When WWII began, the Yankees were on top of the baseball world with a roster full of stars in the primes of their careers. After Pearl Harbor, when many of those stars volunteered or were required to change uniforms and serve their country, it helped even up the playing talent in Major League Baseball. As a result, the Yankees’ pennant chances immediately declined, and they could no longer be counted on to be the odds on favorite to make it to the World Series every year. When WWII ended and players like DiMaggio, Henrich, Rizzuto, Keller, and Chandler put back on the pinstripes, it wasn’t long before the Yankees were once again winning pennants and rings with regularity.
Yankee history however, certainly did not repeat itself when Vietnam became a full scale war in the mid sixties. First of all, the Yankee’s decline from the status of perennial contender had already occurred by 1965 and was caused not by a military draft but instead by advancing age, injuries and poor personnel decision-making. Guys like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Ellie Howard were in no danger of being drafted but they were also beyond their playing peaks and could no longer carry the fight to the enemy in the Bronx much less in Khe Sanh or Que. Mandatory military service did however, disrupt the development of several of the crown jewels of the Yankee farm system.
I can remember very clearly the hype surrounding the simultaneous demilitarization of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant and Bobby Murcer and their mutual return to the Yankees’ 1969 spring training camp. Kenney had excited Yankee fans two seasons earlier, when he had hit .310 in a 20-game late-season call-up and homered in his very first big league at-bat.
After having a sub-five hundred record for three consecutive seasons from 1965 – ’67, and finishing in 6th, last and next-to-last place respectively, the 1968 Yankee team had climbed back into the first division with an 83-79 record. They had assembled a strong young rotation of starting pitchers and the hope was that with Kenney and Murcer back in the lineup, and divisional play commencing that season, the team’s aging offense would be rejuvenated and New York would once again be in the mix for postseason play. The Yankees’ 1969 Opening Day lineup featured Kenney starting in the outfield and Murcer starting at third. Both had two hits and New York beat the Senators 8-4 that day. Yankee fans couldn’t help thinking this young dynamic duo just might be the missing ingredient to the Bronx Bombers’ return to glory.
Murcer would end up having a decent season, hitting 26 home runs and leading the team with 82 RBIs. Kenney would not do nearly as well but did steal 25 bases and hit just enough (.257) to warrant another chance the following year. Defensively, neither player was showing Gold Glove potential at their original positions so Manager Ralph Houk switched them. In 1970, the Yankee fans were pleasantly surprised as the team won 93 games and finished a distant second to the mighty Orioles. Murcer again had a decent year at the plate as did another Yankee youngster, catcher Thurman Munson. Kenney, however, was horrible. He played in 140 games and hit just .193, which should tell you all you needed to know about the incredible thinness of that year’s Yankee roster. He would rebound to hit .262 in 1971 but finally lose his third base starting position to Celerino Sanchez.
By then, George Steinbrenner was in control of the franchise and his management team knew that the Yankees could not challenge the Orioles by starting punchless third basemen like Kenney and Sanchez. That’s why in November of 1972, the first-ever great Steinbrenner-era trade took place with the Yankees trading Kenney, Johnny Ellis, Charley Spikes and Rusty Torrez to the Indian’s for Cleveland’s slick-fielding Graig Nettles.
Kenney would appear in just five games for Cleveland during the 1973 season and never again participate in a big league ball game. He was born in St. Louis on June 30, 1945, six weeks before Japan surrendered, ending WWII. Other Yankees sharing Kenney’s birthday include this former Met hero, the shortstop who lost his starting position to Derek Jeter and this one-time Yankee reliever.
|NYY (5 yrs)||460||1575||1353||165||321||38||12||7||101||59||182||139||.237||.326||.299||.625|
|CLE (1 yr)||5||19||16||0||4||0||1||0||2||0||2||0||.250||.316||.375||.691|
I used to get mad at Al Downing every fall. As a nine and ten year-old kid who thought he knew everything about baseball, I blamed Downing for helping convert the Yankees from perennial World Series winners to World Series losers. After all, he lost his only start against the Dodgers in the 1963 4-game sweep disaster and then in 1964, Downing pitched in three of the four games the Yankees lost to the Cardinals that year.
Since then of course, I’ve matured a bit and fully realize that the Yankee’s sudden October misfortune was not Al’s fault. He was actually one of the better pitchers in the American League during the seven full seasons he pitched for New York. During his first five years in pinstripes he was a double digit winner and he led the AL in Ks with 217 during the 1964 season. He was 72-56 during that time and he threw a dozen shutouts. For comparison sake, Andy Pettitte has thrown three shutouts during his 13 plus seasons in pinstripes.
The Yankees traded Downing to the A’s after the 1969 season in return for Danny Cater. He ended up in Los Angeles, pitching for the Dodgers by 1971 and he had his first and only 20-game victory season that included five more shutouts. Downing’s last year with the Dodgers was also his final big league season and he finished his career with 123 victories and 24 shutouts. He will probably be most remembered for giving up Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. He also got a chance to pitch in another World Series game as a Dodger in 1974 against Oakland. Unfortunately, he lost that one too.
Downing was born on this date in 1941, in Trenton, NJ. He shares his June 28th birthday with this former Yankee DH, this one-time NY back-up first baseman and a former teammate and pitcher who was born on the same exact day as Downing.
|NYY (9 yrs)||72||57||.558||3.23||208||175||18||46||12||2||1235.1||1014||492||443||96||526||1028||1.247|
|LAD (7 yrs)||46||37||.554||3.16||170||120||18||25||12||1||897.2||814||380||315||68||326||532||1.270|
|OAK (1 yr)||3||3||.500||3.95||10||6||0||1||0||0||41.0||39||19||18||5||22||26||1.488|
|MIL (1 yr)||2||10||.167||3.34||17||16||1||1||0||0||94.1||79||47||35||8||59||53||1.463|
The dismantling of the greatest Bronx Bomber lineup of my childhood, the offense that fueled the 1961 Yankees to 109 regular season wins, began in November of 1962 when Moose Skowron was traded to the Dodgers for pitcher Stan Williams. At least the Yankees had a decent prospect from their farm system, Joe Pepitone ready to take Skowron’s place. Yogi Berra was next to go when he switched roles from Yankee player to the team’s manager in 1964. Shortstop Tony Kubek’s sore back forced him into retirement after the 1965 season during which the Yankees fell from first to fifth in the AL final regular season standings. When the team fell all the way to last place the following year, all hell broke loose in the Yankee front office. Second baseman Bobby Richardson retired, Roger Maris was traded to the Cardinals for third baseman Charley Smith who would be needed to replace Clete Boyer who had just been traded for today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
I remember hoping that Bill Robinson was everything the Yankee front office was promising he would be when they swung that Boyer deal with the Atlanta Braves. They were using superlatives like the “next Mickey Mantle” to describe this then 24-year-old native of McKeesport, PA. He was supposed to be one of those five-tool-players who couldn’t miss at the big league level and he was going to lead the Yankees back to the top of the AL standings.
Unfortunately for Robinson and the Yankees, the young outfielder was no match for the hype that had accompanied him to the Big Apple. He hit a putrid .196 during his first season in New York and Boyer rubbed salt in the wounds of Yankee management by having a career year during his first season in Atlanta. Robinson then improved his batting average to .240 in 1968 but his 6 home runs and 40 RBIs that year reminded nobody of Mantle. When his batting average again went south of the Mendoza line in 1969, a shell-shocked Yankee front-office optioned him to their Syracuse farm team before finally trading him to the White Sox for somebody named Barry Moore.
Eventually, Robinson did evolve into a solid big league outfielder first for the Phillies and then Pittsburgh. He had his best big league season in 1977, when he hit 26 home runs, drove in 104 and batted .304 for the Pirates. Robinson later told Baseball Digest that getting traded to the Yankees was the worst thing that ever happened to him. He said he tried too hard to live up to his press clippings and when he hit a home run during his second-ever at bat as a Yankee, he found himself actually trying to become the next Mantle. The turning point came after he was traded to Chicago. The White Sox wanted Robinson to spend a second consecutive season in the minors. He was ready to call it quits but the parent club’s front office convinced him to be patient instead. He decided then and there to quit trying to be anybody but Bill Robinson and to simply have fun playing the game. Too bad that epiphany didn’t come to him about five years earlier.
|PIT (8 yrs)||805||2649||2451||328||677||135||15||109||412||46||136||469||.276||.313||.477||.790|
|PHI (5 yrs)||351||1072||996||119||260||61||3||41||136||13||57||201||.261||.300||.452||.752|
|NYY (3 yrs)||310||998||906||88||187||33||10||16||90||12||70||149||.206||.264||.318||.582|
|ATL (1 yr)||6||11||11||1||3||0||1||0||3||0||0||1||.273||.273||.455||.727|
Of the eight Yankee catchers who have made the AL All Star team, today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant is perhaps the least recognized. That’s because he was actually the team’s second string catcher the year he was honored and it happened during WWII when America’s focus was more on the battles going on in Europe and the Pacific and not on baseball. Rollie Hemsley may not have been very well known as a Yankee, but prior to him wearing the pinstripes, the Syracuse, Ohio native had caught in the big leagues for thirteen seasons for five different big league ball clubs and made four other AL All Star teams. His best years were spent as the starting catcher for the Browns from 1934 through 1937. He hit a career-high .309 for St. Louis during the 1934 season and was better than adequate defensively, behind the plate.
The Yankees signed him in July of 1942, after he had been released by Cincinnati. New York needed an extra catcher because their starter, Bill Dickey had been injured. Hemsley ended up hitting .294 in the 31 games he appeared in for New York that season which got him an invite back the following year when he became Dickey’s primary backup. By 1944 Dickey was in military service and Hemsley pretty much shared the Yankee catching position with Mike Garbark. Though he was already 37 years-old at the time, Rollie thrived with the added playing time, hitting a solid .268 and earning his fifth and final All Star game nod.
During the 1945 spring training season, rookie catcher Aaron Robinson impressed the Yankee brass enough to feel they could sell Hemsley to the Phillies. Rollie was 40-years-old when he played his last game in the majors in 1947. He later became a big league coach for many years. He ended up catching in 1,482 big league games. He shares his birthday with this former Yankee starting pitcher and this long-ago Yankee outfielder.
Here are the seven other Yankee catchers who have made the AL All Star team during their careers in pinstripes:
Here are Hemsley’s Yankee and career playing stats.
|SLB (5 yrs)||515||1932||1741||184||475||101||20||8||182||11||155||149||.273||.334||.368||.701|
|PIT (4 yrs)||252||789||727||93||192||37||16||2||101||5||40||56||.264||.302||.367||.670|
|CLE (4 yrs)||390||1415||1302||160||344||58||17||10||130||6||89||84||.264||.311||.358||.669|
|NYY (3 yrs)||174||590||549||47||144||21||9||4||65||1||27||31||.262||.297||.355||.652|
|PHI (2 yrs)||51||155||142||7||32||4||1||0||12||0||9||10||.225||.272||.268||.539|
|CIN (2 yrs)||85||241||231||16||35||9||2||0||14||0||10||19||.152||.187||.208||.395|
|CHC (2 yrs)||126||389||355||55||99||27||7||7||51||6||27||46||.279||.330||.454||.783|
Yankee fans remember the 1980’s as a bleak period in franchise history. The decade started out with such promise, when Dick Howser led the 1980 team to a 100-win season. That good Karma reversed itself quickly however, as “the Boss” fired Howser for failing to beat the Royals in the 1980 ALCS and the team’s signing of Dave Winfield did not result in another decade full of World Championship banners flying over the House that Ruth built.
Instead, the Yankee PR machine once again began to tout the team’s prospects down on the farm as the elixir the Yankees needed to get back on top again. As much as we fans wanted to believe there was a pinstriped fountain of youth flowing in towns like Columbus, Nashville and Albany, the most promising harvests of the Yankee farm system were either busts at the big league level or were quickly traded away for veterans who would then perform ineffectively once they reached the Bronx.
Two such prospects with outstanding and alliterative nicknames framed the 1980’s for New York. The first was Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni who was supposed to become the best slugging Yankee first baseman since Lou Gehrig. Instead he became a strikeout magnet and was traded to the Royals in 1984. Then at the end of the 80’s came “Bam-Bam,” today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Hensley Meulens was a bonafide home run hitter, who would indeed hit over 330 home runs as a professional ball player. Unfortunately for Bam Bam and Yankee fans, he hit about 315 of them while playing in the minors, Japan, Korea and Mexico and just a dozen during the four seasons the Yankees bounced him back and forth between the Bronx and Columbus.
Meulens did make history when he made his big league debut for New York on August 23, 1989. On that day he became the first native of Curacao to play Major League baseball. By then, Steve Balboni had completed his long tenure with the Royals and Mariners and was also back in pinstripes. So for a time, the Yankees had both Bye-Bye and Bam-Bam on their roster but the duo didn’t help them win-win anything.
|NYY (5 yrs)||159||505||457||60||101||16||2||12||46||4||38||149||.221||.290||.344||.633|
|ARI (1 yr)||7||15||15||1||1||0||0||1||1||0||0||6||.067||.067||.267||.333|
|MON (1 yr)||16||29||24||6||7||1||0||2||6||0||4||10||.292||.379||.583||.963|