It is possible that if Lee Meadows played for some better teams during his career and team’s weren’t afraid to sign players who wore glasses during that era, he may be a Hall of Fame pitcher. In his first eight seasons, he played for just one team that posted a winning record and he had a 15-9 record that year. Before joining the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 1923 season, Meadows had a career record of 100-128, but by the time he was finished eight years later, his record was over the .500 mark and he had led the Pirates to two World Series appearances.
Lee “Specs” Meadows was born on July 12,1894 in Oxford, North Carolina. He attended the Homer Military Academy in his hometown and shortly after graduating, he was playing in the minors nearby for the Durham Bulls of the North Carolina State League. Beginning the season as an eighteen year old in 1913, Lee went 21-14 with a 1.85 ERA in 292 innings. He put up nearly identical stats the next seasons, going 19-12 1.86 in 285 innings. He was heavily scouted in the minors but no team would sign him due to the fact he wore glasses(since age five), considered at the time a handicap too great to overcome for a major league player. The Cardinals finally decided to sign him after their scout Bob Connery deemed him too good to pass up.
Meadows threw a big breaking curve from a side-arm delivery, along with a fastball and a spitball. The Cardinals, managed by Hall of Famer Miller Huggins, loved their new twenty year old rookie from the start of his first Spring Training and expected big things from the youngster. He didn’t disappoint them, going 13-11 2.99 in 244 innings for a team that finished nine games below the .500 mark. Lee made 26 starts, 13 relief appearances and completed 14 games with one shutout to his credit.
The next season, he not only pitched more often, he also pitched better, but you couldn’t tell by looking at his win-loss record. The 1916 Cardinals finished 60-93 and Meadows led the pitching staff with a 2.58 ERA. His also led the league with 51 games pitched, 36 as a starter, on his way to a total of 289 innings pitched. Despite those outstanding numbers, his record was just 12-23 at the end of the year, an NL leading total for losses. The 1916 Cardinals not only had two starters from the 1909 Pirates World Series winning team in their lineup, Dots Miller and Chief Wilson, they also had one of the greatest hitters ever, Rogers Hornsby.
The 1917 Cardinals would be the only winning team that Meadows played on during his first eight seasons, as they went 82-70 and Lee’s record benefited from the better team. He went 15-9 3.08 in 265.2 innings, completing 18 starts, four of them being shutouts. It was just a one year stay for St Louis among the top half of the division, by 1918 they were back well below .500, in a season shortened by the war. Lee pitched thirty times, 23 as a starter and went 8-14 3.59 in 165.1 innings, his lowest inning total during the first 13 years of his career.
The 1919 season was another frustrating season for Meadows, and that year he had two teams to blame. After going 4-10 with the Cardinals through the middle of July, Meadows was traded to the Phillies, where he posted a 2.33 ERA over 158.1 innings, yet his final record stood at 12-20, the second time he led the NL in losses. Both times he led the league in losses, he posted an ERA under 2.60 and threw over 250 innings. The Cardinals and Phillies in 1919 were so bad, they combined for 100 wins on the year.
The 1920 Phillies were a hard team to figure out. Meadows pitched outstanding again, posting a team-leading 2.84 ERA and his record stood at 16-14 at the end of the year. The team’s leader in innings pitched was veteran Eppa Rixey, a future Hall of Famer. They also had a strong outfield that included Casey Stengel, they began the year with Hall of Fame shortstop Dave Bancroft and they had a very good bench with Dots Miller and Gavvy Cravath, who led the NL six times in home runs. Despite all that, the team finished in last place with a 62-91 record.
Offense was up all over baseball during the 1921-22 seasons and Lee saw his ERA rise over 4.00 each year, though his record suffered more from the poor teams, going a combined 23-34 in 60 starts. He started off the 1923 season very poorly, posting a 13.27 ERA through the middle of May. On the 22nd of the month, the Pirates were able to deal for the pitcher they coveted for awhile, giving up pitcher Whitey Glazner, along with infielder Cotton Tierney and $50,000 cash. Pittsburgh also got back veteran infielder Johnny Rawlings in the deal. With the way Meadows was struggling at the time, it seemed like a fair deal for both teams, but Lee soon made it one-sided.
Finally pitching for a good team, Meadows got his ERA to a respectable level by the end of the year. His first game in a Pirates uniform, he allowed two runs, one earned, on 15 hits in a complete game victory over the Cubs. He threw his first shutout for the Pirates on September 10th, finishing with a 16-10 3.01 record in 227 innings, with 17 complete games while with Pittsburgh. After going 13-12 3.26 with three shutouts in 229.1 innings during the 1924 season, Meadows began his great three year run, during which time the Pirates went to the World Series twice.
In 1925, the Pirates finished 95-58 and Meadows led the team with 19 wins against just ten losses. He also pitched a team high 255.1 innings and reached twenty complete games for the first time. In the World Series, Meadows matched up against Walter Johnson in game one and came away with a 4-1 loss. The Pirates wound up winning the series in seven games, though Lee was unavailable for the rest of the games due to an arm strain.
Lee pitched even better in 1926, tying for the team lead of twenty wins with Ray Kremer. Despite having two 20 game winners, the Pirates finished in third place. To this day, it is still the last time Pittsburgh had two pitchers win twenty games in the same season. Kremer and Meadows also led the NL in wins that season, a four way tie for that honor along with Pete Donohue of the Reds and Flint Rhem of the Cardinals.
The Pirates made the World Series again in 1927, with Kremer and Meadows each winning 19 games. They were not the team leader though, a one year wonder named Carmen Hill, won 22 of his 49 career wins that season. Lee led the league with 38 games started and a career high 25 complete games. It completed a three year run of 58-29 for him, and he threw a career high 299.1 innings that season. It is an inning total that has been topped just twice in Pirates history since then, once was the next year from Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes. Meadows started and lost game three of the World Series, allowing seven runs in 6.1 innings during the 8-1 loss.
Unfortunately for Meadows, his brilliant run was ended by severe sinus problems and an arm injury in 1928. He pitched just four times, although he threw a complete game win on July 21st. Ten days later Lee failed to retire any of the five batters he faced, then a few weeks later in his next and final appearance, he allowed the first four batters he faced to reach base before being pulled. He voluntarily retired in August, then tried an unsuccessful comeback in 1929 that lasted one game. Meadows last appearance was in relief of Grimes, who was injured on a line drive back to the box. Lee faced five batters, allowing two hits, a walk and a run before being lifted. Shortly thereafter, he went to the minors, where he pitched until 1932, finishing his career back in Durham where he started.
Meadows finished with a 188-180 career record and a 3.37 ERA in 406 career starts and 84 relief appearances. He threw 219 complete games, 25 were shutouts. With the Pirates, he went 88-52 3.50 in 1248.1 innings, throwing 93 complete games in 157 starts. His inning total ranks him 30th in team history, while his .629 winning percentage ranks fifth among pitchers on the team with at least 1000 innings. Lee’s win total is 24th in team history.