8 (5.10), and his wildness increased: he led the AL in wild pitches (with 11) and walked 92 men with only 41 strikeouts. His performance continued to decline in 1950, and the Indians placed him on waivers; he was picked up by Washington in August. Then, from 1951–53, he bounced from the Senators to the Tigers, Browns and White Sox. Apart from his 1948 brilliance, Bearden won only 25 of 56 decisions, and allowed 604 hits and 329 walks in 5582⁄3 innings pitched, with an earned run average of 4.59. He threw only two shutouts after 1948.
Overall he compiled a 45–38 win-loss mark and 3.96 earned run average in 193 games pitched in the Majors, with 791 hits and 435 bases on balls allowed, and 259 strikeouts, in 7881⁄3 innings of work. Growing up near Memphis, Tennessee, he idolized Lou Gehrig and was a polished, left-handed hitter who often played first base during his minor league career. As a big-leaguer, he compiled a .236 lifetime batting average with 68 total hits, four home runs and 32 runs batted in, and was sometimes used as a pinch hitter. In 1952, as a St. Louis Brown, Bearden collected 23 hits and batted .354.
He resumed his minor league career in the top-level Pacific Coast League and American Association after 1953 and won 18 games for the 1955 San Francisco Seals. During his active career, he lived in California and during his off-seasons worked in the motion picture industry as both an extra and backstage crew member. After his 1957 retirement, he was involved in a number of business ventures and was a youth baseball coach. Bearden died in Alexander City, Alabama, at 83 years of age.
- 1948 American League tie-breaker game
- 1948 World Series
- List of Major League Baseball annual ERA leaders
- "Baseball in Wartime – Gene Bearden". baseballinwartime.com. Retrieved July 10, 2016.
- Gene Bearden at the SABR Bio Project, by Ralph Berger, retrieved July 10, 2016
- Bearden, Gene, and Lebovitz, Hal, "Lucky Rookie", 1949 Official Baseball Register. St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1949, pages 3–26.
- James, Bill; Neyer, Rob (2004). The Neyer/James guide to pitchers : an historical compendium of pitching, pitchers, and pitches. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 142. ISBN 0-7432-6158-5. Retrieved October 9, 2012.
- Livingston, Bill; Brinda, Greg (2008). The Great Book of Cleveland Sports List. Philadelphia: Runnings Press Books. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-7624-3416-9.
- Shubb, William B. "Gene Bearden". Oakland Oaks. Retrieved September 10, 2012.