RIP to Tom Acker, who pitched for four seasons in the majors in the 1950s. He was also a big part of the baseball scene in his home of New Jersey after leaving professional baseball. He died on January 4 in his home in Narvon, Pa. He was 90 years old. Acker played for the Cincinnati Reds from 1956 until 1959.
Thomas James Acker was born in Paterson, N.J., on March 7, 1930. He was raised in Fair Lawn, where his father Thomas was a patrolman, and went to high school there. He played both basketball and baseball, and even as a sophomore, the lanky right-handed sidearmer (he would reach a height of 6’4″) had a knack for throwing shutouts. He lost just 2 games in his high school career and finished his senior season with a 9-0 record with 102 strikeouts, 22 hits allowed and five walks, according to NorthJersey.com. In 1947, he pitched for a semipro team called the Uncle Sams and led them to a tournament in Wichita. He won his only start of the tournament.
Several pro teams were interested in Acker once he graduated, and the signing bonuses were said to be many thousands of dollars. He eventually joined the New York Giants organization in 1948 and went to the Oshkosh Giants of the Wisconsin State League. He wasn’t very impressive in his first season there, as he won 3 games and lost 6 with a 5.06 ERA in 18 games. The 19 year old turned things around quite nicely in 1949, going 14-7 for Oshkosh and dropping his ERA by nearly 2 full runs. He also struck out 213 batters in 201 innings. Jack Aragon, a manager in the Giants’ organization, worked with Acker on a crossfire pitch, in which a right-handed sidearm pitcher steps toward third base while making the delivery. It can throw off a batter to see a pitcher moving to the side instead of straight ahead, and Acker apparently took to it pretty well. He struck out 20 Fond du Lac batters in a game on May 27, with a ninth-inning single being all that separated him from a 5-0 perfect game.
Acker moved up to the Class-B Knoxville Smokies of the Tri-State League in 1950 and had a 6-3 record and a 3.07 ERA in 42 games. He was used mainly as a reliever by the Smokies, as he was bothered by a sore arm during the season. Thanks to his marked improvement, Acker was the first player taken in the 1949 minor league draft, as the Buffalo Bisons of the Cincinnati Reds organization paid $125,000 for him. Ordinarily, a young pitcher like Acker wouldn’t be taken by a AAA team, but teams in the advanced minors were fearing a personnel shortage, with the draft claiming so many able-bodied youngsters. Acker himself was classified 1-A, but the Bisons still took the chance that they could get some use out of him before the armed forces could snag him. With his crossfire delivery and good fastball, the Reds envisioned him as another Ewell Blackwell.
As it turned out, Acker was a Bison for just one season — 1951. He was one of the youngest players on a pretty veteran ballclub and ended up finishing second on the team in innings pitched with an even 200. He turned in a 10-13 record and 3.69 ERA. One of those losses came when he threw a 9-inning no-hitter but couldn’t get any run support. He gave up a couple of hits and a run in the tenth inning to lose 1-0. Despite his young age, he established himself as a leading prospect for the Reds. “Somebody’s face is red in the Giants’ office for letting Tom Acker get lost in the minor league draft last winter,” reported a New Jersey ballclub owner, Jess Weiner.
That October, Acker was inducted into the Army and spent the next two years in the military. While serving out his military time in Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky, he continued to make his presence felt in the Reds’ front office, as five teams contacted Reds general manager Gabe Paul about acquiring the pitcher.
Acker returned to professional ball in 1954 and spent two seasons in AA ball to regain his form. He struggled in 1954 for Tulsa but won 11 games for the Nashville Vols in 1955. The Reds had been biding their time, waiting for Acker to show he could survive in the majors. They put him on the 1956 Opening Day roster, and he spent the next four seasons with the team.
Acker’s major-league debut came on April 20 against the Cubs. He allowed a run in 2 innings of relief work, striking out 3 batters. His first start was a bust, as he allowed 4 earned runs to the Phillies on May 20 before a sore wrist caused him to be yanked in the third inning. Following that start, he didn’t allow another earned run until July 26 — a span of 11 relief outings and 21-1/3 scoreless innings.
The Reds won a surprising 91 games, good enough for third place in the National League. They were led by rookie sensation Frank Robinson, but manager Birdie Tebbetts gave credit to a strong bullpen, of which Acker was a big part. “His main trouble in the past has been finding the strike zone. I think this year he’s on his way to finding it,” Tebbetts said, accurately. Acker walked 29 batters in 83-2/3 innings and struck out 54. Overall, he did better as a reliever than a starter, but he did get his only career shutout on September 19 against the Phillies. Acker allowed just 3 hits and fanned 5 batters in a 6-0 win. He ended the season with a 4-3 record and a 2.37 ERA in 29 games, with 7 starts.
Acker won a career-high 10 games for Cincinnati in 1957, though he struggled in the second half to end the year with an ERA near 5.00. Two of those wins came on the same day — May 19 — as Acker beat Pittsburgh twice in a doubleheader. He was summoned in from the pen in the first game when the Pirates staged a ninth-inning, two-out rally against tiring starter Brooks Lawrence. After Lawrence allowed a 3-run homer to Bill Virdon to tie the game, Acker struck out Dick Groat to end the threat. The Reds scored in the bottom of the inning for the 8-7 win. In the second game, Acker came into the game in the eighth inning with the Reds leading 4-3. He allowed an unearned run to tie the game, but the Reds pulled ahead on a solo shot by Wally Post. Acker worked around a Roberto Clemente double to toss a scoreless ninth inning, picking up his fifth win of the year and second on the day.
Acker logged career highs with 124-2/3 innings pitched and 90 strikeouts in 1958. His ERA was 4.55 for the season, and the long ball didn’t do him any favors. He allowed 10 home runs in 1958 after giving up 16 the previous year. One of them wasted an otherwise strong effort against the Cardinals, as he allowed a 2-run shot to rookie Gene Green to tie the game up at 4 apiece. The Reds won the game in 10 innings when Robinson belted a solo homer.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Acker said of the game. Grinning, he added, “What’s the difference? We won, and besides, my roomie [Hal Jeffcoat] got the [win] so at least we kept it in the family.”
Acker hoped to spend 1959 as a starter for new manager Mayo Smith. However, he appeared in 37 games, all in relief. His walk rate increased to 5.3 per 9 innings, and he again allowed 10 homers, but this time it was in just 63-1/3 innings. Fred Hutchinson, who replaced Smith as manager, used Acker sparingly, to the big sidearmer’s frustration. When he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics at the end of the season for catcher Frank House, he looked at it as a new opportunity. Unfortunately, Acker did not make the A’s and was sent to AAA Richmond. After 16 games, he was transferred to a minor-league club in Dallas-Fort Worth. Acker refused the move, because he didn’t want to travel so far from his family, and was suspended for the remainder of the season. When the A’s assigned him to Shreveport after the season, he retired.
In four seasons with the Reds, Acker appeared in 153 games, including 23 starts. He ended with a 19-13 record and 8 saves with a 4.12 ERA. He had 5 complete games and 1 shutout. He fanned 256 batters in 380-1/3 innings and was worth 4.5 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference.
Acker pitched played semipro ball back in his home of New Jersey. After a couple of near misses in the minors, he finally threw a no-hitter in 1961 for Poughkeepsie. He spent seven seasons pitching and managing the Emerson-Westwood Merchants, helping to revitalize New Jersey’s local baseball scene in the process. He also worked as a pari-mutuel clerk and a supervisor at the Meadowlands Race Track for 16 years until retiring in 1992. He moved to Virginia before settling down to retirement in Pennsylvania.