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.
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.
Stan Williams was the first Yankee player I can remember disliking. The guy did absolutely nothing to deserve my animosity except get traded to the Yankees for one of my favorite Bronx Bombers, Bill “Moose” Skowren. The deal took place after the 1962 World Series and even though I was just eight years old at the time I remember wondering why after winning their second straight championship the Yankees would break up the infield that helped get them those two rings. Part of the answer of course was that New York had a young and extremely talented first baseman named Joe Pepitone sitting on the bench and even though the Moose was just 32 years old, he had suffered for years from a chronic bad back.
The other reason the Yankees made the deal was to add some much needed depth to their starting rotation. In 1962 only Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry and Bill Stafford pitched in that rotation the entire season. At the time, Williams was a prized 26-year-old right-hander who had won 44 games over the previous three seasons for LA. At 6’5″ tall and 230 pounds, the guy they called “Big Daddy” posed an intimidating figure on a pitching mound. The Yankee front office was certain Williams would be a big winner for years in the Bronx and give young Yankee pitching prospects like Jim Bouton and Al Downing time to mature into big league starters. Well that didn’t happen.
Williams achilles heel when he was with the Dodgers was his lack of control and he seemed to have an even more difficult time throwing strikes when he put on the pinstripes. Even though he had a good spring training in 1963 and an impressive five hit victory in his regular season debut, Williams was consistently erratic for New York, walking hitters at an alarming rate. In one three game stretch of starts he didn’t make it past the third inning.
Instead of being able to bring Bouton and Downing along cautiously, Williams’ wildness and an injury to Stafford forced Houk to depend heavily on both their young arms. The 24-year-old Bouton had a gem of a season going 21-7 while the 22-year-old Downing was almost as impressive going 13-5. That’s why New York was able to make it to their fifth straight World Series despite the fact that Williams finished the year with a disappointing 9-8 record.
Williams did not even make Houk’s World Series starting rotation against his old team, the Dodgers. In one of the most dominating cumulative pitching performances in World Series history, Los Angeles swept New York in four games. Houk did give Williams the ball after Whitey Ford fell behind Sandy Koufax, 5-0 in Game 1. Big Stan came in and delivered three solid innings of scoreless, one-hit relief, striking out five of the ten batters he faced without giving up a single base-on-balls. That would prove to be Williams’ finest moment in pinstripes. In the mean time, Skowren took advantage of the Series matchup to feed the Yankee front office some crow by hitting .385 and homering against his old teammates. In 1964 Williams hurt his arm and finished his second and final Yankee season with a horrible 1-5 record. The Yankees sold him to Cleveland just before the start of the 1965 regular season.
He would spend much of his first three seasons with the Indians pitching his arm back into shape in their Minor League system. In the process he turned himself into a very effective starter/reliever winning 29 games while saving 36 more over a three-year period. That included a superb 10-1, 15-save, 1.99 ERA season for the Twins in 1970. He retired after the 1975 season with a lifetime record of 109-94 and 43 career saves.
As it turned out, the Yankees traded Skowren at just the right time and Pepitone was physically ready to take over first base when he did. But whenever I think of Williams or see his name, I’m reminded of the first Yankee deal I did not like and the moment in history when the Yankee dynasty began showing the first signs of cracking.
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 in 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.
This Commerce, Georgia native, who was born in 1907, didn’t throw his first pitch in a Major League baseball game until he was almost thirty years old. Some may think it was the name his parents gave him that delayed his arrival in the big leagues. Imagine you were the person in the Yankee front office who was responsible for notifying the team’s minor league players that they were being called up to the parent club. Someone hands you a message that reads “Call Spurgeon Chandler and tell him to report immediately.” You’d probably start laughing so hard you wouldn’t be able to pick up the phone.
The truth is, however, that Spud was one of those rare future Major League baseball players who attended college during the years of the Great Depression. After he graduated from the University of Georgia, where he was also a star football player, it took Spud five more seasons to work his way up to the Bronx. Even then, an assortment of nagging injuries cut down on his starts during the first half of his ten-year career in Pinstripes.
That all changed in 1942, when Chandler went 16-5 and then in 1943 he had one the greatest seasons of any Yankee right-hander before or since. Spud went 20-4 that year with a microscopic 1.64 ERA and won the AL MVP Award, leading the Yankees to their third straight AL Pennant. He went on to pitch two complete game victories over the Cardinals in that year’s Fall Classic, giving up just one earned run in the process.
Spud made just five starts during the next two seasons but it was service in WWII and not injuries or school that prevented him from playing full seasons. When he returned from service in 1946 he put together his second twenty-victory season. By 1947, however, he was approaching forty years of age and his body could not do it anymore. Chandler retired with a regular season career record of 109-43. Who knows? He’d probably be in Cooperstown today if he’d skipped college and didn’t serve his country in a war.
This late great Yankee outfielder shares Chandler’s September 12th birthday.
Brandon Laird was born on September 11, 1987. He grew up in Cypress, CA and was drafted right out of high school in the 27th round by the Cleveland Indians in 2005 but decided not to sign. Instead he played ball at Cypress Community College and two years later, when the 27th round of the 2007 MLB draft rolled around again, the Yankees picked him. He has spent the past five years working his way up New York’s farm system, starting with their Tampa Rookie League affiliate and landing with Triple A Scranton during the second half of the 2010 season.
The kid plays third base and has shown he has decent power in the Minors. He hit 23 home runs for Charleston in 2008, 23 more with Trenton the following season and last year, he hit 16 for Scranton. He had an excellent 2011 spring training for Joe Girardi and in the process also made a positive impression on Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long. The Yankees brought Laird up last year in June for a mid season look-see. In his first big league game, he pinch-hit for Derek Jeter during a Yankee blow-out of Oakland and walked in his first at bat. Two innings later he came up again and singled in a run to get his first big league hit and RBI in his first official at bat in the Majors.
He was sent back down to Scranton at the end of July last year and never got another opportunity to play in pinstripes. He hit 15 home runs and drove in 77 in Triple A during the 2012 season but couldn’t get his average out of the .250′s. The Yankees put him on waivers and he was claimed by the Astros on September 1, 2012. Houston currently has him on their big league roster and he just recently hit his first big league home run as an Astro. Laird’s biggest obstacle to a career with the Yankees was A-Rod. There’s no way the kid could have supplanted the superstar at that position in the near future, especially since there are so many years left on A-Rod’s huge contract.
Laird’s older brother Gerald is a catcher with ten years of big league experience who currently plays for the Tigers. In December of 2009, the Laird brothers were involved in a bizarre fight during an NBA game between the Celtics and Suns at US Airways Arena in Phoenix.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Blog celebrant is the New York Yankee outfielder, Roger Maris, born in Hibbing Minnesota, in 1934. I can say without a doubt that the home run race between Maris and his teammate Mickey Mantle during the 1961 season is the reason I am such a huge Yankee fan today. Their competition to break Ruth’s single season home run record dominated the sports pages and back then, when their were only three TV stations on the air, even network news anchors like Walter Cronkite and NBC’s Huntley & Brinkley would report how many home runs each of the M&M boys currently had. It seemed as if everyone everywhere was focused on the exploits of this dynamic duo and of course you had to choose sides.
Most of us wanted Mantle to be the one. The Mick had been a Yankee all his career and he was the epitome of a slugger. Every time he swung his bat from either side of the plate he swung as hard as he possibly could and many of his home runs would travel epic distances. 1961 was only Roger’s second season in pinstripes. He had a very smooth and graceful left-handed swing that was perfectly suited for Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch. Up until they became teammates, Mantle had a pretty lousy public demeanor and nobody paid any attention to Maris. When Roger came to New York from Kansas City and started challenging Mantle for MVP Awards and home run titles, New York’s rabid baseball press had someone else to assault in the Yankee locker room and while he helped get reporters off of Mickey’s back, Maris simply hated all of the superfluous attention. All of a sudden, the title of “toughest interview in the Yankee locker room” was passed from Mantle to Maris and Mickey’s public image got a huge boost as a result.
Another reason I probably rooted for Mickey back then was that my older brother was rooting for Maris. At the time, Big J was my tormentor. This is the guy who when he wasn’t performing what were supposed to be fake pro wrestling maneuvers on me would poke darts through the eyeballs of my collection of 5″ x 8″ glossy photos of the Yankee players. For quite a while, he was the owner of our family’s only transistor radio and when I would sit next to him on the front porch so I could listen to a radio broadcast of the Yankee game, he’d plug-in the earplug and stick the sounds of my favorite team inside his ear. So if Big J liked Maris back then it was all the more reason for me to root for Mantle.
That season-long home run derby remains one of the greatest events in both Yankee and Major League Baseball history. But as all Yankee fans have since learned, Maris was much more than home runs. He was an outstanding defensive outfielder with a shotgun arm. He was an incredibly good base runner and he could do all of the little things both at bat and in the field that helped produce and prevent runs. He appeared in seven World Series and had three championship rings when he retired after the 1968 season.
With the steroid controversy that consumed the achievements of Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds, respect and admiration have grown for Maris in recent years. He was a small town boy who unlike Mantle could never be comfortable with a celebrity’s life in the Big Apple. Maris died in 1985 after a two-year struggle with cancer.
Maris shares his September 10th birthday with another Yankee superstar trade acquisition who could never warm up to the big Apple press. This former Yankee utility infielder was also born on September 10th.
Another gift from the Red Sox, the Yankees obtained this right-hander in 1920 in a seven- player deal a year after they purchased Babe Ruth from Boston. The Yankees also were able to steal Hall of Fame hurlers, Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing and five-time 20-game winner Carl Mays from the Red Sox during the same ten-year period.
In his very first season in Pinstripes, Hoyt won nineteen regular season games and then pitched three complete games against the Giants in the 1921 World Series winning two and not allowing an earned run in any of them. He pitched for New York for ten seasons, winning 157 games, which places him in ninth place on the Yankees All-Time victories list. Hoyt pitched a total of twenty seasons in the big leagues including stints with all three of the New York City teams, retiring in 1938. He then became the first ex big-leaguer to make the move into the broadcast booth. He spent 21 years doing Reds’ games and became an institution in Cincinnati.
A huge drinker who beat the habit, the colorful Hoyt was also a great storyteller and had plenty of stories to tell. During the off-season he worked in both a funeral parlor and in Vaudeville. He had one of the closest relationships with the great Ruth of any ballplayer and his stories about the Bambino were considered classics. Hoyt’s ability to entertain Reds’ fans with tales of his past during rain delays were so entertaining, recordings of the sessions became best-selling records. Hoyt died in 1984.
The first player to do it was pitcher Bob Friend, back in 1966. The last guy to do it was infielder, Angel Berroa, who accomplished it during the 2009 season. In between them, sixteen other guys who at one time played baseball for a Big Apple team have done it during their Major League careers including today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant, Darren Bragg. Bragg was born in Waterbury, CT, on September 7, 1969 and is the only member of the Yankee’s all-time roster to celebrate his birthday on this date. He broke into the big leagues with Seattle, in 1994. The Red Sox acquired him from the Mariners in 1996 and he was a starter in the Boston outfield for the next two-and-a-half seasons. In all, he played for nine teams during his 11 year career in the Majors, including the Yankees, in 2001. The Yankees released him before the end of that season. So the question remains, what feat did Friend, Berroa, Bragg and fifteen other players accomplish during their Major League careers? Each of them appeared in games for both the Yankees and Mets during the same regular season.
Bragg shares his September 7th birthday with this first woman play-by-play announcer in Yankee broadcast history.