After nine and one half seasons with the Angels, Witt came to New York in 1990 in the horrible Yankee trade that took Dave Winfield out of pinstripes. George Steinbrenner’s disgraceful efforts to use a brain-damaged con-man named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on his star outfielder had poisoned Winfield’s relationship with the Yankee front office. In trading for Witt, the Yankees were hoping to put the whole sad situation behind them while at the same time acquiring a veteran right-hander with one of the league’s best curve balls for their very weak starting rotation. Witt had won 109 games for the Angels but had gone 9-15 in ’89 and was 0-3 at the time of the trade. I realized Winfield was no spring chicken back then, but I clearly remember thinking at the time that the Yankees were getting the short end of that deal and I was right.
Witt won just eight more games during the next three plus seasons for New York. He spent most of that time including all of 1992 on the injured reserve list. Winfield went on to give the Angels two decent seasons of production and still had enough in the tank to drive in 108 runs for the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays and help them win a World Championship. Witt retired in 1993 after collecting $7.5 million Yankee dollars to appear in just 27 games. He shares his birthday with the first catcher in franchise history to start in that position for five straight seasons.
Marius Russo was a southpaw with outstanding control and a sinking sidearm fastball that made him tough against right-handed hitters. Before joining the Yankees in 1939, he was a key starter on their Newark Bears farm team in 1937 and ’38. That club has been labeled by many baseball historians as the best Minor League team in history. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, he went 8-3 during his rookie season in pinstripes including two shutouts. The following year, he went 14-8 for Manager Joe McCarthy’s third place team, becoming New York’s most efficient starter. He followed that up with a 14-10 season in 1941 as the Yankees rebounded to win 101 games and capture the AL Pennant. Then in that year’s World Series against the Cinderella Dodgers, Russo pitched a complete game, 2-1 victory in Game 3. An arm injury limited him to just nine appearances during the 1942 season and when he came back the following year, his arm didn’t hurt but he had lost a few miles on his fastball. Still, he had enough to duplicate his 1941 post season success by throwing another 2-1 complete game victory over the Cardinals in Game 4 of the ’43 Fall Classic.
He spent the next two years in military service and when he returned to the Yankees in 1946, he no longer had the stuff required to pitch in the big leagues. He retired with a career record of 45-34, a lifetime ERA of just 3.13 and those two sterling Series victories. He went to work for Grumman Aircraft and lived to be 90-years-old, passing away in 2005.
Rudy May was a Yankee twice during his sixteen-season career. The first time was from June 15, 1974, when the southpaw pitcher was purchased by New York from the Angels until June 15, 1976, when he was traded in a ten-player blockbuster deal with the Orioles. The Yankees sent May, Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan to Baltimore and got Doyle Alexander, Scott Holtzman, Elrod Hendricks, Grant Jackson and somebody named Jimmy Freeman from the birds. During his first tenure in pinstripes, Rudy had gone 26-19 including a 14-12 season in 1975. He had enough mojo back then to get the honor of starting the first-ever game in the newly renovated Yankee Stadium, in 1976 (The Yankees won the game but Rudy pitched just two innings).
Rudy pitched well for the Orioles, winning 29 games for them during the next season and a half and then he was traded to the Expos, where he again performed very effectively and became a free agent after the 1979 season. That’s when the Yankees brought him back to the Bronx a second time and he rewarded them for that decision with a 15-5 season and the AL ERA title (2.46). Dick Howser used May as both a starter and reliever that season and Rudy thrived in the dual role. But then two things happened that helped derail May’s career. George Steinbrenner dumped Howser after the Yankees were knocked out of the playoffs in 1980. From that point on, it appeared as if George had totalitarian control of all front-office and even some dugout-based decisions. Then the disastrous 1981 strike severely damaged owner-player and team-fan relationships. In December of 1981, the Yankees had actually completed a trade with the Royals that would have sent May to the Royals for their veteran outfielder, Hal McRae but both players had clauses in their contracts that required them to approve such deals and neither did. An efficient and professional front office would have asked for the player’s approval before making such a deal. May never again felt comfortable or pitched effectively in pinstripes. He left the Yankees and big league baseball after the 1983 season. May was born on this date in 1944, in Coffeyville, Kansas.
Those of you who have been long-time readers of my blog might remember this post I wrote last Christmas for the former Yankee third baseman and outfielder, Ben Chapman. In it, I described him as being one of the meanest players ever to put on a Yankee uniform and a racist. So you might think that open-minded Yankee fans would have breathed a sigh of relief when on June 14, 1936 the Yankees traded Chapman to the Senators for Washington outfielder Jake Powell. The problem was that Powell was probably even more ornery and a bigger racist than Chapman.
At first, the trade was a God send for New York. Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy put the Silver Spring, Maryland native in left field and moved his super rookie, Joe DiMaggio to center. Powell hit .302 during the balance of the 1936 regular season and a whopping .455 in the Yankees six-game victory over the Giants in that year’s World Series. But his bat cooled off quite a bit during the 1937 season and with young Yankee outfield prospects like Tommy Henrich and Charlie Keller emerging from the farm system, he started seeing less and less playing time.
Powell’s ornery personality didn’t help matters. In a pre-game interview during the 1938 season, a reporter asked him what it was like to be a police officer in the off season. Powell replied he that he enjoyed cracking n—–s over the head and putting them in jail. Those comments earned him a suspension by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He was suspended a second time that same season when he got into a fist fight with Red Sox player-manager, Joe Cronin on the field after Powell was beaned by a Boston pitcher and then he again attacked Cronin underneath the stands in Fenway Park after the game. Manager Joe McCarthy loved Powell’s fiery play on the field and his willingness to do anything asked of him to help win a game. After his bigoted remarks, the Yankees forced Powell to tour saloons and social clubs in Harlem and apologize for what he said. He did exactly that without complaint.
During a 1940 exhibition game against the Dodgers, Powell suffered a concussion in a violent collision with a fence in the outfield. By the time he recovered, he had lost his spot on the Yankee roster and his contract was sold to a team in the Pacific Coast League. He got back to the big leagues by 1943 but only because of the player shortage caused by WWII. When the war ended so did Powell’s career. In 1948, the troubled outfielder ended his own life by shooting himself in the head in a Washington DC police station right before he was about to be booked for writing bad checks.
As a side note, Powell was involved in a very significant moment in Yankee franchise history. It took place in Washington DC’s Griffith Stadium on September 30th 1934. In the eighth inning, Babe Ruth hit a long fly ball to center field which was caught by Powell, who was then still a Senator. This was the final official at bat Ruth had in a Yankee uniform.
Powell shares his July 15th birthday with this former Yankee backup catcher.
When most baseball fans hear the name Robin Ventura, they visualize the 1993 incident during which Nolan Ryan held him in a headlock and threw punches at his head. It is easy to forget the fact that Ventura was one of the best all-around third basemen in baseball during his sixteen-year big league career that included a season and a half tenure wearing the pinstripes in 2002 and ’03. He won a total of six Gold Gloves, hit 294 career home runs and the only two third basemen who had more 90 RBI seasons than Ventura (8) were Hall of Famers, Mike Schmidt (11) and Eddie Matthews (10).
The Yankees signed him as a free agent in 2002 to take over the starting hot corner position after Scott Brosius retired. He was to be the interim guy at third while the Yankees were developing Drew Henson in their farm system. Ventura did a very good job that first season in the Bronx, belting 27 home runs, driving in 93 and making the AL All Star team. But by then he was 35 years old and when his offensive production began to slip in 2003 the Yankees decided to make a move. That move did not involve Henson, who was floundering in Columbus at the time, striking out with regularity and making tons of errors in the field. Instead, New York acquired Aaron Boone from the Reds and on the same day sent Ventura to the Dodgers for pitcher Scott Proctor and outfielder Bubba Crosby.
Boone of course became part of Yankee postseason history with his walk-off grand salami against the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. Ventura stuck around in Los Angeles for one more year and then retired. He was born on this date in 1967, in Santa Maria, CA. He shares his July 14th birthday with this original Yankee “Fireman.”
After the Boston Red Sox failed to make the postseason in 2006, they went out and spent $107 million to secure the services of Japan’s best pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka. Having been out-bid in the “Dice-K” sweepstakes, the Yankees attempted to counter their Eastern Division arch-rivals coup by spending a total of $46 million to acquire and sign the guy they considered to be the second best pitcher in Japan, Kei Igawa. In 2007, Dice K won 15 regular-season games for Boston and two more in the postseason, to help the Red Sox win their second World Championship of the 21st century. That same season, Igawa got a total of fourteen starts for New York. After his first six, he had a 7.63 ERA and was demoted to Tampa. He returned to the Bronx in late June for seven more starts and finished his first season in pinstripes with a disappointing 2-3 record and a 6.25 ERA.
I watched Igawa pitch several times that year and it was pretty clear that his control was shaky and when he did get his fastball over the plate, opponents tended to hit it a long way. If he really had been the second best pitcher in Japan behind Dice-K, that country has a real shortage of good pitchers.
Igawa started the 2008 season in Scranton/Wilkes Barre and then got called up in May and lost his only start. After one more appearance out of the bullpen the following month, he has spent the balance of his five year Yankee contract in the team’s farm system. It sort of boggles my mind that the Yankees spent a total of $80 million on Igawa and Carl Pavano and got a total of ten wins from the two of them during their nine cumulative seasons in pinstripes. Talk about bad general management decisions, huh?
The first thing Yankee fans must have noticed when they read about this rookie southpaw being called up from New York’s Newark farm team for a look-see in September of 1934, was his name. After all, Vitautris Casimirus Tamulis is quite a mouthful. Fortunately for both Tamulis and New York sportswriters, his parents nicknamed him Vito. The second thing Yankee fans noticed was his complete game shutout of the Philadelphia A’s in his first-ever big league start that same month. Then as now, if you’re a young pitcher who wants to get some attention, throw a shutout in your first ever big league start and do it in a Yankee uniform.
After young Vito followed up that super-start by winning ten of fifteen decisions in the following year, you’d think the chances of sticking with the team the next season were better than very good. The problem for Tamulis was that he had that 10-5 season for the 1935 New York Yankees, which meant he won the fewest number of games of any of the five starters in that year’s Yankee rotation. So when Tamulis developed a severe case of pleurisy in 1936, New York went out and picked up Bump Hadley from the Senators to replace him. When Tamulis recovered from his illness, Hadley was pitching too well for Vito to “bump” him from the rotation so he was sent back to the Newark Bears.
After Vito went 18-6 for the Bears in 1937, New York traded him to the Browns where he got off to a horrible 0-3 start and was placed on waivers. Brooklyn grabbed him and he won 29 games for the Dodgers over the next three seasons.
Vito shares his July 11th birthday with this former Yankee outfielder, who got the first hit ever in Fenway Park.
When I was a boy, my uncle would take me and my brothers to at least two Yankee games every season. We’d make the four-hour drive down to the Bronx in his old Lincoln sedan early, early in the morning and arrive at the Stadium parking lot about 8:00 AM. We’d go to Jerome’s for coffee and wait for the Stadium’s ticket kiosks to open. Once my Uncle purchased the tickets we’d often jump on a subway to midtown where we’d quickly walk a few streets of Manhattan, eat a hurried breakfast-time lunch at the old Oyster Bar restaurant that used to be located in Grand Central Station and then head back to the Stadium on the subway, usually right around 11:00 AM. On one such return trip from midtown, our train made a stop at one of the stations, the doors slid open and a dark-skinned, well-built guy entered our car carrying a pair of spikes and a real nice baseball glove. He sat down across the aisle from me. Due to the facts that I was an avid baseball card collector, memorized every page of every Yankee yearbook I’d ever owned, and faithfully purchased the photo-pak of 5 x 7 black & whites sold each year at the Stadium, I immediately recognized the new passenger. It was Yankee outfielder, Hector Lopez.
I whispered to my Uncle that this guy was Lopez but he insisted that Yankee players don’t ride the subway to their games. I knew different. I just stared at Lopez during the entire ride and he kept his eyes closed as if he were taking a nap. When the train reached the 161st Street station in the Bronx, he and I got up from our seats at the same time and I ended up just inches in front of him. My Uncle would always grab my hand when we exited the train and as he pulled me toward the door that morning I built up enough courage, turned my head and said, ”Are you Hector Lopez?” He looked right at me, winked his eye and smiled.
I had not been a fan of Lopez before that, mostly because if he was playing it usually meant that my favorite Yankee, the oft-injured Mickey Mantle would not be. But that morning, I became a Lopez fan. Hector spent the last eight seasons of his twelve-year big league career in pinstripes. He was a key bench player on those great Yankee teams of the early sixties that appeared in five straight World Series, winning two of them. When Mantle was unable to play the final four games of the 1961 Fall Classic against the Reds because of an abscess, Lopez took his place and drove in 7 runs and averaged .333. He could have started in the outfield of most other big league teams back then but with the Yankees, Lopez spent his time filling in for better known, higher paid teammates and evidently riding the subway to and from Yankee Stadium. He turns 83-years-old today.
Hector shares his July 8th birthday with another Yankee who played in a utility role.
I had taken my two sons to the second game of the 1998 American League Championship Series against Cleveland. It turned out to be a pitchers’ duel, first between David Cone and Charles Nagy and then each team’s bullpen. The score was tied one to one in the top of the twelfth when Jim Thome led off the inning with a single off of Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson. Enrique Wilson came into run for Thome and the next hitter, Travis Fryman, laid a bunt down the first base line. Knoblauch was covering first when the throw hit Fryman and the ball squirted into foul territory. Instead of going for the ball, Knoblauch decided to argue runner interference with first base umpire John Shulock.
As Knoblauch stood there arguing, Wilson rounded third and scored the go-ahead run as me and my boys and about 57,000 other fans in the Stadium that evening screamed at the clueless Yankee second baseman to get the damn ball. The incident turned what could have been a baseball classic into an extra inning nightmare and I was never ever able to completely forgive Chuck for that bonehead play.
As it turned out, Knoblauch was just not a good fit for the Yankees. The artificial turf in Minnesota had helped him average better than .300 with the Twins and he was never the same hitter on Yankee Stadium turf. He also developed that horrible case of the “Steve Blass” throwing disease that eventually forced Joe Torre to play him at designated hitter.Knoblauch was born on this date in 1968, in Houston.
Knoblauch shares his July 7th birthday with the only former Yankee player to become a big league umpire.
I have been a huge Willie Randolph fan since 1976, his rookie season with the New York Yankees. When I first heard about the trade with the Pirates that brought Willie to the Bronx I wasn’t thrilled because the Yankees had sent a pretty good starting pitcher named Doc Medich to Pittsburgh, in the deal. It only took me a few games into the 1976 season, however, to realize Randolph was a winner. Though he was only 21 years old at the time, he played like a polished veteran, especially in the field. I loved the way he fluidly brought ground balls hit to him into his body before making the throw. At the plate, Willie was adept at getting on base, stealing important bases, and moving runners into scoring position. The best way I can describe Willie’s impact on the Yankees was that you really noticed how good he was when he wasn’t in the lineup.
Willie was also a great teammate. On a Yankee team that was notorious for clubhouse cliques and animosity, Willie got along with and was respected by everyone and was eventually named Yankee Captain.
I remember the disappointment I felt when Randolph signed with the Dodgers as a free agent after the 1988 season. The Yankees were in the midst of a fifteen-season-long postseason drought and with Randolph leaving, they were losing one of their last links to their glory teams of the seventies. He ended up playing until 1992 and retired with 2,210 lifetime hits (1,731 as a Yankee) 1,239 runs (1,027 with NY) and a .276 lifetime batting average (.275 with NY) over eighteen seasons.
When Willie was named manager of the Mets, I knew he would be a very calm and controlled field boss who treated his players like professionals, respected the skills and opinions of his coaches, and let his team play. He did just that and deserved a much better fate than he received from the team’s front-office.
Willie was born on this date in 1954, in Holly Hills, SC. His family moved to Brooklyn where Willie was raised and played high school baseball. He shares his July 6th birthday with this World War II era Yankee backup catcher.