Jackie Jensen was one of the most celebrated Yankee signings in the history of the franchise. He had been a football and baseball star at the University of California, becoming the Golden Bears’ first thousand yard rusher in 1948, just one year after leading the school’s baseball team to the first ever College Baseball World Series title. Placed on academic probation, Jensen quit school in his senior year to play baseball with the American Association’s Oakland Oaks. After just one season, the contracts of Jensen and his Oakland teammate, Billy Martin were sold to the Yankees and New York’s front office began predicting that Jensen would replace Joe DiMaggio as the team’s starting center fielder when The Yankee Clipper was ready to retire. The new golden boy was put on New York’s big league roster and when he was called on to pinch run during the 1950 Fall Classic against the Phillie Whiz Kids, he became the first athlete in history to appear in both the Rose Bowl and the World Series.
In 1951, DiMaggio’s final year in pinstripes, Jensen got into 56 games for New York and batted a respectable .298. But DiMaggio’s farewell season was also the rookie campaign of Mickey Mantle and suddenly Jensen was no longer the answer to the question; Who would become the next great Yankee center fielder?
Instead, he was traded to the lowly Senators for outfielder Irv Noren at the beginning of the 1952 season. You’d think at the time, the Yankees would have considered keeping both Mantle and Jensen and they probably did. They already had two solid veterans, Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer surrounding Mantle in the outfield. In addition, Jensen was a right handed hitter and Yankee Stadium was not a friendly place for players who swung from that side of the plate. The team also had a young Bob Cerv on the bench so Yankee GM George Weiss probably figured the veteran left-hand-hitting Noren would give Stengel more options than keeping the relatively untested Jensen. But it sure would have been fun to have the Jackie Jensen who became one of the American League’s best run producers and outfielders for Boston in the late fifties, playing alongside Mantle during their peak years. Jensen culminated his career with the 1958 AL MVP award. He would probably be in Cooperstown today if his crippling fear of flying did not induce him to retire after the 1959 season. He tried coming back in 1961, aided by a hypnotist to overcome his phobia but he was not the same player. His last big league game was in 1961 in Yankee Stadium on the day Roger Maris hit his 61st home run. Jensen passed away in 1982, when he was only 55 years of age.
This former Yankee who also celebrates his birthday on March 9th, hit one of the most famous home runs in franchise history. So does this shortstop who captured six AL stolen base titles during his career. This sidearming southpaw was also born on March 9th.
No Yankee pitcher has had a more impressive rookie season than the one Bob Grim put together in 1954. Not only did he win 20 games in his debut year, he did it while pitching just 199.0 innings, which is the fewest of any 20-game winner in history. Seven of those victories came in relief roles, which helps explain the low number of total innings. For his effort, Grim won that year’s Rookie of the Year Award and led New York to a 103 victory season, the most wins in the six seasons Casey Stengel had been managing the club. Ironically, that Yankee team failed to win the AL Pennant for the first time since Stengel was hired, finishing eight games behind Cleveland. Still, all of Yankeedom was thrilled to have this new young right-hander and Big Apple native on a Yankee starting staff that was then transitioning from the Reynolds, Raschi, Lopat era to a new rotation generation led by Whitey Ford and Grim.
What might have contributed most to the end of Grim’s career in pinstripes was his failure to pitch well in October. In both the World Series he appeared in, 1955 and ’57, Grim pitched poorly in key situations contributing to New York’s disappointing losses in these two seven-game Fall Classics. In June of 1958, Grim was traded to Kansas City. After two decent seasons of relief pitching for a very bad A’s ballclub, he faded quickly. His big league career ended in 1962 with a 61-41 record and 37 career saves. Born on March 8, 1930, Grim passed away in 1996.
Of all the incredible things I’ve learned about Wee Willie Keeler during my research for today’s post, I was most impressed by the fact that it is now called a third strike when a Major League hitter fouls off a two-strike bunt attempt because of this guy. Evidently, Willie never ever failed to make contact with the ball when bunting so he could just foul two strike bunts off all day long and run the opposing team’s pitcher and infield ragged in the process.
At just 5’4″ tall, Willie had to learn how to bunt, slap-hit and high-hop his way into baseball immortality. He developed and refined these skills as a member of the great Baltimore Oriole clubs of the 1890s, where he teamed with future Hall of Famers, John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, Hughie Jennings and Dan Brouthers to win three straight NL Pennants.
Keeler joined Brooklyn in 1899 and jumped to the Yankees (then called the Highlanders) in 1903 before retiring as a player with the Giants and his old friend McGraw, in 1910. His record of eight straight seasons with 200 or more hits was only just broken in 2009, by the great Ichiro Suzuki. Willie batted a remarkable .341 lifetime and was considered one of the baseball’s all-time great base-runners and defensive right-fielders. He died in Brooklyn in the same apartment he was born in, at the age of fifty, in 1923. He was one of the most beloved figures in Big Apple sports during his era.
Wee Willie shares his birthday with this WWII hero and this former Yankee starting pitcher.