Buddy Lewis, Nats star and WWII pilot, dies at 94

February 26, 2011

Buddy Lewis, a star third baseman and outfielder for the Washington Nationals of the 1930s and 1940s, whose career was interrupted for almost four years while he served as a pilot during World War II, died Feb. 18 at his home in Gastonia, N.C., of complications from cancer. He was 94.

Mr. Lewis arrived in Washington late in the 1935 season as a fresh-faced teenager from North Carolina. After some initial struggles, he established himself as the team’s third baseman and quickly became a favorite of the fans.

In 1936, his first full season, he and Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees were considered the finest rookies in baseball.

“ ‘How about this kid, Lewis?’ is the first question that local baseball scriveners in every Western city are popping at Manager Bucky Harris,” Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich wrote in May 1936.

“ ‘Which one is Buddy Lewis?’ hotel clerks whisper furtively as the Nats check in at the different hostelries.”

Povich asked Mr. Lewis, then only 19, how he was affected by the sudden fame of his baseball prowess.

“Gee, ain’t it great?” he replied.

With a clean, lefthanded batting stroke, Mr. Lewis hit for an average of .291 in 1936 and scored 100 runs for a Nats team that finished third in the American League. (The club’s official name at the time was the Nationals, or Nats for short, but many fans casually referred to the team by its former — and future — name, the Senators.)

In 1937, Mr. Lewis collected 210 hits to go with his .314 average. His roommate was shortstop Cecil Travis, and together they gave the Nats a formidable infield combination. Both players were named to the American League All Star team in 1938.

Mr. Lewis recorded career highs of 91 runs batted in and 122 runs scored in 1938, but his offensive skills were offset by his weak fielding. In 1938, he committed 47 errors at third base, including 11 during one six-game stretch.

He had a strong season in 1939, hitting .319 and leading the American League in triples, but he continued to struggle in the field. Beginning in 1940, he was switched primarily to the outfield, where he could concentrate more on his hitting.

In early 1941, Mr. Lewis was drafted, but he obtained deferments to complete the season with the Nationals. He entered the Army Air Forces in November 1941.

He lost more than three years in the prime of his career, but he became a decorated transport pilot flying “over the hump” of the Himalayas in the China-Burma-India theater. He named his C-47 cargo plane “the Old Fox” after Nats owner Clark Griffith.

Mr. Lewis flew 368 missions, made many landings in jungle clearings behind Japanese lines and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“Everybody agreed he was the best transport pilot in the CBI theater,” Luke Sewell, then the manager of the St. Louis Browns, told The Washington Post in 1945 after flying with Mr. Lewis in Burma. “He set his big transport plane down on tiny strips that didn’t look big enough for a mosquito to land on. And he did it while he was talking baseball to me.”

John Kelly Lewis Jr. was born Aug. 10, 1916, in Gaston County, N.C., and signed a professional baseball contract after one year at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University. He played minor-league ball in Chattanooga, Tenn., where his manager, Clyde Milan, recommended him to the Nationals.

He was known as “Johnny” Lewis early in his career, but after learning the finer points of bunting from veteran infielder Buddy Myer, he acquired his mentor’s nickname, as well.

Days after being discharged from the military in July 1945, Mr. Lewis was back in the lineup for the Nats. The team immediately won 23 of 33 games, with Mr. Lewis making several key late-inning hits. He batted .333 in 69 games while helping to lead the team to a second-place finish in the American League.

In 1947, Mr. Lewis was the starting rightfielder for the American League All Star team. The other two outfielders were Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

Slowed by an injury late in 1947, Mr. Lewis sat out the 1948 season. He had his final year in 1949 and finished with a lifetime batting average of .297.

He returned to his native Gastonia, where he operated a Ford dealership for many years and invested in real estate.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Frances Oates Lewis of Gastonia; three children, Kelly Burrell and Lee Lewis, both of Gastonia, and J. Michael Lewis of Clover, S.C.; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

For many years, Mr. Lewis coached American Legion baseball in Gastonia. His fellow coach on the team was Lawrence Columbus Davis, who had a brief big-league career. He was better known as Crash Davis, whose name was appropriated by the Kevin Costner character in the 1988 baseball film “Bull Durham.”

schudelm@washpost.com

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
Continue reading 10 minutes left
Most Read Local