If the Yankees had won the 1959 pennant, Duke Maas would probably be a much more recognizable name for New York’s baby-boomer aged fans. That was the season the veteran right-hander from Utica, MI finished 14-8 for Manager Casey Stengel’s disappointing third place team. The Yankees had acquired Maas from Kansas City during the 1958 season in exchange for Bob Grim and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. Duke had a great start in pinstripes, winning 7 of 10 decisions to help New York win the 1958 pennant. He got shelled in his only appearance against the Braves in the World Series that year but bounced back to become one of the team’s few bright spots the following season. He had another strong year in 1960, going 5-1 with 4 saves as the Yankees recaptured the AL flag. Loaded with pitching, New York left Maas unprotected in the 1961 AL Expansion draft and he was taken by the Angels. LA then traded Duke back to New York before the start of the ’61 season. After just one appearance that year, Duke’s arm gave out and he never again pitched in the big leagues. Duke died at the very young age of 47, in 1976.
Back in the mid eighties, one of the top Yankee prospects was a big power hitting first baseman named Orestes Destrade. He was a tall Cuban who was hitting about 25 home runs per season for New York’s upper level farm teams and Yankee fans got our first look at him in September of 1987 when big league rosters expanded to 40. He didn’t hit any home runs but he did get on base a lot (.417 OBP) so I thought we’d probably see more of him the following year. I was wrong.
New York traded Destrade that off season. Back then, New York traded top prospects faster than Donald Trump fired apprentices so I wasn’t surprised to see Destrade dealt. I was surprised at who the Yankees got in return. Hipolito Pena was a tall thin left-handed pitcher who had appeared in 26 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the previous two seasons. He had lost all six of his Pirate decisions and accumulated a 5.56 ERA. In 1988, Pena became part of the Yankee bullpen, getting into 16 games and earning his first and only big league victory. He then spent the next six seasons in the minors before retiring for good in 1996. In the mean time, Destrade never made it with Pittsburgh but he resurfaced with the Marlins in 1993, hitting 20 home runs and driving in 87 in what was considered his rookie year. But he also struck out 130 times. Orestes had a terrible 1994 season and it ended up being his last one in the big leagues.
Pena shares a birthday with this former Yankee coach.
It didn’t take me long to become a huge Willie Randolph fan after the Yankees acquired the second baseman in a December, 1975 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I did not appreciate how the Mets dumped Randolph as Manager during the 2008 season and I can remember being just as upset when the Yankees signed Steve Sax as a free agent to take over the starting second baseman’s job from Willie, after the 1988 season.
Sax had been the NL Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in 1982 and because he was good looking and did most of his ball-playing right next to Hollywood, you kept seeing him pop up on TV shows whenever a script called for a real ballplayer. But what he was most famous for was the mysterious case of the “Steve Blass” throwing disease he developed during the 1983 season. For those of you who don’t know, Blass was a Pirate pitcher who woke up one day and could no longer throw a baseball over the plate from the pitchers’ mound. I’m not talking about pitches ending up just a little bit off the plate, Blass’s tosses would regularly sale in all directions, five feet from the catcher. Sax’s throws were doing the same thing to his first baseman and it became such a running joke at Dodger Stadium that fans sitting in the box seats behind first base would show up wearing batting helmets. Dodger Manager, Tommy Lasorda tried everything he could think of to fix Sax’s problem. One of his remedies was a gag. Lasorda had a guy put the head of a greased pig in his second baseman’s hotel bed one night with a note threatening Sax with physical harm if he made another errant throw. Sax insists that pig’s head discovery straightened him out. Whatever.
Sax did enjoy three productive seasons in New York from 1989 through 1991, topping the .300 batting average mark in both his first and final years in pinstripes. He also stole 117 bases as a Yankee. Sax was rewarded for his success in New York with a huge eight-figure, four-year contract with the Chicago White Sox. He was a dud in the Windy City, hitting just .236 in his first season with Chicago and getting released by the club the following season. Steve was born in Sacramento and turns fifty-two years old today.
By the way, that’s former Yankee hitting instructor, Frank “Hondo” Howard, pictured with Sax in the above baseball card. Sax must have been standing on a step stool at the time this photo was taken because at 6’7″, big Frank was at least eight inches taller than Sax. Do you remember this other Yankee second baseman who developed his case of Steve Blass throwing disease while he was wearing the pinstripes?
Sax shares his birthday with this former Yankee utility outfielder.
Bill White appeared in 1,673 big league games but not one of them while wearing a Yankee uniform. Instead, he made his most significant mark as a player as the hard-hitting starting first baseman for the Cardinal teams of the late 1950′s and early 60′s. In 1964, he helped St Louis win a World Championship, beating the Yankees in a seven game series. The following season, both the Cardinals and White had off-years and St Louis traded him to the Phillies. White completed his playing career in 1969, retiring with a .286 lifetime batting average, 202 home runs and 870 RBIs over thirteen seasons.
He had first gotten involved in broadcasting hosting a radio show while he was playing for St Louis. After he retired from the Phillies, he got into television as a sportscaster for a station in the City of Brotherly Love. In 1971, he joined the Yankee broadcasting team of Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer. For the next eighteen seasons, his distinctive voice became synonymous with Yankee baseball. I loved listening to White do Yankee games. He was well-spoken, concise and always prepared. What I enjoyed even more was the banter between him and Scooter that usually left White cackling in laughter.
He remained a key component of the Yankee broadcasting team for eighteen years, becoming the first black person to do play-by-play regularly for a Major League baseball team. In 1989, he accepted Baseball Commissioner Bart Giametti’s offer to become the first African-American president of the National League. He served in that office for five years.
I’ve embedded the above audio clip of White’s most famous call as a Yankee announcer. I’m sure listening to it will bring back a great memory for long-time fans of the Bronx Bombers. White shares his January 28th birthday with this one-time Yankee second baseman.
After seven seasons of pitching in the big leagues, left-handed fireballer, Fred Heimach found himself back in the minors in 1927, pitching for the St Paul Saints. The Camden, New Jersey native had been a combination starter/reliever for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s during his first half-dozen big league seasons before getting traded to the Red Sox during his seventh. Boston had a horrible team and “Lefty” had a horrible year pitching for them, going just 2-9 with an ERA of 5.65, which set the stage for his demotion to St Paul. His fortunes changed in Minnesota. He won 34 games for the Saints over the next two seasons and caught the attention of the New York Yankees, who purchased his contract in August of 1928.
Yankee Manager, Miller Huggins immediately added Heimach to the Yankee starting rotation that season and he finished 2-3 in his first 13 appearances (including 9 starts) in pinstripes. The following season, Freddie finally realized the full benefits of pitching for the Yankees’ magnificent offensive lineup. In his ten starts and twenty-five relief appearances during the 1929 season, he finished 11-6 with three shutouts and four saves. It was his best year in the big leagues but ironically, it also ended up being his last season in pinstripes. Heimach’s biggest problem was consistency. He’d look great in one outing and putrid in the next. According to Yankee skipper Huggins, all Freddie needed to become a star was a good change up. Unfortunately, the diminutive Yankee manager died during the 1929 season and Heimach lost his biggest booster. Huggins’ replacement, Bob Shawkey was not impressed by the pitcher’s performance during New York’s 1930 spring training season and Lefty Heimach’s roster spot was given to a 21-year-old pitcher from San Francisco named Lefty Gomez.
Heimach ended up pitching most of the next four seasons for Brooklyn. He was out of the big leagues by 1934 and ended up becoming a cop on the Miami Beach police force. He shares his January 27th birthday with this one-time Yankee who won the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year Award and this long-ago Yankee pitcher.
As the 2012 season approached, more and more Yankee fans were beginning to wonder if Yankee pitching prospect, Hector Noesi was really ready to become a part of the team’s starting rotation. That’s because it looked like New York’s front office was electing to stand pat with the pitching arms the team already had on its roster during this offseason and not test the trade or free agent market for a solution. That meant if Phil Hughes and AJ Burnett or the aging Freddie Garcia were not able to deliver during the first few weeks of the upcoming regular season, Joe Girardi’s first option was most likely going to be inserting Noesi in the Yankee rotation.
This 25-year-old Dominican right hander had appeared in 30 games for New York in 2010 after being called up from Scranton in mid-May, almost all of them as a reliever. He made a good first impression when he got the win with a four-scoreless-extra-inning stint against Baltimore the very first time he pitched in the big leagues. He also had pitched well during his ascent through the Yankee minor league organization. Noesi has a fastball in the lower nineties and has already developed a very good change up. His delivery has been described by scouts as “smooth and fluid” and he has shown very good command of the strike zone.
My problem with the guy was that he had already tested positive for steroids in 2007 and served a 50-game suspension. He’s tested clean since but he’s also experienced some serious problems with his pitching arm. Still, the Yankees were very high on this guy coming into 2012 and were telling everyone who would listen that he was ready to start in the big leagues right now.
Some of that praise may have been hype to increase his trade value because earlier this month, the Yankees included Noesi with Jesus Montero in the package they sent to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and a Mariner pitching prospect named Jose Campos. So it looks like there will be no Noesi pitching in pinstripes when the 2012 regular season starts.
Hector shares his January 26th birthday with this one time Yankee World Series hero.
Les Nunamaker was the second starting catcher in New York Yankee history. He succeeded a guy named Jeff Sweeney who in addition to being the first starting catcher for the Yankees in 1913, had also been the last starting catcher for the New York Highlanders the season before. The Yankees purchased Nunamaker from the Red Sox during the 1914 season and immediately put him in the starting lineup. He set a record that first season with New York that can never be broken, when he threw out three runners attempting to steal second base all in the same inning. Not a great hitter, Nunamaker was a big burly guy who was fearless behind the plate. He caught for New York for four years until Miller Huggins took over for Bill Donovan as Yankee skipper after the 1917 season. Huggins included Nunamaker in a package of five players that he traded to the Browns for future Hall of Fame hurler Eddie Plank and Del Pratt, in January of 1918.
After one season in St Louis, Nunamaker was traded to the Indians where he became best buddy with and a regular fishing and hunting partner of the great Tris Speaker. He was also involved in a whacky moment off the field during the 1920 season. One morning he awoke in his hotel bedroom to find a wad of bills wrapped up under his pillow. Since this was just one season after the Black Sox scandal, Nunamaker immediately turned over the cash to then baseball commissioner, Ban Johnson. When the wad was unrolled it was found to consist of sixteen Confederate one dollar bills. Nunamaker played until 1922 and then became a coach and manager in the minor leagues. He passed away in his native Nebraska in 1938 at the very young age of
The Yankees are not the baseball team most fans think of when they hear the name Neil Allen. That’s because today’s birthday celebrant made his big league debut as a starter for the New York Mets in 1979 and is best remembered as that team’s closer from 1980, when he took over that role from Skip Lockwood until the ’83 season. That was the year the Mets gave the closer role to Jesse Orosco and made Allen a starter once again. In June of that season, he was traded to St Louis in the deal that brought Keith Hernandez to Shea Stadium. During that first partial season in St Louis, Allen continued to be used as a starter and went 10-6 with two shutouts. He was then sent back to the bullpen the following year but not to close, because St Louis had the great Bruce Sutter to finish their games. You have to believe that all these changes in pitching roles were detrimental to Allen’s career. He joined the Yankees for the first time in June of 1985, when New York purchased him from the Cardinals. He pitched well in his seventeen games in pinstripes that year, winning his only decision and posting a 2.76 ERA. The following February, the Yankees traded him to the White Sox. Chicago made him a starter again and he went 7-2 in the Windy City in 1986. But when he began the ’87 season 0-7, he was released and signed as a free agent with the Yankees that September. He had his best season in pinstripes in 1988, appearing in 41 games, going 5-3 and even pitching a complete game shutout in one of the two starting assignments he was given that year. But with his contract expiring at the end of that season, New York chose to let him walk away. He pitched one more season for the Indians and then left the big leagues for good. Sixty nine of his seventy four lifetime saves came during his years as a Met. His lifetime record was 58-70, with a 3.88 career ERA. Since retiring, Allen has been a minor league pitching coach in both the Blue Jay and Yankee organizations and also served as New York’s bullpen coach in 2005.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was the fifth first round draft choice in Yankee franchise history. Labeled a “can’t miss prospect,” the Yankees didn’t miss Charley at all because they used him as part of a package of players they traded to obtain third base great, Graig Nettles from Cleveland in 1972. Spikes’ entire Yankee career consisted of fourteen games at the end of the 1972 season. He played well for Cleveland during his first few seasons there and stuck around to enjoy a nine-year career in the big leagues, which ended with the Atlanta Braves in 1980. Spikes shares his birthday with this one-time Yankee first baseman.
Counting Ty Hensley in 2012, the Yankees have selected 48 total players in the first round of Major League Baseball’s Amateur Draft. Here’s my list of the best ten Yankee first round draft choices in franchise history based on the eventual Major League success of the players chosen:
I did not find myself watching too many complete Yankee televised games back during the 1990 season. Why? Because the Yankee team was so bad that year, if I watched more than three or four innings of a game, something bad or stupid would usually happen that would give me agita and cause me to turn the channel. But I do clearly remember watching every single inning of a game that took place on July 1 of that season. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant started that contest against the White Sox.
The Yankees had signed Hawkins as a free agent in December of 1988, after the big right hander had spent his first seven big league seasons pitching for the Padres. The 1988 Yankees had finished in fifth place in the AL East but they had done so with a respectable 83-78 record and an aging starting pitching staff that included Tommy John, John Candelaria and Rick Rhoden. All three veteran hurlers were at the end of their careers and the Yankee front office was hoping that the younger Hawkins would become the ace of their staff for the next few years. He did become that ace during the 1989 season, but considering the rest of that staff included Clay Parker, Dave LaPoint, Greg Cadaret and Walt Terrell, that designation was not especially flattering. Hawkins finished 15-15 that season and New York again finished fifth in the AL East but this time they lost thirteen more games than they won.
With Steinbrenner stuck in the murky aftermath of the Howie Spira/Dave Winfield scandal, the Yankee front office was a complete mess. That explains why the team tried to fix their starting pitching woes with names like Tim Leary, Mike Witt and Chuck Cary. The 1990 Yankees turned out to be one of the worst New York teams in my lifetime.
Which brings me back to that July 1st game Hawkins pitched against the White Sox that year. He pitched perfect for four innings and ended up completing the game and not allowing a single hit. One other thing. The Yankees lost that day. New York’s defense crumbled in the eighth inning when three errors and a couple of walks led to four unearned Chicago runs. Hawkins wasn’t even credited with an official complete game no-hitter because as the visiting pitcher of the losing team, he only threw eight innings.
That loss was Hawkins’ fifth in six decisions that year. He would finish the season with a record of 5-12. Four weeks after Hawkins pitched his no-hitter-NOT, George Steinbrenner was suspended for his role in the Spira affair. The Yankees would end up in last place in their division in 1990, with the embarrassing record of 65-97. It was certainly not a great time to be a Yankee fan.
Hawkins shares his birthday with this former Yankee catcher and frequent postseason Yankee opponent.