A well-traveled relief pitcher, Ted Abernathy was that type of player who failed in his first big league trial but made good later on. When he struggled in the 1950s with the Washington Senators, he was banished to the minors. He didn’t resurface until he was 30 years old, but under the tutelage of the great Birdie Tebbetts, he established himself as a legitimate Major League fireman in Cleveland.
Abernathy was initially called up by the Senators in 1955 but with an ERA near 6.00, he spent much of the ’56 season back in the bushes. After a disastrous 1957 campaign, Ted was sent back to the minors and struggled at every stop. In 1960, Ted was converted to the bullpen in the minors and was able to harness his ability, with succesful seasons in Louisville and Jacksonville. At the age of 30, in 1963, Ted was dominating the league in Jacksonville with a 0.35 ERA so the Indians decided to give him one last chance at making good at the Major League level… and he didn’t disappoint.
The Indians summoned Ted to Cleveland in ’63 and he saved a dozen games with a winning percentage of .778 under skipper Birdie Tebbetts. Accuracy always gave Abernathy fits and when his strike-throwing abilities went south in 1964, the Indians sold him to the Chicago Cubs. Ted found Wrigley Field to his liking by enjoying his breakout year. With the ’65 Cubs, he led the National League in saves and games played. He was one of just two NL relief pitchers to reach 100 strikeouts.
But when skipper Lou Klein was replaced the following year, the Cubs gave the managerial post to Leo “The Lip” Durocher–a skunk if there ever was one–and Abernathy’s numbers returned to their Washington era ways. With an ERA above 6.00, the Cubs traded Ted to the Braves where he got back on track, away from Durocher and his mouth.
The Braves left him unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft and the Reds astutely plucked him off their roster. In 1967, his first year with the Reds, Ted had his greatest campaign. He led the National League in saves and games pitched while fashioning a flattering 1.27 ERA in 106 innings of work. In top form, Ted’s accuracy wasn’t as bad as usual but it was his terrific hits allowed average that separated him from other firemen. He averaged just 0.594 hits per inning–far superior to his fireman peers. Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm averaged 0.652 hits per inning.
The rubber-armed Abernathy again led the National League in games pitched in 1968. He had a terrific 2.46 ERA and after two years of absolute dominance in the Reds’ bullpen, the Cubs sent three players to Cincinnati in order to reacquire Ted. His second trial under The Lip was better than his first. The Cubs finished second in ’69 as Ted posted a tidy 3.16 ERA. Due to his advanced age, the Cubs traded Ted to the Cardinals in 1970 and a month later the Redbirds sent him to the second-year Kansas City Royals. For three teams, Ted saved 14 games on a 2.6o ERA.
Abernathy spent his last two years in the Majors with the Royals. As the graybeard of a young Royals staff (Ted was the only regular pitcher on the roster above the age of 30–he was 38), Ted mentored the Royals’ young arms while still showing the knack for putting out fires. With the second place 1971 Royals, Ted finished second in the AL with 23 saves. He spent one final year at the Major League level, departing the game with a 1.71 ERA in 58 innings.
W 63/L 69/PCT .477/ERA 3.46/G 681/SV 148/IP 1,148/H 1,010/BB 592/SO 765