March 2012

March 11 – Happy Birthday Dock Ellis

With a reputation as a flake and a substance abuser, Ellis came to the Bronx in the same trade that made Willie Randolph a Yankee and Doc Medich a Pirate. At first, I didn’t like the deal because I was a pretty big Medich fan and thought the Yankees could win with Sandy Alomar Sr. as their starting second baseman. It only took me about a month of watching Randolph play to realize how great a deal it was for New York, even if Ellis had never pitched a single inning in Pinstripes. But Dock ended up pitching 217 of them for New York that year, winning 17 games and helping the Yankees capture the 1976 AL Championship.

The Yankees traded Ellis to Oakland right after the 1977 season opened in the deal that put Mike Torrez in pinstripes. Dock was then sold to the Rangers in June of that same season. The flighty right hander later pitched for the Mets  before ending his career as a Pirate, in 1979. Lifetime, Ellis won 138 games. Dock was one of those rare big league pitchers who could hit from both sides of the plate. He was born in LA on March 11, 1945. He died in December of 2008, a victim of cirrhosis.

This former Yankee right-fielder who wore uniform number 53 and this long-ago-outfielder who wore a uniform without a number were also born on March 11th.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1976 NYY 17 8 .680 3.19 32 32 0 8 1 0 211.2 195 83 75 14 76 65 1.280
1977 NYY 1 1 .500 1.83 3 3 0 1 0 0 19.2 18 9 4 1 8 5 1.322
12 Yrs 138 119 .537 3.46 345 317 10 71 14 1 2128.0 2067 958 817 140 674 1136 1.288
PIT (9 yrs) 96 80 .545 3.16 231 208 6 51 12 0 1430.1 1356 598 502 78 438 869 1.254
TEX (3 yrs) 20 18 .526 3.82 55 53 1 10 1 1 355.1 353 175 151 33 104 145 1.286
NYY (2 yrs) 18 9 .667 3.07 35 35 0 9 1 0 231.1 213 92 79 15 84 70 1.284
NYM (1 yr) 3 7 .300 6.04 17 14 3 1 0 0 85.0 110 60 57 9 34 41 1.694
OAK (1 yr) 1 5 .167 9.69 7 7 0 0 0 0 26.0 35 33 28 5 14 11 1.885
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/4/2014.

March 9 – Happy Birthday Bert Campaneris

When I first started following Yankee baseball in 1960, the stolen base was something other teams did but not my Bronx Bombers. The Yankees had built and sustained a dynastic offense on slugging power and in the early ’60′s if somebody stole a base who was wearing a pinstriped uniform, it was either by accident or Mickey Mantle’s legs were feeling particularly strong that day. Case in point, in 1961, the Yankees led all of baseball with 240 home runs and also trailed all of baseball with just 28 stolen bases.

It was the Chicago White Sox at the time, who lived and breathed by a small ball attack that depended on stolen bases to spark their offense it was their great shortstop, Luis Aparicio, who provided the lighter fluid. Little Louie had made his Windy City debut in 1956 and proceeded to win nine straight AL stolen base crowns. That’s why it was pretty shocking when today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant stopped Aparicio’s streak in 1965, by stealing 51 bases for the A’s in just his second big league season.

If you ask Jim Kaat, the one-time Yankee pitcher and game announcer, who Campaneris reminded him of, it might have been Mantle instead of Aparicio. “Kitty” was the first big league pitcher to face the 22-year-old Cuban in his rookie season of 1964 and Campy hit Kaat’s first pitch to him for a home run. He then homered off Kaat again in the same game. This incredibly talented shortstop brought an immediate element of excitement to a Kansas City team that had played horrible baseball for a very long time and gradually, he helped mold that ball club into a force that would win three consecutive World Championships. He would capture six AL stolen base titles in his first eight seasons. Then, just to prove he wasn’t a one-dimensional player, he decided to try and hit home runs during the 1970 season and hit 22 of them.

Campy’s career with the A’s ended after the 1976 season. The bitter Oakland owner Charley Finley had thrown up his hands at free agency and was cashing in his chips by unloading all of the team’s best players. Campaneris was one of the few A’s stars left from the three straight world championship teams to make it to free agency before being traded. He more than doubled his last A’s salary when he signed with Texas. But he was 35 years-old at the time and his best days were behind him. Over the next five seasons, he evolved into a utility infielder and pinch-runner first with the Rangers and then with the Angels. It looked as if his big league playing days were over for good when the Angels let him go and he played the 1982 season in Mexico.

The 1982 Yankee season had been a nightmare. The team finished in fifth place, below five-hundred and had gone through three managers. George Steinbrenner brought Billy Martin back to manage the 1983 club. When the Boss signed Reggie Jackson as a free agent after the 1976 season, Martin had wanted him to sign Campaneris instead. Campy contacted the Yankees about coming to spring training because he had heard they had a shortage of infielders. He was invited to camp and got a break when Roy Smalley went down with appendicitis. Though he didn’t go north with the team he did accept a roster spot with Columbus instead and was called up to the Bronx in early May. He ended up doing a better-than-decent job as Martin’s key infield reserve. He hit .322 in 60 games of action and even stole 6 bases, leaving him with a career total of 649. It was a fitting end to an outstanding 19-year career.

Campy shares his March 9th birthday with this Yankee who hit one of the most famous home runs in franchise history, this sidearming southpaw, this former Yankee outfielder and this former AL MVP.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1983 NYY 60 155 143 19 46 5 0 0 11 6 8 9 .322 .355 .357 .712
19 Yrs 2328 9625 8684 1181 2249 313 86 79 646 649 618 1142 .259 .311 .342 .653
OAK (13 yrs) 1795 7895 7180 983 1882 270 70 70 529 566 504 933 .262 .314 .348 .662
TEX (3 yrs) 256 977 830 109 191 24 10 6 63 50 68 125 .230 .291 .305 .595
CAL (3 yrs) 217 598 531 70 130 14 6 3 43 27 38 75 .245 .296 .311 .607
NYY (1 yr) 60 155 143 19 46 5 0 0 11 6 8 9 .322 .355 .357 .712
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/4/2014.

March 8 – Happy Birthday Jim Bouton

I’ve never read Ball Four. That surprises me because I’ve been reading about two books per month for the past forty years of my life and that includes just about every commercially successful piece of baseball non-fiction published during that time. For some reason, however, I’ve yet to read Jim Bouton’s classic about his life in baseball.

The Bulldog made a lot of money from that book, much more than he ever made on a pitching mound, but the experience has also cost him dearly. He was immediately ostracized by his former Yankee teammates for breaking the old cardinal rule of keeping what happens in the locker room inside the locker room. In Ball Four, Bouton evidently confirms that some pro ballplayers cheat on their wives, gamble too much, have huge egos, and serious substance abuse problems. The truth was that you could substitute just about any other occupation on earth for the word “ballplayers” in the previous sentence and write a book about it and no one would be shocked.

I may not have read Bouton’s book but I did see him pitch for the Yankees. He put absolutely every ounce of strength he had into every pitch he threw. In 1963, he was one of the best pitchers in either league. He won 21 games, threw six shutouts and had an ERA of 2.53. He then pitched brilliantly in game 3 of the that year’s World Series against Los Angeles, giving up just one run in the first inning, but the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale was even more brilliant that day.

By 1964 the strain on Bouton’s right arm was beginning to take its toll but he still won 18 times during the regular season and two more times against the Cardinals as the Yankees dropped their second straight World Series. The problem with Bouton’s delivery was that he threw as hard as he could across his body which put a tremendous amount of stress on his arm. After throwing 520 innings the previous two seasons, Bouton’s arm broke down in 1965 and he was never again the same pitcher.

March 8th is also the birthday of this 1954 AL Rookie of the Year and this former Yankee reliever.

March 5 – Happy Birthday Elmer Valo

I believe it was my dear departed friend Nick Fusella, who first told me about Elmer Valo. We were probably sitting at our favorite bar drinking draft beer and watching a Yankee game during which one outfielder or another crashed into an outfield wall while trying to make a catch. Some other old-timer sitting at the bar shouted out Pete Reiser’s name, the one-time Brooklyn Dodger phee-nom who made crashing into outfield walls an art form in the early forties. That’s probably when my seventy-something-old-at-the-time buddy Nick “educated” me about Valo. The story stuck with me because of the player’s name, “Elmer Valo.” Its one of those monikers that’s almost impossible for a baseball history buff like myself to forget. Valo was born in Czechoslovakia on today’s date in 1921. Six years later, his family migrated to a town in northeastern Pennsylvania called Palmerton. Elmer got involved in sports and developed into an outstanding high school athlete. He was signed to a minor league contract by the old Philadelphia A’s in 1939 while he was still in high school and only a year later, he played in his first big league game for Philadelphia when he was just ninteen-years-old.

From everything I’ve read about this guy, he was one of the hardest working players in baseball during his era. He didn’t have a lot of natural ability but he could run really fast and had a never-quit work ethic. After returning from military service in 1945, Valo became a fixture in the A’s outfield for the next decade. In the first six of those years, he topped the .300 average mark four times and with efficient applications of his great speed and hustle, became a great defensive outfielder. Unfortunately, he was a star player for one of baseball’s worst teams so pretty much the only people paying attention to Valo’s all-around game was the A’s rather tiny fan base.

The Philadelphia sports pages from back in Valo’s playing days were loaded with written accounts of the outfielder’s great catches and his frequent jarring outfield wall collisions. During one game against the Yankees in 1948, he made three home-run saving catches and on the final one, he knocked himself unconscious when he jumped into the stands managing to hold onto the ball anyway. Simply put, he did not know how to stop trying to make a catch. He’d be running at top speed, knowing he was inches away from hitting immovable brick barriers and just keep on running or leaping toward the baseball he happened to be pursuing at the moment. After colliding with one to many walls, Valo’s baseball skills began declining. After averaging close to .300 during the first half of his big league career, he became a struggling, oft-injured part-time player during the second-half. His last great season was 1954, when the A’s relocated to Kansas City. Valo was healthy enough to appear in 112 games that season and hit .364. By the following May, however the A’s had released him and he returned to Philly to play with the Phillies. He would then play for eight different teams during the next eight seasons including the Yankees for a short eight-game stretch in 1960.

Other Yankees who celebrate birthdays on March 5th include this former relief pitcher and this WWII era third baseman.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1960 NYY 8 7 5 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 1 .000 .286 .000 .286
20 Yrs 1806 6091 5029 768 1420 228 73 58 601 110 942 284 .282 .398 .391 .790
KCA (15 yrs) 1361 5229 4308 691 1229 196 68 47 491 103 820 222 .285 .403 .395 .798
MIN (2 yrs) 109 121 96 6 23 5 0 0 20 0 20 7 .240 .372 .292 .664
LAD (2 yrs) 146 304 262 23 69 12 2 5 40 0 37 27 .263 .352 .382 .734
PHI (2 yrs) 148 397 334 44 92 15 3 6 45 7 56 27 .275 .384 .392 .776
CLE (1 yr) 34 33 24 3 7 0 0 0 5 0 7 0 .292 .424 .292 .716
NYY (1 yr) 8 7 5 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 1 .000 .286 .000 .286
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/31/2014.

March 3 – Happy Birthday Bud Souchock

I guarantee you that very few Yankee fans have ever heard of Steve Souchock. That’s too bad because the guy was a genuine hero, not on the baseball field but on the battlefield. Better known by his nickname of “Bud,” Souchock’s story begins in a town called Yatesboro, Pennsylvania, in the heart of coal-mining country, where he was born on March 3, 1919. He became a great high school athlete but he couldn’t think about college because with the country in the midst of a depression, his coal-miner Dad became ill and Souchock needed to find a job. He went to Detroit, hoping to work in the auto industry but grew homesick and returned to Yatesboro. He got a tryout with a Washington Senator farm team in nearby Greensberg. They offered him $65 a month to play for the team but within a year, the club went bankrupt and Souchok became the property of the New York Yankees. During the next three seasons he developed rapidly as a ballplayer but America’s entry into WWII changed his career path. He turned in his bat for a gun. Souchock enlisted in the army and was sent to France where he was made part of a tank destroyer battalion. He eventually became commander of his own gun crew. He would take that crew all the way to Germany during the final two years of the War, fighting so valiantly along the way that he was awarded both a silver and a bronze star. If you know any military veterans ask them what it takes to win either of these medals. Better yet, Google these commendations and find out for yourself. It will help you better understand the sort of exceptional soldier Steve Souchock actually was.

By the time the war ended and he got back to baseball, Souchock was already 27-years-old. To accommodate all the ballplayers returning from service to their country, Major League Baseball expanded the big league rosters from 25-to-30 players. Those five extra slots made it possible for Souchok to make his big league debut in pinstripes during the 1946 season and it was a pretty decent opening act for the returning war hero. He appeared in 46 games that season, mostly as a backup first baseman. He got 26 hits in 86 at bats to average .302 and hit his first two big league home runs. The following year, Souchock’s batting average fell 100 points and the well-stocked Yankees gave up on him, trading him to the White Sox. Souchok would spend just one season in the Windy City before returning to Detroit, where he was once a homesick auto worker. He would remain with the Tigers as a utility player for the final five years of his big league career, never earning a starting position during that time. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 83.

This Hall-of-Fame outfielderthis one-time Yankee reliever and this former Yankee starting pitcher also celebrate  birthdays today.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1946 NYY 47 94 86 15 26 3 3 2 10 0 7 13 .302 .362 .477 .838
1948 NYY 44 126 118 11 24 3 1 3 11 3 7 13 .203 .248 .322 .570
8 Yrs 473 1326 1227 163 313 58 20 50 186 15 88 164 .255 .307 .457 .764
DET (5 yrs) 298 829 771 108 204 39 11 38 128 7 49 100 .265 .311 .492 .803
NYY (2 yrs) 91 220 204 26 50 6 4 5 21 3 14 26 .245 .297 .387 .684
CHW (1 yr) 84 277 252 29 59 13 5 7 37 5 25 38 .234 .303 .409 .712
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/21/2014.