April 2012

April 24 – Happy Birthday Joe Verbanic

Late in the 1964 season, the Yankees traded for Cleveland’s Pedro Ramos. The veteran right-hander from Cuba saved 8 games for New York down the stretch and together with rookie Mel Stottlemyre, pitched Yogi Berra’s team to the AL Pennant. Just two seasons later, the Yankees were near the very bottom of the AL standings when they traded Ramos to Philadelphia for Joe Verbanic, a skinny right-hander with a good fastball and decent slider.

Verbanic spent his first season in pinstripes as a reliever, winning four, saving two and posting a very nice 2.80 ERA. That performance earned him a shot at New York’s starting rotation in ’68 and he responded with a 6-7 record which included a shutout plus four more saves. That wasn’t good enough to prevent his return to the minors the following season. Vebanic did play a role in a significant piece of Yankee trivia. Elston Howard’s last at-bat as a Yankee was as a pinch-hitter for Verbanic.

One of the nicest things that has happened to me since I started writing this Pinstripe Birthday Blog has been the messages I’ve received from former Yankees and their friends and relatives. My absolute biggest thrill came when after reading in one of my posts that I had not read his classic book, former Yankee 20-game winner, Jim Bouton sent me an autographed copy of “Ball Four.” If you have not read it yet, do something nice for yourself and get a copy. In addition to giving you a unique, up close perspective of what life was like for baseball players in the late sixties, it will make you laugh out loud many many times. It also makes a perfect birthday gift for any Yankee fans in your life.

Bouton is the first author/player I’ve ever read who spends significant page space describing the men he had as coaches during his playing career. He loved Johnny Sain, one of the pitching instructors he had when he was on the Yankees. He was not a fan of two of his other New York coaches, Frank Crosetti and Jim Turner. It was Turner who happened to see Bouton squeezing two baseballs together in his pitching hand one day. The pitcher had indicated in his book that pitching coach Turner had spent more time and attention protecting the Yankees’ supply of team baseballs than he had helping Yankee pitchers become better pitchers. When he saw Bouton squeezing the two balls he asked him what he was doing and the “Bulldog” explained the exercise helped him strengthen his fingers. Thinking Bouton was attempting to steal the balls, Turner demanded Bouton put them back in the bag. Bouton’s good friend and fellow Yankee pitcher Fritz Peterson had overheard Turner reprimand his buddy so he convinced Joe Verbanic, Steve Hamilton and three or four other pitchers on that Yankee staff to each grab two balls from the bag and walk in front of Jim Turner while squeezing them in their pitching hand. According to Bouton, this drove Turner crazy.

Verbanic shares his April 24th birthday with this Yankee outfielder, this one-time Yankee third baseman and this Yankee starting pitcher.

1967 NYY 4 3 .571 2.80 28 6 11 1 1 2 80.1 74 27 25 6 21 3 39 2 1.183
1968 NYY 6 7 .462 3.15 40 11 16 2 1 4 97.0 104 36 34 6 41 8 40 6 1.495
1970 NYY 1 0 1.000 4.60 7 0 3 0 0 0 15.2 20 9 8 1 12 0 8 1 2.043
4 Yrs 12 11 .522 3.26 92 17 33 3 2 6 207.0 210 81 75 15 84 14 94 9 1.420
NYY (3 yrs) 11 10 .524 3.12 75 17 30 3 2 6 193.0 198 72 67 13 74 11 87 9 1.409
PHI (1 yr) 1 1 .500 5.14 17 0 3 0 0 0 14.0 12 9 8 2 10 3 7 0 1.571
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/24/2013.

April 19 – Happy Birthday John Wyatt

The Boston Red Sox Impossible Dream pennant in 1967 would really have been impossible without reliever John Wyatt. The right-handed native of Chicago, IL had made his Major League debut in 1961 with Kansas City and during the next five seasons, had developed into one of the better closers in the AL. The Red Sox got him in a mid-season trade in 1966 and he quickly became became the ace of Boston’s bullpen. During that ’67 season, Wyatt appeared in 60 games for Manager Dick Williams’ Beantowners and many of them were must wins. He ended up winning 10 games, saving 20 and posting a 2.60 ERA. But he also ended up that regular season with a stiff arm and enraged Williams by insisting he wasn’t healthy enough to pitch. The cantankerous skipper told the Boston sports press he thought Wyatt was imagining his maladies. Wyatt responded by writing a letter to a Boston newspaper, complaining about the way he was being treated by Williams and demanding to be traded.

He got his wish in May of 1968, much to the delight of Yankee manager Ralph Houk, when the Red Sox sold the angry pitcher to New York. The problem with the deal was that even though that 1968 Yankee team had several weaknesses, the bullpen wasn’t one of them. New York had both Steve Hamilton and Lindy McDaniel already closing games with pretty good efficiency. What Houk really needed was offense which was why, less than a month after purchasing Wyatt from Boston, they sold him to Detroit to make room for the newly acquired one-time home-run slugger, Rocky Colavito. So Wyatt’s Yankee career ended up consisting of just seven appearances and two losses. As it turned out, the reliever’s arm was more than tired. It was worn out completely. He finished the ’68 season with the Tigers and then rejoined the A’s in ’69 but only appeared in 4 games before calling it quits for good.

Another more recent Yankee pitcher who had a bad relationship with his manager shares Wyatt’s April 19th birthday, as does this former Yankee shortstop.

1968 NYY 0 2 .000 2.16 7 0 2 0 0 0 8.1 7 3 2 1 9 0 6 1.920
9 Yrs 42 44 .488 3.47 435 9 291 0 0 103 687.1 600 290 265 72 346 39 540 1.376
OAK (7 yrs) 27 29 .482 3.77 296 9 206 0 0 73 473.0 428 214 198 58 254 29 367 1.442
BOS (3 yrs) 14 13 .519 2.92 110 0 73 0 0 28 175.2 139 64 57 11 72 8 142 1.201
NYY (1 yr) 0 2 .000 2.16 7 0 2 0 0 0 8.1 7 3 2 1 9 0 6 1.920
DET (1 yr) 1 0 1.000 2.37 22 0 10 0 0 2 30.1 26 9 8 2 11 2 25 1.220
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/18/2013.

April 18 – Happy Birthday to the original Yankee Stadium

On April 18, 1923, the most famous stadium in baseball history first opened its gates. To die hard Yankee fans like myself, the original Yankee Stadium was a shrine. Two years ago at this same time, the YES Network cameras kept shooting scenes of that shrine during televised Yankee games being played in the new site, showing the once regal “House that Ruth built” in an eerie state of partial demolition. It was upsetting to see it like that.

I’m a bit embarrassed because I’m not exactly sure of the date I attended my first game at Yankee Stadium. It may have been 1961 but it was probably more likely in 1962. I can guarantee you that we left Amsterdam at 4:00 AM that morning and drove down to the Bronx in my Uncle Jim’s 1951 two-door Lincoln coupe. As we drove down the Deegan past the George Washington Bridge I will never forget the exact moment the brown stone facade of the Stadium first became visible.

I know that we were one of the first cars to park in the outdoor lot that used to sit directly across from the old Stadium. I’m sure we went to Jerome’s, a cafeteria-style restaurant that was located kitty corner to the Stadium and that I was able to take perhaps two total sips from the fullest, hottest, and strongest cup of coffee I had ever had in my then short lifetime.

I remember getting in line in one of those old ticket kiosks that used to encircle the Stadium and being startled by the sudden sound of the kiosk’s window opening as tickets for that days game went on sale. I remember wondering how the tallest and fattest ticket agent that I’ve still ever seen managed to get inside the telephone booth sized structure without me seeing him do so. I will never forget my Uncle, who to this day has never been able to make a decision on his own, kept asking the impatient agent question after question about the best places to sit to see the field, be out of the sun, buy a hot dog and get to the bathroom. I remember my Uncle finally buying three field box seats, halfway between first base and the right field foul pole giving the guy a twenty-dollar bill and actually getting change.

I remember how disappointed I was when my Uncle told me we still had a few hours to wait before the Stadium gates actually opened for that day’s double-header with the Senators. I don’t remember if we headed back to Jerome’s to wait or took the subway to downtown Manhattan because we ended up doing one or the other whenever my creature of habit Uncle took us to a game. But what I do still remember, as if it was yesterday morning instead of over 45 years ago, was after finally getting inside running up the ramp to the field-level box seat section behind home plate and for the very first time seeing that beautifully manicured green grass field and that huge Centerfield scoreboard with the Ballantine Beer logo.

The Yanks swept the double header that day. My Uncle bought me a yearbook and I used the money my parents had given me for a souvenir to purchase a package of five by eight glossy photographs of each player on the Yankee team. I remember reading every page of that Yearbook, including the ads, during the long ride home. And as we made our way back upstate and afternoon turned to nighttime, I remember squinting my eyes in the darkness of the backseat of my Uncle Jim’s big Lincoln to stare at my black and white photos of Mantle, Maris, Ford, Skowren, Richardson, Berra, Howard and the rest of the Bronx Bombers. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Fortunately. I’ve had the chance to relive the magic of that moment quite a few times when both of my sons, my wife and my two daughters each made their first visits to Yankee Stadium. My last of what has been over 100 trips to one of my favorite places in the world took place in June of 2008, when my two sons treated me to a Yankee game as a Fathers Day gift. As usual, I had a blast.

I’ve been to the new place across the street and it certainly is magnificent. But for me, Yankee Stadium will always be the place where Ruth changed the sport forever; where Gehrig considered himself the luckiest man on Earth; where the great DiMaggio roamed center field; where Mantle and Maris chased destiny; where great Yankees like Murcer and Mattingly kept alive the Pinstripe pride during long absences from postseason play; where young kids like Jeter evolved into Hall of Famers and where the Yankees won their first 26 World Series.

April 18th is also the birthday of this former Yankee pitcher, this former reliever and this long-ago Yankee outfielder.