Manager Sparky Anderson called him “The best defensive center fielder I’ve ever seen.” Fans at Tiger Stadium called him Chester. Fans in Chicago, where he started his career, called him “The Jet.” His teammates simply called him “Dusty Butt.”
Chet Lemon came to Detroit in an unpopular trade. He often made puzzling baserunning decisions, including his obsession with diving headfirst into first base when running through the bag was safer (and quicker). But despite the inauspicious start in the Motor City, he Lemon became a fan favorite and an All-Star center fielder for the Tigers. His reward? A World Series ring as a member of the 1984 champions.
Great Outfielder with an Ugly Glove
After all these years, Lemon still holds the American League record for most putouts by an outfielder, with 509 in 1977. Lemon had thick, strong legs and a short upper body, he looked like a wind-em-up, fly-catching toy in center field. He seemed to know precisely where to run when a baseball was hit off the bat, and he caught it on his left shoulder, one-handed with a weather-beaten glove he used his entire career. He rarely had to dive because his instincts were spot-on and he took the shortest path to the ball.
One of the great highlights of the 1980s Tigers was a catch Lemon made at The Big A in Anaheim against the Angels. It came in July of 1983 in the 12th inning. The Tigers leading by a single run when Rod Carew, typically not a power threat, launched a high fly ball to deep center at Anaheim Stadium. Lemon pumped those thick legs and hurled himself toward the warning track and up, leaping above the fence to snare the baseball. His immediate reaction (a fist pump and his patented smile) told the story: Detroit survived with a victory.
Lemon’s shaggy glove, which he patched and stitched for years, giving it all the TLC needed to turn triples into outs, was a constant companion during his career, which included three All-Star appearances, two with the White Sox and one in Detroit.
Was once a reckless infielder
Lemon started as a shortstop, where he did nothing to engender confidence in his ability to throw the ball across the diamond. He was fast and his arm was strong but erratic. The organization he was with, the A’s, did not have the imagination to see him as anything but an infielder, but a scout for the White Sox loved his wheels (teammates called him “Jet”) and urged Chicago to trade for him.
In one of his first spring training games with the Sox in the mid-1970s, Lemon was playing third, and a grounder was hit to his left. He scrambled after it and ended up nearly in front of the second baseman as his momentum carried him to first. When he returned to the dugout, Chicago manager Chuck Tanner put his arm around Lemon’s shoulder and said, “Son, I want you to start taking one hundred fly balls a day, because if you stay an infielder you’re gonna kill somebody.”
The Tigers eventually acquired Lemon on November 27, 1981, from the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Steve Kemp, himself an All-Star. Detroit fans didn’t like it, because “Kemper” was a hard-swinging, hard-running everyman who often found the right field seats for home runs at Tiger Stadium. But within a year, the wisdom of the deal (orchestrated by assistant general manager Bill Lajoie) was proven. Lemon played nine seasons in Detroit and was a key part of a championship club. Kemp hit just 42 homers in parts of six seasons after the Tigers traded him away.
Quiet Ending to a fine professional career
Lemon is probably the best outfielder in the Gold Glove era to never win the award. Somehow, despite his amazing range and soft hands, Lemon was never given that honor. He played in a league where Paul Blair, Fred Lynn, and Dwayne Murphy monopolized the award for center fielders. Those defenders, and later Gary Pettis, were excellent fly chasers, but Lemon should have garnered at least one of the trophies. His records still stand in both Chicago and Detroit for putouts.
Lemon’s last great season was in 1988, and he struggled in 1989 when the Tigers fell apart and their 1980s stretch of success came crumbling down. By 1990, Lemon was in right field, slowed both in the field and with his bat speed. When his contract expired following that season, he was not offered a chance to play anywhere else at the big league level, and he retreated into retirement. A few years later his name resurfaced when he was in the hospital with a rare kidney problem that sunk his weight to a little more than 125 pounds. He recovered, and is currently running a baseball school and other businesses in Florida, near the Tigers spring training complex.