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|
When I was a kid, pick-up baseball games were commonplace. Back then, there seemed to be at least ten guys you could call at any time of day or night to meet up for a game. You’d decide where to play based on the total number of kids who showed up. Four man sides worked just fine in the old mill yard across from my Grandmother’s house. It was a small area, boxed in by buildings on both sides and a huge green fully enclosed metal walking ramp that led from the third floor of the mill to the street level in dead center. That ramp served as our version of the “Green Monster.” We also played in a Veterans’ park at the western most end of our city, where a huge memorial with a life-sized bronze soldier standing guard at the top, served as both our center field wall and permanent spectator. Second base at the park was a cast iron silver painted urn that caused lots of bleeding injuries to both aggressive base runners and inattentive fielders.
When we could get eighteen guys together, we’d head down to the huge grass field that sat alongside one of the locks on the Mohawk River. Even back in the early sixties, when neighborhood kids use to actually play with each other, getting eighteen kids together was not easy and usually required a mixing of ages. That’s why, whenever we’d play down by the river, there’d always be at least one “older” kid who was strong enough to drive a ball the three hundred or so feet that separated home plate from the then-pretty-polluted Mohawk. Every official home run down by the river was a “Walk-off” home run because it meant the ball needed to play the game was gone for good and everyone had to go home.
It was always a lack of a simple ball that disrupted many of those glorious contests during my childhood. After all, most kids brought their own gloves to these games and at least a couple of the guys would bring bats. Gloves and bats weren’t perishable but those damn balls seemed to disappear in a hurry. That’s why, the most serious offense any kid could commit was taking the game ball home with him before that game was actually over. We used to let guys from our neighborhood who didn’t know a baseball bat from an umbrella play in those games simply because they owned a new baseball. Of course, the older guys who ran the games then pulled every trick in the book to prevent the talentless ball-owners from coming to bat or making a play in the field during the contest.
One of their favorite techniques was “No Ralph you’re not up this time around, Joey is going to pinch hit for you.” In those long ago games in the Veterans’ park, I can remember kids being told to go play the field behind the huge memorial, where they would stare up at the butt of the huge bronze soldier waiting for a ball to fly over the huge granite edifice so they could retrieve it. Eventually, some of these persecuted ball-suppliers would get wise to the exploitation being put upon them and would grab their ball and go home. This of course was considered a mortal sin in our neighborhood, punishable by banishment from all future neighborhood sporting activities, sometimes for life, or at the very least until you showed up at one of these future events with the only ball again.
The above memories were the first things that flashed through my mind when I heard that today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant grabbed the game ball after the last out of the final game of the 2004 World Series and brought it home with him. Doug Mientkiewicz had replaced David Ortiz at first base for the Boston Red Sox earlier in that game which is why he caught pitcher, Keith Foulke’s throw to first to end that contest and complete Boston’s four-game sweep of the Cardinals in that Fall Classic. He then just kept the ball and took it home with him. When someone from the Red Sox eventually asked for it, Mientkiewicz refused to hand it over, explaining he could sell it for enough money to cover his own kid’s college costs. Needless to say, that line did not go over to well with Red Sox Nation. He eventually agreed to loan the ball to the Red Sox.
Unfortunately for Mientkiewicz, keeping that ball will be what he’s remembered for most. Even though he was one of baseball’s best defensive first baseman during his 12-years in the big leagues and a Gold Glove winner, it will be the baseball he wouldn’t give back that defines him.
Three years after the incident, the Yankees signed the player nicknamed “Eye Chart” to play first base so that Jason Giambi’s porous glove could be removed from the lineup. He got into 72 games that year and hit a respectable .277. A broken wrist he suffered when Mike Lowell collided with him at first base disrupted his season and then he went hitless for New York during the 2007 postseason. The Yankees let him go and he signed with the Pirates the following year.
Mientkiewicz was a high school teammate of A-Rod’s in Florida when their team won that state’s baseball championship. He also won a Gold Medal as part of the US baseball team that beat Cuba in the 2000 Olympics. His last big league game was in a Dodger uniform in 2009. He retired with a .271 career average, 899 hits and that damn baseball. He also happens to share his birthday with another Yankee first baseman who I’m sure was the source of plenty of lost baseballs when he was a kid.
|MIN (7 yrs)||643||2505||2147||273||590||146||6||43||266||11||300||308||.275||.367||.408||.776|
|KCR (1 yr)||91||361||314||37||89||24||2||4||43||3||35||50||.283||.359||.411||.770|
|NYM (1 yr)||87||313||275||36||66||13||0||11||29||0||32||39||.240||.322||.407||.729|
|PIT (1 yr)||125||334||285||37||79||19||2||2||30||0||44||28||.277||.374||.379||.753|
|BOS (1 yr)||49||119||107||13||23||6||1||1||10||0||10||18||.215||.286||.318||.603|
|LAD (1 yr)||20||20||18||0||6||1||0||0||3||0||1||6||.333||.400||.389||.789|
|NYY (1 yr)||72||192||166||26||46||12||0||5||24||0||16||23||.277||.349||.440||.789|