The 1974 Yankees opened up their season with a double play combination of Gene Michael at second and Jim Mason at shortstop. Decent defensively, new Yankee skipper, Bill Virdon batted the two switch-hitters eighth and ninth respectively because both men were pretty putrid hitters from both sides of the plate. In an effort to get some more offense from their infield, the Yankees acquired a guy named Fernando Gonzalez from the Royals to play second. He responded by hitting .215 that year. Then just before that season’s trading deadline, the Yankee front-office went out and purchased Sandy Alomar Sr, who was the starting second baseman for the Angels at the time. Virdon handed him the second baseman’s job and Sandy responded well by hitting .269 during the second half of 1974.
As a Yankee fan back then, I can personally attest to the fact that after watching Mason, Michael and Gonzalez consistently fail to produce at the plate, having Alomar in the lineup was a huge offensive upgrade for that 1974 Yankee team. Sandy Sr. continued to start at second for New York for the entire 1975 season but his hitting fell off that year, when he averaged just .239. His offensive regression helped convince the Yankees to make the deal with Pittsburgh in December of 1975 that brought Willie Randolph to the Bronx. Alomar lost his starting job to the more talented youngster in 1976 and was traded to Texas in 1977. His 15-season big-league playing career ended the following year and Alomar then began a long coaching career . Today, Sandy, who was born on October 19, 1943 in Salinas Puerto Rico, is best remembered for being the Dad of former big league All Stars Sandy Jr. and Roberto.
Even the most diehard yankee fans will have a difficult time remembering this starting pitcher from the 1991 Yankee team who happens to share the senior Alomar’s October 19th birthday.
Casey Stengel wanted to groom Andy Carey to replace Phil Rizzuto as the Yankees starting shortstop and he wanted Carey to become a spray hitter like “the Scooter.” The only problems with the “Ol Perfessor’s” plan were that Carey had always been a hitter who liked to pull the ball and he desperately wanted to play third base for New York. The Yankees had given Carey a $60,000 contract to sign with them after his senior year in high school. Andy’s Dad had a law practice in California and the plan had been for the son to go to law school and then join the father’s firm. But the sixty grand and Andy’s dream to start at the hot corner in Yankee Stadium forced a change in those plans. So from 1952, the year he made his debut in the big leagues, until 1960 when he was traded to Kansas City for outfielder Bob Cerv, Andy and Stengel were constantly battling each other over Carey’s role with the team. As a result, Carey never got the chance to become the great Yankee player he felt he could have become without Stengel’s interference. He may have been right but in trying to overrule a managing legend who ended up winning seven World Championships, Carey was fighting a losing battle. Carey’s best season in pinstripes was 1954, when he hit .302 and drove in a career-high 65 runs. His most famous moment in pinstripes was probably a play he didn’t make at third base. In the second inning of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson hit a hot shot at Carey that veered off his glove toward shortstop Gil McDougald, who’s throw to first just nipped Robinson. Ironically, Carey was considered an outstanding defensive infielder. He also did one thing as well as any Yankee in history with the possible exception of Babe Ruth. Andy could eat. He was the only Yankee who would actually spend more than his entire day’s worth of meal allowance on a single meal. Born October 18, 1931 in Oakland, CA, he retired from baseball after the 1962 season.
Andy shares his October 18th birthday with this former Yankee reliever.
Before Derek Jeter came along and reserved a spot on the wall of Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park for his pinstriped jersey, the most famous number “2″ in Yankee history had been a red-headed graduate of Dartmouth named Robert Abial Rolfe. Though hair-color earned him the workingman’s nickname he made famous, Rolfe was an Ivy League gentleman. An article in “Baseball Digest” once referred to him as “the best-educated, best dressed, politest Bronx Bomber of the thirties.”
Those Joe McCarthy-led Yankee teams put up some incredible offensive numbers during their pre-WWII era of success and it was their great third baseman Rolfe, batting second, who would help light the fuse for the team’s explosive lineup. Here’s some examples: In the three-season period from 1937-to-1939, Rolfe scored a total of 414 runs. In 1937, Rolfe scored the incredible total of 143 runs and didn’t even lead the team in scoring that year because Joe DiMaggio scored 151. In 1938, five different Yankees scored at least 109 runs. The 1939 Yankee team lost Lou Gehrig to ALS disease yet seven members of their starting lineup scored at least 87 runs that year and the team won 106 regular season games and then swept the Reds four straight in the World Series. During Rolfe’s decade-long Yankee career, he averaged 130 runs scored for every 162 games he played.
Rolfe was one of Manager Joe McCarthy’s all-time favorite players because he worked so hard and so smart at getting better and gaining every possible advantage over an opponent on the field. It was Rolfe who was one of the first players in baseball to keep a “book” on opposing hitters that he would use to change his fielding position at the hot corner, based on who was in the batters box. His book on opposing pitchers was just as detailed. He knew and could tell his Yankee teammates what pitch to expect in a pressure situation from every pitcher in the league. He did not ignore opposing fielders either. He would make notes how an outfielder fielded line drives and if they had a tendency to drop to their knee or back up on the ball, you could be sure the next time Rolfe hit one of his patented line drives at them he’d end up sliding safely into second. It may have been because Rolfe did so much thinking as a player he never found time to just relax and enjoy the game he played so well. He developed painful ulcers which were the primary reason he retired at the young age of 33 after New York lost the 1942 World Series to the Cardinals.
Rolfe got back into the big leagues as a Manager with the Tigers in 1949 and led Detroit to a 95-win season the following year, just three games behind the AL Pennant-winning 1950 Yankees. At the time, he attributed his success to cracking the whip on a bunch of Detroit players who he claimed had grown complacent. By 1952, many of those same players turned on Rolfe, claiming he was impossible to satisfy and the Tigers fired him. Born on October 17, 1908 in Penacook, NH, Rolfe returned to Dartmouth as athletic director. He died in 1969. Dartmouth’s baseball stadium is named after him.
Rolfe shares his October 17th birthday with this former Yankee outfielder.
October 16th is a not a great day for notable Yankee birthdays. Neither was 1979 a great year for Yankee baseball. The two-time defending World Champions lost their team captain, the great Thurman Munson in August of that season and missed the postseason for the first time in four years. Munson’s death was not the only reason that Yankee team faltered. In June of that same season, Yankee DH Cliff Johnson got into a brawl with ace closer, Goose Gossage in the Yankee locker room showers. Gossage broke his thumb in the altercation and was out for the rest of the season. Without him, a dominating Yankee bullpen became very ordinary.
The Yankee front-office punished Johnson by quickly trading him to the Indians for today’s birthday celebrant. Don Hood, born on October 16, 1949 in Florence, SC, went 3-1 out of the Yankee bullpen during the remainder of that season. By 1980, he was pitching for the Cardinals.
Another October 16th birthday celebrant with Yankee connections is this former big league catcher who did color and play-by-play for Yankee games for a couple of seasons at the turn of this new century.
I first saw Pat Kelly play when he was the starting second baseman for the Albany-Colonie Yankees, New York’s old double A affiliate in the Eastern League. The year was 1990 and Kelly along with Bernie and Gerald Williams helped lead that team to an Eastern League pennant. He was solid defensively, was very quick on the base paths but he had a propensity to strike out too much for a non-power-hitter. Still, by the following season, Kelly found himself in the big leagues as a member of a very mediocre 1991 Yankee team.
Yankee Manager, Stump Merrill had been starting Jim Leyritz at third and was not happy with his defense at the hot corner. New York brought Kelly up in May and Stump inserted him as his everyday third baseman. Playing out-of-position, Kelly did not turn out to be much of an improvement defensively over Leyritz, but he did OK at the plate, hustled his rear end off and remained on the big league roster.
The following season, Buck Showalter replaced Merrill as Yankee skipper and he switched Kelly back to second base. Despite hitting just .226 that year, he started twice as many games at second as Mike Gallego. The following year, the Philadelphia native put together his best big league season, hitting .273 in 127 games for New York in 1993 and setting career highs in just about every offensive category. I remember thinking that Kelly had arrived as a bonafide big league player that season and expected him to enjoy a long and successful career as the Yankee’s starting second baseman.
By 1994, Showalter had Kelly and that entire Yankee team humming on all cylinders, as they streaked to a commanding lead in their Division and Kelly’s average rose to .280. But then the strike happened in August and the rest of the season was cancelled. When the players finally returned to the field in 1995, Kelly hurt his wrist, slumped at the plate and began losing his second base starts to Randy Velarde. But he did come through with the biggest hit of his Yankee career in the third-to-last game of the 1995 season. At the time, the Yankees were battling the Angels for the AL Wild Card spot and were trailing the Blue Jays by a run in the top of the ninth inning in Toronto. Kelly came to the plate with Velarde on first and hit a go-ahead home run. It was a huge hit at the time because Toronto was horrible that year and if the Yankees had lost that game I seriously doubt they would have hung on to finish ahead of the Angels.
As most Yankee fans remember, that team went on to lose to the Mariners in the 1995 ALDS and Steinbrenner then fired Showalter and replaced him with Joe Torre. When Kelly hurt his shoulder that spring and it required surgery, Torre announced that he was going to start Tony Fernandez at second base in 1996. Fernandez then broke his elbow. A scrambling Yankee front office brought in Mariano (We play today, we win today, das eeet) Duncan to play second and he responded by hitting a career-high .340. Kelly’s Yankee career was pretty much over at that point. Even before his big league playing days ended, he had become deeply involved in Australian baseball and he still today serves as a scout specializing in finding playing talent “Down Under” and throughout the entire Pacific rim area.
Kelly shares his October 14th birthday with his former Yankee teammate and current Yankee Manager and this former 20-game-winning Yankee pitcher.
When Jacob Rupert and a man named Tillinghast L’Hommidieu Huston purchased the New York City American Baseball League franchise in 1915 for $1.25 million, the team they bought was a pretty horrible one. At the time, the Yankees were coming off their fourth consecutive losing season and had no home stadium. They were sharing the Polo Grounds with the mighty New York Giants of John McGraw and of course the struggling Yankees’ public image suffered even more by the close proximity comparison.
Huston and especially Rupert were determined to turn the franchise’s perilous situation around and one of the very first things they did as owners was look for a new Manager. They found their man in Rhode Island, skippering the International League’s Providence Grays. His name was Bill Donovan and in just his second year as Manager of the Grays, he had turned a losing squad into a Pennant winner. Donovan had been a very good big league pitcher with Brooklyn and the Tigers during the first decade of the 20th century. He had put together 25-victory seasons with each franchise and helped Detroit reach three World Series (all of which the Tigers lost.) The only thing that prevented him from becoming a great pitcher was his propensity to not throw strikes. It was this lack of control on the mound, along with a pretty hot temper off of it that earned Donovan the nickname of “Wild Bill.”
Detroit finally released him in 1912 and Donovan signed on to pitch with Providence that same year and was named the team’s player manager the following season. In his first season as Yankee skipper, New York finished 69-83. Wild Bill even took to the mound that year and earned three of those losses himself. By 1916, the investments in new talent made by Rupert and Huston began paying dividends. With Wally Pipp now at first, Frank “Home Run” Baker at third and Bob Shawkey in the starting rotation, Donovan’s Yankees improved to an 80-74 record and more importantly, almost doubled the attendance at the team’s home games.
Expectations were sky high as the 1917 season approached but the Yankees regressed. Injuries and off years by Shawkey and Pipp helped New york finish in sixth place with a 71-82 record and in the process end Wild Bill’s career as a Yankee Manager. Rupert, who had become much more actively involved in the team’s operations than his co-owner, liked Donovan personally but he was convinced his team needed a new skipper. When Miller Huggins was fired as Manager of the Cardinals, the Colonel snapped him up and fired Wild Bill.
Donovan’s second big league managerial position was an even bigger disaster, when he was hired to manage the Phillies in 1921 and was fired that same year after the team got off to a horrid 25-62 start. Instead of giving up, Donovan returned to managing in the minors. That proved to be a great decision on his part, when after a couple of successful seasons managing in the Eastern League, he was about to become the Washington Senators’ new skipper. That’s when tragedy struck. He was on his way to Baseball’s 1924 Winter Meetings being held in Chicago, when his train crashed and Donovan, along with nine others were killed.
Can you imagine a rookie coming out of the Yankee farm system today and starting 31 regular-season games in right field, 22 in center, 41 at short and 38 more at third base? Then imagine this same 22-year-old kid is able to hit .297 despite all the switching from position to position, wins the Rookie of the Year Award and even hits .286 with two home runs in his very first World Series. I’ve just described Tony Kubek’s very impressive rookie season for the 1957 Yankees. It is no wonder that this native of Milwaukee, who was born on this date in 1935, became one of Casey Stengel’s favorite players. Stengel, after all, was Baseball’s master platooner. In Kubek, he had a very smart, extremely tough kid who had a shotgun for an arm and a very good bat. The only thing he couldn’t do was hit a lot of home runs. Since Stengel wanted outfielders who could hit with power, he gave up playing Tony in the outfield and decided to make him the Yankees’ next shortstop.
That’s where Kubek and Bobby Richardson became the best Yankee double-play combination in my lifetime until Robinson Cano was introduced to Derek Jeter. Kubek was a three-time All Star and played a total of nine seasons and seven World Series in a Yankee uniform before a bad back hastened his entry into the broadcast booth, where he became one of baseball’s all-time great television analysts. Kubek was the Ford C Frick Award recipient in 2009, putting him the Baseball Hall of Fame for his broadcasting ability.
I loved watching El Duque on the mound. His ability to throw so many different pitches from that winding and unwinding motion always left me with the impression that he was conducting an orchestra instead of just pitching a baseball game. At least 33 years old when he escaped from Cuba and signed with the Yankees in 1998, his first two seasons in pinstripes were his best, winning 29 games during that span and compiling the first four of what would become eight consecutive postseason wins for New York. I clearly remember always feeling confident the Yankees would do well in any big game with Hernandez as their starting pitcher. Even after his mediocre 2000 regular season, when he finished 12-13, El Duque managed to win three straight starts that postseason.
And after New York traded him in January of 2003, Yankee fans will never forget how Hernandez rejoined the team during the 2004 season and led New York back to the playoffs by winning eight of ten decisions. Then, after spending time with both the White Sox and the Diamondbacks, El Duque joined the Mets during the 2006 season and went 18-12 during his two seasons at Shea. Perhaps if he had escaped from Castro’s Cuba a decade earlier, he would be headed for Cooperstown.
El Duque shares his October 11th birthday with this former Yankee reliever.
He was the only person in Yankee franchise history to spend 31 seasons playing in Yankee Stadium without getting an official at bat. Born in Philadelphia on October 10, 1925, Eddie Layton began playing the organ when he was just twelve years old. Five decades later he was spinning tunes for Yankee, Knick and Ranger fans as the official organist at both Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden. When CBS purchased the Yankees in the mid sixties, then Yankee President, Mike Burke found Eddie playing organ for CBS daytime soap operas and hired him to play Yankee Stadium’s 50,000 watt Hammond Organ. Layton was not a baseball fan and knew nothing about the game when he accepted the job, but like PA announcer Bob Sheppard and Star Spangled Banner singer Robert Merrill, he became an important part of the Yankee Stadium experience for millions of Bomber fans. Layton died in 2004.The only non-musician Yankee player to celebrate his birthday on this day was this almost unknown reliever.
Joseph Anthony Pepitone was born on October 9, 1940 in Brooklyn. He came up to the Yankees in 1962 and took over the starting first baseman’s job from one of my favorite players in Pinstripes, Bill Moose Skowron. We long-time Yankee FAN-atics will always consider the November 1962 trade that sent Skowron to the Dodgers for pitcher Stan Williams as the first crack in the crumbling of the original Yankee dynasty.
Pepitone may have had better baseball skills than the Moose but he lacked the unselfishness and professional discipline of his Yankee predecessor. Unlike Skowron, who was extremely self-critical, “Pepi” tended to blame his failures on the field on everyone else but himself. He thought he could work hard during the game and play hard at all other times. As the Yankees continued to lose their veteran players to age and injuries, Pepitone’s lack of maturity and good judgment prevented him from filling that growing vacuum in Yankee team leadership.
Still, in 1966 when my beloved Bombers finished in last place in the American League and Mickey Mantle was officially converted from an “injured superstar” into an “aging has-been,” Joe Pepitone’s 31 home run season gave us Yankee fans hope. His graciousness in switching starting positions with the Mick one season later to help prolong Mantle’s career added luster to Pepitone’s Yankee-fan friendly image. By 1969, however, Pepitone’s diminishing batting average and power numbers along with his continuing off-the-field antics had all worn thin on the fans and few complained when Joe was traded to the Astros for a guy named Curt Blefary. In 1975, Pepitone wrote his autobiography with Barry Stainback. It was called “Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud.” I recommend it to any student of Yankee history and any fan of Pepitone.