Arkansas native Lon Warneke was a note major league baseball pitcher during the 1930s and 1940s. Called “The Arkansas Hummingbird” by the press and in a 2014 biography, he enjoyed a 15-years career in the major leagues. A respected player in his day, Warneke still holds the record for the most wins of any pitcher from Arkansas.
Warneke was born in March 1909 on his father’s farm near Owley, a small community in Montgomery County in rural western Arkansas. He enjoyed the outdoors as well as playing the guitar and baseball. He attended the one-room school in Owley before transferring to the county’s only high school in nearby Mount Ida. He began playing for the school baseball team, initially as a first baseman before becoming a relief pitcher.
After graduation, he moved to Houston where he initially worked a series of odd jobs, including messenger. He tried out for the Houston Buffaloes, a minor league team, in 1928. Instead, he was sent to minor league teams in Mississippi and Louisiana and posted a lackluster record as a pitcher. He was cut at the end of the 1928 season but tried again and made the roster for the next season. He improved with the 1929 and 1930 minor league seasons, before being called up to the major leagues as a relief pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. His major league debut in 1930 was a disaster, walking five of the eleven batters he faced and giving up two hits.
He never gave up. The Cubs kept him aboard, but he saw very little play in the 1931 season. Warneke gradually moved his way up the roster into the regular pitching rotation. In 1932, he won 22 games and struck out more than one hundred batters. The Cubs made it to the World Series that year, and though Warneke struck out eight batters, the Cubs fell to the New York Yankees. He was named as a Most Valuable Player for the Cubs that season.
Warneke was chosen to play in the first All-Star Game, held at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Though never an impressive batter (and most pitchers are not), he hit the first triple for the National League in All-Star Game history and scored the first National League run. He would have two more All-Star Game appearances.
In 1936, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. He would play for St. Louis for the next seven seasons.
In 1940, while still a player for the Cardinals, he was asked to serve as an umpire for one game. No umpires had been assigned to officiate the Cardinals-Reds game that day in a bizarre oversight. One umpire was summoned at the last minute, while Warneke was chosen as the second umpire and a coach for the Reds was chosen as the third.
World War II had disrupted professional sports across the country as some sports were shut down entirely and others saw star players heading off to war. Warneke was determined to do his part as well. He enlisted in the army in early 1944, but the military had other plans. Warneke was made a civilian director and assigned to Camden, Arkansas. His job was simple: organize morale for civilian defense plant workers in the area. As a result, he organized several baseball teams from neighboring plants and communities and organized a baseball league. He helped train and coach the teams, which became a popular wartime diversion.
He spent a year at his wartime post in Arkansas before returning to the Cubs. His performance slowed with the new 1945 season. Warneke pitched in nine games in what became his last season. Overall, he won 192 games as a major league pitcher, striking out 1,140 batters in his career.
At age 36, he was far from ready to retire. He picked up a job as a full-time umpire, officiating three seasons in the minor leagues. In 1949, he started work as an umpire in the major leagues. He officiated the 1952 All-Star Game and the 1954 World Series before stepping aside from his work as an umpire in 1955.
He returned to Arkansas, settling in Hot Springs, and began a number of business ventures. He was elected to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1961, and then turned to politics. In 1962, he was elected county judge for Garland County. The county enjoyed a period of growth and prosperity during his years in office, with expanding population and expanding education opportunities such as with the 1969 opening of Quapaw Technical Institute. A popular figure in the area, he declined to seek re-election in 1972 and stepped into retirement. He died quietly at his home in Hot Springs in 1976 at age 67.