The starting center field position for the New York Yankees became one of the most glamorous posts in all of sports during the middle of the twentieth century, when it was filled by Earl Combs, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle who all ended up in Cooperstown. They were followed by Bobby Murcer and then Mickey Rivers, neither of whom made the Hall of Fame but were both very good All Star players in their day. When Rivers slumped in 1979 and the Yankees traded him to Texas, it started a game of musical chair centerfielders in Yankee Stadium that did not end until Bernie Williams was given the job in 1992 and kept it for the next fifteen seasons.
Rupert Jones took over in center in 1980. He was followed by Jerry Mumphrey who did OK his first two seasons in pinstripes but was slumping during the first half of the 1983 season. The Yankee front office responded by trading Mumphrey to Houston for Omar Moreno. Moreno had been the NL stolen base champ for two consecutive seasons with the Pirates and had stolen 96 bases for Pittsburgh in 1980. The problem this Panamanian had was getting on first base. He struck out a lot and did not like to walk. He was only a .250 lifetime hitter and despite all those stolen bases, he scored more than 100 runs in a season only once in his 12-season big league career. In his only full season with the Yankees in 1984, Moreno hit just .259 and scored only 37 runs. Convinced Omar would not be their answer in center field, the Yankee front office made a huge deal in December of 1984 that put another future Hall of Famer in the middle position of New York’s outfield. His name of course was Ricky Henderson. Without a regular spot in the lineup, Moreno struggled to get his average over the .200 mark at the beginning of the 1985 season. New York released him in August of that season and he signed with the Royals. Moreno was born on October 24, 1952.
Henderson started in center for the Yankees for just two seasons. Then came Claudell Washington and Roberto Kelly. Bern Baby Bern shared the position with Kelly for a couple of seasons before taking it over for good in ’92.
|PIT (8 yrs)||944||3978||3585||530||915||115||59||25||263||412||314||633||.255||.315||.341||.657|
|NYY (3 yrs)||199||613||573||66||143||25||8||6||59||28||27||95||.250||.283||.353||.635|
|KCR (1 yr)||24||75||70||9||17||1||3||2||12||0||3||8||.243||.280||.429||.709|
|ATL (1 yr)||118||386||359||46||84||18||6||4||27||17||21||77||.234||.276||.351||.627|
|HOU (1 yr)||97||429||405||48||98||12||11||0||25||30||22||72||.242||.282||.326||.608|
After coming up through the Yankee farm system, Al Leiter made his Major League debut in pinstripes, starting four games for New York during the 1987 season. The following year he finished 4-4 for the Yankees but was hampered by a chronic blistering problem on the fingers of his pitching hand. At the end of the first month of the 1989 season, New York traded the promising left hander to the Blue Jays for Toronto’s slugging outfielder, Jesse Barfield. Leiter bounced up and down between Toronto and the Blue Jays top farm team for the next three seasons before becoming a semi-regular member of the parent club’s starting staff in 1993. He won a World Series game and a ring that year and by 1995, he’d pitched well enough to sign a nice free agent deal with the Marlins. Al won 27 games and another World Series ring during his two years in Florida but the Marlins dealt him to the Mets in 1998 in the deal for A.J. Burnett. During the next seven seasons he pitched some very good baseball for the Amazin’s, winning 95 games, losing just 67 and pitching seven shutouts. When the Mets let him become a free agent in 2004, he went back to the Marlins, where he had compiled a 3-7 record when he was traded to the Yankees.
I remember watching him pitch his first start as a returning Yankee, a six-plus-inning, three hit victory over Boston’s Tim Wakefield. Unfortunately, Leiter’s career-long struggle with control prevented him from becoming an even more effective member of that 2005 Yankee pitching staff. He retired from baseball after that season and is now a very talented and hard-working television analyst for both the YES and MLB Networks. Al was born on October 23, 1965, in Toms River, NJ. This long-ago Yankee outfielder was also born on today’s date.
I remember when the Yankees signed Tony Womack as a free agent to become their starting second baseman for the 2005 season. He was coming off a career year with the NL Champion Cardinals but he was 35 years of age, had no real pop in his bat and didn’t seem to me to be the kind of player Yankee fans would embrace. I was right and Joe Torre evidently agreed with me because Womack lasted only a couple of dozen games as New York’s starting second baseman.
I have to admit, at first, I wasn’t a big fan of Womack’s successor either. When the Yankees brought Robinson Cano up and installed him at second base, he started off pretty slow at the plate, experienced rookie-type-lapses of concentration in the field and he had the most annoying nail-biting habit of any Yankee in history. I was screaming for the Yankees to make a deal to bring back Soriano, confident that “Canoe,” Derek Jeter’s nickname for his new teammate, would be back in Triple A before the 2005 season was over.
This fully underscores why the Yankees paid Joe Torre millions of dollars to make field decisions and never responded to my written offer to manage their team for free. Torre’s patience with his young second baseman was rewarded, when Cano did start hitting, finishing his rookie season with a .297 batting average. He also fielded brilliantly and became a key reason why the Yankees made it to the 2005 postseason.
Cano then got better in both his second and third seasons in the Bronx before he digressed in 2008. I’m not sure what happened to him that season. He made more mistakes in the field and seemed to concentrate less at the plate. Cano had always been an undisciplined hitter, swinging at nearly everything pitchers threw him but during that ’08 season, he was swinging at literally everything.
Fortunately for New York, Cano has been superb ever since, making a gigantic leap during the past three seasons to becoming the best all-around second baseman in the Major Leagues. He makes plays in the field that I’ve never seen made by any second baseman, ever. He has also become one of the game’s great offensive forces, with that special ability to both score and drive in 100 runs per season. Cano is so good and so gifted, it has become easy for fans like me to take some of the extraordinary things he does both at the plate and defensively at second base, for granted. But I don’t think I’m being unfair when I call him out for his propensity to not hustle on the base paths. When he hits a field-able ground ball he often jogs to first and when he hits fly balls deep that have a chance to go out of the park, he goes into his home run trot much too soon. If he’d get rid of both bad habits, he’d be an absolute perfect second baseman. But even if he doesn’t, he’s pretty damn close to perfect anyway.
It took big Bill Bevens eight seasons to pitch his way up the ladder of the Yankee Minor League organization in the late thirties and early forties. He may never have taken the final step if it weren’t for the parent club’s pitching shortage caused by WWII. The six foot three inch right-hander went 4-1 for the 1944 Yankee team and in the process proved he had good enough stuff to earn a shot at making the post war Yankee rotation. He then proceeded to put together 13-9 and 16-13 records for New York the following two seasons and his 2.26 ERA in 1946 was the fourth best figure in the American League. But he also threw 249 innings during that ’46 season, far more than he had ever been asked to pitch since he first broke into the minors.
The wear and tear on Beven’s right arm began to show during the 1947 regular season. His walks per inning and ERA both climbed and he won just 7 games while losing 13. Still, Yankee Manager Bucky Harris had enough faith in the Hubbard, Oregon native to start him in the fourth game of ’47 World Series versus Brooklyn. The contest took place at Ebbets Field and for eight and two thirds innings, Bevens held the Dodgers hitless. It wasn’t what you would call a masterpiece performance. Up to that point he had already walked ten guys and given up a run because of his wildness but it was the World Series for God’s sake and as he faced Dodger pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto with runners on first and second, there was still a big “0” under the “H” alongside the “Home” team on the Ebbets Field scoreboard. Bevens was on the threshold of making history!
But instead, Lavagetto swung late but hard on a Bevens’ fastball and hit it down the right field line. The Yankees were playing Cookie to pull and by the time right fielder Tommy Henrich got to the ball, both Dodger base runners were well on their way to scoring the tying and game-winning runs. Fortunately for Bevens and the Yankees, New York would go on to win the Series in seven games and big Bill would pitch very well in relief in that seventh game.
Bevens then showed up at the Yankee’s 1948 spring training camp with a sore arm. The guy who was one batter away from throwing the first World Series no-hitter in big league history just four months previously, would never again throw a pitch in a big league game. After spending the first eight seasons of his professional baseball career pitching in the Minors trying to get to the Majors, Bevens spent the last six years of his career doing the exact same thing. He finally gave up trying in 1953. He died in 1991 at the age of 75.
Mickey Mantle was my idol growing up as a kid in the west end of Amsterdam, NY. I can still remember the feeling of euphoria that would come over my entire body on those very rare moments when I would tear open a pack of Topps baseball cards and there hiding in the gum-smelling stack of five pieces of glossy cardboard would be a Mickey Mantle. He was the very best player on the very best baseball team in the world and during my first five years as a Yankee fan, he led New York to five consecutive World Series appearances.
I had a poster of Mantle on my bedroom wall until I was about sixteen years old. I memorized his hitting statistics for each of his 18 regular season and 12 World Series performances. Watching him hit a home run in a televised Yankee contest was as enjoyable for me as seeing the Beatles for the first time on Ed Sullivan, watching the last episode of MASH and the first episode of the Sopranos all in one.
The first time I saw Mantle in person was a Sunday morning outside Yankee Stadium. Me and my brothers were altar boys when we were kids and we never skipped church on Sunday except for the two or three times each summer when our Uncle would take us to Yankee games. I may have been brought up to love Jesus but Mantle was a better hitter.
In any event, on this particular Sunday we were standing behind the police barricades outside the Yankee Stadium player entrance watching the Yankees arrive for that day’s game. All of a sudden, someone much taller than me screamed, “It’s him! It’s him! Here comes Mickey!”
He walked by just five feet in front of me wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt and kaki pants and the first thing I noticed were the muscle lines in his arms. The guy was ripped. People all around me were screaming his name but I was speechless and in total awe. My stupor didn’t matter because Mickey ignored us all. Most of the other Yankee players would wave as they walked by these barricades and some would even stop to shake a fan’s hand or sign an autograph. Not Mantle. He kept his head down and a frown on his face and walked straight inside the Stadium.
I was shocked when just about two hours later, listening to Bob Sheppard announce the Yankee’s starting lineup for that day’s game, I discovered Mickey would not be playing. In fact, Mantle not playing was a pretty common occurrence for me after many of those long drives my Uncle made to Yankee Stadium during the sixties. Instead we’d watch Hector Lopez, Bob Cerv or Jack Reed take the oft-injured Commerce Comet’s spot in the lineup. In fact, not once during the seven seasons we traveled to the Stadium during Mantle’s playing career did I see Mickey hit a home run. I began to think that my being at Yankee Stadium was somehow jinxing Mantle.
I was speechless and in awe the second time I saw Mantle, as well. The span between encounters was about twenty years. I had just landed at the airport in West Palm Beach, Florida with my wife Rosemary and two young children and we were walking to the baggage claim area. Unlike today, the West Palm Beach airport was not very crowded and I was pushing my youngest son in a stroller when I saw a pilot, two stewardesses, and a guy dressed up in a suit carrying a garment bag walking toward us. The guy turned out to be Mickey.
I mumbled to my wife “That’s Mickey Mantle!” and then froze as they continued to walk toward us. Rosemary kept telling me to ask him for an autograph but I couldn’t move or talk. I just stood there with my hands frozen on the stroller handles watching Mantle get closer and closer. That’s when my bolder better half sprang into action. She walked right up to him and said very nicely, “Mr. Mantle, that’s my husband standing over there and you were his idol growing up as a kid. Could you do me a huge favor and sign this for him?” With that she handed him the US Air Ticket Envelope and a blue Flair marker.
Mantle’s response went something like this. “Did they announce I was in this f _ _ _ _ _ g airport! I hate this God d _ _ _ _ _ d s_ _ t! Give me that pen lady.”
My wife and I just stood there speechless, she holding the signed ticket envelope. We realized Mantle’s life must have been filled with these annoying requests but the bitterness and anger in his reaction indicated the man was either deeply disturbed or he lacked even an ounce of humanity, compassion, or plain and simple class. At that moment, Mantle was no longer a hero of mine. When we left the airport I tossed the signed envelope into the garbage container just before I got inside my father-in-law’s Lincoln.
It wasn’t until another fifteen years passed and I watched a news report showing a dying Mantle apologizing to his fans for being such a selfish uncaring jerk all those years, that he became my hero again. I remember after Mantle finished speaking from the hospital press room that day, getting up from my chair in the living room of our house, going to my bedroom and pulling out my metal storage box from the top shelf of my clothes closet. I pulled out that US Air ticket envelope and just stared at that patented Mickey Mantle signature. I finally knew why I had made my Father-in-Law return to the arrival loop of the West Palm Beach Airport that day and why I scrimmaged through that filthy trash can to find the discarded, begrudgingly signed envelope.