The best Yankee players from just about any era in the history of the franchise are generally accorded all the trappings and honors that go with that designation. These guys usually receive serious Hall of Fame consideration if not outright induction. Many are honored with plaques in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park and you still see their names and uniform numbers on the backs of tribute-paying fans who attend Yankee games. At the very least, their names are still mentioned in polls that ask who the top five all-time Yankees are at each position. So I ask why have most Yankee fans never heard of Nick Etten?
Etten was the best and most celebrated player on three consecutive Yankee teams. He captured an AL Home Run crown and an AL RBI title as well. In fact, during his peak three seasons with New York, he drove in more runs than any other player in the American League. He also won a World Series ring in pinstripes. So I ask again, why do so few Yankee fans even know who Nick Etten is?
The answer lies in timing. Etten had his best seasons as a Yankee when the best Yankee players were wearing military uniforms instead of pinstriped ones. Buddy Hassett, who played first for New York in 1942, had been drafted into the military so the Yankees needed to replace him. They targeted Etten, a native of Spring Grove, IL, who was then playing for the Phillies and traded for him. Why Etten? Probably because he was a left handed hitter who could reach the short right field porch of Yankee Stadium and they could get him pretty cheap (two guys named Ed Gettel and Ed Levy and ten thousand Yankee dollars did the trick.)
In any event, Etten did exactly what the Yankees needed him to do, offensively at least, by driving in 309 runs during the next three seasons. Defensively, it was an entirely different story. I’ve read that Etten was the worst defensive first baseman in Yankee history. He refused to move to his right on any ground ball hit that way, which turned the hole between first and second in the Yankee’s wartime infield into a canyon. When he did manage to get his glove on the baseball, Etten had a tough time holding it and throwing it. He made 50 errors during his three seasons as the Yankee’s first baseman. For comparison’s sake, Mark Teixeira has committed a total of just 11 errors during his three seasons as Yankee first baseman and Jason Giambi, who was the poorest defensive first baseman I ever saw play for New York, committed just 36 miscues during his eight seasons with the team.
Etten’s moment in the Bronx sun ended pretty quickly when the drafted and enlisted Yankees returned from military service. He continued to start at first for most of the 1946 season but his average and run production numbers tumbled. In April of 1947, the Yankees sold him back to the Phillies and he was out of the big leagues for good before the end of the 1947 season.
|NYY (4 yrs)||568||2373||2044||280||562||98||14||63||358||9||301||118||.275||.370||.429||.799|
|PHI (3 yrs)||304||1203||1040||120||299||52||7||23||128||12||154||63||.288||.381||.417||.798|
|PHA (2 yrs)||65||264||236||26||60||17||4||3||40||1||25||18||.254||.326||.398||.724|
Ken Brett’s Major League pitching career was overshadowed by the hitting success of his younger brother, Hall-of-Famer, George. Ken was a great hitter too, perhaps the best hitting pitcher of his era. He averaged .300 twice in the big leagues, once for Boston, in 1970 and again as a Pirate, in 1974. But if he hadn’t suffered an arm injury as a Minor Leaguer, the elder Brett definitely had the pitches and confidence to become a top-flight starter at the Major League level.
He made his big league debut in 1967 with the Red Sox, ending up on Boston’s World Series roster when their ace reliever, Sparky Lyle was forced out by injury. The eighteen year old Brett pitched an inning and a third of scoreless relief against the Cardinals and seemed like he was destined for great things. Instead, he became a big league nomad, pitching for ten different franchises over a 14-year career that included a two-game, one-save lay-over in pinstripes during the early part of the 1976 season. He had come to the Yankees in a trade with the Pirates along with Willie Randolph and Dock Ellis in exchange for Doc Medich. I remember hoping at the time that perhaps Brett would pleasantly surprise Yankee fans and effectively take Medich’s spot in the rotation. Instead it was the flaky Ellis who surprised us all by stepping up and delivering a very good 1976 season as a Yankee starter. With one Dock replacing the other, New York had little need for Brett so he and Rich Coggins were traded to the White Sox for Carlos May in May of that 1976 season.
His best years on the mound were 1973 and 74 when he put up back-to-back 13-9 seasons, first with the Phillies and then the Pirates. He was named to the NL All Star team for that 1974 performance. Brett was born on September 18, 1948 in Brooklyn, NY. The family moved to California where Brett became a high school baseball star. He died from brain cancer, in 2003.
Also celebrating a birthday on September 18th is a pitcher from the 1920s who was a three-time 20-game winner for the Indians who pitched two seasons in pinstripes at the end of his career. Even though he won 200 games during his big league career and led the AL in victories twice, I had never heard of this guy until I researched him for last year’s Pinstripe Birthday post. See if you have. One of the 11 Yankees who played third base for the team during the 2013 season was also born on this date.
|BOS (4 yrs)||10||15||.400||4.58||79||24||20||1||0||3||239.2||219||134||122||30||136||237||1.481|
|KCR (2 yrs)||1||1||.500||2.96||30||0||17||0||0||3||45.2||43||16||15||2||19||11||1.358|
|PIT (2 yrs)||22||14||.611||3.32||50||43||4||14||4||0||309.0||302||128||114||19||95||143||1.285|
|CAL (2 yrs)||10||15||.400||4.54||52||31||7||6||1||1||242.0||257||133||122||27||80||84||1.393|
|CHW (2 yrs)||16||16||.500||3.81||40||39||1||18||1||1||283.1||272||129||120||15||91||130||1.281|
|MIN (1 yr)||0||0||4.97||9||0||1||0||0||0||12.2||16||7||7||1||6||3||1.737|
|PHI (1 yr)||13||9||.591||3.44||31||25||2||10||1||0||211.2||206||91||81||19||74||111||1.323|
|LAD (1 yr)||4||3||.571||3.45||30||0||14||0||0||2||47.0||52||20||18||1||12||13||1.362|
|NYY (1 yr)||0||0||0.00||2||0||1||0||0||1||2.1||2||0||0||0||0||1||0.857|
|MIL (1 yr)||7||12||.368||4.53||26||22||3||2||1||0||133.0||121||76||67||13||49||74||1.278|
It was 1983. The Yankees needed to come up with a new starting first baseman to replace John Mayberry, the aging slugger they had inserted in that slot the previous season. This was an era in the George Steinbrenner years of team ownership when the Yankee farm system was treated pretty much as an afterthought when it came to filling important roster spots on the big league club. But this situation was going to be different. The Columbus Clippers, the Yankees Triple A franchise at the time, had a real stud starting at first base. He had just finished his final minor league season with 31 home runs and 96 RBI’s. That was the third consecutive year he had hit at least 20 dingers and driven in at least 90 runs for Columbus while he waited for the parent club to give up trying to insert veterans like Mayberry and Bob Watson at his position and instead, turn to their top Triple A prospect. And that’s exactly what happened. In 1983, after experimenting with Ken Griffey Sr. during the beginning of the season, the Yankee’s relented and called up a player from their Columbus farm team, eventually making him their starting first baseman. But it wasn’t today’s birthday celebrant. Marshall Brant’s only big league exposure during his very productive three-year stint as the Yankee’s top minor league first base prospect took place in 1980, when he went hitless in six at-bats, in three games. Instead, the Yankees called up outfielder Don Mattingly and gave him a first baseman’s mitt and the rest is history. Marshall Brant was born on today’s date in 1955, in Garberville, CA.
Also born on this date is a Yankee outfielder who once made an important and impressive throw for New York.
One of the last amateurs to be drafted by the old Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957, this Charleston, South Carolina native, who was born on September 15, 1937, became the Mets’ starting third baseman in 1964. He led that Met team in home runs with 20 that season but he also led them in strikeouts, with 101 in just 127 total games. When Smith’s home run total declined the following season and his strikeout total climbed, the Mets included him with pitcher Al Jackson in a trade to St Louis for the Cardinals’ All-Star and former NL MVP, third baseman Ken Boyer. After playing just one season with the Cards, Smith was traded for another former MVP to replace another third baseman named Boyer.
The Yankees disenchanted slugger, Roger Maris had decided to retire after a broken hand had sapped much of his once record-breaking power. Instead, New York traded Maris to the Cardinals in exchange for Smith. The Yankees also dealt their starting third baseman, Clete Boyer, to the Braves for outfielder Bill Robinson so Smith was pegged to fill that hole at the hot corner. Both deals backfired on New York. Maris went to St Louis and enjoyed a successful two-year conclusion to his noteworthy career that included consecutive World Series appearances. Boyer had the best season of his career in Atlanta in 1967. During the three seasons Robinson played in Pinstripes his batting averages were .196, .240 and .171. Smith did a bit better. During his two years with the Yankees, he hit .224 and .229. Charley died in 1994 at the very young age of 57.
Charley shares his September 15th birthday with this Hall of Fame Pitcher.
I was a big Rick Dempsey fan. Right after the 1972 season ended, the Yankees traded an outfielder named Danny Walton to the Twins to acquire the then 23-year-old catcher. New York would then send Dempsey to their Syracuse Triple A farm club for the 1973 season. In 1974, he became Thurman Munson’s primary backup and remained in that position for the next two and a half seasons. The guy became a superb defensive catcher and he had a shotgun for an arm. During his first season backing up Munson, he threw out 16 of the 22 base runners who tried to steal against him. He saw his most action in pinstripes during the 1975 campaign, when he got into 71 games. Never a great hitter, he had a career high .262 average that year and would often DH or play in the outfield if he wasn’t giving Munson a breather. Even though he didn’t hit for average or power, the guy was a grinder at the plate and a tough out in big situations.
Dempsey adored Munson. In a baseball Digest interview he did later on in his career, he said of the late great Yankee Captain, “I always admired his determination and tenacity, the way he played the game. I always said if I got a chance to play every day I wanted to be just like him.” Rick also loved being a Yankee. He credits Munson and Bobby Murcer for showing him how to act like a baseball player and he says working with Yankee coach and former big league All Star receiver Jim Hegan, made him a much better catcher. But Dempsey’s Yankee days were numbered.
In 1976 with Billy Martin now managing and George Steinbrenner’s “Let’s Win Now” philosophy taking hold, the Yankees decided to sacrifice their best young players to obtain veterans who could help them win that year’s division race. On June 15, 1976, New York traded Dempsey along with pitchers Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan to the Baltimore Orioles for Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Freeman, Elrod Hendricks, Ken Holtzman and Grant Jackson. New York got the immediate benefit they were looking for from the deal because Alexander, Holtzman and Grant combined to win 25 games during the second half of that season as New York finished in first by 10.5 games over the Orioles. But in the long run, the deal turned out to be one of the best trades ever made by the Orioles organization. Martinez became the foundation of their bullpen, McGregor the foundation of their rotation and Dempsey the foundation of their defense for the next decade, culminating with the 1983 World Championship.
During the ten seasons Dempsey served as Baltimore’s starting catcher (not including the strike shortened 1981 season) the Birds averaged over 90 victories per year. The highlight of his career was the Orioles 1983 World Series triumph over the Phillies in which Dempsey batted .385 and was named MVP. He ended up becoming a free agent after the 1986 season and signing with the Indians. After one year in Cleveland he played three more with the Dodgers and another three in Milwaukee before coming back to Baltimore for the 1992 swan song to his 24-season big league career. He along with Tim McCarver and Carlton Fisk are the only three catchers in big league history to catch games in four different decades.
One of Dempsey’s trademarks was his comedy act during rain delays. He’d put a beach ball over his belly under his jersey, turn his cap sideways, make believe he hit an inside the park home run and then water slide his way around imaginary bases atop the drenched infield rain tarp. These pantomime performances caused Baltimore fans to actually begin to praying for rain delays.
|BAL (12 yrs)||1245||4105||3585||405||854||169||12||75||355||16||424||538||.238||.319||.355||.674|
|MIN (4 yrs)||41||76||66||4||15||3||0||0||0||0||9||10||.227||.320||.273||.593|
|NYY (4 yrs)||141||350||307||31||71||11||0||3||25||1||35||29||.231||.308||.296||.605|
|LAD (3 yrs)||218||532||446||54||94||25||0||13||61||3||78||110||.211||.326||.354||.680|
|CLE (1 yr)||60||170||141||16||25||10||0||1||9||0||23||29||.177||.295||.270||.565|
|MIL (1 yr)||61||174||147||15||34||5||0||4||21||0||23||20||.231||.329||.347||.676|