Chet Lemon

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Chester Earl Lemon
(The Jet)

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Biographical Information[edit]

Chet Lemon was a multi-talented outfielder with a long major league career who nevertheless did not hit the peaks of performance predicted for him. He slugged over .500 in 1978 at the age of 23, and then never slugged over .500 again.


Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Chet Lemon grew up in Los Angeles, playing ball with Ozzie Smith and Eddie Murray. He was drafted at the age of 17 by the Oakland Athletics, taken with the 22nd overall pick of the 1972 amateur draft.

He began his minor league career that season with the Coos Bay-North Bend A's, hitting .286/~.375/.400 and was promoted to the Burlington Bees, where his line read .256/~.314/.318 with 30 strikeouts in 129 AB. In 1973, he spent all year with Burlington and batted .309/~.435/.513. He was fourth in batting average, possibly second in OBP behind Jim Eschen and possibly second in slugging behind only Randy Bass. Lemon's 88 RBI led the league, his 19 homers were two behind leader Bass. His only notable flaw was defense, where he made three errors in 11 games at shortstop and 33 in 104 games at third base, fielding .897 there. He made the Midwest League All-Star team at the hot corner.

At age 19, Chet was already in AA with the Birmingham Barons. He hit well again at .290/~.391/.496 and made the Southern League All-Star team at third but his defense got worse, as he managed just a .882 fielding percentage there, spending some time at DH and some at shortstop as well.

Lemon began the 1975 season playing for the Tucson Toros and he hit .280/~.382/.387 with 17 steals in 21 tries but fielding .858. The A's, with Sal Bando set at third base, dealt Lemon with Dave Hamilton to the Chicago White Sox for Stan Bahnsen and Skip Pitlock. Chicago assigned Chet to their AAA Denver Bears farm team. With Denver, Lemon put up a .307/~.408/.438 line and stole 11 bases in 13 tries. He fielded .852 as the Denver third baseman, having 38 errors in 112 games.

Major League Rookie[edit]

Chet Lemon received a September call-up to the big leagues at age 20, playing 9 games with the Chicago White Sox in 1975 and hitting .257/.297/.314. This was the year when Jim Kaat won 20 games for the White Sox and Wilbur Wood lost 20. Lemon says that his first game was at third base, where he made a mental error cutting in front of shortstop Bucky Dent, and after the game Chuck Tanner smiled at him, pointed to center field, and said that's where Chet would be playing - "where you can have all the room in the world". It is surprising that Lemon was not moved sooner, given years of poor fielding in the minors.

Chet became a regular the next year - 1976 - hitting .246/.298/.328. He was named to the 1976 Topps All-Star Rookie Team mainly because of his prowess as a centerfielder and his 131 games played. He beat out the Montreal Expos' Ellis Valentine, another defensive stand-out, who posted better numbers (.279/.339/.410) but in only 94 games.

Early Success[edit]

In 1977, at the age of 22, Lemon started to mature, hitting 19 home runs, and hitting .273/.343/.459 with 19 homers and 38 doubles, third in the American League. It was the year of the "South Side Hit Men" in Chicago. The next year (1978), when he slugged .510, he hit exactly .300. He had a 147 OPS+ and played in his first All-Star Game.

His highest batting average came in 1979 at the age of 24, when he hit .318/.391/.496. He led the AL with 44 doubles and 13 times hit by pitch, the first of four times he was plunked the most in his loop. He returned to the All-Star Game that summer.

Lemon was a centerfielder and had very good range factors. For most of his career, he was to continue to have range factors better than the average. In 1977, he set records for most chances (431) and most put-outs (411) by an outfielder, beating Dom DiMaggio's records. In spite of his speed, he was usually a lousy base stealer, stealing 58 in his career but getting caught 76 times.

A plateau and a trade[edit]

After hitting around .300 two more years, in 1980 and 1981, Lemon was traded to the Detroit Tigers for Steve Kemp. He was 5th in the AL in OPS in 1981 and his 154 OPS+ was a career high. He hit the 5,000th homer in Chicago White Sox history versus the Tigers on September 2, 1981. The ball was caught by a 23 year old avid Sox fan, Keith Gorney. Keith gladly gave the ball to the White Sox in exchange for Sox tickets and an opportunity to meet Chet Lemon. The White Sox were to go on to win the division in 1983 without Lemon, but Lemon would be part of the great Tiger team of 1984, when he made his third and last All-Star team.

Lemon spent the rest of his career, nine more seasons, with Detroit. After hitting over .290 each year of the last four seasons he spent with the White Sox, he never hit as high as .290 in his nine years with the Tigers. However, while he never hit as many as 20 home runs with the White Sox, he was to reach 20+ three times with the Tigers, and had two other years where he hit 19 and 18 home runs.

The 1984 Tigers utterly dominated major league baseball, winning 108 games and demolishing the San Diego Padres in the World Series in 5 games. Lemon, while not one of the biggest stars, was a useful contributor. He hit 20 home runs, third behind Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson (Darrell Evans, the DH, hit home runs at about the same pace as Lemon, but had fewer at-bats and thus fewer home runs). He hit .287, third behind Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and his .495 slugging percentage was second to Gibson. His OBP of .357 tied for third with Whitaker, trailing Trammell and Gibson.

In the World Series, Lemon mostly batted 7th in the order, often behind Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Larry Herndon, and Barbaro Garbey (the star from Cuba). Sometimes Ruppert Jones batted ahead of him, and Darrell Evans batted behind him sometimes and ahead of him sometimes.

In 1987, Lemon had one of his better seasons with the Tigers, hitting .277/.376/.481 with 20 home runs and a 130 OPS+. In the Championship Series, Lemon batted sixth in the lineup, getting 2 homers. In the first game of that championship series, the lineup was: Whitaker, Bill Madlock, Gibson, Trammell, Herndon, Lemon, Darrell Evans, Tom Brookens and Mike Heath, with Doyle Alexander as the pitcher.

He closed out his career at age 35 with the Tigers, still playing as a regular in the outfield in 1990.

Assessment and post-baseball life[edit]

Lemon was a three-time All-Star - in 1978 and 1979, while with the White Sox, and in 1984 with the Tigers. He led the league in doubles once, while with the White Sox, and he led the league four times in hit-by-pitch, twice with the White Sox and twice with the Tigers.

Not too long after he retired as a player, he nearly died from polycythemia vera, a blood disorder. He also had his spleen removed in 2003. He has done some high school and amateur baseball coaching.

His son Marcus Lemon has played in the minors since 2006.

The most similar players to Lemon, based on similarity scores, are an interesting group of stars: Johnny Callison, Bobby Murcer, Dusty Baker, Gary Matthews Sr., Felipe Alou, and Richie Hebner are among them.


"It was incredible. We were like rock stars." - Chet Lemon, speaking about the fan frenzy for the 1984 Detroit Tigers, of which he was a key part.

Notable Achievements[edit]

Further Reading[edit]

  • Chet Lemon (as told to George Vass): "The Game I'll Never Forget", Baseball Digest, April 1989, pp. 87-88 [1]
  • Mike McClary: "Chet Lemon", in Mark Pattison and David Raglin, ed.: Detroit Tigers 1984: What A Start! What A Finish!, SABR Publications, Phoenix, AZ, 2012, pp. 109-113. ISBN 1933599448

Related Sites[edit]