Based on everything I’ve learned about former Yankee outfielder, Hank Bauer, I wish I could have seen him play. I was born a few years too late and didn’t start really following and understanding Yankee baseball until 1960. By then, Bauer was an ex-Yankee, winding down his 14-season big league playing career with the horrible Kansas City A’s. That career should have been longer but Hank Bauer did not catch too many breaks early on in his life.
He had been born to a large family in East St Louis, IL on July 31, 1922. His father lost a leg in a mill accident. So when the Great Depression hit, Bauer was one of nine children in a family with a one-legged Dad before the days of Social Security, workmen’s compensation or employer liability. That explains why and how Bauer became known early in life as a fighter. His teen aged years were filled with fist fights and American Legion baseball. After he left high school, he got a job as a pipe fitter. Fortunately, his older brother was a good enough baseball player to get signed to a Minor League deal by the White Sox. When the time was right, that older sibling arranged a tryout for Hank. Bauer did well enough to get signed but then that Bauer family luck struck again. This time, it took the shape of swarms of Japanese planes attacking an island in Hawaii.
Hank enlisted in the Marines and he spent the next three years of his life storming the beaches of islands in the Pacific and leading a battalion of men in fierce jungle fighting with a merciless enemy. He was awarded two bronze stars and a pair of purple hearts. When he returned home, he figured his chance at playing baseball had passed him by and he went back to fitting pipes. A scout for the Yankees remembered Bauer and signed him to a contract. It took Bauer three years to make it to the Bronx and by the time he did, in 1948, he was already 26 years old. But when he finally did put on those pinstripes, he played the game like he lived his life, hard at it all the time.
He became a key contributor on seven New York Yankee World Championship teams, including the squads that won five straight Fall Classics from 1949-1953. During his 12 seasons in pinstripes, Hank averaged .277 during the regular season and belted 158 home runs. He also had one of the best outfield arms in all of baseball at the time. His World Series portfolio includes a record 17-game hitting streak and a four home-run, eight-RBI performance against the Braves in 1958. As he had proved on Guam and Okinawa, he was a natural leader. Mickey Mantle credits Bauer with teaching him how to play the game. He could party as hard as anybody but he never took it to the extreme. Whitey Ford recalled the time he had a few too many the night before a big game and the next day in the dugout, Bauer threw the bloodshot eyed pitcher against the wall and screamed, “Don’t mess with my money.”
Yankee historians often couple Bauer’s name with his fellow outfielder and Yankee teammate Gene Woodling. The two played together on those five straight Yankee championship teams from 1949-53. Casey Stengel would often platoon the right-hand hitting Bauer with the lefty-swinging Woodling but more often than not, and especially in important games, Bauer would be in right-field and Woodling in left. Their hitting, their defensive skills and their leadership on the field and in the clubhouse was the glue that stuck those five championship teams together into one magnificent run.
After the 1959 season, Bauer was included in the deal that made Roger Maris a Yankee. He went on to become a successful big league manager when his playing days were over. He won two Manager of the Year awards and his eighth World Series ring when he skippered the Orioles to their 1966 World Series sweep against the Dodgers. He passed away in February of 2007. I repeat, it would have been a thrill to see him play the game.
|NYY (12 yrs)||1406||5374||4784||792||1326||211||56||158||654||48||491||594||.277||.347||.444||.791|
|KCA (2 yrs)||138||403||361||41||98||18||1||6||49||2||30||44||.271||.324||.377||.701|
Simply put, I hated seeing today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant’s name in the Yankee lineup during the 1980 season. Why? Because he batted left-handed and was used as a DH. So why did those seemingly innocuous details make me cringe when Jim Spencer was in a Yankee game that particular year? Allow me to explain.
The Yankees acquired Spencer in a trade with the White Sox in December of 1977. “Spence” was a native of Hanover, PA who had played for Billy Martin when he managed the Texas Rangers in the early seventies. According to many baseball pundits back then, Spencer was one of the best defensive first basemen in the Majors at the time of the trade and a .260 lefty hitter with decent power. That ’78 Yankee team he would be joining already had a Gold Glove winner and better hitter at first in Chris Chambliss and they had Roy White and Cliff Johnson to DH.
During that historic 1978 season that followed Spencer’s acquisition, Martin was famously fired, allegedly because he called George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson liars but more likely because he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Spencer, who was playing just about every day when Billy was the boss, saw his playing time cut in half after Bob Lemon took over in late July. He averaged just .227 his first season in pinstripes.
After the Yankees won their second straight World Series that October, they let Roy White go to Japan. Bob Lemon’s son was killed in a car accident just a few weeks after the Series and the Yankee Manager entered the ’79 season in a deep depression. Then Goose Gossage was hurt in that shower room scuffle with Cliff Johnson and the Yankee season was suddenly in serious peril. Steinbrenner’s answer was to replace Lemon with Billy Martin in late June. That was good news for Spencer. A week after Billy returned to the Bronx, Bobby Murcer came back as well. Murcer had been my favorite Yankee during his first tenure in pinstripes so I was thrilled. When he took over as Skipper, Martin was playing both Spencer and Murcer and I was hoping the Yankees would stage another comeback in the AL East Division Race. Any hope of that went down in the crash of Thurman Munson’s plane at the beginning of August. So the 1979 Yankee season had quickly turned into a nightmare. Spencer, however, had been one of the bright spots. In 106 games he had blasted a career high 23 home runs and averaged .288. Murcer had also done well and I was hoping he’d have a great full-year with New York in 1980.
That did not happen and Spencer was one of the key reasons why. During the ’79 offseason the Yankees made several moves. They replaced Martin as Manager with Dick Howser. They traded their first baseman, Chris Chambliss to Toronto for catcher, Rick Cerone. They signed Bob Watson to replace Chambliss at first and they went out and got Rupert Jones to play center field. The Howser hiring was the only decision of these four that I liked. Chambliss was one of my favorite Yankees. I thought they should have gone after Cardinal catcher Ted Simmons instead of Cerone. I wanted Murcer to have a starting outfielder’s slot on that 1980 team and the Jones acquisition nixed that.
I still feel to this day that if the Yankees did not sign Watson or make the Rupert Jones trade, Murcer would have put together a 25 homer, 100 RBI season for New York in 1980 as either a full-time outfielder or DH. And since Spencer was supposedly the best defensive first baseman in baseball who was coming off one of his best big league offensive seasons, why didn’t the Yankees just replace Chambliss with him instead of signing Watson? When they picked up Watson, that meant Spencer would not be the full-time first baseman and since he hit left-handed like Murcer, the two would be competing for swings as the Yankee’s DH. Spencer and Murcer still each hit 13 home runs that season and combined to drive in 100.
Spencer’s Yankee career ended the following May, when he was traded to Oakland. He was born on July 29, 1946. I should also mention that that 1980 Yankee team did win 103 regular season games with the lineups Dick Howser put together. Jim Spencer suffered a heart attack and died at in February of 2002. He was just 54 years old at the time.
|CAL (6 yrs)||537||1941||1774||175||440||65||11||43||188||1||126||221||.248||.298||.370||.668|
|NYY (4 yrs)||299||869||767||116||189||35||4||45||124||1||92||108||.246||.325||.478||.804|
|TEX (3 yrs)||352||1217||1107||121||299||41||8||22||134||1||91||111||.270||.327||.381||.708|
|OAK (2 yrs)||87||288||272||20||52||9||1||4||14||1||13||40||.191||.226||.276||.501|
|CHW (2 yrs)||278||1093||988||109||247||29||3||32||139||7||85||102||.250||.308||.383||.690|
Having been a Yankee fan for half a century, there were two seasons during that span I will always remember as being particularly depressing. There were years when New York lost more games and finished lower in the standings but the Yankee teams of both 1965 and 1989 surprised fans by their mediocrity and served as signals that the team was about to enter periods of darkness.
In 1965 it seemed as if the entire Yankee starting lineup got old all at the same time. In 1989, the team’s starting rotation consisted of Andy Hawkins, Clay Parker, Greg Cadaret, Walt Terrell and today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant, left-hander Dave LaPoint. That ’89 team reminded me of a wounded war veteran returning home with “no arms.”
Hawkins led that staff with a 15-15 record and no other starter won more than six games. LaPoint was 6-9 that season and then 7-10 in 1990. In the mean time, the Yankees failed to effectively address their starting pitching woes until they signed free agent Jimmy Key and traded for Jim Abbott before the 1993 season. In 1995 they brought up Andy Pettitte and traded for David Cone and they’ve been on a postseason role since.
LaPoint ended up with the Phillies the following year, which turned out to be his final season in the big leagues. He finished with a lifetime record of 80-86, pitching for nine different teams over a dozen seasons.
|STL (5 yrs)||35||23||.603||3.90||121||87||10||3||1||0||563.2||604||266||244||34||220||336||1.462|
|NYY (2 yrs)||13||19||.406||4.74||48||47||0||2||0||0||271.1||326||157||143||23||102||118||1.577|
|CHW (2 yrs)||16||14||.533||3.25||39||37||0||3||2||0||244.0||220||98||88||17||78||122||1.221|
|PIT (1 yr)||4||2||.667||2.77||8||8||0||1||0||0||52.0||54||18||16||4||10||19||1.231|
|SFG (1 yr)||7||17||.292||3.57||31||31||0||2||1||0||206.2||215||99||82||18||74||122||1.398|
|PHI (1 yr)||0||1||.000||16.20||2||2||0||0||0||0||5.0||10||10||9||0||6||3||3.200|
|SDP (1 yr)||1||4||.200||4.26||24||4||4||0||0||0||61.1||67||37||29||8||24||41||1.484|
|DET (1 yr)||3||6||.333||5.72||16||8||2||0||0||0||67.2||85||49||43||11||32||36||1.729|
|MIL (1 yr)||1||0||1.000||6.00||5||3||1||0||0||1||15.0||17||14||10||2||13||5||2.000|