Grave Story: Tom Lanning (1907-1967)

Here lies Tom Lanning, who had a major-league pitching career that lasted about three weeks. He and his wife, Martha, are buried in this unmarked plot in Marietta, Ga. Lanning pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1938. His younger brother, Johnny, was also a pitcher, and he had an 11-year MLB career in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Tom and Martha Lanning are buried in this plot at Georgia Memorial Park Cemetery in Marietta.

Thomas Newton Lanning was born on April 22, 1907 in North Carolina. Baseball Reference lists his birthplace as Biltmore, which is not a city that currently exists in the state. There is a Biltmore Forest, but it wasn’t chartered until 1923. The Biltmore that you may know from North Carolina is the massive estate built by George Vanderbilt. It’s located in the city of Asheville, which is Tom’s likely birthplace. Johnny was born in Asheville in 1910, and Tom Lanning’s obituary calls him an Asheville native. There was also a third Lanning brother who was a pitcher. “Fat” Lanning (most likely George Lanning) pitched for Carolina teams in the 1920s and early ‘30s.

Tom Lanning, a left-handed pitcher, was a star athlete at Wake Forest College, where he received three letters in baseball, and Biltmore Junior College, which is now the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He was said to have a good curve, and he also threw a knuckleball. He joined the Winston-Salem Twins of the Piedmont League in 1932, when he was 25 years old. He originally wanted a tryout with the Asheville Tourists but was refused. Baseball Reference shows him with a 1-2 record in 3 games pitched in 1932. If true, that one win happened to be a 3-1 victory over the Tourists. Lanning struck out 3 batters while getting a little sweet revenge on the local team that rejected him.

Lanning was out of baseball – at least professionally – in 1933 but returned with a vengeance the following season. He signed with the Tourists in early July and threw a 5-inning no-hitter against Charlotte on August 28. Lanning left the Piedmont League after spending 1935 with Portsmouth and moved further south. He spent most of the next two seasons with the Dothan (Alabama) Boll Weevils. He went 9-4 with a 2.49 ERA for the Weevils in 1936 and followed it up with a 10-13 campaign in ’37, with a 2.97 ERA. Those were pretty good seasons, but by the end of 1937, Lanning was 30 years old and had yet to pitch anywhere outside of the low minor leagues.

This is a terrible image, but it’s the only action shot of Tom Lanning I found. Source: The Dothan Eagle Sun, April 18, 1937.

It would seem that baseball was not a driving passion for Lanning. His 1937 season was the first time he had thrown more than 200 innings in a season. Several times in his career, he didn’t make an appearance until the summer was halfway over. Judging from news reports, Lanning worked in Asheville and pitched in the semipro textile leagues in the area for a part of the summer, and then he would sign with a pro team and pitch there for the rest of the season. He had some impressive performances when he did play, and lefty pitchers have always had value in baseball. Had Lanning dedicated himself to the game, it’s reasonable to think that he could have had the type of career that his younger brother did.

Lanning reported back to Dothan in 1938 but was traded to the Montgomery Rebels weeks later. In moving from the Class D Alabama-Florida League to the Class B Southeastern League, Lanning would be put to the test, trying his skill against players who were a little more developed. He had an excellent year, achieving a 14-10 record and 3.17 ERA. He gave up a lot of hits – 252 in 216 innings – but his walk ratio was a solid 2.3 per 9 innings. On September 3, Lanning was brought to the majors by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Lanning’s first game came on September 14 in a 12-9 loss to the Cardinals. He threw a 1-2-3 9th inning. Ten days later, he started a game against Brooklyn and survived 4 innings. He gave up 7 hits and 5 earned runs while walking one and striking out one, taking the loss in an 8-1 defeat. He also singled in what would be his only at-bat in the major leagues, leaving him with a lifetime 1.000 batting average. Finally, Lanning worked 2 innings against the Dodgers on October 2 in a 7-2 loss. He allowed a couple of hits and walked a batter, but no runs scored.

Source: The Atlanta Constitution, January 27, 1941.

All total, Lanning pitched 7 innings over the three games, with an 0-1 record and 6.43 ERA. He struck out 2, walked 2 and gave up 9 hits. Though it was thought that he would compete for a spot on the 1939 rotation, he was instead farmed out to the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association. He struggled there despite a 2-1 record, allowing 13 runs in 20 innings while walking 10 and striking out 4. He finished off the season with the Birmingham Barons, who bought out his contract from the Phillies. He went 9-9 for the Barons and was released prior to the start of the 1940 season, ending Lanning’s professional career. In seven seasons in the minor leagues, he won 42 games.

After being released by Birmingham in 1940, Lanning joined a semipro team from Buford, Ga., to participate in a national tournament sponsored by the Denver Post. The team, stocked with former major-leaguers like Lanning and outfielder Jerry McQuaig, lost to the Enid, Okla., team in the championship game. He stayed in the Atlanta area, playing amateur ball for most of the 1940s.

Tom Lanning died at the age of 60 on November 4, 1967, at his home in Marietta, Ga. At the time of his death, he was working as a salesman for Atlanta Motor Parts Inc. He is buried in Georgia Memorial Park Cemetery in Marietta.

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