#CardCorner: 1988 Fleer Chet Lemon
Four of those seasons belong to Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, and Taylor Douthit of the Cardinals set the all-time record of 547 in 1928.
The American League mark is owned by Chet Lemon, possibly one of the most underrated players of his time.
Born Feb. 12, 1955, in Jackson, Miss., Chester Earl Lemon moved with his family to Southern California, where he attended Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles with other future pro athletes like Ricky Bell and George Hendrick. Lemon excelled on the football field as a halfback and rover back, with Bell providing much of the blocking while Lemon carried the ball for more than 1,200 yards his senior year. On the baseball squad, Lemon teamed with future big leaguer Dan Ford.
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The Oakland Athletics took Lemon with the 22nd overall pick in the 1972 MLB Draft, and Lemon spurned several football scholarship offers to sign with the A’s.
Lemon’s career WAR of 55.6 is more than double of any of the other 23 players taken in the first round.
The A’s sent Lemon to Coos Bay-North Bend of the Northwest League, where he batted .286 in 38 games before earning a promotion to Class A Burlington.
An infielder in high school, Lemon returned to Burlington and played third base in 1973, hitting .309 with 19 homers and 88 RBI in 113 games. But he also committed 33 errors at third base and another three in a handful of games at shortstop.
In 1974, Lemon was promoted to Double-A Birmingham, where he hit .290 with 10 homers and 61 RBI in 79 games. Then in 1975, Lemon began the season at Triple-A Tucson, where he hit .280 with 17 steals in 65 games – while also committing 19 errors at third base.
On June 15 – just moments before the trade deadline – the Athletics traded Lemon and pitcher Dave Hamilton to the White Sox in a deal that brought pitchers Stan Bahnsen and Skip Pitlock to Oakland. Lemon had been red hot during the previous week, going 17-for-34 in his last eight games for Tucson.
Chicago media outlets reported that Lemon was the key to the deal for the White Sox.
“We force-fed him a little,” Athletics owner Charlie Finley told the Chicago Tribune regarding Lemon, who at 20 years old was one of the youngest players in Triple-A. “He needs a little time.”
It would be a trade Finley would long regret as his Athletics’ dynasty crumbled.
Lemon remained an infielder for the rest of the 1975 season with Triple-A Denver, hitting .307 with the Bears to finish the minor league season with a .294 batting average, 13 home runs, 82 RBI and 28 stolen bases in 135 games. The White Sox brought him to the big leagues in September, where he hit .257 in nine games – including six at third base.
The next season, Lemon was a part of the “South Side Hitmen” that won 90 games – after collecting just 64 wins in 1976 – and electrified crowds at Comiskey Park under owner Bill Veeck. Lemon hit .273 with 19 homers, 67 RBI, 99 runs scored to go with his 512 putouts, which broke the previous AL record of 503 set by Dom DiMaggio in 1948. Lemon also committed an AL-high 12 errors in center field as he roamed the vast expanse of the historic Chicago ballpark’s outfield.
“I’ve got to learn to pace myself,” Lemon told the Chicago Tribune prior to Spring Training of 1978 after he had signed a four-year contract worth a reported $750,000. “I was hitting about .288 three weeks before the season ended, but I was dragging when it was over.”
Lemon earned his first All-Star Game berth in 1978 but missed much of July and August with groin and hamstring injuries. He ended the season on a hot streak, however, pushing his average to .300 by hitting .345 with 14 RBI and 14 runs scored in September.
“I only have one year left on my contract,” Lemon told the Chicago Sun-Times following the trade, “and anything can happen when you’re about to become a free agent.”
Kemp played only one season with the White Sox before signing with the Yankees as a free agent. Lemon became a hero in Detroit.
At first, Lemon’s transition was difficult. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson moved Lemon to right field and put Kirk Gibson in center, and Lemon struggled with the change – batting just .228 through July 2. But Anderson returned Lemon to center for the last three months of the season. And in his final 45 games, Lemon hit .321 with 13 homers to finish the season with a .266 average, 19 homers and 75 runs scored.
Then in the World Series, Lemon hit .294 with two stolen bases as Detroit beat San Diego in five games to capture the franchise’s first title since 1968.
In Game 3, Lemon made one of the signature plays of the series – robbing San Diego’s Terry Kennedy of extra bases with one on and two outs in the seventh inning and Detroit leading 5-2. Lemon sprinted toward the Tiger Stadium wall with the crack of the bat and turned several times before tracking down the ball and ending the threat.
Detroit would go on to win the game 5-2, taking a 2-games-to-1 lead in the series and never looking back.
Following the 1987 season, Lemon signed a four-year, $3.7 million deal to remain in Detroit. The Tigers moved Lemon to right field in 1988 to make room for Gary Pettis, and Lemon hit .264 with 17 homers and 64 RBI in what turned out to be his final season as regular.
In 1989, Lemon hit .237 with seven homers and 47 RBI in 127 games – and noticed he was having trouble recovering from minor injuries. Then in 1990, Lemon was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a blood disorder which results in an overabundance of red blood cells. In 104 games that season, he hit .258 but totaled just five home runs and 32 RBI.
Riddled with abdominal pain in the spring of 1991 due to the disease, Lemon was released by the Tigers on the eve of the regular season, ending his career.
“I was very afraid, but if I was going to survive I had to put my trust in my faith.”
In November of 2001, Lemon had the surgery at the Mayo Clinic – instructing the doctors not to do any transfusions. His spleen weighed almost 15 times the amount of a normal spleen. But the surgeons were able to successfully remove it.
Lemon had been hired to coach at Eustis High School – located northwest of Orlando – in 2001, and returned after the surgery to coach his son, Marcus, at the school. Lemon helped the team win a state title in 2003, and Marcus was later selected in the fourth round of the 2006 MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers. In 11 seasons in the minor leagues, Marcus – an infielder – made it as high as Triple-A.
In 16 big league seasons, Chet Lemon hit .273, totaling 1,875 hits, 396 doubles, 215 home runs, 884 RBI and 973 RBI. His career total of 4,993 putouts ranks 22nd all-time among outfielders – and Lemon’s 16 seasons are the fewest of anyone in the Top 35 all-time.
“God blessed me with a lot of things,” Lemon told the Wisconsin State Journal, “and baseball was one of them.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum