Baseball revolutionary: Stanley’s Ted Abernathy became one of the major leagues’ first “relief aces”

By Richard Walker

Ted Abernathy is shown with his 1970 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame trophy.

Anyone who watches baseball these days knows that relief pitching is a key part to the game.

It wasn’t that way in the 1960s until Stanley’s Ted Abernathy unwittingly became a baseball revolutionary by being one of the first players to perfect the art of relief pitching.

A 1951 Stanley High graduate, Abernathy led that school to its first conference baseball title. He also helped Gastonia American Legion Post 23 to a state title and an appearance in the first national Legion tournament held at Sims Legion Park.

A year after high school, Abernathy was signed to a free agent contract by the old Washington Senators and he went on to have a 20-year professional career that includes 14 seasons in the major leagues.

Signed as a pitcher, Abernathy performed that craft in a conventional manner for the first six seasons of his career that include three years in the majors.

That’s even as Abernathy missed most of the 1953 season and all of 1954 after he was drafted into U.S. Army. Abernathy served at Fort McPherson, Ga., before being released in time for 1955 spring training.

Abernathy showed no rustiness and was sent to the majors for the 1955 seasons where he went 5-9 with a 5.96 ERA in 40 appearances (14 starts) for the Senators.

But after spending the 1956 season as a starter for Class AAA Louisville and the Senators and the 1957 season as mostly a starter for the Senators, Abernathy was out of the majors for the next five seasons minus a brief two-game stint in 1960 as he had to reinvent himself following shoulder surgery.

First injured in high school when Abernathy switched from a overhead throwing style to a 3/4 throwing style, his shoulder bothered him enough that Class A Charlotte Hornets business manager Phil Howser recommended Abernathy see orthapedist Dr. Richard Wren. Wren eventually performed surgery on Abernathy’s shoulder to fix the torn tendon injury while also removing bone chipe and calcium deposits.

Abernathy would never start another game in professional baseball. But he adopted the submarine pitching style and a role as a relief ace that would make him famous.

It came during a time in which then-Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman began crediting a new statistic called “save” that was designed to recognize pitchers who preserved victories in late-game situations. Not officially recognized by baseball until 1969, it started being unofficially recognized in 1959.

And after being released by the Senators, signed by the old Milwaukee Braves and bought by the Cleveland Indians, Abernathy enjoyed a career renaissance as a relief ace after returning to the majors early in the 1963 season.

Over the course of the next 10 seasons, Abernathy was credited with 149 saves and led the National League in the category in 1965 for the Chicago Cubs and again in 1967 for the Cincinnati Reds.

By the time Abernathy retired after appearing in 18 games for Class A Wilson in 1973, he’d solidified his status as one of major leagues’ first top relief pitchers.

He had a 4-6 record with 31 saves and a 2.57 ERA in a then-record 84 appearances in 1965 for the Cubs. He was 6-3 with 28 saves and a 1.27 ERA in 1967 and 10-7 with 13 saves and a 2.46 ERA for the Reds in 1967 and 1968, respectively.

Abernathy finished his career with three impressive seasons with the Kansas City Royals as he racked up 40 saves from 1970 to 1972 in 144 appearances for the expansion franchise that began play in the American League in 1969.

When his 14-year major league career ended, Abernathy had a 63-69 record with 149 saves and 3.46 ERA in 681 appearances (34 starts) for the Senators, Indians, Cubs, Braves, Reds, Cubs, Cardinals and Royals.

After retirement, Abernathy worked at Summey Building Systems in Dallas and also worked for his son’s landscaping business (Todd Abernathy Landscaping) in addition to being involved with the Masonic Lodge, the Shrine Club and the Major League Baseball alumni.

Abernathy died at 71 on Dec. 16, 2004 in Gastonia.