Between 1984 and 1986, Ron Hassey went back and forth via trades between Chicago and New York more times than the Amtrak Cardinal. Hassey’s Windy City to Big Apple and back moves began in 1984, when the Cubs traded him and three other players to the Yankees for Brian Dayett and Ray Fontenot. A year later, New York sent Hassey and pitcher Joe Cowley to the White Sox to acquire starting pitcher, Britt Burns. Two months later, just before the 1986 Yankee spring training camp opened, they got the catcher back as part of a seven-player deal with the White Sox. And finally, in July of 1986, Hassey again was packed off to the White Sox in the trade that put pinstripes on Ron Kittle, Joel Skinner and Wayne Tolleson.
Why was Hassey dealt so many times? During his one and only complete season in New York in 1985, the Tucson, AZ native had proved his left-handed swing was a real nice fit for Yankee Stadium. He had smashed 13 home runs in just 92 games, driven in 42 and averaged over .290. The Yankees liked his bat. They were not that impressed, however, with his catching ability. In just 69 games behind the plate that year, Hassey had led the American League by allowing 15 passed balls. He also lacked the game management skills of New York’s starting catcher that season, Butch Wynegar. So even though Hassey’s bat had a lot more pop than Wynegar’s, the Yankees continued to find him expendable whenever a deal was in the making.
That of course didn’t sit too well with Hassey. He loved playing in New York, he adored Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch and he wanted to remain a Yankee. He could not have been that bad a game-managing receiver either because he remains the only big league catcher in history to have caught two perfect games. The first was Len Barker’s 1981 gem as a Cleveland Indian and the second was the Dennis Martinez perfecto which Hassey caught in 1991, with the Expos. That ’91 season turned out to be the swan song for Hassey’s fourteen-year big league playing career. He was born on February 27, 1953.
Also celebrating a birthday today is this former Yankee reliever who led New York in appearances during the 1991 season, this former Yankee catcher/coach and this former Yankee reliever who went undefeated during his first season in pinstripes.
1920 was an historic year for the New York Yankee franchise. Major League baseball was in the throes of scandal over the alleged involvement of several Chicago White Sox players in a concerted effort to lose the 1919 World Series against Cincinnati. Fans all over the country were turning away from the game in disgust. That wasn’t the case in the Big Apple thanks to the Yankees’ acquisition of Babe Ruth from Boston in January of 1920. In his first season as a Yankee, Ruth stunned the nation by hitting the then unbelievable total of 54 home runs. That would be like someone hitting 180 home runs during the 2010 season, without the help of any pharmaceuticals.
New York set a franchise record by winning 95 games that year and although Ruth was clearly the driving force behind that success, New York had also assembled an outstanding pitching staff. Three veterans on that staff, Carl Mays, Bob Shawkey and Jack Quinn combined to win 64 games that season. The fourth starter was a young, whiskey drinking rookie from Texas named Rip Collins. He was a former Texas Aggie football player who was as tough as they come and he put together a fourteen-victory season during his first year in pinstripes. The following year, Ruth hit 59 bombs and the Yankees won the first AL Pennant in their illustrious history. Collins went 11-5 in his sophomore season and although he had a tendency to walk too many hitters, it looked as if he was in the infant stages of what promised to be a long and successful career with New York. But Yankee manager Miller Huggins had different ideas. From the moment Ruth came to New York, Huggins found it impossible to control this slugging wild man off the field. The manager knew he couldn’t trade Ruth so he did the next best thing. He started getting rid of the Yankee teammates that Ruth enjoyed partying with. Young Rip Collins was one such teammate. In December of 1921, the pitcher was part of a seven player swap with the Red Sox. He went 14-7 during his one season in Beantown but the same control issues that he had experienced as a Yankee followed him to Boston as he led the AL in bases-on-balls. Collins then spent the next five years in Detroit pitching for the Tigers. He then pitched in Canada in 1928 and then signed with the Browns, where he finished his big league career in 1931. Lifetime, Collins was 108-82. After he left baseball he began a career in law enforcement which included a job as a Texas Ranger. He died in Texas in May of 1968 at the age of 72.
You’d have to be about my age to remember when Al Downing was a young and very good starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. When most fans hear Downing’s name they remember him for giving up Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. Instead, I remember a a fire-balling young southpaw who won 13 games for the pennant-winning Yankee teams of 1963 and ’64 and hearing Downing’s name makes me also think about today’s birthday celebrant. Why? Because in 1969, the Yankees traded Downing to Oakland for Danny Cater. Cater was a good line drive hitter with not much power when he joined the 1970 Yankee team. He hit .301 during his first year in pinstripes, usually batting fifth or sixth in the lineup and he drove in 76 runs. It was a key contribution to a not very robust Yankee offensive attack and it helped that ’70 team win 93 games that season. The following year, Cater’s average slumped to .271 and his run and RBI numbers dropped too. So when Boston was ready to trade their bullpen ace, Sparky Lyle to New York for Cater, the Yankees made the deal. It turned out to be one of the great trades in the franchise’s history. Cater played sparingly in Beantown for three seasons. He retired after the 1975 season with a .276 lifetime batting average. Cater was born on this date in 1940, in Austin TX. He is not the most famous Yankee born on this day. That honor belongs to this guy. This former Yankee manager was also born on February 25th.
I personally remember three instances when Yankee television broadcast crews actively promoted the acquisition of a player on a competing team. The first was Scott Brosius. It seemed as if whenever New York played the A’s during the 1997 season, somebody in the New York booth would make it a point of commenting how Brosius, then Oakland’s starting third baseman, would be a perfect fit on the Yankee team. The next time I remember it happening was that same season when the Royals were in town and somebody in the booth talking about how Kansas City ‘s switch-hitting DH, Chili Davis would be a great addition to the Yankee lineup. The last time I remember the booth chatting about who would be a great addition for the Yankees, the subject was a Chicago Cub and former Expo outfielder, Rondell White.
I’m sure there have been several other instances when somebody with a Yankee microphone made statements about acquiring players from other teams but either I wasn’t listening or the conversation centered on a superstar that every team coveted at the time. Brosius, Davis and White were all considered good solid players in their day but not superstars. That’s why it is so easy for me to remember thinking the booth chatter about each was odd. It almost seemed as if somebody in New York’s front office asked the game announcers to talk about each player as a way of making the team’s interest in them public but I couldn’t think of any real good reasons why they would want to do so.
In any event, the announcers were spot on about Brosius. The Yankees got him in a trade for Kenny Rogers after the ’97 season. The TV guys were also right about Davis. After a year of bad health, he became a key cog as the full-time DH of New York’s 1999 World Championship team. Unfortunately, their good feelings about Rondell White as a Yankee proved to be unfounded. The Milledgeville, GA native was signed as a free agent after the 2001 season and the hope was that he would fill the huge outfield hole left by the retiring Paul O’Neill. That didn’t happen. His batting average, slugging percentage and on base percentage fell of the cliff as soon as he put on the pinstripes and after just one season in the Yankee outfield, he was traded off to the Padres. White played well just about everywhere else, ending a fifteen year big league career in 2007 with a .284 lifetime batting average and 198 home runs. He was born on February 23, 1972.
When he made his debut with New York in 1980, I was hoping I was looking at the next great Yankee outfielder. Why? Joe Lefebrve had been one of the top sluggers in the Yankee farm system the previous two seasons. He then hit home runs in each of his first two games in pinstripes and started his Yankee career with a six-game hitting streak. At the end of his first month in the big leagues, his average was .357. At the same time that Lefebvre was white hot, the Yankee’s starting center fielder that season, Ruppert Jones was ice cold, mired in a terrible offensive slump that would end up lasting the entire season. I figured Lefebvre would soon replace Jones in the Yankee starting lineup. Dick Howser, who was the Manager of that Yankee team, did end up starting Lefebvre almost the entire month of June, but he alternated the Concord, NH native in left field and right. By the end of that month, Mighty Joe’s batting average had plummeted by over 100 points and when his slump continued into July, he lost most of his playing time to another first year Yankee outfielder, a switch-hitter named Bobby Brown. Lefebvre ended up getting dealt to the Padres after his first Yankee season. He was a good enough big league hitter to stick around for six seasons. He ended up hitting just .227 during his one and only season in New York but his lifetime batting average in the Majors was a more respectable .258. He became a coach after his playing days and now works in the front office of the 2010 World Champion San Francisco Giants.
Joel Skinner came to the Yankees in a trade with the White Sox during the 1986 season. New York was hoping he could take over the starting catcher slot from a disappointing Butch Wynegar, who was hitting in the low .200s at the time. Skinner did OK for Manager Lou Piniella’s team the rest of that season but not good enough to stop New York from re-acquiring Rick Cerone in 1988 and then Don Slaught from Texas in 1989. Skinner remained in pinstripes both years as the backup catcher, hitting just .214 as a Yankee. He was born in La Jolla, CA on this date in 1961. After his playing days were through in 1991, Skinner got into coaching and managing and in 2002, he was hired to replace Charley Manuel as the Indians’ field boss for the second half of that season. Skinner shares his February 21st birthday with this starting left-fielder for the 1990 Yankees and the first 34th round draft pick in Yankee history.
Can anybody out there tell me what the following Yankee lineup has in common?
Shane Spencer had been in the Yankees’ farm system for over eight years when he got a call up to the parent club in September of 1998. He had played in the entire atlas of Yankee minor league towns during those previous eight seasons and the closest he had come to making the big league team was when he crossed the picket lines during the 1994 MLB player strike to attend New York’s replacement player spring training camp. Neither the Yankee front office or Yankee fans were hoping for help from promising prospects when September of ’98 rolled around. That team didn’t need any. It was, without a doubt, the best Yankee team I have ever seen play during the fifty years I’ve been a fan. There were absolutely no holes to fill in their lineup, their bench or their pitching staff. Which is why what Shane Spencer was able to do that September was pretty special.
The only reason Spencer was getting a shot was the fact that he had put together consecutive 30-home run seasons in the minors. If you’re a position player who wants to get noticed in the Yankee farm system, especially when the parent club is winning pennants, consecutive 30-homer seasons is about the only way to do it. Spencer had actually been called up from and returned to Columbus three times during the 1998 season but the fourth time proved to be the charm. That happened on August 31st. Four days later, Joe Torre rested Bernie Williams, started Chad Curtis in center and inserted his rookie in left. In his first appearance against White Sox southpaw Mike Sirotka, Spencer homered to left field. Five games later, his real streak began, when Torre sent him in to replace Paul O’Neill in right field in the sixth inning of a game against Baltimore. He came up in the top of the ninth with the bases loaded and hit his first Major League grand slam. He would hit seven more home home runs that month including two more grand salami’s and provide Yankee fans with one more great Yankee memory in a season that was full of them. Spencer continued his hot hitting in the playoffs against the Rangers in that year’s ALDS, homering two more times. He finally cooled off in that year’s ALCS which resulted in him seeing very little action in the World Series against the Padres.
Spencer played a total of five seasons as a Yankee before getting released after the 2002 season and signing with the Indians. He played well enough during those years to become the team’s regular fourth outfielder but could never break into the starting lineup. He also participated in one of the most memorable plays in Yankee history. It happened in the seventh inning of Game 3 in the Yankee’s 2001 ALDS series against Oakland. The Yankees were ahead 1-0 when with two outs and Jeremy Giambi on first, the A’s Terrence Long hit a ground ball down the right field line past Tino Martinez. Spencer was playing right field and he cut off the ball before it hit the wall but his throw sailed over the heads of two cutoff men and started rolling toward the Yankee on deck circle as Giambi rounded third on his way to scoring the tying run. That’s when Derek Jeter appeared out of nowhere to pick up the ball, and flip it to Jorge Posada who made an incredible sweeping tag that just nipped Giambi.
Spencer isn’t the only Yankee outfielder born on this date who did something bad that resulted in something really good and memorable for his Yankee team. Check out this guy. This one-time Yankee pitcher is also a February 20th pinstripe birthday boy as is this long-ago Yankee catcher.
The 1961 New York Yankee team was loaded with talent at every position, except one. They had no closer. Ryne Duren was supposed to fulfill that role but he was a serious alcoholic and by 1961, his drinking and his behavior when drinking had gotten completely out of hand. New York traded the troubled Duren to the Angels and manager Ralph Houk eventually replaced him with a Puerto Rican screwballing lefthander named Luis Arroyo.
At the time Arroyo was already 34-years old. He had made his big league debut seven seasons earlier, with the Cardinals, going 11-8 as a starter in his rookie season and making the 1955 NL All Star team. The following year, Fred Hutchinson was hired to manage St Louis and Old Hutch did not like Arroyo. Instead of getting the opportunity to make his second NL All Star team, Luis first found himself back in the minors as the ’56 season started and then traded to Pittsburgh. He spent the next four years battling a sore arm and developing a screw ball. By the time he joined the Yankees in 1960, his arm had healed and he had perfected his new signature pitch. He went 5-1 in his first season in New York setting the stage for his magical year in 1961.
Arroyo appeared in 65 games that season, finishing 54 of them. He compiled a 15-5 record and saved 29 games. He relieved Whitey Ford 24 times that season and saved 13 of the Yankee aces 25 wins. Arroyo’s ERA was 2.19. Topping that off, he hit .280 that year and pitched four shutout innings and got a win in the ’61 World Series against Cincinnati, gaining some revenge on Fred Hutchinson, who by then was the Reds’ Manager.
Unfortunately for Arroyo, that great screwball he developed has also been described as the reason why he again developed a sore pitching arm. That sore arm limited him to just 27 appearances in 1962 and just 3 the following year. The Yankees released Luis at the end of the 1963 season.
Brian Bruney was an important part of the Yankee bullpen for four seasons, from 2006, when he was signed as a free agent, through 2009, when he was traded to the Nationals for a player to be named later. Injuries plagued him during that span but when the reliever did pitch, he pitched rather well. He was 12-3 during his Yankee career, including a perfect 8-0 during his final two seasons in the Bronx. At times, Bruney could dominate the opposition with his fastball and by 2009, he had pitched himself into becoming Joe Girardi’s preferred eighth inning guy. But an elbow problem slowed him down and when Phil Hughes did such a super job as the Yankee’s primary bridge to Mariano that year, Bruney saw his pitching time decrease. His most famous moment in pinstripes happened off the field in June of his final season in New York. For some reason Bruney decided to tell a Big Apple sports reporter that he did not like the showy antics of the Mets’ closer Francisco K-Rod Rodriguez. This happened while the Yankees and Mets were involved in one of their annual regular season series. The subsequent story caused one of those tabloid sports page controversies that NYC has become famous for and the next day, when K-Rod angrily confronted Bruney before the game regarding his comments, it caused yet another minor media frenzy. Bruney did make the Yankee’s World Series roster against Philadelphia but was hit hard in his one and only appearance in the Yankee’s First Game loss. That turned out to be his last appearance in pinstripes. He did not pitch well in Washington in 2010 and is currently looking to sign with a new team.
Bruney was born in Astoria, OR on February 17, 1982. Sharing Bruney’s birthday is this former Yankee first baseman who lost his job because of a headache and this one-time replacement for A-Rod as Yankee third baseman.
The first few times I watched Tyler Clippard pitch in a Yankee uniform, I did not think he was going to be a particularly effective big league pitcher. I suppose one of the reasons I formed that initial opinion was the right-hander’s very unorthodox windup. Clippard is tall and thin and during his delivery, it seemed as if he could fold his back into a right angle and puff out his chest to a point where you thought it was going to explode. At the same time, he stretched and waved every appendage on his body to their furthest points. After winning 31 games during his four-year stay in the Yankee farm system, he made his big league debut against the Mets in May of 2007, pitching six strong innings and getting a win. Just 22 years old at the time, Clippard seemed to pitch less effectively in each successive start. He had a fastball in the very low nineties, he walked a lot of batters and he gave up a lot of fly balls. As a right-hander in the old Yankee Stadium that was not a good recipe for success on the mound. But Clippard did have an outstanding change-up, which made his very low nineties heater much more sneaky fast. New York’s front office gave up on the Yankee Clippard after the 2007 postseason, trading him to the Nationals for Jonathan Albaladejo. Clippard has evolved into a real force in Washington’s bullpen. He saved 32 games for the Nats in 2012. Meanwhile, Albaladejo did nothing but struggle for the Yankees.