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 as the 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 and the shortstop who lost his starting position to Derek Jeter.
Back in the first part of the twentieth century, managerial changes were pretty much a rarity when it came to Big Apple baseball teams. The Giants had the legendary John McGraw as their skipper for thirty years. For the Yankees, it was Miller Huggins from 1918 until 1929 and it took the death of “Hug” for the Yankees to make a change. In Brooklyn, it was “Uncle Robbie.” Before he got the field skipper’s job with Brooklyn, however, today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant had been a very good catcher with the old Baltimore Orioles teams of the 1890’s, when that franchise was part of the original National League. He was sold to the Cardinals in 1900. Just a year later, the new American League was formed and Baltimore was granted a franchise. Robinson’s old Oriole teammate, John McGraw was named manager and he convinced Wilbert to return to Baltimore and play for the new team. The catcher did so but when McGraw was later suspended by AL President Ban Johnson, he left the league and took a job as the manager of the New York Giants. Robinson then became the Orioles’ player Manager in 1902. The Orioles finished 24-57 that season prompting Wilbert to accept McGraw’s invitation to become the Giant pitching coach, a job he held for over a decade. That same season, the Orioles AL franchise was relocated to New York and became the Highlanders.
In 1914, Brooklyn hired Robinson to replace Bill Dahlen as Dodger skipper. He stayed in that job for eighteen seasons and helped bring respectability to a franchise that had pretty much become a laughing stock for its ineptness. Under Robinson, Brooklyn won the NL pennant in both 1916 and 1920 and he compiled a 1,375 – 1,341 career record. He shares his birthday with this long-ago Yankee outfielder and this former Yankee reliever who also played in pinstripes.
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 and a former teammate and pitcher who was born on the same exact day as Downing.
I could find no former or current Yankee player, manager, coach, front office member or broadcaster born on this date but I did find one “unofficial Yankee.” Back in the late fifties and early sixties, the Yankees and Kansas City Athletics were accused of conducting an unholy alliance in which mighty New York would treat the lowly A’s like one of their farm teams instead of as an American League competitor.
The A’s, who had always called Philadelphia home, had been purchased and relocated to Kansas City in 1954, by a KC real estate magnate named Arnold Johnson. At the time, Johnson was actively involved in a lot of real estate partnerships with then Yankee co-owner, Del Webb. With Johnson now at the helm of the A’s, the two clubs would regularly play deal-making ping pong, sending players and (usually Yankee) cash back and forth whenever a special on-the-field need or off-the-field contract squabble arose. In addition to the reserve clause, it has been rumored that then Yankee GM, George Weiss was not averse to using the threat of a trade to Kansas City, to get hesitant players to accept his usually stingy annual offerings.
The relationship between the two teams was so incestuous that on occasion, they would not even bother to officially trade players, they’d just let the other team borrow the guy for awhile. This is exactly how a journeyman infielder named Wayne Terwilliger, became an unofficial Yankee during the early part of the 1960 season.”Twig” never got to play a single game in pinstripes. Instead, the Yankees sent him to their International League Triple A farm team. The accompanying photo is of Terwilliger, cropped from the 1960 photo of the Yankees’ Richmond Virginians farm team. He retired as a player at the end of that year and in 1961 was named the Manager of the Yankee’s Carolina League affiliate in Greensboro, NC. That began what would become a half-century-long career as a baseball manager and coach.
Let’s take a look at an all-time Yankee lineup of players who at one time also played for the Kansas City A’s:
1B Irv Noren
2B Billy Martin
3B Clete Boyer
SS Dick Howser
C Johnny Blanchard
OF Roger Maris
OF Bob Cerv
OF Reggie Jackson
P Catfish Hunter
P Vic Raschi
P Ralph Terry
P Bob Grim
CL Bobby Shantz
RP Bud Daley
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 Skowren 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 Skowren’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 who wanted Robinson to spend a second consecutive season in the minors. He was ready to call it quits but the White Sox 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.
Robinson never became the Yankee legend we hoped he would but he does share his birthday with a guy who did.
Most Yankee fans around my age can clearly remember the famous shower-room scuffle between Goose Gossage and Cliff Johnson in 1979 but how many of you can recall a similar incident between Don Mattingly and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant that took place eight years later, during the 1987 season? At the time, the southpaw Shirley was in his fifth year as a Yankee pitcher. He had been signed by New York as a free agent after the 1982 season and went 5-8 as a member of Billy Martin’s starting rotation in ’83. After that inauspicious beginning, he was demoted to the bullpen and became the Yankees’ primary left-handed long reliever. He thrived in that role for the next two seasons and had his best year in pinstripes in ’85 when he appeared in 48 games and posted a career-low ERA of 2.64. He then had a horrible year in 1986, going 0-4 with an ERA that exploded to over five runs for every nine innings he pitched. So Shirley was already on pretty thin ice when according to published reports in June of 1987, he and Donnie Baseball engaged in a playful wrestling match in the visitors’ locker room of Milwaukee’s County Stadium, where the Yankees were playing a series against the Brewers. Mattingly ended up on the DL with two ruptured discs in his back. Though both players and their teammates denied the wrestling had taken place, George Steinbrenner was reportedly livid and ordered that Shirley be released the next day. Mattingly continued to insist that his former teammate was not the cause of his injury, explaining to reporters that Shirley was now looking for a job and he did not want other teams to think that the pitcher was some kind of locker room trouble maker.
Mattingly’s chronic back trouble would of course end up stunting the glorious start he had put together as a Yankee. Shirley would sign on with the Royals one week after being let go but pitched horribly during his only three appearances with Kansas City and was quickly released. He never again pitched in a big league game. He finished his 165-game Yankee career with a 14-20 record, 5 saves and a 4.05 ERA. Lifetime, he was 67-94 during his 11 big league seasons with 18 saves and a 3.82 ERA. Shirley shares his June 25th birthday with this former Yankee catcher. Besides George “Babe” Ruth and Shirley, can you think of any other Yankees who have a girl’s first name as their surname?
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 Yankee starting pitcher.
Here are the seven other Yankee catchers who have made the AL All Star team during their careers in pinstripes:
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.
This 6’3″ right-hander made his big league debut in 1959, as a member of the Yankee bullpen. He lost all three of his decisions but picked up two saves in his 16 appearances that season. He was sent back down to the minors in July of that season and the next time he pitched in the Majors was as a member of the Senators’ 1963 staff. Bronstad was born in Ft. Worth, TX.
Just like “All my Ex’s” there have been some famous Yankees who have lived in Texas. There have not, however been many great Bronx Bombers who were born in the Lone Star State. Mickey Mantle moved his family to Dallas during his playing days. Roger Clemens was born in Ohio but moved to Texas when he was in high school. Andy Pettitte moved there from Louisiana. The honor of being the best-ever Texas-born Yankee is probably currently between Don Baylor, Chuck Knoblaugh and pitcher Ron Davis. Davis, in fact, is the only native born Texan to make an All Star team while wearing the Yankee uniform.
Talk about hot starts, southpaw starting pitcher Russ Van Atta’s big league and Yankee debut on April 25, 1933 could have melted hard steel. The New Jersey native not only threw a complete game five-hit shutout against the Washington Senators in our nation’s capitol that day, he also had a perfect 4-for-4 day at the plate, scoring three runs and driving in another in New York’s 16-0 victory. The guy they called “Sheriff” would go on to win 12 of his 16 decisions in his rookie season and lead the AL with a .750 winning percentage. He also would end up hitting .283 that first season. You couldn’t blame the Yankee brass for thinking that Van Atta would be a key member of the their team’s starting rotation for at least the rest of that decade. It didn’t quite work out that way.
That December, a fire broke out in Van Atta’s home and while fighting or trying to escape the blaze, the Augusta, New Jersey native suffered a severe cut on his pitching hand. That injury severely impacted his pitching performance for the rest of his career. He began the ’34 season still a member of the Yankee rotation, but after getting hit hard in his first four starts, Joe McCarthy demoted Van Atta to the bullpen. Having watched both Joba and Phil Hughes try to go back and forth between the Yankee rotation and bullpen the past few seasons, it was not surprising for me to learn that Van Atta had problems making the moves as well. For the rest of that ’34 season he was used as a reliever and spot starter. He finished the year with a 3-5 record and a 5.30 ERA. He also developed a sore arm.
He was back in the bullpen to start the 1935 season but not for long. On May 15th of that year he was sold to the St. Louis Browns. He continued to struggle with his new team for the next four years, until his contract was sold to a minor league team in Toronto. After appearing in two games there, he hung up his glove for good. He finished his seven-year big league career 15-9 as a Yankee and 18-32 with St. Louis. He shares his June 21st birthday with another Yankee southpaw starting pitcher.