I doubt there’s a Yankee fan who ever heard of Joe Kelley. Yet, he was one of the original Yankee franchise’s first stars and he was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1971. Kelley’s anonymity within Pinstripe Nation is due to two factors. The first is that he played most of his baseball back in the 19th century. The second reason is that he played just 60 games for the Yankee franchise and those games were played in 1902, when the team was still based in Baltimore and nicknamed the Orioles.
There is no doubt, however, that Kelley was one of baseball’s brightest stars back when Grover Cleveland and William McKinley lived in the White House. He was a lifetime .317 hitter, who was consistently among league leaders in most offensive categories and also recognized as one of baseball’s best defensive outfielders. He had a 17 year-career, but his best seasons were spent in Baltimore, when the Oriloles were still part of the senior circuit. He teamed with John McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler and Hughie Jennings to lead Baltimore to three straight pennants and averaged .352 during his six year tenure with that team. He once had nine consecutive base hits in an Orioles’ double-header. Kelley was also quite the lady’s man back in the day. He was often seen in public with beautiful members of the opposite sex, enjoying the night-life of Baltimore and other NL home cities, sort of like a 19th century version of A-Rod.
He was traded to Brooklyn in 1899 and helped that team win two straight pennants, but his heart and his family were still in Baltimore. By 1902, the Orioles were part of Ban Johnson’s upstart American League. That year, Kelley jumped the NL to return to the O’s. When his former teammate and current Oriole manager, John McGraw got into a personal squabble with Ban Johnson. McGraw reversed Kelley’s geographical path and jumped from Baltimore back to the Big Apple to manage the Giants. Though it was Wilbert Robinson who took over for McGraw as the official manager, Kelley actually became that Oriole team’s co-skipper. He ended up appearing in 60 games that year and hit .311. When it was learned that Johnson had finagled the transfer of the financially troubled Orioles’ franchise to New York, Kelley jumped back to the NL and became a player-manager for the Reds.
Kelley shares his birthday with this former Yankee starting pitcher.
You’d probably have to go back to Nelson Rockefeller to find someone who had a more self-satisfying final performance than the one Mike Mussina enjoyed during the 2008 season. “Moose” had been one of the most effective starting pitchers in the Majors during the previous seventeen years of his career but had never been able to win twenty games in a single season. Plus, after a mediocre performance in 2007, the pundits were saying Mussina was past his prime and the Yanks would be better off giving the to ball younger studs like Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain instead of the aging 38-year-old right-hander.
We Yankee fans all saw what happened to our young studs during that ill-fated season and I can’t imagine how much worse Joe Girardi’s first year as Manager would have been if Mike Mussina had decided to call it quits instead of pitching one more year.
He went 20-9 with an ERA of just 3.37 and pitched over 200 valuable innings for a Yankee staff that was decimated by injuries and ineffectiveness. The 20 victories gave Mussina 270 for his career and made his case for getting to Cooperstown a heck of a lot stronger.
Most other veteran hurlers who had the type of season and career numbers Mussina had as a 39-year-old would be anxious to cash in on one more multi-million dollar contract and continue their pursuit of 300-wins. Not Moose. He has always been a quiet guy who cherished family more than fame and retirement was an easy choice for him to make. Mike was born in Williamsport, PA, in 1968. He shares his December 8th birthday with this former Yankee reliever and this one-time Yankee shortstop.
Tino Martinez was a great Yankee. During his seven seasons in New York, this Tampa native who was born in 1967, drove in 739 runs, hit 192 of his 339 career home runs and won four World Series rings. He also happened to be my wife’s all-time favorite baseball player. So instead of spending the rest of this post describing the biggest highlights of Tino’s career in pinstripes, I’m going to tell you a story about how my wife met Tino Martinez. It happened in my Oldsmobile Minivan outside of Yankee Stadium, about ten years ago and to those of you with your minds in the gutter, it was not “that” type of meeting.
My wife and I had taken our kids to a Yankee Game. As we were leaving the Stadium parking garage I was trying to maneuver the van into a certain exit line so I could take a simple right-hand turn and get onto the Major Deegan Expressway heading north toward home. I had driven to Yankee games at least forty times in my life and had parked in that same garage most of those times. From experience I knew if I used any other exit, barricades would block me from taking a right turn and force me to go left which meant I’d have to spend the next two hours riding through the unfamiliar streets of the South Bronx to get back on the Deegan going in the right direction.
So I’m now outside the Stadium garage and I’m being forced to head either the wrong way on the Deegan or head back up River Avenue toward the same Stadium we were trying to leave. Usually there was a cop on duty at that corner forcing cars away from the Stadium but for some reason, that day there was just an empty police car sitting there. So I took the left and then I think another left and perhaps another, and before you know it, I had gotten my van onto Ruppert Place which runs right alongside the Stadium itself. In front of me was the same ramp to the Deegan I normally took when I made the correct right hand turn out of the garage. The only thing blocking my path was a huge bus, sitting right there in the middle of the intersection with its passenger door
open. We were so close to the bus that we could actually see through the reflective glass of the closed passenger windows.
I was about to ask the question, “Isn’t that Tino Martinez in that window?” when I heard my wife screaming at the top of her lungs, ”Teeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeno Marteeeeeeeeeeeeeenez, over here, I love youuuuuu! Teeeeeeno! Teeeeno!” She was actually standing on the front seat of our minivan and had somehow gotten the entire top three quarters of her body out of the passenger side window yelling as loudly as possible and waving her arms and hands frantically. I had never in my life seen a human being get so excited about seeing a baseball player and evidently, neither had Tino and the rest of the Yankees. My better half (or I should say three quarters of my better half) was making such a commotion that Constantino “Tino” Martinez actually opened his passenger window, laughing at my wife’s enthusiasm, and yelled hello and waved to her. As the bus began to move, me and the kids were able to successfully pull my wife’s contorted body out of the window and get her buckled back into her seat.
As we made our way back up the New York State Thruway that evening and I listened to my wife and kids talk and laugh about our encounter with the Yankee player’s bus, I was glad I took that stupid left instead of waiting in line to make my usual right.
Long time Yankee fans look back at the 1980s as the era of bad free agent signings for the franchise. After taking brilliant advantage of the Supreme Court’s striking down of baseball’s reserve clause in the 1970s, the Yankee front office led by the impetuous and impatient George Steinbrenner, evolved into one of the worst judges of free agent talent in all of baseball. They’d sign guys with games that did not complement the Yankee lineups they were expected to join or were not conducive to the dimensions of the old Yankee Stadium. It was these poor fits that used to upset me most. They’d give lots of bucks to players who performed well on their old teams and in their old ballparks but once they put on the pinstripes, it seemed as if they lost half their skills and most of their confidence. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was a classic example.
Gary Ward had been in the big leagues for eight seasons when the Yankees signed him to a three-year, two million dollar free agent contract on the day before Christmas, in 1986. He had averaged right around .290 with both Minnesota and Texas and could be counted on to hit between 15-to-20 home runs and drive in close to 80 runs every season. The Yankees were depending on the burly native of L.A. to produce similar numbers in pinstripes and take up a significant chunk of the offensive slack and one of the two outfield holes created with the departures of both Ricky Henderson and Dan Pasqua.
During the first half of the 1987 season it looked as if the Ward signing was a stroke of genius, as he got off to a torrid start at the plate. Even though he slumped badly in the second half of the season, he still managed to produce 16 home runs and 78 RBIs during his initial year as a Yankee but as his slump worsened, his average plummeted into the .240s. He was unfortunately in the process of discovering how the spacious left field of Yankee Stadium acted as a burial ground for well-hit balls off the bats of right-handed hitters.
In 1988, things got much worse for Ward. He averaged just .225, hit only four home runs and drove in the putrid total of just 24 runs. By the second half of that season he had become a part-time player and the Yankees ended up giving him his outright release during the first month of the 1989 regular season. The Tigers picked him up and he spent his last two big league seasons in Motown, as Detroit’s fourth outfielder.
Gary Roenicke was best known as a Baltimore Oriole. Born in Covina, CA in 1954, he spent eight of his twelve big league seasons with the Birds as an outfielder and had his best year in 1982, when he achieved career highs of 21 HRs and 74 RBIs for an Earl Weaver managed team that won 94 games but finished one behind the Brewers. The Yankees got him in a December 1985 trade and Lou Piniella used him as a fourth outfielder the following season behind future Hall of Famer’s Dave Winfield and Ricky Henderson and second-year player, Dan Pasqua. Roenicke got into 69 games for New York that year, hitting an unremarkable .265. The Yankees released him after that season and he signed with Atlanta.
As I researched Roenicke’s history, it got me thinking about other trades that have taken place between the Oriole and Yankee franchises. There have been some doozies over the years. For shear volume, you can’t top the deal the two teams made after the 1954 season that involved a total of seventeen players. The Yankees got the best of that one because they received future Cy Young Award winner, Bullet Bob Turley and 1956 World Series perfect game pitcher Don Larsen in the deal. In June of 1976 the two teams put together another blockbuster and this one was especially noteworthy because it took place in the middle of a regular season during which the two teams were battling for the same division flag. The Yankees won that flag with lots of help from Doyle Alexander, Ken Holtzman and Grant Jackson, the three pitchers they received in that ten player deal. The Orioles, however, got the biggest longterm benefit because they got a great starting pitcher in Scott McGregor, a wonderful reliever in Tippy Martinez and an outstanding catcher and team leader in Rick Dempsey. The following season, the Yankees got outfielder Paul Blair from the Birds for outfielder Elliott Maddox and a pitcher named Rick Bladt. Blair became a valuable reserve on two consecutive Yankee World Championship teams. The last time the two teams did a deal in which players exchanged uniforms was the 2006 post season trade of pitcher Jared Wright to Baltimore for pitcher Chris Britton.
Roenicke shares his birthday with this former Yankee reliever.
Looking for a great Christmas gift or perhaps just an easy-read that will make you laugh out loud every few pages? I humbly suggest you preview my brand new book, “Not Just Another Christmas Story.”
If you were raised in a big-city Italian American neighborhood during the 1950s, chances were very good that your life was dominated by family, old-country tradition, the Catholic Church and in a direct or indirect way, organized crime. Pinstripe Birthday’s poignant, often hilarious recollections place the reader back inside one of these vibrant neighborhoods (in Brooklyn) for one crazy Holiday week and describe how a family being pulled apart struggles to stay together.
Big Apple sports fans will especially love the surprise Yankee Stadium ending to this suspenseful tale. You can preview the first chapter and order your hard copies here.
I have to admit that it has been harder for me to get excited about the Yankees’ “Killer B’s” pitching phee-noms than it has been for many more optimistic Yankee fans and pundits. Banuelos, Betances and (today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Andrew) Brackman were being pointed to as the future of New York’s pitching staff last year at this time and I kept looking for hard evidence for those lofty expectations. Manny Banuelos is a southpaw, who has had some strong seasons as a starter during his first years in the lowest levels of the Yankees’ Minor League system but as he’s advanced upward, so has his ERA. He’s only 20-years-old, so Banuelos still has plenty of time to prove his supporters right.
Dellin Betances is the 6’8″ right hander who is a native New Yorker. Yankee fans got a chance to see him start in that crazy 8-7 loss to Tampa Bay at the end of the 2011 season that took place on the same day the Orioles came from behind in the bottom of the ninth to knock the Red Sox out of the AL Wild Card lead. Girardi let Betances pitch just the first two innings of that game and he held the Rays scoreless. But like Banuelos, Betances success at the Minor League level happened early on, in the lowest levels. When he got his first opportunity to pitch for Triple A Scranton last year, he wasn’t what I would call overpowering, finishing with an 0-3 record and a 5.14 ERA in the four starts he made with the team.
As unimpressive as the first two “B’s” have been recently, they’ve pitched better than Brackman, who is both the oldest (he turns 26 today) and the tallest (6’10″) of the trio. After pitching and playing basketball at North Carolina State, Brackman was the Yankees’ first round pick in the 2007 Amateur Draft. He had suffered a stress fracture of his hip during his second year in college but that did not prevent New York from giving the kid a three-and-a-half-million dollar bonus to sign with the team. Before the ink was dry on his new Yankee contract, the big right-hander’s pitching elbow started aching and it was discovered that he needed Tommy John surgery. He worked hard to come back from that operation going 10-11 during a split season in Single A and Double A ball in 2010. But last year, when he advanced to Scranton, he was just 3-6 with an ERA of 6.00. I knew things were trending downward for him when I read that the Yanks had Scranton experimenting with him in the closer role. He did receive the obligatory September call-up every multi-million dollar bonus baby gets, last year and got into three late-September games for New York.
Brackman is supposed to have a fastball in the high nineties along with a knuckle curve and a good change-up. But he had a hard time getting any of them over the plate last season at Scranton, when he walked 75 batters in just 96 innings. With control issues that severe at this rather late stage of Brackman’s development, I was not surprised to learn last week that the Yankees had given up on him and declined his option for the 2012 season. The three Killer Bees have now become just a pair.
By 1949, Joe Collins had been in the Yankee farm system for eleven years, starting as a sixteen year old with the Easton (Maryland) Yankees in the old D-level Eastern Shore League. During his last three seasons in the minors, the Scranton, PA native had torn up the pitching at the triple A level and was more than ready to play in the Majors. The problem was that Casey Stengel’s 1949 Yankees had more first baseman than some teams had pitchers. They included Tommy Henrich, Johnny Mize, Billy Jones, Fenton Mole, Jack Phillips and Dick Kryhoski. But Collins had averaged 25 home runs during his last three Minor League seasons and by 1950, the Yankee brass decided the then 26-year-old prospect needed a shot at the big leagues. Joe then became the team’s most frequently used first baseman until Moose Skowren took over the position in 1955. When that happened, Stengel continued to use Collins as an outfielder for two seasons until the New York front office sold him to the Philadelphia Athletics. Collins chose to retire rather than play in a uniform other than the Yankee pinstripes, ending the career of one of the classiest Yankees ever. Collins’ Yankee teams got into eight World Series, winning five of them. He never displayed as much power as he showed at the Minor League level during his Major League career but he did hit 18 home runs during the the 1952 season and 17 more in 1953. Collins, who was born in 1922, passed away in 1989.