Jim Tyler had long since given up his dream of pitching against major leaguers or, indeed, of pitching against anyone. It had been almost half a century since he had signed a $100-a-month minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox and almost four decades since he had last pitched in a baseball game, for the Class A Macon (Ga.) Peaches of the old South Atlantic League. "I hadn't thrown a ball since I coached my son's Little League team, and that had been almost 30 years," says Tyler.
Seven years ago, however, while watching an Atlanta Brave game on TV at his home in Macon, Tyler heard announcer and former Brave pitcher Ernie Johnson talking about a Brave fantasy camp. Tyler was intrigued. "I wonder if I can still do it," he said to his wife, Evelyn.
"Do what?" she asked.
"Pitch—at the fantasy camp Ernie Johnson's talking about," said Tyler.
July 24, 1994
Evelyn was somewhat skeptical, but she told her husband of 48 years, "If you really want to do it, then go to it."
So it was that the 67-year-old Tyler launched his comeback. Since returning to the mound, Tyler, now 74, has been a mainstay of the Braves, a team in the Greater Atlanta Men's Senior Baseball League for players 36 and over. "People in the Men's Senior Baseball League [which has 34,000 players in 38 states, Canada, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Holland] have checked, and they say I'm the oldest guy still pitching," says Tyler, who has two children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. "That's nice to know, but that's not why I pitch. I do it because I love it, and I can still get people out."
Indeed he can, both as a starter and as a reliever. He also helps out occasionally in the infield as well as the outfield. After giving up only one earned run and two hits in four innings of a game he started in June, Tyler was pressed into action at third base in the second game of a double-header when the regular third sacker had to leave.
Evelyn Tyler, who was on hand, was hardly delighted to see her husband at the hot corner. "I could tell by the look on her face that she didn't like the idea of my playing third base," says Jim. As it turned out, nothing was hit his way, and after two innings another player took over, to Evelyn's relief.
Tyler is a bona fide pitcher, and a stylish one at that, with a fastball in the mid-60's, an excellent curve, a good slider and a deft changeup. "The key to Jim's success is his great control and the way he mixes up his pitches and keeps hitters off balance," says Wayne Coleman, 46, who is the Braves' player-manager. "He's very consistent; he never has a bad outing. And he's throwing better than he did during his first year, in 1990."
It was Coleman who recruited Tyler when the Braves were being formed in 1990. "I'd met Jim at a fantasy camp that winter, and after I got back home, I called and asked if he would pitch for us," says Coleman, who heads a management-consultant firm located outside Atlanta. "I knew if he was going to play in our league, I didn't want to have to hit against him."
By then Tyler had pitched so well at two Atlanta Brave fantasy camps that he'd earned MVP and best pitcher awards. Before attending the first camp, Tyler, already in shape from years of swimming and lifting weights, limbered up by throwing a hard rubber ball against a wall near his home and by throwing a baseball to his son, Earl, and to longtime friend Orbin Howell.
Pitching in the Atlanta senior men's league posed one difficulty, because it meant making a 180-mile round-trip drive each week from Macon during the season. Tyler came up with a solution: He recruited Earl, then 42 and a pretty good ballplayer, to join the Braves as an outfielder and to serve as his designated driver. After two seasons, though, Earl gave it up because the traveling was keeping him away from the cleaning business he had taken over from his father. Now Jim is accompanied to Atlanta by Evelyn, who usually spends the afternoon at a shopping mall.
Before agreeing to play, Jim got Coleman's assurance that he would get to pitch at least a few innings each week. "I wasn't going to drive 180 miles to sit on the bench," he says.
Tyler needn't have worried. Over the last five seasons he has been one of Coleman's most consistent pitchers in a highly competitive league. Starting five of the 13 games the Braves played in 1991 and relieving in most of the others, Tyler helped pitch the team to the Greater Atlanta title and to the championship game again in '92. During one game this season an opposing batter, after striking out against Tyler, told Coleman, "That was the best damn curveball I ever saw."
Others have felt the same way. Three former big leaguers also marveled at Tyler's stuff after he whiffed them in an Atlanta Brave fantasy camp game in West Palm Beach, Fla., in February 1993. Pitching against a team of former big-league Braves, Tyler fanned Johnson, Rod Gilbreath and Pat Jarvis. True, Johnson and Jarvis were pitchers, but having played before the designated-hitter era, they had had plenty of batting experience. Then, too, Jarvis had a nominal claim to fame as a hitter; he was Nolan Ryan's first major league strikeout victim. "Now I can say that I got Pat Jarvis too," says Tyler, who flew to Arlington, Texas, three years ago to meet Ryan in the Texas Ranger clubhouse. ("Nolan was so interested in how I was able to keep on pitching that I didn't get to ask him too many questions," Tyler recalls.)
What made that strikeout trifecta all the more remarkable was that the day before, Tyler had pitched, and won, a doubleheader. "Mr. Tyler pitched a two-hit shutout in the morning, which put us into the championship game in the afternoon," says former Brave outfielder Ralph Garr, who managed Tyler's team. "He was the best pitcher I had, so I asked him if he could also pitch the second game. He said, 'I'm going to take a little rest, but I'll be ready.' "
An hour later Tyler was back on the mound in the 85° Florida heat, pitching against players in their 30's and 40's. Again he went the seven-inning distance, yielding only four hits and pitching his team to a 2-1 victory and the camp championship. "After I got the last batter, I just flopped down on the grass in front of the mound," Tyler says. "Some of the guys thought I'd had a heart attack, but I was just real tired."
Garr was amazed. "It was unreal," he says. "Mr. Tyler was outstanding." So much so that Tyler, who had pitched 33 innings in five days, was given a special "Cy Old" award at the camp's closing ceremonies.
Remarkably, Tyler has never had a sore arm. "Maybe it's because I gave it a 37-year rest," he says with a laugh. But he has had other ailments. His right knee was replaced in 1984, 31 years after cartilage in it was torn, and in 1988 a steel plate and screws were put in his left knee to keep it functioning. "They might hurt the next day, but never when I'm on the mound," he says of the knees that first got him onto the field as a professional in 1941.
That was the year Tyler began his rookie season with the Danville-Schoolfield (Va.) Leafs of the Bi-State League after signing with the Red Sox. He then spent four years in the Army during World War II, much of the time with an artillery unit in Panama, where he played ball with several big leaguers stationed there.
After the war, he married Evelyn, spent three years pitching in a Georgia semipro circuit and then opened a cleaning business in Macon. From 1949 to '53 he was back in the Class D Georgia State League, pitching in Dublin and Eastman, while looking after his business. "I would go to work in the store and then every fourth day I'd drive to Dublin, Eastman or someplace else to pitch," he says.
In 1951 he was signed by his hometown Macon Peaches as a part-time pitcher. "I pitched in four games and was 2-0," says Tyler, who at 6'2" and 188 pounds has maintained his minor league playing weight of 185-190. "But then they wanted me to join the team full time. With my business, a wife, two kids and a bad knee, I just couldn't do it. I realized that at 31, I wasn't going to make it all the way up."
At 74, Tyler still is finding new thrills as a ballplayer. After a one-inning save that included two strikeouts at last November's Men's Senior Baseball League World Series in Phoenix, Tyler was carried off the field by his teammates. "I couldn't wait to call my wife," he says, "because that had never happened before."
During the off-season Tyler throws against the wall near his home every other day, and in the spring he pitches batting practice to local high school players. Occasionally, he drags his old buddy, Howell, who is 73, out of his insurance business office for some BP. "Orbin can still hit, says Tyler, "and it gives me someone to pitch to."
So when might the old Macon peach of a pitcher pack it in? "When I can't get the hitters out anymore," he says. "It's that simple."
Jack Cavanaugh, who lives in Wilton, Conn., has written a number of stories for Sports Illustrated.