When he died in January of 2009, today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was 100 years old. He had become the oldest living MLB player and his book, Memories of a Ballplayer, co-written with baseball historian, Paul Rogers in 2001, represented his eye witness account of what playing in the big leagues was like back in the 1930s.
Werber’s Major League career actually began back in 1927, when he was a freshman at Duke University, where he was a brilliant athlete (the first Duke basketball player to be named All American) and a brilliant student (he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.) The legendary scout, Paul Krichell signed the first year collegian to a Yankee contract and had him spend a couple of weeks during that ’27 season sitting on the bench of the famed Murderers Row team to pick up some knowledge of the game. According to Werber, he hated those two weeks because everybody simply ignored him.
He didn’t make it back to Yankee Stadium until 1930 when he got called up in June and appeared in three games at short and one at third for Manager Bob Shawkey’s team. He went 2-3 in his first big league start and also became Babe Ruth’s bridge partner on the train rides during Yankee road trips. Werber and Ruth would play partners against Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey and Werber remembered in his book, how Babe used to drink a bottle of Seagrams during those contests, gradually getting drunker and nastier as the game progressed.
Werber spent the 1932 season back in the minors and then was promoted back to the parent club when the ’33 season started, but not for long. The Yankees had a ton of left-side infielders in their organization back then, so they sold the native of Berwyn, Maryland to the Red Sox. That was the break Werber’s career needed. By 1934, he had become Boston’s starting third baseman and that year he reached the 200 hit mark for the first and only time of his career and led the AL with 40 stolen bases while batting .321. He ended up winning a total of three AL stolen base titles. Werber played until 1942 and finished his 11-year career with a .271 batting average and 1,363 career hits. He won a World Series ring in 1940 with the Reds. He was instrumental in Cincinnati’s victory in that seven game Fall Classic, as he smacked ten hits and batted .370.
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.
The only member of the Yankee all-time player roster to be born on June 18 (1975) is their former reliever, Felix Heredia. The Yankees claimed the southpaw off waivers during the 2003 season and he pitched real well out of their bullpen for the remainder of that year, making 12 appearances during which he allowed just two earned runs in fifteen total innings. That effort represented an ERA of just 1.20 prompting New York to sign him to a new two-year contract. But during his second season in pinstripes, Heredia struggled with control problems and his Yankee ERA ballooned by over five times causing Joe Torre to eventually lose faith in him. The Yankees traded him to the Mets after the 2005 season in a deal that returned Mike Stanton to the Yankee bullpen. Heredia retired after the 2005 season with a 28-19 record for his ten years in the big leagues and 6 career saves. During that decade he pitched for six other teams in addition to the Yankees.
The only other member of the Yankee baseball family to be born on this same date is this announcer, who’s most famous call had nothing to do with Yankee baseball.
Vic Mata got his opportunity to play in the Bronx in 1984 mostly because George Steinbrenner was growing frustrated playing and paying high-priced veterans to miss the playoffs. In 1983, the Yankees had won 91 games but finished third in the AL East. That was the second consecutive season New York had failed to qualify for Fall Ball and that was the first time that had happened to a Yankee team since 1975. So “The Boss” let it be known he wanted to start testing the fruit from the Yankee farm system, hoping young guys like Don Mattingly, Mike Pagliarullo, Bobby Meacham and Vic Mata could show the old guys how to win with hunger and hustle. The Yankees were a game under .500 in July when Mata got his first start. Yogi Berra played the Dominican Republic native quite a bit in center field for the balance of that year and both Vic and the Yankees responded. Mata got real hot at the plate in August and helped the Yankees go 40-27 the rest of the way. But that proved to be the best and longest stretch of big league baseball Mata would ever play. That December, the short-memoried Steinbrenner went out and got the A’s Ricky Henderson to play center field for the Yankees. Then when the Yankees got off to a slow start in ’85 “The Boss” canned Berra and replaced him with good old Billy Martin. Berra liked Mata and Martin loved Henderson. Mata ended up playing just six more regular-season games in pinstripes.
After spending the final couple of seasons of his playing career in the minors, Mata eventually got into scouting. It has been in that capacity that this Dominican native has made his most significant contribution to the Yankees. Vic is the guy who signed Robinson Cano. He is also the only Yankee past or present who was born on June 17th. Happy Fathers’ Day to all you Dads out there.
It did not take long after the Yankees picked up Kerry Wood from the Indians in July of 2010 for me to become a fan of the 1998 NL Rookie of the Year. The big right-hander pitched lights out baseball during the final two months of that season, permitting just two earned runs in the 26 innings he pitched wearing pinstripes. His stuff was electric during that spell and the only weakness he exhibited during his short stay in New York was a tendency to encounter streaks of wildness. I was really hoping the Yankees would sign him to a new contract. He was coming off a huge $20 million two year deal he had signed with the Indians so I could understand the Yankees reluctance to get into a bidding war for a 13-year veteran with a history of DL stays. That’s why I was shocked when Wood signed with the Cubs for just $1.5 million that December and even more shocked when New York then paid Rafael Soriano $35 million over three years to basically replace Wood as the Yankee’s eighth inning bridge to Mo Rivera. According to press reports I read at the time, Wood made the decision to return to the Windy City and the big league team he started with after attending the funeral of Cub great, Ron Santo. He is revered in Chicago and he keeps his family home there. Wood pitched well for a very bad Cubs’ team last season, but recurring blistering problems on his pitching hand prevented him from displaying the type of dominance he had shown in pinstripes. He tried to play again this season but after nine appearances he told the Cubs front office he was through. He then made one final ceremonial appearance against the cross town White Sox a few days later and ended his big league career by striking out Dayan Viciedo on three straight pitches.
Wood was born on July 16, 1977 in Irving, TX. This former Yankee right fielder. also born on today’s date was one of the last New York players to wear uniform number 3.
Joe Girardi has been one of Eduardo Nunez’s biggest fans and boosters since the young Dominican infielder made his big league and Yankee debut in August of 2010. Several of the team’s talent developers have also predicted that Nunez would one day succeed his boyhood idol, Derek Jeter as Yankee shortstop. Members of the Yankee front-office have been quoted as labeling this kid as untouchable. I’m not that optimistic about this guy.
Don’t get me wrong, he has potential. I just have not seen strong enough evidence that he’s anywhere near ready to take over Jeter’s position anytime soon. He was a valuable utility infielder for Girardi in 2011, appearing in 112 games that season and averaging .265 as a fill-in for Jeter and A-Rod who both were forced into long absences with injuries. But his defensive lapses at both short and third were often glaring and far too frequent for a big league infielder.
It was those same defensive shortcomings in several early-season games this season that finally forced Girardi to OK Nunez’s return to Triple A. I do think he has the offensive skills necessary to play regularly at the big league level but he lacks the power necessary to hold down the Yankees’ DH spot. Making Nunez’s return to the Bronx even more difficult is the fact that he can’t focus his time in the minors mastering one infield spot. With A-Rod, Jeter and Robbie Cano pretty firmly ensconced at their respective positions for the next few years, Nunez must learn to play all three adequately.
Nunez shares his june 15th birthday with this Hall-of-Fame third baseman and one of the members of the famous Yankee core four.
The whole reason I started this blog was because I thought Yankee fans would enjoy learning which Yankee player(s) they shared a birthday with. I can’t say I was overly excited when my research uncovered the fact that the only Yankee born on my birthday was this weirdly named first baseman nicknamed “Muscles.”
Mole played just ten games for New York during the 1949 season and never again appeared in a big league game. He got his nickname from his days as a pretty good home run hitter in the Pacific Coast League. Mole’s playing time in New York wasn’t helped by the fact that he played first base. That 1949 Yankee team had six different first basemen on its roster including “Ol Reliable,” Tommy Henrich, Johnny Mize, Joe Collins, Dick Kryhoski, Jack Phillips and of course our birthday boy Fenton. Add in the fact that Casey Stengel, the platooning master was Yankee skipper that season and its a wonder Mr. Mole ever emerged from the dugout to see the light of a game day!
On the last day of the Yankee’s 1950 spring training camp, Stengel told the press that Mr. Mole would not be traveling north with the team. Instead, he would remain in Florida where he would continue to work out with the Kansas City farmhands. The best MLB player to be born on my birthday remains former Brooklyn Dodger ace Don Newcombe. The only current MLB player who celebrates his birthday on Flag Day is San Diego outfielder, Jesus Guzman. But I’m keeping my eye on a young Yankee reliever named Chase Whitley, who is currently pitching for the Yankees Scranton/WilkesBarre farm team. He’s a big right-hander who turns 23 today and he currently has a 5-2 record in Triple A ball.
As for Fenton Mole, he joins Andy Fox, Doug Bird, Goose Gossage, Yogi Berra, Jim Kitty Kaat and Bill Moose Skowren as former Yankees with animal or animal- sounding names or nicknames. I guess all the above would be a little nervous around Catfish Hunter and Enos Slaughter. See what I’m forced to resort to when no famous Yankees are born on your birthday? Happy Flag Day everyone!
The only Yankee player in history to be born on June 13th was a journeyman pitcher named Darrell May. The Yankees picked May up from the Padres in July of 2005 in exchange for another reliever named Paul Quantrill. May had made his big league debut in 1995 for the Braves but by 1997, he had pitched his way back to the minor leagues. The Royals brought him back to the Majors in 2002 and he was a member of the Kansas City starting rotation for three seasons. His best year was 2003 when he went 10-8 for KC with a career low ERA of 3.77. The following year, May led the League in losses with 19 and he was traded to the Padres. He went 1-3 in San Diego before getting dealt for Quantrill and he made just two appearances in pinstripes, getting rocked each time and he lost his only decision as a Yankee. He pitched in the minors for one more year then hung his glove up for good.
May was born on this date in 1972, in San Bernardino, CA. The most famous ballplayer and only Hall of Famer ever born in that same city was the great big league pitcher and former Yankee manager, Bob Lemon. Darrell became the third player named “May” to play in pinstripes joining pitcher Rudy May and outfielder/DH Carlos May.
Over the years, several players have played for both the Yankees and Padres during their careers. Here’s my all-time best lineup of guys who played for both San Diego and New York. (*) Note that four members of this group are now in the Hall of Fame:
1B – Jack Clark
2B – Mark Bellhorn
3B – Graig Nettles
SS – Tony Fernandez
C – John Flaherty
OF – Dave Winfield*
OF – Ricky Henderson*
OF – Jerry Mumphrey
P – David Wells
P – Gaylord Perry*
CL – Goose Gossage*
The initial signing of this former Yomiuri Giant standout was a great move by the Yankee front office prior to the 2003 season. Only Ishiru Suzuki ranks in front of him in terms of on-the-field performance by a Japanese player in the Major Leagues. He knocked in over 100 runs in four of his first five seasons in Pinstripes and only a wrist injury prevented him from making it all five.
The second contract the Yankees gave Matsui (four years, $52 million) after the 2005 season, did not turn out as well for New York. The wrist mishap ended Hideki’s consecutive game streak of over 1,700 (started in Japan and continued during his first 518 games as a Yankee.) After the broken wrist, he missed close to forty percent of the Yankee’s regular-season games during the next three seasons with an assortment of ailments and injuries including two very painful knees.
Matsui then put together a memorable final year in pinstripes in 2009. During the regular season he blasted 28 home runs and drove in ninety. But he saved his very best effort for the 2009 World Series. He hit .615 in fourteen plate appearances against the Phillies with three home runs and 8 RBIs. I had the pleasure of seeing him hit one of those round-trippers live, at Game 2 at the Stadium. His Game 6 performance will remain one for the ages. Matsui drove in six of the seven Yankee runs with a homer, double and single and was named the Series MVP. Since he hit 332 home runs while playing in Japan, Matsui has now (as of today) hit 507 combined home runs during his career.
Matsui’s quiet brilliance during his seven seasons in the Bronx made him one of my favorite Yankees. He announced his retirement from baseball on December 27, 2012.
Ban Johnson, the first-ever American League President did not like John McGraw, who was then the manager of the new league’s Baltimore franchise. McGraw was famous for fighting with umpires and flouting the rules. The fact that the fiery skipper also had an ownership stake in the Orioles’ franchise meant that he was technically one of the AL chief executive’s bosses, which also drove Johnson nuts. So during the 1902 season, Johnson put together a reason to put McGraw on indefinite suspension. Instead of fighting it or serving it out, McGraw jumped to the rival National League and accepted a managerial position with the New York Giants. When he did, he invited a core group of his favorite Orioles players to accompany him to his new team. That is why both McGraw and today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant were already in the Big Apple when one season later, the Orioles’ franchise was also relocated there and became the Highlanders (and eventually the Yankees.) If Johnson and McGraw did not dislike each other so much both the manager and Roger Bresnahan would have become Highlanders instead of Giants and the Yankee franchise would surly have won its first Pennants and World Series much earlier in team history. Eventually, baseball’s most famous catcher during the first decade of the 20th century would one day join his buddy and skipper in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Bresnahan was a versatile athlete and a very interesting character. He was famous for his hair-trigger temper. Nobody got ejected from baseball games for fighting with umpires and opposing players more frequently than Bresnahan did and it was often necessary to call in the local police to escort the Toledo, Ohio native off the field. He was also not your prototypical catcher. He had outstanding speed, stealing 212 bases during his big league career. He was a second-string receiver for McGraw in Baltimore but when he joined the Giants they already had two catchers so Lil Napoleon started his buddy in center during his first full season in New York and he hit .350. Bresnahan had started his big league career as a pitcher and went 4-0 doing his 1897 rookie season with Washington. He actually played all nine positions during his career. This guy was also quite the innovator. It was Bresnahan who introduced shin guards to the catching position and he also wore baseball’s first-ever batting helmet.
Roger no doubt owed much of his big league success to Giant Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Matthewson. It was Matthewson who went to McGraw and told him he preferred to have Bresnahan catch his games. In 1905, the two would lead the Giants to their second straight NL Pennant and first ever World Series title. In that Fall Classic, Matthewson would throw three complete game shutouts with Bresnahan behind the plate in each of them. In addition, the Giants’ starting catcher also led New York with a .313 batting average during that Series.
Bresnahan would continue catching for the Giants until 1909, when he was offered the opportunity to become a player-manager for the Cardinals. Not wanting to stand in his friend’s way, McGraw let him go. Bresnahan would spend four years catching and managing for the Cardinals and later hold the same position with the Cubs. He retired in 1915, after playing 15 Major League seasons and would one day buy a minor league franchise in Toledo. He was voted into Cooperstown by the Old Timer’s Committee in 1945, one year after he had died of a heart attack in Toledo, at the age of 65.
Bresnahan shares his June 11th birthday with this former Yankee co-owner.