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1952 Pacific Coast League MVP: Johnny Lindell

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Lindell was a pitcher turned outfielder turned knuckleballer who continually reinvented himself. His 1952 season with the Hollywood Stars is the perfect example.

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Johnny Lindell
Johnny Lindell
Getty Images

Sometimes you have to re-reinvent yourself to get another shot.

That's not a typo.

Johnny Lindell really did have to re-reinvent himself. He was a pitcher who became an outfielder, and then, late in his career, developed a knuckleball, and used it to rejuvenate his career, winning the 1952 Pacific Coast League (PCL) MVP award while playing for the Hollywood Stars.

Lindell was 35 years old at the time and had already been in the major leagues for ten seasons, mostly with the Yankees. The outfielder (who also pitched in 23 games during the 1942 season) was never quite good enough at the plate to stay in the starting lineup over the long haul. Over the course of his twelve-year big league career with the Yankees, Cardinals, Pirates and Phillies he hit .273/.344/.429 with 72 HR and 404 RBIs.

After the ‘42 season, manager Joe McCarthy converted him to an outfielder because he didn't believe he had a good enough fastball. After the ‘50 season, with his average dipping to .190 in New York, he bounced around, finally ending up with the Stars in ‘52, where manager Fred Haney pointed him back toward the mound while also giving him some playing time at first base and the outfield.

The 6-4, 217-pound righty went 24-9 with a 2.52 ERA with the Stars that season, winning the league MVP award, thanks in large part to a knuckleball. He also had 174 at-bats, hitting .213/.294/.385. His knuckleball didn't appear out of nowhere that season though. An April 7, 1949 article in The Lewiston Daily Sun said Lindell had been working on his knuckleball on the sidelines while he was still with the Yankees. In fact, manager Casey Stengel put him on the mound in an April '49 intra-squad game to test it out.

"The way I look at it," Lindell is quoted as saying in the article the day before his start, "is like this. I believe I could be much more valuable to the Yankees if I could play left field against right handed pitching, and on occasions be used as a spot pitcher.

"I've been working on this knuckleball for five years. I've got it controlled now where I can get it over the plate four out of every five pitches. I know it's a great pitch, because nobody on the club can hit it."

His performance didn't quite match his optimism though. An article in the St. Petersburg Times the next day described his performance this way: "In yesterday's intra squad game that went five innings, Johnny Lindell pitched for the Regulars and was hit hard by the Yannigans as they won 3-0 ... Lindell had asked for the chance to return to the mound but the hitters timed his knuckle ball and drove it hard to all fields." Another newspaper says he gave up eight hits that day.

Afterward, he said it wasn't a fair test.

Fair or not, Lindell never took the mound for the Yankees in regular season play after that. By the time he ended up with the Stars in '52 though, he had apparently perfected his knuckleball - having consulted with Freddie Fitzsimmons, a knuckleballer who had won 217 MLB games - prompting PCL Historical Society president Richard Beverage to refer to his knuckleball as "an almost unhittable" pitch in his book, The Hollywood Stars.

That standout '52 season earned Lindell another shot in the big leagues with the Pirates. But in May 1953, the Associated Press took exception to Lindell's pitch being called a knuckleball.

"Knuckle ball my eye!" says the AP story.

Instead, they said he, and others who were said to throw a knuckleball at the time - including Hoyt Wilhelm and Dutch Leonard - were really throwing a fingertip pitch, which would have been gripped similarly to a knuckleball, expect that the pitcher placed his fingertips flush on the ball rather than curling them under and using his knuckles.

The article goes on to say, "Johnny may have won 24 games when he helped pitch Hollywood to the Pacific Coast league pennant but with the inept Pittsburgh Pirates he's going to find that nothing he throws may not work so well in the majors."

The writer must have felt quite satisfied when Lindell ended up going 5-16 with a 4.71 ERA for the Pirates in '53 before being purchased by the Phillies late in the season. Lindell saw limited action as a pinch hitter in '54 with the Phillies, and then retired.

In spite of the ups and downs of his career, the major highlight had to be his performance with the Yankees in the 1947 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, which the Yankees won in seven games. He hit .500 (9-for-18) that Series with a .625 OBP.

Lindell passed away in 1985, at the age of sixty-eight.