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Lemon Out of the Limelight : Cleveland's Hall of Fame Pitcher, Ex-Yankee Manager Takes Life Easier These Days at Home in Long Beach

February 25, 1988|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

Bob Lemon, 67 and a bit overweight, spends his days on a couch watching soap operas. Can this be? He does not look as so many remember--in a Cleveland Indians uniform, mowing down batters in the sunshine of the 1950s.

But life still is good for Robert Granville Lemon, and thus it simply is irrelevant to him that he no longer resembles the pitcher wearing No. 21 in the photos on his walls.

On a recent afternoon, Lemon reminisced in the home he has lived in since 1949 in the Bixby Knolls section of Long Beach. He chain-smoked, joked about himself and displayed a vocabulary still sprinkled with words that umpires might take exception to.

He is in the Hall of Fame (inducted in 1976) but to his longtime friends he has never stopped being just the guy next door.

He used to play golf but quit because of a bad back. "I'm thinking about starting it up again," he said. "But to hit 120 times, and then you can't get out of bed the next day (doesn't make it) worth it."

Lem, as he is widely known, has long enjoyed saying, "I never took the game home with me, I always left it in some bar."

But he has paid a price for the good life. His nose, always prominent, has broadened almost as dramatically as his stomach, which sagged heavily inside a pink golf shirt. But his hair, except at the edges, has stayed dark.

Lemon has been out of the limelight since 1982 when George Steinbrenner fired him as manager of the New York Yankees, even though he led them to a world championship four years before. He still works as a Yankee scout, but his travels are confined mainly to Dodger and Anaheim stadiums.

"It's hard for my wife to get used to me being here," Lemon said. "She didn't marry me for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

207-128 Record as Indian

Jane, his wife of 44 years ("I was with her half the time"), was at the beauty shop.

Lemon had a 207-128 record for the Indians from 1946 through 1958. He had seven 20-victory seasons and was a member of the famous Big Four, along with Bob Feller, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia.

"There's Bernardino," said Lemon, pointing toward the TV at John Bernardino, an actor on "General Hospital" and a teammate of Lemon's on the 1948 world champion Indians.

Had Lemon ever considered acting?

"I hate (just) to make speeches," he said. "Not my cup of tea."

He did have a role in "The Winning Team," doubling for Ronald Reagan, who played pitching great Grover Cleveland Alexander. Lemon had one line--"I think I got a blister"--that he said he kept blowing.

Among the framed memories in the room are pictures of Lemon pitching. He weighed 180 pounds then. What he has ballooned to in the ensuing years the 5-foot-11 Lemon isn't sure.

"I don't get on the scale," he said. "I look in the mirror and say, 'Too much.' "

Lemon said he does not miss putting on a uniform, but does miss the "bull that goes with being around the game."

"But I still get to talk to 'em," he said, referring to his opportunities as a scout to see players and managers. "I talk to managers and realize what I don't miss."

Fond Memories of His Father

He recalled his days growing up in Long Beach and playing baseball for Wilson High School. He remembered his father Earl's gasoline station at 4th Street and Termino Avenue, where players gathered after games at Recreation Park. "He'd have a keg of beer and cold cuts for them," Lemon said of his father, who enjoyed those times so much he would keep his foot on the running boards of the players' cars so they couldn't leave.

And Lemon thought back to the days of Sunday double-headers and the camaraderie the Indians had on train trips. "I learned more baseball in the lounge car than I did on the field," he said.

Lemon frequently attends old-timer games and baseball-card shows, where people ask for his autograph and talk about the 1954 World Series, in which the Indians lost in four straight games to the New York Giants.

"That came up just the other day," Lemon said. "Was it that long ago, 34 years?"

Although Lemon was always described as unflappable and low-key, he said, "It goes on inside. . . . I had ulcers like everybody else."

He doesn't wish he were young again.

"I enjoyed everything that happened to me," he said, lighting another cigarette. "I don't think I could write (his life) any better."

Oprah Winfrey had succeeded "General Hospital" and was discussing weight problems.

"I should listen to this," Lemon said. "I think about going to a diet center, but haven't done anything about it."

Jane Lemon, a short woman with short blond hair that had just been cut, was up at Robert's Hair Fashions on Atlantic Avenue, a few blocks from the Lemon home.

"He's the greatest," she said of her husband as Kenny Rogers sang "She Believes in Me" on the radio and dryers hummed over women who sat on mauve chairs.

"He's the same old Bob; he's still got that great sense of humor. He just loves baseball, it's his whole life, (but) it's wonderful to have him around all the time, and nice he doesn't have to do so much traveling."

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