One of the things that has changed most about the Major League game between the time I started following the Yankees and now is the balance of trade when it comes to Major League Baseball and baseball in Japan.
Before WWII, the people of Japan had fallen in love with the game of baseball and Babe Ruth became just as popular in the Land of the Rising Sun as he was in our country. WWII of course changed the dynamic between the two countries. By the time I was Bradley’s age in the late 1950s, the bitter feelings and suspicions we Americans and the Japanese had for each other still lingered and carried over to each country’s professional baseball leagues. At the same time, however, the game of baseball was a passion shared by both peoples and it was that passion for a common game that would eventually help bring us together again.
The first American to play professional baseball in Japan after the War was a Japanese American and former NFL running back named Wally Yonamine, who played there in 1951. The first Japanese player to play in America was a left handed pitcher named Masanori Murakami who played for the Giants in 1964 and 65. By the time I was a teenager, the Japanese professional leagues had become a common destination for American players who were not quite good enough to make the rosters of Major League teams. By the time my sons were born in the late seventies and early eighties, Major League veterans, who’s best playing days were behind them in the US were finding new markets for their slowing bats and fast balls on the other side of the Pacific.
It took until 1995 for the pendulum to begin swinging and it was the one-time Yankee, Hideki Nomo who got it going in the other direction, when he signed to pitch with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Yankees first ever Japanese born roster member was pitcher Hideki Irabu, who began his career in pinstripes in July of 2007. The greatest Japanese-born Yankee to date has been Hideki Matsui. The big league successes of guys like Nomo, Matsui and especially Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki, have caused every Major League franchise to both begin and then expand their scouting operations in Japan.
Orestes Destrade was a classic example of a young Major League prospect who struggled to make a big league roster and then traveled to Japan and became a star in that country’s version of the same sport. I can remember when he hit a bunch of homers as a minor-leaguer for the Albany-Colonie Yankees during their 1985 season. The Yankees had predicted this left-hand-hitting Cuban native would be a thirty-home-run hitter, playing in Yankee Stadium. That never happened. He failed to hit a home run during his nine-game, 1987 stint in pinstripes. He had much more success in Japan, leading the league in home runs for three straight seasons from 1990-’92. He then returned to the States and managed to hit 20 round trippers for Seattle in 1993.
This one-time Yankee catcher was also born on May 8.
|FLA (2 yrs)||192||789||699||73||172||24||3||25||102||1||77||162||.246||.322||.396||.719|
|PIT (1 yr)||36||53||47||2||7||1||0||1||3||0||5||17||.149||.226||.234||.460|
|NYY (1 yr)||9||24||19||5||5||0||0||0||1||0||5||5||.263||.417||.263||.680|
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was actually George Steinbrenner’s first managerial hiring as the owner of the New York Yankees. There would be many many more such hirings, each of them controversial and this very first one served as a sign of things to come. When Steinbrenner took over the team, he inherited long-time Yankee skipper (and one-time GM) Ralph Houk as his team’s field boss. Nicknamed the “Major,” Houk had come home from WW II with a Bronze and Silver Star and began his Yankee career as one of the team’s back-up catchers. When his playing days ended, he became a highly successful minor league manager in the organization, then a coach for Casey Stengel and then Stengel’s successor as Yankee Manager in 1961. He won two straight World Series in his first two years managing New York and led them to three straight AL Pennants before accepting the GM job. It was as Yankee GM that Houk first encountered failure. He presided over the dismantling of the Yankee dynasty in the mid sixties and it seemed almost as if he was being punished for that failure, when he fired Johnny Keane in 1966 and took back his old job.
Back then, the Yankees were owned by CBS, who seemed to ignore all aspects of the team’s operation and let the franchise run itself. That’s how George Steinbrenner, a shipbuilder’s son from Cleveland was able to pretty much steal the franchise from the huge entertainment company for practically nothing. But unlike CBS, Steinbrenner was a hands on owner. Actually, he proved to be more like a vise grips owner and Houk hated the change in his work environment. The “Major” who had led men on the battlefield’s of WWII was now being ordered by the “Boss” with a silver spoon in his mouth to tell his Yankee players when they had to shave and when it was time for a haircut.
While all this had been happening in New York, Dick Williams also had his hands full working for his own controversial hands-on team owner. Williams had began his playing career as an outfielder in the Brooklyn Dodger organization. An injury to his throwing shoulder early in his career sapped the strength in his throwing arm and forced Williams to become an infielder. The Brooklyn Dodger infield of the early fifties was loaded with All Stars so Williams sat the bench but instead of wasting his time there, he learned how managers made decisions and he learned how to become one of baseball’s great bench jockeys. His big league career as a utility infielder would last for 13 seasons and when it ended in 1964, he took a job as manager in the Boston Red Sox farm system. His big break came when he skippered the 1967 Red Sox to their Impossible Dream Pennant.
During his three seasons in Beantown, Williams developed a reputation as a tough, no nonsense manager who was not afraid to discipline his players in private or in public. That caught the attention of A’s owner, Charlie Finley. Finley had been assembling a roster full of marvelous young players over in Oakland and he knew Williams would be the perfect choice to manage them. Williams became the A’s field boss in 1971 led them to three straight pennants and World Championships in both 1972 and ’73. But it was during the 1973 World Series that Williams long-time resentment of Finley’s meddling ways came to a head. When Oakland second baseman, Mike Andrews made two errors on back-to-back plays in the 12th inning of Game 2 against the Mets, Finley forced the infielder onto the DL. When Williams defended Andrews and resigned as A’s Manager immediately after winning that series with a Year remaining on his contract, the sports world praised him for giving up a World Series winning team on a matter of principle. As Williams would later admit, he was angry but not foolish.
It seems that a month before the Series began, Steinbrenner had ordered his Yankee front office to approach Williams with an offer to manage the Yankees. George had already decided that Ralph Houk had to go and when Houk obliged him by tendering his resignation as manager at the end of the 1973 season, the Yankee owner was ecstatic. Back then as now, making offers to players and managers already under contract to another team is considered tampering and not permitted by any professional sports league. Steinbrenner knew that but as the Boss would later prove many times, he felt rules were simply obstacles that needed to be overcome and not necessarily followed. So when Williams requested that Finley release him from the final year of his contract so he could become the Yankee manager, the thrifty millionaire insurance magnate refused. That didn’t stop Steinbrenner from hiring Williams any way, even holding a Yankee Stadium press conference to introduce him as the new Yankee skipper. The case went to the baseball commissioner’s office. Finley was demanding the Yankees give him Otto Velez, New York’s best hitting prospect and Scott MacGregor, their best pitching prospect as compensation for Williams. Steinbrenner countered with a list of lesser prospects but Bowie Kuhn ruled the Yankee signing had violated the rules and declared it null and void.
That’s how George Steinbrenner was forced to replace the first Yankee manager he ever hired before the guy got to manage a single game and that’s why Bill Virdon managed the Yankees in 1974. Finley would let Williams accept an offer to manage the California Angels in June of that 1974 season. Williams would manage in (and lose) one more World Series with San Diego in 1984. He got elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008. He passed away on July 7, 2011.
There have been 29 starting second basemen in Yankee franchise history. The current one, Robinson Cano has a chance to go down in history as the greatest Yankee second sacker of all time. That honor now belongs to the Hall of Famer, Tony Lazzeri, who started at second base for New York for twelve seasons. One of my favorites, Willie Randolph holds the record for most seasons starting at second base for the Yankees with thirteen. This is the ninth season Cano has started at that position for New York putting him one behind Bobby Richardson, who played there for nine seasons in the Bronx. The first second baseman in franchise history was a guy named Jimmy Williams, who held the job for seven straight seasons, until 1907. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant, Lute Boone was the starting second baseman for New York in 1914 and ’15. He was a horrible big league hitter, averaging just .209 during his four seasons in the Big Apple. He had much better success hitting in the American Association. That’s where he ended up after his big league career ended for good in 1918. He kept playing in that league until he was 40 years old and then he became an owner and player manager of his own minor league team.
Here’s a look at some key stats of my picks for the top five second basemen in Yankee franchise history:
Player Yrs Starting G H R HR RBI AVE Rings
Tony Lazzeri 12 1659 1784 952 169 1154 .293 5
Willie Randolph 13 1694 1731 1027 48 549 .275 2
Robinson Cano 8+ 1244 1499 738 185 735 .309 1
Joe Gordon 7 1000 1000 596 153 975 .271 4
Bobby Richardson 9 1412 1432 643 34 390 .266 1
Lute Boone shares his May 6th birthday with this former Yankee reliever.
|NYY (4 yrs)||288||1068||937||95||197||24||4||6||73||31||35||83||105||.210||.284||.264||.547|
|PIT (1 yr)||27||101||91||7||18||3||0||0||3||1||8||6||.198||.263||.231||.493|
They may have played their home games in the “Show Me State” but the 1958 starting lineup of the Kansas City A’s certainly had lots of pinstripe connections. Former Yankee prospects, Vic Power and Hal Smith started at first and third respectively. Future Yankees Hector Lopez and shortstop Joe DeMaestri held down the middle positions of the A’s infield and their soon-to-be New York teammates, Roger Maris and today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant, Bob Cerv comprised two thirds of Kansas City’s starting outfield that year. If either Ralph Terry, Bob Grim, Duke Maas, Tom Gorman, Bud Daley or Virgil Trucks happened to be on the mound that day and the A’s fourth outfielder Woodie Held started in place of KC’s Bill Tuttle in center, eight of the nine positions would be manned by former or future players from the Yankee organization. It was no wonder people inside of baseball began referring to the A’s as the Yankees big league farm team.
Cerv had made his debut in New York in 1951, which also happened to be Joe DiMaggio’s last season as a Yankee and Mickey Mantle’s first. Unlike those two superstars, Cerv would never become a Yankee regular, but because he played for Casey Stengel at the time, the platoon maestro of big league managers, he would evolve into a very valuable member of those great New York teams. By 1954, ’55 and ’56 he had settled into the role of the Yankee’s starting right-fielder against left handed pitching. Cerv had a vicious swing and it produced some of the hardest hit balls in the game at the time. His home run power was thwarted by the vast dimensions of the Yankee Stadium’s left-center field, but those line drives off his bat would have been hits in any park.
His best year in the Bronx was 1955, when he hit .341 in 55 games plus his only World Series home run. The following year, he hit .304 while playing in 54 regular season contests. During his first six seasons with New York, the team played in five World Series and won four of them, generating perhaps an additional $30-to-$40 thousand of additional income for the the growing Cerv family. Then the Yankees sold him to Kansas City where he became an All Star outfielder in 1958, belting 38 home runs, driving in 104 runs and topping the .300 mark in batting average.
By 1960, Cerv was back in the Bronx as a reserve outfielder. When the Yankees didn’t protect him during that year’s AL expansion draft, he was selected by the Los Angeles Angels. The Yankees quickly brought him back in a May 1961 trade with LA and he then became the house-mother-like roommate of both Mantle and Maris during their famous home run race that season. Even though he probably could have enjoyed a much more productive statistical career playing somewhere else, Cerv always cherished his days in a Yankee uniform during an era when World Series checks were as regular as paychecks for those on the Yankee roster. His second tenure in pinstripes ended in June of the 1962 season, when he was sold to Houston.
I actually hated seeing Bob Cerv play when I was a kid only because it usually meant my hero, Mickey Mantle, was scratched from the lineup again. The Lincoln, Nebraska native was born in 1926 and played a total of 12 seasons in the Majors. He may have been just a part-time player but Cerv was among the Yankees top ten all-time lists in one important category. He and his wife raised ten children and got each of them through college. That qualifies him for my own Hall of Fame, any day of the week.
Cerv shares his Yankee birthday with this one-time Yankee pitcher who’s life ended tragically in July of 2011.
|NYY (9 yrs)||379||878||772||112||205||36||12||26||118||5||4||94||131||.266||.350||.444||.795|
|KCA (4 yrs)||413||1544||1401||203||403||57||14||75||247||7||6||115||243||.288||.342||.509||.851|
|LAA (1 yr)||18||60||57||3||9||3||0||2||6||0||0||1||8||.158||.169||.316||.485|
|HOU (1 yr)||19||33||31||2||7||0||0||2||3||0||0||2||10||.226||.273||.419||.692|
I was busy last evening and missed most of the Yankee game so when I sat down to write this blog at around 10:00 pm the first thing I did was check for the score of the game on ESPN NY. That’s when I learned about Mariano Rivera twisting his knee while shagging outfield flies in batting practice. After I cursed like a sailor, kicked the dog and screamed at my wife (I’m kidding, I don’t own a dog) I started thinking about just how durable Rivera has been during the seventeen seasons the Yankees have trusted no one else with ninth inning leads.
I’ll never forget thinking the Yankee front office was crazy for letting John Wetteland walk away as a free agent after he had saved 43 games during the 1996 regular season and all four of the Yankees’ victories in that year’s World Series. But it turned out he was just the first of many. What do Bob Wickman, David Weathers, Mark Wohlers, Tom Gordon, Octavio Dotel, Kerry Ward, Armando Benitez, and Rafael Soriano all have in common? Not only did they pitch in the same Yankee bullpen as the great Sandman, each of them has had 30-save seasons in the big leagues either before or after they became Mo’s teammate. Mo has been so good for so long that no other 30-save big league closer has ever had even the slightest chance of taking away his job. And that includes today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
Like Mariano, Joe Borowski also began his big league career in 1995. The Orioles brought him up in July and he appeared in six games as a reliever that season. He spent the next year with the Braves but did not make their postseason roster so he missed the opportunity to compete against Mo and the Yankees in the ’96 Series. The following September Atlanta waived him and the Yankees picked him up. In 1998, he spent most of the season in Columbus but was called up to the Bronx in August. With the exception of one pounding he took against Texas, this right-handed native of Bayonne, NJ pitched real well, surrendering just a single run in his seven other appearances for New York. The Yankees let him go in September of 1999 and he didn’t get back to the big leagues until late in the 2001 season as a member of the Cubs. In 2002, he finally got a chance to pitch regularly at the big league level, when he appeared in 73 games for Chicago, won four of eight decisions, had an ERA of 2.73 and garnered his first two big league saves. That effort gave Cub Manager Dusty Baker the confidence he needed to give Borowski a shot at closing in 2003 and big Joe did not disappoint. He saved 33 games that year, lowered his ERA to 2.63 and was a big reason why the Cubbies made it to the postseason.
Chicago rewarded him with a two-year, four million dollar contract that off season and Borowski went out and tore his rotator cuff. The next year he broke his hand. He did not fully recover from those injuries until 2006 and by then he was pitching for the Marlins and getting paid the league minimum. But after he saved 33 games for Florida, the Indians signed him as a free agent with a two-year deal worth eight million dollars. Borowski helped Cleveland win the AL Central Division in 2007 by leading the League with 45 saves. The odd thing about his performance that season was that he was able to save so many games despite compiling an ERA north of five. When the 2008 season opened, Borowski got off to a horrible start, forcing Cleveland to first take his closer job away and then in July of that year, giving him his outright release. By then Borowski was 37 years old. He shares his May 4th birthday with this former Yankee infielder.
|CHC (5 yrs)||8||11||.421||3.73||175||1||106||0||0||44||198.0||182||87||82||24||67||9||192||1.258|
|ATL (2 yrs)||4||6||.400||4.32||42||0||16||0||0||0||50.0||60||26||24||6||29||8||21||1.780|
|CLE (2 yrs)||5||8||.385||5.57||87||0||72||0||0||51||82.1||101||53||51||13||25||6||67||1.530|
|NYY (2 yrs)||1||1||.500||6.94||9||0||7||0||0||0||11.2||13||9||9||0||8||1||9||1.800|
|TBD (1 yr)||1||5||.167||3.82||32||0||4||0||0||0||35.1||26||15||15||3||11||1||16||1.047|
|FLA (1 yr)||3||3||.500||3.75||72||0||60||0||0||36||69.2||63||31||29||7||33||7||64||1.378|
|BAL (1 yr)||0||0||1.23||6||0||3||0||0||0||7.1||5||1||1||0||4||0||3||1.227|
This right-hander started his Major League career as a member of the the Red Sox in 1924. In the slightly more than five seasons he spent in a Boston uniform, Ruffing’s won-lost record was an atrocious 39-96. This slow start to his big league pitching career was most likely attributable to the combination of a pretty putrid era of Red Sox offense and the fact that Ruffing was originally an outfielder, who only began pitching after a mining accident cost him four toes. In any event, Boston readily accepted the Yankee’s offer of $50,000 and a reserve outfielder named Cedric Durst in exchange for Ruffing, during the second month of the 1930 season.
Old Red then proceeded to go 15-5 in his debut season in Pinstripes. During the next 14 years, he won 231 games, lost just 124, and enjoyed four 20-victory seasons. He also compiled a 7-2 record in seven World Series and was the ace on six world championship Yankee teams. Since he was also originally a good-hitting outfielder, Ruffing became one of the best hitting pitchers in MLB history, compiling a .269 lifetime batting average. Charles Herbert “Red” Ruffing was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.
So what happened to Cedric Durst? He got into 102 games for the Red Sox in 1930, batted .240 and then never played in another Major League game. Ruffing shares his May 3rd birthday with this catcher, who became his Yankee teammate in 1941 and this long-ago Yankee pitcher.
|NYY (15 yrs)||231||124||.651||3.47||426||391||30||261||40||8||3168.2||2995||1406||1222||200||1066||1526||1.282|
|BOS (7 yrs)||39||96||.289||4.61||189||138||39||73||5||8||1122.1||1226||670||575||47||459||450||1.501|
I love writing this blog because I learn such interesting things about players who wore the pinstripes. Take today’s birthday celebrant as an example. I very clearly remember when Larry Gowell made his debut with the Yankees way back in 1972. He was considered a very good prospect at the time but he had one serious handicap. He was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and as such, it was against his religious beliefs to work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. This meant he could not and did not pitch in any baseball games on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. Still, his slider was good enough to get him promoted to the Yankees for a cup-of-coffee look see in September of 1972. He would appear in just two games as a Yankee and as a big leaguer, yet he still became part of baseball history.
His first big league appearance was a hitless two-inning relief stint against the Milwaukee Brewers. Two weeks later, Yankee manager Ralph Houk gave the Lewiston, Maine-born right hander his first and only big league start against that same Brewer team. Although Gowell took the loss, he made MLB history when he hit a third inning ground ball double off of Milwaukee’s Jim Lonborg. That hit turned out to be the very last hit by an American League pitcher before the League’s new designated hitter rule went into affect.
Gowell would spend the next two seasons in Syracuse pitching for the Yankees’ triple A franchise. He left baseball after the 1974 season. During my research for this post, I found a reference to Gowell in a book about offshore insurance schemes of all things. Robert Tillman, author of the book alleges that in 1996, Gowell sold a worthless $100,000 promissory note on behalf of a company called Legends Sports, that was supposedly constructing a string of golf courses and entertainment centers in the southeastern United States. The note was supposed to pay the purchaser a twelve percent annual interest but instead, proved to be worthless when it was discovered that the owners of Legends Sports were operating a Ponzi scheme. I wonder if Gowell made the sale of that bond on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. I hope not because according to his religion, that would have been a sin.
Gowell shares his May 2nd birthday with a Yankee pitcher who got in trouble when he barnstormed with Babe Ruth.