Ted Lyons was a trombone player in the Baylor Bears band in 1919 when a brawl broke out during a Baylor-Texas A&M football game. Lyons carefully set down his trombone and joined the fight, but during the melee, his trombone was crushed, and he couldn't afford a new one. Lyons had been a good high school baseball player, so he decided, since he had no instrument to play and had lost his musical scholarship, to try to play baseball at Baylor. He still had no aspirations to play the game professionally until White Sox catcher Ray Schalk, who was on his way to spring training, visited the Baylor team, saw Lyons pitch and recommended him to his manager, Kid Gleason. Lyons signed with the White Sox, never spent a day in the minor leagues and wound up going to the Hall of Fame.
From trombone to Cooperstown, some players have taken strange routes to pro ball, even to the major leagues. The teenagers-turned-pitchers from India, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, the subjects of the movie "Million Dollar Arm," are indeed unique. They had never played baseball. They were the winners of a reality TV contest affording them a chance to play baseball in America, which they did in the Pirates organization. Singh is still playing but is recovering from Tommy John surgery. They were athletic, had played cricket and had thrown the javelin, so at least they understood the throwing motion.
"But when I gave them a glove," said Tom House, a former major league pitcher and pitching coach who worked with the two teenagers for seven months, "they put it on the wrong hand: They thought it was to keep their hand warm, not catch the ball. I wondered, 'What have I gotten myself into?' When they went out on the field, they asked through an interpreter, 'What did he [the shortstop] do to anger someone? Why doesn't he have a base?'"
From India to the Indians, or the Pirates, would be quite a leap, but baseball has provided many such stories, some of which are detailed in a wonderful book by Craig Wright called "Pages From Baseball's Past." Ron LeFlore was a thief, first arrested at age 15, and eventually sentenced from five to 15 years for armed robbery. The Tigers signed him out of Jackson State Penitentiary in Michigan, and gainful employment was a key condition of his parole. He played in 134 minor league games and went on to become an All-Star.
Mike "Doc" Powers was a medical doctor before he became a big leaguer at age 27 for 11 years, and worked as a doctor during the offseasons of his baseball career. George Moriarty, grandfather of actor Michael Moriarty, was 18, and worked at the Oliver Typewriter Company when its company team played an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs in 1903. He fielded a hard ground ball and started a triple play, and was signed by the Cubs off that single game. Hall of Famer Max Carey, at age 13, began a six-year program in pre-ministerial studies to become a Lutheran minister. In 1913, he watched a minor league game in which the visiting team had lost its shortstop because of injury. Carey persuaded the manager to give him a tryout by showing him a track medal he won; back then, speed was a huge component of the game. Carey would finish with 738 steals.
Eddie "The Fiddler" Basinski had 20/800 vision. He wore glasses so thick, his coach wouldn't let him play on the high school baseball team. He studied engineering at the University of Buffalo, which had no baseball team, but he played tennis and ran for the cross country team. He was a near virtuoso on the piano and a concert violinist. During World War II, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey was looking for promising players who were classified 4-F in the military draft. Basinski had been playing baseball in city leagues and was sent to work out with the Dodgers. They were short-handed that day, they played him in a major league game, and on his first swing, he hit a triple off the center-field wall. When the real major leaguers came back from the war, Basinski could not compete, but he played 12 more seasons professionally, and is in the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame.
There are many stories of players overcoming obstacles on their way to the major leagues. Outfielder Dummy Hoy was deaf, but he played in the big leagues from 1888-1902, accumulating 2,044 hits. Pitcher Monty Stratton lost his right leg in 1938 in a hunting accident, ending his major league career, but played in the minor leagues from 1946-53 with a prosthetic leg. Outfielder Pete Gray batted .218 for the St. Louis Browns in 1945 despite having lost his right arm in a truck accident when he was 6. Three Finger Brown pitched from 1903-16, won 239 games with a 2.06 ERA and made it to the Hall despite losing two fingers on his right (pitching) hand in a farm-machinery accident as a youth.
Walter Johnson, the greatest pitcher ever, played in only two games in high school, one as a catcher, one as a pitcher, and he was terrible in that one. But he joined a town team, and after joining a second town team, this one in Idaho, he went on to win 417 games in the big leagues.
Bob Feller's father painted a bull's-eye on the side of the family barn in Van Meter, Iowa. Young Bob wore out that side of the barn with an upper-90s fastball and was signed by the Indians at age 17. He left high school to pitch for the Indians -- in one game, he struck out more than his age -- then after the season, he returned to finish his senior year. His high school graduation was broadcast on national radio.
More recently, there are dozens of stories of players who came from nowhere to star in the major leagues. Mike Piazza was a 62nd-round draft pick of the Dodgers -- Los Angeles manager Tommy Lasorda selected him as a favor to the family -- and went on to become the greatest hitting catcher of all time. Reggie Sanders was more of a track star in college, then concentrated on baseball, and went on to hit 300 homers and steal 300 bases in the major leagues. Speedy Jeff Stone was found by the Phillies after running barefoot through the corn fields in his home state of Missouri. Kenny Rogers was an outfielder in high school but was signed as a pitcher because of his strong throwing arm. The Rangers brought him to spring training as a pitcher. Pitching coach Sid Hudson asked Rogers to go from the stretch, and Rogers said, "I don't know how to do that." Rogers went on to win 219 games in the major leagues; included was a perfect game.
Billy Wagner broke his right arm as a young boy and began throwing left-handed. He strengthened his left arm by throwing a baseball as far as he could in the field behind his house in rural Virginia. When asked if he had a bag full of balls, Wagner said, "No, I only had one ball. I'd throw it as far as I could, then go pick it up, and throw it back in the other direction." Wagner pitched for 15 seasons in the major leagues and saved 422 games.
Vladimir Guerrero went to a tryout camp in the Dominican Republic on the back of a motorcycle, wearing non-matching spikes, one of which was so much bigger than the other that he had to stuff a sock inside it just to make it fit. He was signed that day, paid his motorcycle friend $200, and someday will be enshrined in Cooperstown. Jim Morris was a high school baseball coach who was so impressive throwing batting practice, his players persuaded him to resume his career; he pitched briefly for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at age 35 and was the subject of the movie, "The Rookie." The Diamondbacks signed pitcher Vicente Padilla out of the hills of Nicaragua in the late 1990s. He showed up at the signing on a burro. He agreed to the signing bonus but asked for $2,000 more to properly care for his burro, which he got. "I love my burro," he said.
From crushed trombones to ex-cons to one-armed outfielders to pitchers on a burro, there long have been strange routes to pro ball. "Million Dollar Arm," and one-in-a-million stories.