February 5 – Happy Birthday Mike Heath
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant had the opportunity to replace the great Thurman Munson as the Yankees’ starting catcher. This opportunity arose for the Tampa, FL native not in 1979, when Munson was tragically killed in his plane crash, but the year before, when the great Yankee catcher was still an All Star.
For Yankee fans, 1978 will always be an historic year. It was the season of the great comeback, when New York came from 14 games behind their hated rival, the Red Sox, on July 18th to capture the AL East crown. As that year’s All Star break approached, George Steinbrenner was panicking. He was certain he could make better lineup decisions than Billy Martin, so he decided to go ahead and make them. At the time, Martin was near a nervous breakdown. He was fighting with Steinbrenner, feuding with Reggie Jackson and drinking way too much. He loved being Manager of the Yankees so much that he let “The Boss” make his moves.
Steinbrenner benched veteran Roy White and inserted Gary Thomasson in left field. He also ordered Martin to play Munson in right field to rest the aging catcher’s knees and revive his batting stroke. He wanted to platoon Lou Piniella and Reggie Jackson at DH and start the 23-year-old rookie catcher, Mike Heath, who had just been called up from the Yankees’ double A team in West Haven, CT.
Steinbrenner’s revised lineup made their debut on July 13, a Thursday afternoon game against the White Sox, at Yankee Stadium. They lost four of the next five and in that fifth game; Billy Martin gave Reggie Jackson the infamous bunt sign and then tried to remove it. When Jackson defied Martin, Billy benched the slugger, with Steinbrenner’s approval. The Yankees proceeded to win five straight and Heath was actually doing fine both behind and at the plate, keeping his average right around .300. That’s when Martin made his famous “One’s a born liar and the others a convicted one” comment that got him fired.
The rest is Yankee history. Bob Lemon replaced Martin and Bucky Dent’s blast a few weeks’ later capped off the best Cinderella comeback story in New York’s franchise history. What happened to Heath?
Lemon continued to start the rookie behind the plate for about a week, but when Heath’s offense cooled off a bit, the Manager put Munson back behind the plate so he could get both Piniella’s and Jackson’s bats back in the lineup. Lemon also began using Cliff Johnson as Munson’s primary backup behind the plate and Heath saw his playing time pretty much disappear during New York’s historic stretch run.
He did make the postseason roster but right after the Yankees won their second straight World Series against the Dodgers, Heath was included in the Sparky Lyle trade to Texas that brought Dave Righetti to New York. He ended up on Oakland in 1979 and became a very good big league catcher, primarily for the A’s and then the Tigers for the next fourteen seasons.
Would Heath have been able to replace Munson the following season, after the tragic plane crash? I don’t think so. His offense was probably not strong enough to keep him in that Yankee lineup.