January 6 – Happy Birthday Ruben Amaro
The 1965 season was a “year of discovery” for the Yankee front office and Yankee fans but what they discovered wasn’t pretty. They went into that season thinking the defending AL Champion Bronx Bombers had everything in place on-the-field to win the team’s sixth straight pennant and ended the year realizing their cupboard was bare.
The problems started at the top with GM Ralph Houk. He had proved himself as a solid field manager but he was no George Weiss when it came to general managing. The team’s first-year field skipper, Johnny Keane found out that the veteran Yankee roster did not respond to his “disciplined” approach in the dugout or in the clubhouse. Whitey Ford was near the end of the line and the futures of one-time young stud pitchers Jim Bouton and Al Downing did not look so bright anymore. At first base, an immature Joe Pepitone was proving he’d never be a player the team could depend upon. Behind the plate, Elston Howard was breaking down physically. In the outfield, both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris had awful seasons in ’65. And most shocking of all, the middle of New York’s infield, for decades the core of Yankee dynasty teams, was about to disappear entirely.
Shortstop Tony Kubek had gone to the Mayo Clinic to try and find out the true source of the excruciating pain he constantly felt in his shoulder. The diagnosis was not good. It was a vertebrae problem at the base of Kubek’s neck that could not be resolved. The doctors recommended complete rest and the 29-year-old Kubek went one step beyond and completely retired from the game. His second base partner, Bobby Richardson, also just 29-years-old, was also ready to hang up his cleats after the ’65 season but agreed to play one more year to help break in his own and Kubek’s successors.
Finding Kubek’s successor would prove to be Houk’s most pressing and difficult challenge. The Yankees backup shortstop was actually more of a natural second baseman by the name of Phil Linz. Linz had gained fame for his harmonica playing on the Yankee team bus during the 1964 season. The guy wore glasses and looked almost professorial but he was actually a pretty wild party animal who hung around with the even crazier Pepitone. Linz also couldn’t hit at all.
Houk liked the Yankee’s top minor league shortstop at the time, a kid from Oklahoma named Bobby Murcer, but the GM knew he couldn’t depend on a rookie, so he looked around the big leagues to find out what veteran shortstops were available. Not many were. The one Houk settled on had been the NL Gold Glove winner at the position in 1964, with the Phillies. His name was Ruben Amaro. That ’64 season in Philadelphia had been the highlight of Amaro’s career but the truth was his lifetime average (.241) was five points lower than Linz’s at the time. Houk settled on Amaro because he was a better defensive player than Linz and a much more mature individual as well. When Philadelphia was willing to accept Linz in exchange for Amaro, Houk made the trade.
The 1966 season turned out to be one of the all-time worst years in Yankee franchise history. Amaro’s contribution to that season pretty much ended after just four games. In the first inning of the Yankee’s fifth game of the season versus Baltimore, the Orioles’ Curt Blefary hit a popup off of Al Downing into short left field. Amaro went back and Yankee left-fielder Tom Tresh charged in. The collision tore all the ligaments in the shortstop’s left knee and he wouldn’t play his next Yankee game until September 6th. By then the Yankee record was 62-80 and the team would finish the year in the AL basement.
Amaro came back to play 123 games at short for New York in 1967. Just as Houk expected, he showed a pretty good glove, was a positive influence in the rapidly changing Yankee clubhouse but no help offensively to a lineup that was desperate for assistance. Amaro had hit just .223 and scored only 31 runs. Murcer had already proven he was not a shortstop and Houk’s 1966 experiment to play third baseman Clete Boyer at short had failed as well. Instead Houk went searching for a trade. He tried to get Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio but fell short in both pursuits. All he could come up with was a guy named Gene Michael who, ironically would turn out to be a much better evaluator of player talent for the New York Yankees than Ralph Houk would ever be. Amaro ended up getting sold to the Angels.
Ruben is also the father of the very talented GM of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Amaro Jr. The elder Amaro shares his January 6th birthday with this former Yankee pitcher who played his best ball for the Cincinnati Reds, this other former Yankee pitcher who played his best ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers and this former reliever.