One of my few real regrets in baseball fandom is that I was not alive in the good ol’ days of baseball when players were regularly nicknamed things like ‘Schoolboy.’ This is something that is much bemoaned among a certain type of fan, but we really do have a point. In his debut season, not only did Schoolboy Rowe’s team have a Schoolboy, but also a Heinie (Schuble), a Roxie (Lawson) and a Bots (Nekola). A shame we no longer live in such an era. As for Rowe, he was born Lynwood Thomas Rowe in Waco, Texas. According to legend, when Lynwood was in his teens he pitched against a team for ex-major leaguers and beat them. Disgusted, the players could not believe they had been beaten by a ‘Schoolboy,’ and the nickname stuck.
As it turned out, the players need not have been so embarrassed. Rowe may have been just a teenager then, but he was a regular and valued member of a major league pitching staff by the time he was 23 in 1933. After dominating in his one minor league season (19-7, 2.35) Rowe made his debut for the Tigers that year and appeared in 19 games, starting 15. He finished 7-4 in just over 120 innings with a 3.58 ERA. If the Rookie of the Year award existed at the time—it wouldn’t, for almost two decades hence—Rowe’s performance would likely have earned him a fifth- or sixth-place spot; and perhaps put him on the “Sleeper List” for 1934’s rotisserie baseball season. (Of course, that wouldn’t exist for quite a while either.)
If Rowe proved he belonged in 1933, 1934 was his chance to prove he could shine. He won 24 games against just eight losses while ranking sixth in the league in ERA. Rowe’s 45 games and 266 innings were both good for third in the league, a reflection of his having thrown 20 complete games and finished 13 more. Rowe was especially effective against the Yankees, defeating the New Yorkers five times over the course of the season. All of this—plus Rowe’s hitting prowess, about which more later—combined to give him the fourth place position in the MVP voting, the second pitcher behind the Yankees’ Lefty Gomez.
Late in the season Tigers manager Mickey Cochrane announced that Rowe was going to be his starter for the first game of the World Series, announcing to the press that “it’s good baseball to lead your ace, and that’s what I’m going to do.” As it turned out, Cochrane should have listened to his own advice; when Game One rolled around Alvin “General” Crowder was on the mound facing the Cardinals, despite having a 5.75 ERA on the year in time split between Washington and Detroit. Although Crowder allowed only one earned run, the Tigers lost the game 8-3. Given the chance to start the next day, Rowe engaged in a battle with a pair of Bills: Hallahan and Walker. All said, Rowe went 12 innings and gave up just two runs before his mates were finally able to push a run across. Rowe would not appear again in the Series until Game Six when Paul Dean outdueled him 4-3 to keep the Cards in the series. Rowe appeared briefly in relief in Game Seven, but having pitched nine innings the day before and 21 in the Series he was ineffective, recording only one out as the Cards romped to an easy 11-run win.
Rowe never again enjoyed a season as good as 1934, although 1935 was almost as good (19-13, 3.69) and ended with another pennant for the Tigers. Rowe lost his two World Series starts despite throwing a complete game both times and allowing only three runs in each. He also won a game in relief and perhaps most satisfyingly, the Tigers won the Series. Although Rowe again won 19 games in 1936, his ERA jumped to 4.51. By 1938, Rowe’s arm apparently went south and he followed, being relegated to the minor leagues. Rowe managed to defy expectations, going 12-2 with a 2.25 ERA in the minors, while walking less than one per nine innings. Seeing these results, the Tigers brought him back the big leagues and Rowe did not disapoint, even going 16-3 for the Tigers’ pennant-winning 1940 club. Convinced their stalwart hurler was at last finished, in 1942 the Tigers shipped him to Brooklyn, who soon sent him to their Montreal farm team.
Once again Rowe proved he had life in his career, allowing just five runs in three starts while in Montreal. This prompted Rowe’s return to the Majors with the Phillies in 1943, one in which he won 14 games with an ERA under three. Rowe served in the Navy for two years and would be 36 in 1946, seemingly at the end of the road. Instead, Rowe once more defied expectations and went 11-4 with a 2.12 ERA for the Phils in ’46. He never again reached an ERA under three but pitched well enough to win 24 games in 1947 and ’48. Rowe threw 65 innings in 1949, but—at least according to him—asked for his release after the season in order to take a coaching job in the Tigers organization. Rowe admitted he later regretted the decision, as it cost him the Phils’ pennant winner’s share in 1950. He coached in the Tigers’ system for many years, including as major league pitching coach in the mid-50s; he died in 1961 while serving as a scout.
Besides his Lazarus arm, Rowe is notable for two things. The first is his hitting. Rowe was an excellent hitter for a pitcher and some seasons a good hitter by any standard. He finished with a career .263 average and .710 OPS. He slugged 18 home runs in just over 900 at-bats, and had a better slugging percentage than league average in five of his 15 seasons. In something that is a testament to prowess as both hitter and pitcher, per thousand times at bat, Rowe drew around 84 walks while walking fewer than 60.
Finally, 1934 was not only a good year for Rowe on account of his pitching success, but also for his love life. Rowe’s high school sweetheart, Edna May Skinner, was back in Rowe’s Arkansas home town, and Detroit papers followed his long-distance wooing. Rowe even appeared on the radio show of Eddie Cantor (sort of a 1930s Howard Stern, if you can imagine such a thing) and inquired out into the airwaves “How am I doing, Edna honey?” Opposing players would later taunt Rowe with cries of “How am I doing, honey?” but given that Rowe married Skinner after the 1934 World Series, and finished with a career with 158 wins and a 3.87 ERA, it appears Rowe was doing just fine.