If you followed Big Apple baseball during the sixties, you don’t forget when a 21 year old kid from Baltimore made the 1965 Mets roster out of spring training and started hitting home runs with a frequency no other Met had hit them before. By the time the 1965 All Star break rolled around, Ron Swoboda already had 15 round trippers. NL pitchers then stopped throwing him fastballs and Swoboda hit just four more home runs the rest of the season. Still, his 1965 total of 19 stood as the Met rookie record until Darryl Strawberry hit seven more than that in 1983.
The New York sports media made a huge fuss about Swoboda in his first year. He was the one bright spot in a season when the Amazin’s lost 112 times. Objectively speaking, Swoboda was not that good a player. In addition to striking out too much, he was a pretty shaky fielder. But Met fans who had so little to cheer about, loved their “Rocky.”
His most famous big league moment took place during the fourth game of the Mets first World Series in 1969, against Baltimore. New York, behind Tom Seaver, had taken a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning when the Orioles mounted a rally. With one out and runners on first and third, Brooks Robinson hit a shot to the gap in right center. Somehow, Swoboda got to the ball and with his body parallel to the ground made one of the greatest catches I have ever seen. The runner at third tagged and scored on the play but if Swoboda doesn’t make that catch, the runner at first would have scored and Baltimore would have taken the lead. New York ended up winning the game in ten innings and I was at Shea Stadium for the fifth and final game of that Fall Classic to see Swoboda knock in the winning run in what would be one of the greatest sports thrills of my lifetime.
In 1971, the Mets brought up Kenny Singleton and Swoboda was shoved out of New York’s outfield. He was traded to the Expos just before the ’71 season started for a guy named Don Hahn. He had played just 39 games for Montreal that year, when he was traded to the Yankees for outfielder, Ron Woods. Swoboda spent the final two and a half seasons of his big league career in pinstripes. His last year was 1973. He hit a total of 73 home runs during his nine seasons in the Majors. If you didn’t know better and judged his career by only the numbers, you’d never understand or appreciate the huge impact he made on New York City big league baseball during the first half of the 1965 season and those four glorious games he played against the Orioles in the fall of 1969.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was an outstanding ballplayer who struggled to get good press because he always played in the same outfield with Hall of Famers. He started his career in 1912 with the Tigers, playing left field alongside the immortal Ty Cobb and the great Sam Crawford. When Crawford called it quits, Harry Heilmann took his place and Veach remained the third best outfielder on the team. How good was he? He drove in over 100 runs six different times, leading the league in that category in 1915, ’17 and ’18. From 1915 until 1922, no one in baseball had more RBIs or extra base hits than Bobby Veach. He averaged better than .300 in seven of his last eight seasons in Detroit and finished his 14-year big league career with a .310 lifetime mark. He was also an excellent defensive outfielder and one of the game’s best bunters. This guy was a reliable star who played the game hard but not mean. It was this lack of meanness that his mercurial teammate, Cobb did not appreciate. When the Georgia Peach took over as Tiger skipper in 1920, he was bound and determined to trade Veach but Bobby kept playing so well he made it difficult to justify such a move. Finally, in 1923, another future Hall of Fame outfielder named Heinie Manush showed up in Detroit, making Veach expendable. The Tigers sold the St. Charles, Kentucky native, who was by then 35-years-old, to the Red Sox. He had a very good year in Boston in 1924. In early May of the following season, Veach was traded to the Yankees. He appeared in 56 games for New York and one of his 127 Yankee at bats made history when he became the first and only player to ever pinch hit for Babe Ruth. He ended up hitting .353 during his one partial season in the Bronx but that Yankee team was so loaded with talent, Veach was waived before the end of the year. The Senators picked him up and he ended up playing in his only World Series that year with Washington. 1925 turned out to be Veach’s last season as a big leaguer.
Don Baylor turns 62-years-old today, which means two things. He can start collecting social security if he chooses to and I'm getting old. I distinctly remember when Earl Weaver started playing Baylor regularly in the Baltimore Orioles' outfield back in 1972. With Paul Blair in center and Don Buford in left, Baylor gave the Birds their three-Bs outfield. He was a hard-nosed big league player from day one who used to crowd the plate and hit the ball as hard as any big leaguer ever did. He remained an Oriole until a year before free agency began and then got traded to the A's in the deal that brought Reggie Jackson to Baltimore. A year later he took advantage of the eradication of baseball's reserve clause and signed with the Angels. He enjoyed the best seasons of his career while playing for California. In 1979 he led the Angels to an AL West division crown and led the league with 120 runs scored and 139 RBIs, while blasting a career-high 39 home runs. That performance won him the AL MVP Award. He joined the Yankees as a free agent in 1983 and his first season in pinstripes was his best. That year, he was the top DH in the league, hitting a career high .303 with 21 home runs and 85 RBIs. During his three-year stay in the Bronx, he averaged 26 home runs and close to 90 RBIs per season. The Yankees, however, failed to win a Pennant with Baylor in their lineup and when New York Manager Lou Piniella announced his intention to platoon the native Texan with Ken Griffey at DH before the '86 season, he demanded to be traded. The Yankees granted that wish by dealing him to the Red Sox for "The Hit Man" Mike Easler. An interesting side note about that trade was that it was the first between Boston and New York since the Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater transaction, fourteen years earlier. Baylor played until 1988 and then went into coaching and managing. He skippered the Rockies for six seasons and then managed the Cubs. He shares his June 28th birthday with AL strikeout leader and this other former Yankee pitcher.
Derek is in the midst of his eighteenth season as a Yankee. Since he put on the pinstripes the Yankees have made postseason play sixteen times, played in seven World Series and won five of them. He passed Lou Gehrig as the all-time leader in career hits as a Yankee during the 2009 season and last year became the first player in franchise history to reach 3,000 hits while wearing the pinstripes. I consider the five-for-five game he put together to reach that magical plateau one of the greatest all-time individual game performances in Yankee franchise history. He is among the top ten Yankees lifetime in just about every offensive category and in most cases among the top five. As of this morning (06-26-2012) Jeter was in fifteenth place on the all-time hits list with 3,181, just three behind Cal Ripken.
He is an extremely gifted player and team leader who somehow copes perfectly with the stresses of being a star athlete in the Big Apple. There are those who claim Jeter is over-rated. Those of us who follow the Yankees on a game-by-game and season-by-season basis ignore such ignorance.
I’m the first to admit that age has impacted Jeter’s overall abilities on the baseball field. He’s not the player he was five years ago. But he is still good enough to start at shortstop for the New York Yankees.
When Derek is ready to call it quits, his number 2 jersey will be retired and five years later he will enter Cooperstown. Watching him get there has been one of the great pleasures I’ve experienced as a fifty-two-year fan of the Bombers.
The predictions that Jeter was destined to become a great Yankee that were made at the beginning of his career turned out to be correct. Similar predictions made for this former Yankee outfielder who shares “The Captain’s” June 26th birthday would turn out to be far less accurate.
One of the key reasons the Yankees were not successful reaching the postseason for a dozen seasons after 1981 was their lack of a strong all-around catcher during that time span. From Dickey-to-Berra-to Howard-to-Munson, those Yankee teams that regularly reached fall ball had catchers who could hit well, field well, and lead their pitching staffs. When the Yankees signed Mike Stanley as a free agent before the 1992 season, I thought we had the makings of the next great Yankee receiver. He did well enough offensively in pinstripes but the Yankee front-office ended up replacing him with a better defensive catcher.
Stanley started his Yankee career as a backup for Matt Nokes. He took over as starter in 1993 and had a great offensive season, hitting 26 home runs, driving in 84 and averaging .305. He continued to hit well in 1994 as the Yankees became the best team in the League under Buck Showalter. When the disastrous strike ended that season, it also marked the peaking of the Yankee careers of both Showalter and Stanley. Even though New York made the postseason in 1995, Stanley’s batting average took a 30-point dip and after the Yankees got knocked out of the playoffs by the Mariners in the first round, Yankee fans could feel the Steinbrenner-induced winds of change blowing. Showalter was fired and replaced by Joe Torre. They let Mattingly retire and Stanley was not re-signed. The Yankees traded for Tino Martinez and Joe Girardi instead. Stanley did rejoin the Yankees during the latter half of the 1997 season but was again let go at season’s end. He retired from Oakland in 2000, after 15 big league seasons.
Stanley shares his June 25th birthday with this former Yankee long reliever.
Yankee fans are not known for their patience, especially with pitchers. We want strikes thrown, we want to hold leads and we want consistent performances game-to-game, season-to-season and especially in the postseason. Anything less than that and Yankee pitchers begin to see and hear Yankee fans express their dissatisfaction.
The team’s fans grow even more impatient when management touts young pitching prospects as ready-for-prime-time starting pitchers. That’s what happened to Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and initially, to today’s birthday boy, Phil Hughes. Today, Kennedy is no longer a Yankee and Joba, who’s arm injury has sidelined him until next season, continues to confound Yankee fans with his inconsistency. Up until this year began, only Mr. Hughes seemed to be fulfilling the lofty expectations of New York’s management and pinstripe fans. Was that too just a mirage?
He originally showed us something in 2007, especially in the playoffs against Cleveland. He earned another reprieve after a very shaky start in 2008 and a rib injury that sidelined him for much of the year. Then in 2009, Hughes stepped up big when he was sent to the bullpen to become Mariano Rivera’s setup man. After a highly publicized spring training competition with Chamberlain for the 2010 fifth starter position, Hughes pitched as well as any starter in either league during the first half of 2010 season and made the All Star team. But even though he finished last year with an 18-8 record, he became a very ordinary pitcher in the second half and was once again ineffective in fall ball.
After failing to sign Cliff Lee and losing Andy Pettitte during the off season, the Yankees urgently needed Hughes to reproduce his great start of a year ago. Instead, he has been horrible. His confidence seemed to decrease in direct proportion to the lower and lower digital number readings on the radar gun aimed at Hughes’ fastballs. Finally, management put him on the DL and told us he had a dead arm. The good thing is that Hughes has been in this situation a couple of times already in his short career and has always been able to bounce back impressively. I’ve got my fingers crossed.
By the way, Ian Kennedy is currently 8-2 for Arizona this season and has a 2.90 ERA.
Hughes shares his June 24th birthday with this former Yankee All Star catcher.
Few big league catchers experienced as bad a case of poor career timing as Aaron Robinson did with the New York Yankees. First he had the misfortune of being the best Yankee catching prospect during the late thirties, when Hall of Famer Bill Dickey was still considered the best all-around receiver in the game. Dickey’s dominance was a big part of the reason why it took six years for Robinson to make his way through the Yankee farm system. Then by the time he got to put on the pinstripes, WWII was raging and Robinson played just one game for the parent club before he was called into military service.
Finally, after his discharge two seasons later, Robinson was gradually inserted into New York’s starting catcher’s position and in 1946, he hit .297 and smashed 16 home runs in his first full big league season. The following year, Robinson was named to the AL All Star team but by the end of that 1947 season, he was losing a lot of playing time to a young catcher named Yogi Berra. That October, he won his one and only World Series ring when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games. By then, Robinson was 32 years old and the Yankee brass decided Berra was the better choice as catcher. They traded Robinson to the White Sox for Eddie Lopat.
It was truly a great trade for New York. Berra and Lopat were instrumental in helping New York win five straight world championships. After one season in the Windy City, Robinson was traded to the Tigers. He had a good first year with Detroit in 1949 but by the following season he pretty much stopped hitting. It was also during that 1950 season he made a fielding gaffe that might have cost Detroit the Pennant. They were battling the Yankees for first place and playing Cleveland in a late season game in the Motor City. Smoke from a huge Canadian forest fire had drifted across Lake Michigan and was creating a haze in Briggs Stadium that made it difficult for players to see. With the score tied and the bases loaded, Cleveland’s Luke Easter hit a groundball to Tiger first baseman Don Kolloway. Kolloway fielded it cleanly, stepped on first and threw to Robinson in plenty of time to get the Cleveland runner trying to score from third. But in the smoky haze, Robinson had not seen Kolloway tag first so when he caught his first baseman’s throw he simply stepped on home thinking it was a force play and did not tag the runner. That turned out to be the winning run and the Tigers never recovered from that defeat.
Robinson’s eight-year big league career ended in 1951 as a Red Sox. He hit .260 lifetime with 61 home runs. He died in 1966 at the very young age of 50.
As I observe Joe Girardi’s recent efforts to patch together a five man starting rotation for the 2011 Yankees, today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant makes me think about how easy Casey Stengel’s starting pitching decisions were during his five straight World Series victory run with the team. Take 1950 as an example. The Ol Perfessor could hand the ball to Vic Raschi (21-8), Allie Reynolds (16-12), Tommy Byrne (15-9), a young Whitey Ford (9-1) or today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant, Eddie Lopat (18-8).
Eddie had started his big league career with the White Sox in 1944, putting together four consecutive seasons of double digit victories and almost matching double digit losses in the Windy City. In February of 1948, the Yankees traded three players to Chicago including their starting catcher, Aaron Robinson in exchange for the southpaw Lopat, who had been born and grew up on the upper east side of New York City. Not only did the trade bring New York a great pitcher, this same deal also cleared the way for Yogi Berra to take over as the team’s starting backstop.
Unlike his Yankee co-aces, Reynolds and Raschi, who both threw lots of heat, Lopat had a repertoire of pitches all thrown at various speeds with great control. That assortment of stuff earned him the nickname, “The Junkman. He was especially known for his screwball, which became his signature pitch. From 1948 through 1954, the southpaw Lopat won double digits for the Yankees with his best year coming in 1951 when he went 21-9. He was also 4-1 in five World Series with New York and compiled a 113-59 regular-season career record in pinstripes.
When Lopat got off to a slow start in 1954, Yankee GM George Weiss traded him to Baltimore and Lopat hung up his glove after that season. He later went onto become a big league coach and manager (Kansas City A’s.)
Steady Eddie shares his June 21st birthday with another former Yankee left-handed starting pitcher.
If Yankee Stadium was a church June 19th would be a holy day of obligation for Yankee fans. The “Iron Horse” was Major League Baseball’s all-time greatest first baseman and perhaps the greatest athlete ever to be born in the Big Apple. In 17 years with New York he batted .340 lifetime and in seven World Series, he averaged .361. Lou had thirteen straight seasons in which he drove in and scored at least 100 runs. Along with his achievements on the ball field, his untimely illness, the grace with which he handled his misfortune, and his early death made Gehrig a true American hero.
Ruth, DiMaggio, and Mantle were each truly great Yankees on the field who lived unhappy, personal lives. I always found it ironic that Gehrig, the Yankee legend with an extremely strong marriage and idyllic private life, never got the opportunity to enjoy his retirement years.
Gehrig shares his birthday with another former Yankee first baseman.
Yes, the same Russ Hodges who made the famous call of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” was once the number 2 man in the Yankee broadcast booth behind Mel Allen. Back in the forties, the Yankees and the New York Giants did radio broadcasts of only their home games and since the two teams were never scheduled to play at home at the same time, the clubs shared announcers. In 1949, both teams started broadcasting road games as well and ended the practice of sharing play-by-play personalities. Allen stuck with the Yankees and Hodges the Giants, which is why on October 3, 1951, it was Hodges who was in the Polo Grounds radio booth screaming those famous words out over the air waves; “The Giants win the pennant” The Giants win the pennant!” Hodges remained the voice of the Giants for 21 years until his death in 1971. He was inducted into Cooperstown as the 1980 winner of the Ford Frick Award. Hodges was actually one of two eventual Frick Award winners to make the live call on Thomson’s historic blast. The other was the late, great Ernie Harwell who was doing the television play-by-play of that legendary game.
The only member of the Yankee all-time roster to be born on June 18th is this former reliever.