My favorite story about “Flash” came from his Yankee teammate, Tommy Henrich. According to Old Reliable, reporters were questioning Yankee manager Joe McCarthy in New York’s locker room after a game and asked him why he liked Joe Gordon as a player so much. McCarthy had frequently claimed Gordon was the “best player in baseball.” Instead of answering the question, McCarthy called his second baseman over and asked him what his batting average was. Gordon replied that he did not know. Next, McCarthy asked Joe how many home runs he had hit so far that season and again the Flash told his skipper that he had no idea. McCarthy then excused the infielder and after he walked away, answered the reporters original question. “That’s what I like. All he does is come to beat you.”
Joe played for the Yankees from 1938 until 1943 and then served in WWII. During those six seasons the Yankees won five World Series, Gordon made five All Star teams and he won the 1942 AL MVP award. He was also a magnificent second baseman. When Scooter joined the Yankees in 1941 he and Flash formed a terrific middle infield until Pearl Harbor blew it apart. When Gordon returned to the Yankees from military service after the war, he hit just .210 and New York’s front office, thinking his best playing days were behind him, traded Joe to Cleveland for pitcher Allie Reynolds. It turned out to be one of those transactions that worked well for both teams. The hits and power returned to Gordon’s bat and he teamed with Indians’ player manager Lou Boudreau to lead Cleveland to a 1948 World Series victory. Gordon blasted 32 home runs and drove in 124 that season. He played for Cleveland until 1950, retiring after 11 big league seasons. He eventually became a manager, skippering Cleveland, the Athletics and the Royals.
Joe died in 1978 and was voted into Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee in 2009. I listened to his daughter make the acceptance speech and the loving words she shared about her Dad made it clear that Gordon was much more than just a great ballplayer. Joe was born in LA on February 18, 1915.
Remember when Cody Ransom made his Yankee debut in August of the 2008 season? Joe Girardi inserted him in a blowout game versus Kansas City as a pinch-hitter for Jason Giambi and the native of Mesa, AZ hit a two-run-home run in his first ever Yankee at bat. Five days later, Girardi again pinch hit Ransom for Giambi, this time in the ninth inning of a game against Baltimore and Ransom hit a three run home run on his second-ever Yankee at bat. He remained hot right through the first half of September before cooling down quite a bit, and he provided a welcome respite for us Yankee fans during the emotional closing days of the old Yankee Stadium, as we sadly watched our favorite team miss the playoffs for the first time in fourteen seasons.
That strong showing convinced Girardi that Ransom could fill in for Alex Rodriguez at third base to begin the 2009 season, while A-Rod recovered from off-season hip surgery. I clearly remember hoping the experiment would work but it certainly did not. I’m not exactly sure why Ransom seemed like he had completely forgotten how to hit that April. It could have been nerves or perhaps American League pitchers had gotten wise to something, but whatever the reason, over the space of a single off season, this guy had become an automatic out. By April 24, he was hitting .180 and by May, he found himself back in Scranton. He did get called back up in late June of that season but he was not put on the Yankees’ postseason roster. Fortunately by October, A-Rod’s hip had completely healed and he put together that magical postseason run that led the Yankees to their 27th World Championship.
Over the five decades I’ve been a Yankee fan, there have been a lot of back-up catchers come and go on the Yankee roster. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant held that position for New York back during the strike shortened season of 1981. But Barry Foote wasn’t always a back-up. In fact, when he came up to the big leagues in 1974, he was good enough to beat out future Hall-of-Famer, Gary Carter for Montreal’s starting catcher’s position. That season he hit 11 home runs, drove in 60, averaged .262 plus displayed a strong arm and great defensive ability behind home plate. He was named to the Topp’s All-Rookie team. The following year, however, Foote pretty much stopped hitting and his putrid .194 batting average in 1975, opened the door for Carter to begin his legendary career as one of the best backstops of his era.
Foote remained with Montreal as “The Kid’s” backup until 1977, when he was dealt to the Phillies. He got one more chance at a starting job in 1979, after Philadelphia traded him to the Cubs. He put together a strong debut season in Chicago, hitting a career high 16 home runs and averaging a respectable .256. Then in ’80, he lost his starting job to Tim Blackwell. The following April, the Yankees traded for Barry.
Rick Cerone had become New York’s starting catcher in 1980 and the veteran, Johnny Oates had been his backup that first year. The Yankees had signed Oates to another one-year contract just three weeks before they traded for Foote but it was Barry who became Cerone’s primary backup in that whacky strike-shortened 1981 split season. Foote hit just .208 his first year in pinstripes, appearing in 40 games and producing six home runs. He also got the opportunity to appear in his one and only World Series that fall against the Dodgers. He failed to get a hit in his only at-bat. He remained with the Yankees in 1982 and retired as a player after that season. The Yankees then hired Foote to manage in their Minor League system.
He shares his February 16th birthday with this former Yankee pitcher.
Buck Showalter inherited a pretty bad team when he took over the Yankee’s managerial responsibilities from Stump Merrill after the 1991 season. The Yankees had a mediocre lineup and an even worse starting pitching rotation. In January of ’92, the team made a move to try and shore up that rotation. They sent second baseman Steve Sax to the White Sox in return for Melido Perez and two additional pitching prospects. Perez had been in the big leagues since 1987 when he came up with the Royals. He had spent the previous four seasons starting for the White Sox and compiling a 44-45 record. He was about to become the second Perez brother to pitch in pinstripes. His older brother Pascual had put together some good seasons on the mound with both the Braves and Expos but had pitched sparingly and ineffectively for New York in both 1990 and ’91. A third brother, Carlos would later become a starter for the Expos in 1995.
With the Yankees, Melido would become part of a starting rotation that included the veterans Scott Sanderson and Tim Leary along with Scott Kamieniecki. Having just completed the dark ages of the Merrill era, I remember that going into that season I did not expect any of them to pitch very well. The only one who did was Perez. He didn’t just pitch well, at times he was downright dominating. He gave the Yankees 33 starts and a career high 247-plus innings. He struck out 218 hitters and compiled an ERA of just 2.87. He finished with a 13-16 record but he could have easily won 20 games. In ten of his losses the opposition scored three runs or less. He pitched three more seasons for Showalter and the Yankees but never again really came close to the brilliance he exhibited during that 1992 season. Fortunately, the Yankees were gathering new arms to staff their rotation and were able to become winners again without too much help from Perez.
The Yankees, Dodgers and Giants were the last three big league teams to provide regular radio broadcasts of their games. It wasn’t until 1939 that the Big Apple baseball franchises set aside their fear that such broadcasts would reduce gate attendance and joined the rest of baseball by putting their home games on the air. The thrifty Yankees and Giants decided to share an announcer since the teams never played home games on the same dates and they co-hired a play-by-play veteran named Arch McDonald who had been doing the radio broadcasts for the Washington Senators. Needing to replace McDonald, the Wheaties cereal people, the Senator’s radio sponsor, hired a young CBS game-show announcer who had also done some news reporting and college football assignments for the network. His name was Mel Allen Israel. But before the Birmingham, AL native announced his first Senator game, Clark Griffith vetoed the hiring so that Washington pitching legend, Walter Johnson, could take the job. By 1940, McDonald was looking for a new assistant in New York and ended up giving the job to Allen who at the behest of CBS had dropped the Israel surname.
During the next two and a half decades, Mel Allen became the “Voice of the Yankees” and the most well-known sportscaster in all the world. His signature phrases “Hello there everybody,” “How about that?” and “Going going gone!” became part of every Yankee fans’ vocabulary as did the nicknames he assigned to Yankee legends. Joe DiMaggio became “Joltin Joe,” Tommy Heinrich, “Old Reliable” and Mickey Mantle, “The Magnificent Yankee.” Allen did not like it when the Yankees teamed him up with another Big Apple baseball broadcasting legend, Red Barber, in the mid fifties. He and Barber would become the first two diamond broadcasters to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Mel also did not approve of Phil Rizzuto being given a microphone in the Yankee booth when New York’s front office forced Scooter hang up his playing uniform during the 1956 season. First of all, the Scooter’s hiring forced the firing of Allen’s much-liked protege, Jim Woods. Mel also strongly disapproved of Rizzuto’s lackadaisical attention span and his misuse of the English language. Ironically, it had been Allen’s invitations to Scooter to join him in the booth during the later innings of games at the end of Rizzuto’s playing career that led to his hiring.
Allen was unceremoniously dumped when CBS purchased the Yankees in 1965 in a cost-cutting move. George Steinbrenner got him rehired to do games on cable during the mid seventies and Allen’s hosting of the popular “This Week in Baseball” once again made him one of the sports best known voices for a whole new generation of fans. He died in 1996. It wasn’t until last month, when my wife and I took a tour of the new Yankee Stadium that I realized Allen had been given a plaque in the team’s Monument Park. He certainly earned one.
Imagine if at some time during the 2012 season, Joe Girardi held a press conference after a Yankee defeat to announce to the media that he suspected Mark Teixeira had just purposely played poorly in that game. How would the public react if Girardi went on to accuse Teixeira of throwing the game for gambling reasons? Then try to comprehend Teixeira pleading his case to Hal Steinbrenner, who ends up believing his star first baseman’s story, fires Girardi, and names Teixeira, of all people, to become the next Yankee manager. Unbelievable! Right? Such a course of events involving the current star Yankee first baseman is beyond the realm of imagination of today’s baseball fans. But this is exactly what happened to the very first star first baseman in the franchise’s history.
Hal Chase became the regular New York Highlander first baseman in 1905 and remained in that position for a little more than eight seasons and over 1,000 games. “Prince Hal” was a smart and gifted athlete who immediately became a fan favorite in New York. It was Chase who first began the now accepted defensive strategy of charging the plate in likely sacrifice situations. He also pioneered the practice of moving into the outfield to receive and relay cut-off throws. In addition to being an excellent and innovative fielder, Chase was also a strong hitter and a great base runner. He had a .291 lifetime batting average and his 248 stolen bases made him the all-time Yankee base stealer until Willie Randolph and Ricky Henderson passed him seven decades later.
Chase, however, had one passion greater than his love for baseball and that was money. Perhaps, if he lived in today’s era of free agency and multi-million dollar contracts, his story and career would have had a different ending. But at the turn of the century, professional baseball players were not paid royally. As a result, many of them were forced to earn a living doing other things.
Before the 1908 season, Chase tried holding out on the Yankees, to force team management to pay him more money. Even though the tactic was successful, Chase still jumped to the outlawed California league and played for the San Jose franchise using a fake name. Caught in this charade, Chase was suspended by the Highlanders but his immense popularity with New York fans quickly got him reinstated. It was after this episode that Chase’s reputation as an unsavory character began to emerge.
His manager, George Stallings, began to suspect Chase of throwing games. The skipper’s suspicions grew so strong during the 1910 season, he leveled the charges publicly. But Chase’s popularity on the field helped him earn enough support with Yankee President Frank Farrell and League President Ban Johnson to beat back Stallings’ charges and actually get the manager fired. Adding insult to injury, Chase got himself named to replace Stallings as the team’s field boss.
Chase was not a good manager and his continued unpredictable behavior on the playing field led to the resurfacing of attacks on Chase’s integrity as a ballplayer. By 1913, even the Yankee brass became convinced Chase could not be trusted and they shipped him to the White Sox, where in 1914, Chase chased the money again and jumped to the Buffalo team entry in the upstart Federal League. The smaller than normal confines of the Buffalo home field helped Chase accumulate 17 home runs during the 1915 season, so that when the league folded after that season, the Cincinnati Reds welcomed him to the National League with wide open arms.
Even though Chase won the National League batting title with a .339 average in 1916, the Reds skipper, Hall-of-Famer Christy Matthewson, felt the first baseman was involved in throwing games and promptly suspended him. This time the team ownership and league officers backed the Manager instead of Chase and upheld his suspension. The next year was the year of the Black Sox scandal effectively destroying any chance a player with Chase’s shady reputation would ever have of playing Major League Baseball, again.
Hal Chase’s story is a sad one, but only three other Yankee first sackers had more hits or more runs scored as a Yankee than Chase did. The fact of the matter is that if Hal Chase had not gotten himself accused of throwing baseball games, his career with New York would have been longer and his numbers and stature as a Bomber, even more impressive.
This former Yankee, also born on this date, once quarterbacked the Michigan Wolverines to a Big Ten title and a Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn. This former teammate of Chase’s was also born on this date.
One of the ramifications of the wild love/hate dynamic between Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner is that it actually may have destroyed some promising players’ careers. Take Dave Revering as an example. He had been a very good minor league player in the Reds’ organization at a time when the Big Red Machine was so stacked with talent it was difficult for prospects like Revering to make the parent club’s roster. As often happens in that situation, Cincinnati dealt their promising young first baseman to the A’s for Oakland reliever Doug Bair during the 1978 spring training season.
Revering went from a spring training camp where he faced an almost certain return trip to the minors to another one where he was almost certain to be added to a big league roster. The then 25-year-old Roseville, California native proved he was more than ready for the big leagues when in his 1978 rookie season he hit .271 with 141 base hits and 16 home runs. The big left-handed hitter did even better in his second season, hitting 18 home runs, driving in 77 and raising his average to .288. Not too many people were paying attention to Revering because he was playing on some pretty awful Oakland teams.
In 1980, Revering finished with a higher batting average (.290) for the third consecutive year. More significantly, the A’s had hired Martin to manage the team that season and the former Yankee skipper led them to a much-improved second-place finish in the AL Western Division. Martin was a big fan of surrounding himself with players who he trusted, not just on the field but off of it as well. First baseman Jim Spencer was one of those guys. So when Revering got off to a slow start during the 1981 season, the A’s were able to swing a deal with the Yankees to swap Revering and a couple of young pitching prospects for Spencer and pitcher Tom Underwood.
The mid-May timing of the transaction couldn’t have been worse because just three weeks later the season was halted by a players’ strike. When it was over, a split season format was instituted which, if you were old enough to remember it, turned that year’s regular season into an embarrassing circus. Revering immediately took over the left-handed component of the Yankees’ first-base platoon duo (with Bob Watson the right handed piece) and got off to a slow start. Just as he got into a groove, the strike commenced. When play resumed, Revering struggled again to find his swing and finished his first season in pinstripes with a .235 average, the lowest of his career. Though the Yankees kept him on their postseason roster through the crazy split-season AL playoff series, they left him off their World Series roster that year.
Revering’s hitting struggles continued in spades at the beginning of the 1982 regular season. It was evident he was having a crisis of confidence at the plate. Of course, he wouldn’t be given much of a chance to work through it on that Yankee team. In early May, he was part of a three player package dealt to the Blue Jays for the veteran John Mayberry. Mayberry was of course over the hill at the time and would do little as a Yankee. The Revering that left New York in no way resembled the confident young hitter he had proven to be in Oakland.
Very slim pickings when it comes to Yankees born on this particular date. I remember when Sammy Ellis was a pretty talented starting pitcher for Cincinnati back in the sixties. He was good enough to win 22 games for the Reds during the 1965 season. After ending his playing career in 1969, Ellis got into coaching and was eventually hired as the Yankee pitching coach three different times between 1982 and 1986, serving under managers Gene Michael, Billy Martin and Sweet Lou Piniella. Since Ellis was born in Youngstown, Ohio, I thought I’d take a look and see what other Yankees were native Buckeyes. Here’s my list of the top five Ohio-born Pinstripers of all time:
Number 1 – Thurman Munson
Number 2 – Paul O’Neill
Number 3 – Miller Huggins
Number 4 – Roger Peckinpaugh
Number 5 – Gene Woodling
The only other Yankee born on this date was this utility outfielder who co-starred in a Kevin Costner movie.
Excuse me for not getting too excited about the recent Yankee free-agent signing of former Dodger starting pitcher, Hiroki Kuroda. I can only remember seeing the Japanese right-hander pitch one time and that was when he started Game 3 of the 2009 NLCS versus the Phillies. The teams had split the first two games of the Series in LA and Joe Torre had selected Kuroda to face the Phillies’ Cliff Lee in the first contest to be played at Citizens Bank Park. It was a huge momentum game and Kuroda wasn’t up to the challenge. He gave up four runs on four hits in the first and then two doubles and another Philadelphia run before Torre mercifully pulled him with one out in the second. The Phillies won that game 11-0 and went on to win the next two games at home to advance to the World Series.
To be fair to Kuroda, he had been much more successful in his previous two postseason starts for the Dodgers, beating the Cubs in the 2008 NLDS and the Phillies in that year’s NLCS. But I hadn’t seen him pitch in either of those games which is why my first impression of him was not a good one.
His four year record as a Dodger starter was 41-46 with an ERA of 3.45. He uses four pitches, the best of which is his fastball, which he can crank up to 97 mph when necessary. He has decent control but he also has had some arm issues. I’m also more than a bit concerned that he will surrender to many home runs to that short right field gap in Yankee Stadium and his ERA facing lineups that include a DH in place of a pitcher will climb into the high fours.
He turns 36-years-old today and the Yankees only gave him a one year deal. My hope is he benefits from pitching to AL lineups that know little about him and also by being reunited with Russell Martin and gets off to a fast start. My fear is we got another Javier Vasquez on our hands.
He may have been a member of perhaps the most famous Yankee team in history, but even the most diehard and long time Bronx Bomber fans have probably never heard of Julie Wera. He was a reserve third baseman on the 1927 Murderers’ Row team and his $2,400 salary made him the lowest paid player on that great squad’s roster. Wera was just 5 feet 8 inches tall and when 5 foot 6 inch Manager, Miller Huggins got his first look at his rookie third baseman during the Yankees’ 1927 spring training season, he took an immediate liking to him. In fact, according to a March, 1927 New York Times article, the usually tight-lipped Huggins told every sports writer in that camp that Vera was one of the most impressive rookie players he had seen come up from New York’s farm system in “quite a while.”
Julie did not live up to that hype. Huggins put the Winona Minnesota native into 38 games that season and Wera hit just .238 with one home run and eight RBIs. Even though it would have been impossible for the youngster to earn a starting berth n that great team, Wera’s lack of playing was not because of any lack of ability on his part. During that season he blew out his knee and was never again the same ballplayer Huggins had raved about that spring. But he remained on the Yankee roster the entire year and even though he didn’t get a chance to play in the 1927 World Series, he did get a ring and a full winning share. Then it was back to the minors for a couple seasons and another quick five-game cup-of-coffee visit with the Yankees in September of 1929. He spent the next eight years in the minors and by 1939, he ended up working in a butcher shop back home in Minnesota. That same summer, he was working behind the meat counter when a surprise visitor showed up at the shop. It was his old Yankee teammate Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse was in town getting medical tests at the Mayo Clinic and when he found out Wera worked nearby he decided to go say hello and ended up putting on a butcher’s apron and posing for pictures with his old friend. Hours later, Gehrig would receive the devastating news that he had ALS.
Wera’s name again showed up in the newspapers nine years later, when the New York Times reported on September 14, 1948 that he had killed himself by overdosing on sleeping pills. The article reported that a suicide note had been left explaining he was distraught over separating from his wife. It was also erroneously reported in that same article that Wera had made his big league and Yankee debut at the age of 16 and hit a home run off of the great Walter Johnson in his first game. It was later learned that the dead man had been posing as Vera in order to get a front-office position with a minor league baseball team in Oroville, California. He told his employers that his face had been disfigured in World War II and the resulting plastic surgery had changed his appearance.
The real Julie Wera actually lived until December of 1979, when he was felled by a fatal heart attack.
Wera shares his February 9th birthday with another much more successful Yankee third baseman and also with this former Yankee catching prospect. Today is also the 90th birthday of the man who took me to my very first Yankee game in 1961 and dozens more after that. Happy Birthday Uncle Jim Gentile.