“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1967-1971
#21   SPARKY LYLE

Born in DuBois, Pennsylvania on July 22, 1944, Albert "Sparky" Lyle was known as the Reynoldsville High School football and basketball star, named as an All-Conference end in football and recognized with an honorable mention on Pennsylvania's All-State basketball team. In the spring of his junior year in high school, he started pitching for the DuBois team of the Legion league because Reynoldsville did not have a Legion team.

When pitching for DuBois, it seemed he was always striking out 16 or 17 batters. This accomplishment made local headlines and in one game during that summer, he struck out 31 batters. He threw mostly fastballs and curve balls and ended up walking 8 or 9 batters. It was a 17-inning game, yet Lyle only pitched 14 of those 17 innings; he handled first base duties for three innings in the middle of the game. That caught the attention of Baltimore Orioles' scout George "Stopper" Staller and earned him the contract.   Lyle was assigned to Bluefield in the Appalachian League and threw 33 innings there in 1964 (3-2, 4.36 ERA) before he was moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he finished the season for Fox Cities, the championship team in the Midwest League. There he posted an excellent 2.31 ERA, with a 3-1 record in 35 more innings of work, with a strikeout to walks ratio of nearly 3 to 1.

On November 30, 1964 the Red Sox drafted Lyle from Baltimore, to their major league roster. In 1965 the Red Sox sent him back down to the minor league. He started his second year of pro ball at Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the Double-A level. It was his toughest year in baseball, pitching only in relief, and his control was ghastly -- walking in runs and having difficulty getting anyone out. Working extremely hard on his control and getting 87 innings of work (5-5, 4.24 ERA), with 79 strikeouts, and got a promotion to Boston's Eastern League farm club at Pittsfield.

After having a 5-5 season with Winston-Salem, Lyle was sent to Ocala, Florida for spring training where he met Ted Williams. After watching him pitch one afternoon, Williams asked Sparky what he thought was the best pitch in baseball. Not knowing the answer, Williams told him it was the slider, because it was the only pitch he couldn't hit consistently even when he knew it was coming. He went on to explain to Sparky how the pitch broke and what the ball was supposed to do. Adding how the ball should come in at a right-handed batter and drop down. In spite of this, he did not tell him how to accomplish this, but this gave Sparky the determination to work hard and figure that out for himself. Lyle said this meeting changed his life and he worked exhaustively on making the ball spin the right way and break. The spin wasn't as much of the challenge as the break was. Needless to say, he perfected his slider, and it remained his signature pitch for most of his career.

His manager at Pittsfield in 1966 was Eddie Popowski, who saw Sparky strike out 72 men in 74 innings and record a 3.65 ERA (4-2). Lyle began the 1967 season with Boston's Triple A club in Toronto, but when the Red Sox sold Dennis Bennett to the New York Mets (receiving Al Yates along with cash), on June 24, 1967, they called up Lyle. With their top farm club, Lyle had an ERA of 1.71. Popowski's praise no doubt factored into the promotion as well, since Eddie was now the Red Sox third base coach.

Breaking into the major leagues on July 4, 1967, in the seventh inning at Anaheim Stadium. Al "Sparky" Lyle made his big debut just 18 days before his 23rd birthday, facing the California Angels. In the two innings he pitched, Lyle gave up one hit, walked one, allowed no runs, and struck out three. From then until season's end, he pitched 43 1/3 innings, gave up 33 hits and struck out 42, and had a 1-2 won-lost record. He did not appear in the World Series due to a sore arm.  In 1968, Lyle was 6-1 with 11 saves, settling in to a role as the team's primary left-handed reliever. The following season, he pitched 102 2/3 innings, chalked up 17 saves and had 93 strikeouts, along with his 8-3 record. This season made him one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. In the next two seasons he logged 36 more saves, leading the team in that category three straight seasons. His future looked bright.  Lyle became one of the game's dominant relievers of the 1970's, but it most of his best seasons came with the team's hated rivals. In what many Red Sox fans consider the team's worst trade of the past 50 years, Lyle was traded during spring training in 1972, to the New York Yankees for first baseman Danny Cater and a player to be named later (Mario Guerrero). Cater batted an abysmal .237 in his first year with the Red Sox, although he rebounded in 1973, hitting .313 in 63 games. Meanwhile, the Dominican shortstop Guerrero struggled with a .233 batting average in 1973.

From 1972 through 1978, Lyle established himself as the Yankees' bullpen ace. He helped lead the Yankees to three straight pennants from 1976-1978 and World Series titles in 1977 and 1978. Saving 35 games in 1972, he set a major league record for left-handed relievers. Sparky Lyle's contributions to the New York Yankees from 1972 through 1977 were so paramount to their success that the team played "Pomp and Circumstance" as theme music at Yankee Stadium each time he entered from the bullpen. In late 1977, George Steinbrenner decided to take out his checkbook and sign Rich "Goose" Gossage and Rawly Eastwick, despite Lyle's established presence in the Yankees bullpen. While Lyle stewed all season, Gossage became the new Yankee closer, and on November 10, Lyle was part of a 10-player deal with the Texas Rangers.

Now in his mid-30's, Lyle was unable to attain the level of success he achieved in previous years. Late in the season, on September 13, 1980 he was once again involved in a trade for a player to be named later (Kevin Saucier), ending up with the Philadelphia Phillies. Lyle threw just 14 innings but with a good 1.93 ERA and helped the Phillies reach the post-season. His last year pitching in the major leagues was 1982. With Philadelphia, he was 3-3 in 36 2/3 innings of work, and a disappointing ERA of 5.15. The Phillies felt he was finished, and sold his contract to the White Sox on August 21. Lyle closed out his career appearing in 10 more American League games, with an even 3.00 ERA (no decisions in 12 full innings of work.) On September 27 he played his last major league game.