Tommy Byrne didn’t really have a nickname but if he did, it probably would have been “Wild Man.” This southpaw had a blazing fastball and a great biting curve but he had a real tough time throwing either of them over the plate with any consistency. Over his thirteen season big league career, the Baltimore native averaged just under seven walks for every nine innings he pitched, led the American League in that department three straight seasons and in one of them, 1951, he walked 150 batters in just 143 innings. And when Byrne didn’t walk a batter, chances were good that he’d hit him instead because the guy led the AL in hit batsmen five different times. So how did a pitcher who was so wild stay in the big leagues? There were two reasons really.
The first was that despite his aversion to the strike zone, Byrne would win games. He started pitching full time for the Yankees in 1948 and over the next three seasons his record was 38-21. He was a very effective fourth starter for New York, behind their legendary Raschi, Reynolds, Lopat triumvirate. The second reason the Yankees kept him was his ability to hit. Byrne was one of the best hitting pitchers in all of baseball. He averaged .326 in 1948 and .272 two seasons later. He was such a good stick that he was frequently used as a pinch hitter and actually had 80 pinch hits during his career.
So Manager Casey Stengel, Byrne’s Yankee teammates and even most Yankee fans would tolerate the left-handers mind-numbing spurts of wildness because he kept winning games and the team kept winning pennants in spite of them. Unfortunately for Byrne, the one guy who couldn’t tolerate it any longer turned out to be Yankee co-owner Dan Topping. On June 15th, Topping engineered a trade that sent Byrne to the Browns for another southpaw pitcher named Stubby Overmire. I read that Stengel was livid with Topping when he learned of the trade after it had already been consummated.
The Yankees didn’t miss Tommy at first because they still had the big three in their starting rotation along with a new young southpaw named Whitey Ford. Byrne, on the other hand did not find pitching for the lowly Browns anywhere near as enjoyable as pitching for the mighty Yankees. He went 11-24 during his two seasons in St. Louis and then was traded to the White Sox.
In addition to being wild, Byrne turned out to be pretty lucky too. By 1954, Raschi was gone and Reynolds and Lopat were nearing the end of their careers. Byrne in the mean time, had been sold by the White Sox to the Senators and then released. He spent most of the 1954 season pitching for Seattle in the PCL League, where he went 20-10 on the mound and hit .296 at the plate. That performance caught the attention of the Yankees and the then-34-year-old pitcher suddenly found himself back in pinstripes at the close of the 1954 season. The following year, Byrne rejoined the Yankees’ starting rotation and went 16-5 to lead the AL in winning percentage. He also pitched very well in the 1955 World Series against the Dodgers. Bryne got a complete-game 4-2 victory in Game 2 and also drove in the winning runs with his two-run single. He then held the Dodgers to just one run for five-plus innings of Game 7 before being lifted by Stengel in a game the Yankees would go on to lose.
Byrne pitched two more seasons for New York and then went back to college at Wake Forest. He ended his career with an 85-69 overall record and 72-40 as an eleven-year Yankee. He ended up getting into politics and served as Mayor of the college town for fifteen years. He passed away in 2007, at the age of 87. One of the things I learned about Byrne doing research for this post was that he was considered to be a flake. He was known for talking to opposing hitters during the game and according to Yogi Berra, Byrne’s chit chatting would drive all stars like Ted Williams and Al Rosen absolutely crazy. Often times, he would tell the hitter what pitch he was about to throw. The talking combined with his sharp biting curve ball and lack of control made Byrne Yogi’s choice as the toughest pitcher he ever had to catch.
Byrne shares his last-day-of-the-year birthday with this other former Yankee starting pitcher.
Since no current or former Yankees are born on today’s date, I thought it would be an appropriate time to review the Pinstripe Birthday Blog’s five favorite moments of the Yankees 2011 season.
Number 1 – Derek Jeter getting his 3000th hit – Those who’ve read this blog over the three-plus years it has been live know my feelings for the Yankee Captain. I’ve watched Yankee baseball closely for over fifty years and can honestly say that no other player has given me more great memories as a Yankee fan than Mr. Jeter has. He’s a class act. So when the Yankee front office started blabbing to the media about their closed-door negotiations to re-sign the shortstop over the past winter and then when that same New York press started piling on Jeter for his slow start this past season at the plate, I was pretty upset. On July 9, during an afternoon game against Tampa at Yankee Stadium, Jeter once again proved why he is one of the most admired and loved Yankees in franchise history. When that game started, he had needed two hits to reach the 3,000 mark and he went out and got five. And after weeks of listening to and reading idiots write about how Jeter was now just a Punch & Judy singles hitter, Derek’s hallmark hit was a deep home run, pulled to left field. A great moment for a great Yankee. (The answer to today’s Pinstripe Birthday Trivia Question is – Jeter had 162 hits during the 2011 regular season.)
Number 2 – Mariano Rivera getting his 602nd save – Yankee fans have been especially blessed over the past decade and a half because in addition to Jeter, we’ve watched the very best closer in the history of baseball get the last crucial outs in hundreds of Yankee games. On September 19th of this past season, Mo was called in to pitch the ninth inning of an afternoon game against the Twins at the Stadium. He was given a two-run lead and proceeded to pitch a perfect final inning with the record-setting third out coming on a called third strike on Twin first baseman Chris Parmelee. The save was the 602nd of Rivera’s unbelievable career, sending him past Trevor Hoffman to the top spot on the All-Time career Saves list.
Number 3 – Jorge Posada playing in his last Yankee game – This one was bittersweet because you know it breaks Posada’s heart to realize he will almost certainly never take another at-bat in Yankee pinstripes. I was afraid his farewell tour was headed for a disastrous ending when he refused to play in the Boston game after Girardi demoted him in the lineup. But cooler heads prevailed and Jorge sucked it up and reminded everyone why he has become one of the most beloved Yankees of his era. If his solid hitting performance during the Yankees 2011 ALDS versus Texas turns out to have been his Yankee swan song, all I can say is; Hip Hip Jorge! You have been a great Yankee!
Number 4 – The emergence of Ivan Nova – I have to admit that as the 2011 spring training season opened, I did not think this kid was quite ready for prime time but he certainly proved me wrong. He was pretty much phenomenal the whole year and really showed the mettle of a professional when after he was unfairly demoted early in the season, he just kept pitching.
Number 5 (tie) – The emergence of David Robertson – After being spoiled for a decade and a half watching the most dominating closer in baseball do his stuff game after game, I found myself wondering if it was actually possible that his successor was already wearing Yankee pinstripes. That’s how good David Robertson looked on the mound in 2011.
Number 5 (tie) – Curtis Granderson’s outstanding season – I have watched and followed Yankee baseball pretty closely for a very long time and I do not remember a player who conquered a weakness in his game as dominantly as Granderson has overcome his inability to hit left-handers. In my opinion, he was the Yankee MVP of 2011 as he helped fill the power deficit caused by A-Rod’s frequents absences from the lineup, especially against southpaw pitching.
Jaret Wright’s pitching career got off to a great start from the second he was born and found out his Dad was former big league pitcher and 20-game-winner Clyde Wright. Sure enough, the youngster developed into a fireballing right-handed pitcher with a 98 mile per hour fastball and a biting curve to boot. He was in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians by June of 1997, when he was just 21-years-old and he helped that Indian team make it to the World Series by going 8-3 during the second half of the regular season and then beating the Yankees twice in the five-game ALDS. The Indians loved this kid so much that after he won Game 4 of the World Series against the Marlins, they gave him the ball again in Game 7 and Wright responded with a six-plus innings stint of solid pitching giving the bullpen a 2-1 lead in a game Cleveland eventually would lose. Coming out of that season, Wright was considered one of Baseball’s premier young arms.
Wright then went 12-10 in his sophomore season but as the innings mounted, his pitching shoulder started aching. He lost both of his starts in the 1998 postseason and then the bottom pretty much fell out. He spent his final four seasons in Cleveland either pitching in pain or on the DL, winning just 15 decisions over that period while losing 19. The Indians let him walk after the 2002 season and the Padres took a shot with a one-year deal. After a horrible 1-5 start in San Diego, he was dealt to the Braves, a franchise well known for its handling of pitching talent. Atlanta proved to be Wright’s elixir. By 2004, he had learned how to pitch with an 89 mile per hour fastball and finished 15-8. But then he got shelled in that year’s ALDS against the Astros, losing twice and giving up 14 hits and 10 runs in the nine-plus innings he pitched.
It was the Wright who pitched so well in the 2004 regular season that the Yankees thought they were getting when they signed him to a three-year, $21 million contract the following December. That was the same offseason New York also went out and signed Carl Pavano for $40 million. Brian Cashman thought he had fixed the Yankee starting pitching problems with the two deals. Instead, he had made them even worse not to mention much, much more expensive.
Wright’s first year in pinstripes was a disaster. He pitched just 63 innings, spent most of the year nursing a sore shoulder and finished 5-5 with an ERA over six. He did much better in his second regular season in New York, going 11-7 but then for some reason, Joe Torre picked Wright to start game 4 of that year’s ALDS against the Tigers. Detroit held a 2-1 lead in the best of five series and when Wright got shelled, giving up two bombs, and four runs in the 2.2 innings he pitched, both New York’s postseason and the beleaguered pitcher’s Yankee career were over. He was banished to Baltimore, with the Yankees agreeing to pay more than half his $7 million salary for 2007. That turned out to be his final season in the big leagues. He finished with a 68-60 career record during his eleven injury filled seasons of play.
The first A-Rod to play third base for the New York Yankees was born in Cananea, Mexico, in 1947. His 79 games in pinstripes during the 1980 and ’81 seasons, however, were just a blip in this defensive wizard’s seventeen-year big league career. Most of those years were spent playing the hot corner in the uniform of the Detroit Tigers. Lifetime, he was just a .236 hitter but he earned his paycheck with his remarkable glove and accurate arm. He won just one Gold Glove in 1976 but should have won a few more. Back then, American League managers and coaches were enamored with the much more celebrated Brooks Robinson at Gold Glove voting time. A-Rod hit .389 during the Yankee’s 1981 postseason run and was traded to the Blue Jays two months later.
He left the big leagues after the 1983 season and returned to play several more productive years in his native Mexico. He was treated as a National hero in his home country and after he was tragically struck and killed by an out-of-control driver while walking on a sidewalk during a visit to Detroit in September of 2000, thousands of Mexicans attended his funeral.
Rodriguez shares his birthday with this infielder who signed a free agent contract with the Yankees but didn’t make their big league roster.
One thing became pretty clear to me as I researched Jim Leyritz for this post. It sounded like he was considered to be a pretty big jerk by most of the guys who managed him in the Yankee organization and also by quite a few of the guys who played with him. Bucky Dent couldn’t stand him and evidently Buck Showalter felt that way too. Joe Torre tolerated him but heck, Leyritz’s game-tying home run off of Atlanta’s Mark Wohlers in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series just may have saved Torre’s job. Don Mattingly nicknamed Leyritz “the King” because he was always telling everyone else how great he was.
Actually, I also sort of already knew that Leyritz was somewhat of a jerk before doing research for today’s post. My son’s good friend was related to a girl who once dated Jimmy boy. My son’s friend attended a family dinner to which Leyritz had also been invited. She told us that she had never met a more conceited human being in her entire life.
So now that I’ve established that Mr. Leyritz will never win any Most Popular Yankee awards, there was no argument about his ability to hit in the biggest of situations. That home run against Wohler was preceded by his two-run game-winner in the 15th inning of the 1995 ALDS against Seattle. He took his “big moment bat” to San Diego in 1998 and hit three huge home runs for the Padres that postseason. He then rejoined New York the following year and his Game 4 home run in 1999 World Series helped New York sweep the Braves.
The Yankees dealt Leyritz to the Dodgers for Jose Vizcaino in June of 2000 and after finishing that season in LA, he never played in another big league game. He played all or parts of nine of his eleven big league seasons in pinstripes and hit 58 of his 90 lifetime regular season home runs as a Yankee. He also hit eight postseason home runs in 28 total games of Fall Ball.
Leyritz has had tremendous problems trying to survive outside of baseball. The most infamous incident was the tragic accident he had the day after his 44th birthday in 2007 in the state of Florida. Leyritz was driving drunk when his car collided with one being driven by a young female who, as it turned out, was also driving while intoxicated. Authorities arrested the ex-Yankee, charging him with vehicular manslaughter. The case finally came to trial in November of 2010 and Leyritz was acquitted of the manslaughter charge.
Shortly after the first draft of this blog post appeared, a friend of Leyritz’s e-mailed me to present a different and more updated perspective of the former Yankee. According to him, Leyritz has been dating his sister for a while and has always treated her and her children great. The e-mailer also assured me that Leyritz is a “great” Dad to his own kids and good friends with his ex Yankee teammates, including David Cone and Bernie Williams.
The Kansas City Royals had rallied for three runs to tie the score in their half of the eighth inning and Royal reliever Mark Littell, who had not allowed a run to score in the 4 2/3 innings he had already pitched in the 1976 American League Championship Series, was about to face Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss. My brother Jerry and I were sitting in his living room watching the game and I have to admit, doubts about a Yankee victory were beginning to enter my mind.
Chambliss had blistered Royal pitching up to that point of the AL playoff series but as he stepped to the plate, all I could focus on was the fact that the Yankees had not been to a World Series in 12 years. What happened next was one of the most magical moments in the magical history of America’s most successful sports franchise. Chambliss belted Littell’s first pitch, sending it on a high dramatic arch over the padded bright blue right centerfield wall in Yankee Stadium and the Yankees were winners again. New York fans will never forget the complete bedlam that broke out in Yankee Stadium as Chambliss attempted to circle the bases after his historic round tripper. Fortunately, Chambliss was a 6’1″, 200 pound powerfully built athlete enabling him to steamroller his way through the hundreds of fans attempting to pat him on the back, shake his hand, grab his batting helmet, or rip a souvenir piece of clothing or flesh from his body.
If Chambliss did not do another thing in his Yankee career, that one at bat would guarantee him a spot on my all-time favorite list of Yankee players. But, in fact, Chambliss was a key contributor on three Yankee pennant winning and two world championship teams. He was the only Yankee player to have at least 170 base hits and drive in at least ninety runs in each of the 1976, ’77, and ,78 seasons and was the calming influence and rock of stability on a team that badly needed calm and stability. In all, he spent six productive seasons as New York’s first baseman during the “Bronx Zoo” years.
Born on December 26, 1948, this Dayton, Ohio native came up to the bigs as a Cleveland Indian, capping an effective debut season by being selected as the AL Rookie of the Year for 1971. Chris had three good years for the Indians, but on April 27, 1974, he found himself part of a seven-player trade that made him a Yankee. Chambliss immediately fell into a hitting slump, and batted just .242 for New York in 110 games that first season. But Yankee fans noticed that Chambliss played hard all the time, and by 1975, Chris had become one of their favorites.
Chambliss evolved into a main cog in the middle of a powerful Yankee line-up that included Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, and Reggie Jackson. Whenever lead-off hitters Mikey Rivers or Willie Randolph reached base, one of the hard-swinging quartet could be counted on to drive them in. Chris was a good contact hitter who didn’t strike out often and his bat regularly produced hard line drives to the gaps of Yankee Stadium. Chris was also an excellent fielder, winning the AL Gold Glove Award in 1978 as the Yankee first baseman.
The 1979 season was both disappointing and tragic for the the Yankees. They failed to make the post season for the first time in four years and lost their star catcher and team Captain Thurman Munson, who was killed in an airplane crash. Needing to replace Munson, the Yankee front office traded Chambliss to the Toronto Blue Jays during the 1979 off-season, in a six player deal that brought Blue Jay catcher Rick Cerone to the Bronx. Seven days later, the Yanks signed free agent first baseman Bob Watson to replace Chambliss. About a month later the Jays traded Chambliss to the Atlanta Braves.
Chambliss spent the last seven years of his playing career with the Braves hitting line drives and driving in runs, as always. After retiring as a player, Chris ended up back in the Yankee dugout for a while, serving as hitting coach for New York.
This one-time Yankee reliever was also born on the day after Christmas.
Ricky Henderson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009. Few have deserved the honor more. Just ask Ricky. Ricky will also tell you he was the best Christmas present Major League Baseball ever received. He was born in Chicago on Christmas Day in 1958. The all-time leader in stolen bases, runs scored, and walks, he was the Yankee left fielder for four and a half seasons, beginning in 1985. His career in pinstripes lasted a total of 596 games, during which he set both the single season (93) and all-time (326) Yankee marks for steals before returning to the Athletics during the 1989 season.
In all, Ricky played the game for 25 big-league seasons and wore nine different uniforms doing it. He ended up hitting .279 lifetime and garnered 1,406 stolen bases. His career stolen-base mark will be a tough one to surpass. Number two on the list is Lou Brock who stole 938. The closest active player is Juan Pierre, who played for the White Sox last season and now has 554 career steals. Boston’s Carl Crawford is currently next among active players with 427.
Ricky led the league in steals three different times while wearing the pinstripes. Coincidentally, the only other Yankee who did so was also born on Christmas Day.
You would think that with a last name like Otis, this guy would at least have had an “up and down” career with the Yankees parent club and their farm system. Unfortunately for Bill, his entire big league experience consisted of just four games for the 1912 New York Highlanders (the team’s name before they became the Yankees.) He got just one hit in seventeen at bats that year but that one hit came off the immortal Hall-of-Famer, Walter Johnson. He is the only current or former Yankee to be born on Christmas Eve. He’s also the only native of Scituate, MA to play Major League baseball. When he died in 1990 at the age of 100, he was the oldest living former MLB player on the planet.
The only other member of the Yankee family to be born on Christmas Eve is this former NL All Star pitcher who was signed by New York in 2011 but only pitched for their Triple A team in Scranton.
When folks my age hear or read the name “Timothy Leary” the three-letter abbreviation that comes to mind is usually not “ERA.” If, however, you were a Met fan in 1980, that name represented the miracle drug the Amazin’s needed to become winners again. Leary was a teenage sensation as a schoolboy and American Legion pitcher in Santa Monica, CA, who went on to a great career at UCLA. He caught national attention when he anchored the USA’s World Cup team in 1978 and the Mets made the tall right hander the second overall pick in Baseball’s 1979 amateur draft.
New York City’s National League franchise was in one of its frequent “dark ages” at the time, so when Leary had an impressive 15-8 first season at the double A level, Met management made the fateful decision to bring him straight to the Majors the following season. In his first big league start in April of ’81, Leary pitched to just seven batters before leaving the game with a strained right elbow. That marked the beginning of another disastrous year for Met fans that was made even worse by a player strike that cut the regular season in half. As 1982′s spring training arrived, the team’s expectations for a healthy Leary rose once again but sadly, Leary’s elbow didn’t even make it out of the exhibition season.
During the next three years, Leary bounced up and down between Tidewater and Shea Stadium, trying to justify all the hype that surrounded his initial signing. That never happened and in January of 1985, convinced it never would, the Mets grew leery of Leary and dealt him to the Brewers. That began a big league odyssey that would take Leary to six different franchises over the next decade. Ironically, by 1990 he would find himself returning to the Big Apple, once again facing big expectations to help a floundering New York City baseball team get back to the top.
The Yankee franchise was in complete disarray at the end of the 1980s. George Steinbrenner was about to be suspended for his behavior in the Winfield/Spira scandal. The Yankees were switching managers as often as Phil Rizzuto would say “holy cow” and every player move the Yankees made seemed to backfire.
The team’s biggest problem back then was starting pitching. They had none. Ron Guidry had grown old and Steinbrenner was emptying the Yankee cupboard of pitching prospects, trading them it seemed, for any veteran hurler he could find who had ever had a decent big league season. That meant guys like Andy Hawkins,Dave LaPoint, Mike Witt and Leary became the Yankees’ 1990 starting rotation. Up until then, Leary’s only winning season had been in 1988 as an LA Dodger. He went 17-11 that season. The Yankees traded for him despite the fact that Leary followed up his career year by going 2-7 for the Reds in 1989.
What followed were three disastrous seasons for both Leary and the Yankees. His overall record in pinstripes was 18-35 with a 5.12 ERA. During his first year as a Yankee he led the AL with 19 losses, which for some reason was good enough to convince New York’s front office to sign him to a new two-year deal for $4 million. Leary’s “return-to-the-Big-Apple-tour” lasted until August of the 1992 season when he was sent to the Mariners for somebody named Sean Twitty.
The Yankees acquired Tom Underwood in the same 1979 postseason trade in which they picked up catcher Rick Cerone from Toronto in exchange for Chris Chambliss and Damaso Garcia. At the time this transaction was made, I was not impressed with it because I did not think Cerone was that good an all-around player and I was also a huge Chambliss fan. As it turned out, New York did get a very good and very quick return on the deal. Cerone had a career year in his first season in pinstripes and Underwood became a valuable 13-game-winning member of New York’s 1980 starting rotation that included Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Luis Tiant and Rudy May. That Yankee team won an impressive total of 103 games and captured the AL East Division for skipper Dick Howser before they were knocked out of fall-ball by the Royals. Underwood did not get a start in that postseason series and when he started the following season going 1-4, the Yankees dealt him to the A’s.
This southpaw was born in Kokomo, Indiana on this date in 1953. His younger brother Pat also became a big league pitcher for the Tigers. The siblings actually faced each other in Pat’s first big league start in Toronto, on the last day of May in 1979. In a classic duel, Tom lost that game, 1-0 to his younger brother on an eighth-inning Jerry Morales home-run. In all, Tom pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues for a half-dozen different teams. He had a lifetime record of 86-87, with 18 saves and six shutouts. Unfortunately, Underwood passed away in 2010, a victim of pancreatic cancer. He was just 56-years-old.