Oh, What a Relief: Ted Abernathy
In boxing, the belt is a boundary that is out of bounds for any punch. Hence, the prohibition against “hitting below the belt.”
But what about baseball? Is there a rule, spoken or unspoken, against pitching below the belt? The answer is, “Yes,” with rare exceptions. One of those exceptions, and an exceptional pitcher as well, was Ted Abernathy, the master of the submarine pitch.
Under-handed pitching is usually reserved for softball pitchers. Major league hurlers are expected to release the pitch above the belt: overhand, three-quarter, at least sidearm. But Ted Abernathy swung his pitching arm below the belt, where few major league pitchers had gone before (successfully), and few (namely Dan Quisenberry) have followed.
A shoulder injury in high school compelled Abernathy to drop his delivery from overhand to sidearm, and that delivery earned him a contract with the Washington Senators in 1955. He was 5-9 for the Senators that year, and he spent the next two seasons in the minors and back, going a combined 3-13 for the Senators. At that point he suffered more arm miseries, underwent “relatively” reconstructive on his elbow and shoulder, and made his comeback with a pitching motion that sometimes had his knuckles scraping the mound.
Abernathy didn’t make it back to the major leagues until 1963 with the Cleveland Indians. He was now 30 and a reconstructed pitcher, but a very effective one. Abernathy was 7-2 with a 2.88 ERA for the Indians in 1963, posting 12 saves. He was 2-6 with 12 saves for the Tribe in 1964, and then was sold to the Chicago Cubs. In 1965, as the Cubs’ closer, Abernathy was 4-6 with a 2.57 ERA and a major league best 31 saves. In fact, he was the first pitcher to crack the 30-save barrier. He also led the major leagues with 84 appearances in 1965.
Over the next four seasons, pitching for three different teams, Abernathy averaged 66 appearances per season, winning 25 games and saving 53 with combined ERA of 2.76. His best season was 1967. Pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, Abernathy was 6-3 with 28 saves and a 1.27 ERA. He won 10 games for the Reds in 1968, a career high that he would match again in 1970.
In 14 major league seasons, Abernathy was 63-69 with a 3.46 ERA pitching for seven different teams. He had 149 saves and a pair of shutouts, both posted during his rookie season with the Senators.