While doing research for today’s post, I had to smile when I came across a comment made by Yankee great Joe DiMaggio about the son of former Cleveland catcher and Yankee coach, Jim Hegan. The elder Hegan made five All Star teams during his 14-year-career with the Indians without ever getting his batting average above the .240s. Never a good hitter, he had built his sterling reputation and earned his salary with his defensive skills behind the plate. Hegan’s son Mike had been signed by the Yankees in 1961. When he was invited to his first Yankee spring training camp, Joe D was on hand serving as a special hitting instructor. When someone from the press asked the Yankee Clipper what he thought of Mike Hegan, he assured the reporter that the kid would become a better Major League hitter than his old man ever was. Talk about an underhanded compliment.
Mike Hegan did turn out to be a better hitter than his dad, but not that much better. His lifetime batting average would end up 14 points higher than his father’s own .228 figure. But unlike his dad, who spent fourteen of his seventeen big league seasons in the starting lineup of the team that brought him to the big leagues, the son was in the starting lineup for just one of the twelve years he played in the Majors and never as a Yankee.
Like his pop, Mike Hegan was also an excellent defensive player, but he played first base. At the time he was putting together some great seasons for New York’s minor league teams, Moose Skowren and Joe Pepitone were doing the same for the Yankees. By the time he got his first real shot in the Bronx, it was 1967 and Mickey Mantle had been moved to first in an effort to prolong his Yankee career. That same move effectively ended Hegan’s.
He was sent back down to the minors at the beginning of the 1968 season and that June his contract was purchased by the new Seattle Pilots franchise. Finally getting a chance to be number one on a big league team’s depth chart, Hegan prospered, hitting .292 for Seattle in the team’s inaugural 1969 season and making the AL All Star team. When the team was moved to Milwaukee the following year, Hegan continued to start but his batting average dropped by almost fifty points. The Brewers traded him to the A’s during the ’71 season, where he won his first and only World Series ring the following year. He rejoined the Yankees and his dad in 1973. In 37 games that year he had 6 home runs and 14 RBIs, while averaging .275. He might have remained a Yankee for the rest of his career if Ralph Houk and his dad had not left New York after the ’73 season and moved together over to Detroit. The Yankees then sold Hegan to the Brewers during the ’74 season. Mike would spend the final three and a half years of his big league career as a part-time first baseman, outfielder and DH , back in the city made famous by Schlitz Beer. After hanging up his glove in 1977, Hegan picked up a microphone and became a broadcaster for the Brewers for the next 11 seasons. In 1989, he was hired to do Indian games and has been one of Cleveland’s announcers ever since.
Hegan shares his birthday with this Cy Young Award winner.
When Hall of Famer Bill Dickey began his sixth consecutive season as the Yankees’ starting catcher in 1934 he broke the 25-year-old record for most consecutive years starting for New York at that position, which was set by today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. John Peter Kleinow, better known as Red, was born in Milwaukee on this date in 1877. He played baseball in college and then the minor leagues before signing with the Highlanders in 1904. During his first season in New York, he was the team’s back-up backstop to Deacon McGuire. He took over as starter the following year and maintained that status through the 1909 season.
Never a good hitter, Kleinow was instead considered to be an excellent defensive catcher. His lifetime percentage for throwing out base runners attempting to steal was an impressive 44%. But it was a pitch that got over Kleinow’s head in his rookie season that cost New York a shot at the franchise’s first pennant in 1904. Trailing Boston by a game and a half with just two to play, New York’s 41-game winner, Jack Chesbro was pitching against the first place team in the eighth inning of a 2-2 tie game. Chesbro threw one of the dirtiest baseballs in the game and in the later innings, when the sun was low in the sky and shadows covered the Hilltopper Park pitching mound, it was next to impossible for a hitter or catcher to pick up the flight of a “Happy Jack” doctored baseball. With a runner on third, Chesbro let loose a spitball that the hitter never saw. Unfortunately, neither did Kleinow. As the ball sailed over the catcher’s head, the runner on third scampered safely home and Boston won the game and clinched the pennant.
In 1910, Red became a Red Sox when Boston purchased his contract from New York. But by then, the wear and tear on Kleinow’s legs from all those years of catching had caught up with him and he was out of the big leagues after 1911. His batting average during his seven years with New York was only .219 and he drove in an average of just 17 runs per season. He must have been a defensive wizard!
Red shares his July 20th birthday with this pitcher the Yankees acquired in a trade for Dave Winfield. Today is also the 43rd anniversary of Man’s first steps on the Moon which also means it is my oldest brother’s birthday. Happy birthday Big J.
Derek Jeter will be the last Yankee shortstop to wear uniform number 2 but the first one to do so is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Mark Koenig started at short for New York’s legendary Murderers’ Row team of 1927 and batted second, after leadoff man Earle Combs and right before the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth. That hallowed team became the first in AL history to remain in first place the entire season, set a regular season record with 110 victories and become the first junior circuit squad to sweep an NL opponent (the Pirates) in a World Series. Koenig hit .285 for that Yankee team and scored 99 runs. He was a very good fielder and was also universally liked and respected by his teammates.
The Yankees became this San Francisco native’s first big league club in 1925, when he was just 20-years old. He won the starting job at short the following season and held it until 1929, when he was replaced by the bold and brash Leo Durocher. In May of the following season, he was traded to the Tigers, but when he couldn’t get his average above the .250s, Detroit sold his contract to a Pacific Coast League team. After 89 games in the minors, he was hitting .335 and caught the attention of the Cubs who were in a battle for the 1932 NL Pennant. He was brought to the Windy City that August and played outstanding baseball for 2 months, hitting a robust .353 to help Chicago hold off the Pirates and earn the right to face the Yankees in the ’32 World Series.
When his former Yankee teammates learned that Koenig’s new Chicago’ teammates had not voted him a full share of the team’s World Series prize money, they exhibited their resentment with a constant and fierce series-long razzing targeting the entire Cubs’ team, except Koenig of course. That razzing was nearing the boil-over point by Game 3, when Babe Ruth came to the plate in the fifth inning with the score tied 4-4 to face Cub pitcher Charley Root. Root and the entire Cub bench were screaming obscenities at the Bambino, who was responding in kind. When Root supposedly quick pitched a second strike, legend has it that Ruth pointed to center and hit Root’s next pitch into the Wrigley Field bleachers in the general direction of where he had pointed.
The Cubs brought Koenig back for the ’33 season and then traded him to the Phillies, who in turn dealt him to the Reds. Still just 29 years old, Koenig became Cincinnati’s starting third baseman in 1934 and had a strong season. He then came back to New York in 1935, this time with the cross town Giants where he finished out his playing career in 1936. Koenig’s lifetime average for his dozen years as a big leaguer was a respectable .279 and he collected 1,190 hits. He would live until 1993 and become the oldest surviving starter from that 1927 Yankee team and missing by a couple of seasons, the beginning of the career of the last Yankee shortstop who will ever wear Koenig’s number.
Back in the late forties and early fifties, Yankee GM George Weiss would scour the rosters of the 15 other big league teams looking for what the New York media liked to call “pennant insurance.” With the platoon master, Casey Stengel calling the shots on the field in the Bronx, Weiss knew that providing the Ol’ Perfessor with one good extra bat or pitching arm was the recipe for a few extra late-season wins and quite possibly another trip to the Fall Classic. In August of 1949, Weiss had grabbed the “Big Cat,” Johnny Mize from the cross town Giants for $40,000 dollars. The primary reason the former NL batting champion was available in the first place was because Giant manager Leo Durocher was not very fond of him. When Weiss gave Mize to Stengel, Casey used him masterfully as a pinch hitter and part-time first baseman for the next five Yankee seasons.
A year after getting Mize, Weiss spent another 40,000 Yankee dollars to get Johnny Hopp from the Pirates. Hopp had been a teammate of Mize’s when both played and starred for the Cardinals early in their careers. Though he didn’t have lots of power, Hopp was a great defensive first baseman, a better-than-average center fielder and a solid batsman who turned pitches into line drives with great regularity. In fact, when Weiss swung the deal to put him in pinstripes, Hopp was hitting .340. The national baseball press howled that the mysterious Weiss was somehow using the financial might of the Yankees to form a cabal of MLB owners willing to sell New York any player needed to fill a gap in the team’s roster. In actuality, no NL team in the pennant race at the time of the Hopp transaction wanted or needed a first baseman who could not hit for power. But Stengel welcomed him with open arms into his toolbox, which was more commonly referred to as the Yankee dugout.
During the final month of the 1950 regular season, Hopp appeared in 19 games for New York and hit .333 with a .486 on base percentage. His timely hitting helped the Yankees hold off a very good Detroit Tiger team to win that year’s pennant by just three games. In 1951, Hopp’s age (35 at the time) began to catch up with him as injuries limited his play and had a negative impact on his batting average. The Hastings, Nebraska native was given his outright release the following year and he finished his big league career as a member of the Tigers. He retired with a .296 lifetime batting average and four World Series rings, two each with the Cardinals and Yankees.
There were many in the Yankee organization who honestly thought this big right hand hitter would not only be the team’s third baseman of the future, they predicted he would also take over from Mickey Mantle and become New York’s biggest home run hitter. That’s how good an athlete Deron Johnson was back in the late fifties. He set all kinds of baseball and football records at San Diego High School and had scholarship offers from all the top football universities.
He chose baseball instead and signed with the Yankees. He was both an All Star and a league leader in home runs on just about every stop of his four-year climb up the Yankee farm system. But instead of replacing Gil McDougald with Johnson, New York traded for the A’s Clete Boyer to play the hot corner. The Yankees had enough home run hitters in their lineup already and Boyer’s great glove gave him the edge over the poor-fielding Johnson. Instead, the Yankees traded their top prospect to the A’s with Art Ditmar for reliever Bud Daley in 1961, after Johnson appeared in just 19 games in pinstripes. He played with eight different teams during the next 16 seasons, hitting 245 lifetime home runs along the way. He was born on July 17, 1938, in San Diego. He died of lung cancer when he was just 53 years old.
There are only 35 former Major League ballplayers who have July 16th as a birthday and not one of them is still playing the game. The most famous of this group is “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Perhaps they should have called old Shoeless “Luckless” instead. In addition to being suspended from playing Major League baseball for life for allegedly conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series, Jackson once hit .408 in a season and didn’t win the batting title. Remember Terry Pendleton? In 1990 and ’91 he was the best third baseman in baseball, winning an NL batting crown with the Braves and a Gold Glove as well. Pendleton turns 52 today.
Tom Metcalf is exactly 20-years-older than Pendleton. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant is not a well known Yankee but even though this Amherst, WI native pitched for New York way back in the 1963 season and won just one game in pinstripes, I vividly remember that Yankee victory. The date was September 1, 1963 and the Yankees were playing the Orioles at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.
The Orioles were leading 3-0 when Manager Ralph Houk replaced reliever Steve Hamilton with Metcalf. One month earlier, Metcalf had made his big league debut in a relief effort against this same Baltimore team and been shelled. He didn’t get another chance to pitch for ten days and even went to Houk and told him if he wasn’t going to get a chance to pitch to send him back to Richmond. Instead, Houk began calling on him and Metcalf started pitching well.
Now against the Orioles a second time, the right-hander pitched two innings and gave up one run and then was lifted for a pinch-hitter with the score 4-1. That pinch-hitter happened to be Mickey Mantle. Mantle had broken his foot earlier in that ’63 season, in a game against these same Orioles in this same ballpark. He was chasing a fly ball and his foot became entangled in a chain link fence that used to run along Memorial Stadium’s outfield. When Houk sent him in to hit for Metcalf, it was his first appearance since coming off the disabled list from that injury. While I watched on my parents’ old black & white Sylvania, Mickey hit a two-run homer and three batters later, Tom Tresh hit another two-run shot for his second homer of the game and the Yankees and Metcalf had their victory.
Metcalf’s promising career ended with an injury to his pitching arm. Not too many Yankees hail from Metcalf’s home state of Wisconsin. The best of the few that do, is Tony Kubek. Former Yankee fireballing reliever, Ryne Duren is a also a native of the Badger State.
Bubbles and his brother Pinky made careers out of back-up catching. His real first name was Eugene and he was four years older than Pinky. He played in 852 big league games in a career that spanned a dozen seasons, most of them in Cincinnati. For a part-time player, Bubbles could really handle the bat. In fact, he won the NL batting title in 1926 with a .353 average back when all a hitter had to do to qualify was appear in 100 games (Bubble had 115 hits in just 326 at bats that season.) He retired with a very noteworthy .310 lifetime batting average. The Reds let him go after the 1928 season and he spent all of 1929 catching for a double A franchise in St Paul, MN. In 1930, the Yankees signed him to back up their young catching phee-nom, Bill Dickey. Hargrave appeared in 45 games that season for New York, hitting .278. He then caught for a few more years in the minors before hanging his tools of ignorance up for good. He was born on July 15, 1892 in New Haven, IN. He died in 1969 in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati.
He shares his birthday with this former Yankee outfielder who caught the last ball Babe Ruth ever hit as a Yankee.
This Big Apple native son was the first great Yankee reliever. He had come up to the Yankees as a starter in 1934, winning 14 games in his rookie season. It was only after the Yankees paid him a starter’s salary that he agreed to the pleadings of then Manager Joe McCarthy, to become one of baseball’s first full-time relief specialists. During the next eight years he led the AL in relief victories six times and in saves, four times.
How important was Murphy to the Yankee’s great success during the late thirties? When New York’s Hall-of-Fame hurler, Lefty Gomez was asked how he felt before a big game, he responded, “How I feel isn’t important. The important thing is how Murphy feels!” McCarthy liked to refer to Murphy as “My pennant insurance.” Murphy was given the nickname “Fireman” and was so dominant in his role that that same nickname became the term used to describe each team’s best bullpen pitcher. In all, Murphy pitched 12 seasons in pinstripes with all but one of those seasons coming before he entered military service in 1943. He finished his Yankee career with a record of 93-53 and 107 saves. He then became a front office executive with the Red Sox and then the Mets. He passed away in 1970, at the age of 71.
This former Yankee third baseman and current manager of the White Sox shares Murphy’s July 14th birthday.
So who is Ken Hunt? A lot of the readers of this blog are old enough and good enough baseball fans to remember Ron Hunt, the former big league second baseman who was the real first “star” of the Mets. Ron Hunt would have won the 1963 NL Rookie of the Year Award if it weren’t for the fact that Pete Rose was also in his rookie season that same year. But I don’t think too many of you remember Ken Hunt. I do because of two reasons. I was a baseball card collector and a die-hard Yankee fan.
Ken Hunt had been signed by the Yankees way back in 1952 when he was just 17 years old. He had just graduated from high school in Grand Forks, ND and the Yankees assigned him to their lowest level (D) farm team. He climbed the first three letters of the minor league alphabet pretty quickly, but once he got to the double A level, his ascent sort of stalled because the next rung of his career ladder was the New York Yankee outfield which was at the time pretty loaded with high performing veterans.
Despite that crowded situation, Hunt was given his first call-up to the Bronx in September of 1959 and then actually made New York’s big league roster with a good 1960 spring training performance. He hit .294 as a utility outfielder on that 1960 Yankee team through the first two months of the season before he was sent back down to Richmond. He also developed a lasting friendship with another Yankee who made his home in North Dakota, a guy named Roger Maris.
I remember pretty clearly reading the list of players in the New York Daily News who had been selected by the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators during the 1960 AL Expansion Draft. They included Yankee pitchers Eli Grba, Bobby Shantz and Duke Maas along with two Yankee first basemen, Dale Long and Bud Zipfel. The list also included Ken Hunt who was the 40th selection in that draft. His new team was the Angels.
During the Angels’ first season, the team played its home games in cozy little minor league ballpark named, coincidentally, Wrigley Field. Since it was located near Hollywood, the Stadium became a popular place to film movies that involved baseball games and also served as the host of television’s popular “Home Run Derby” show, which use to air in the 1950s. Due to the fact that the park’s power alleys were just 345 feet in both right center and left center, home runs were plentiful during the Angels 1961 inaugural season helping Ken Hunt end his first full year in the big leagues with 25 of them and also lead the team with 84 RBIs.
Unfortunately for Hunt, he suffered an aneurism near his throwing shoulder the following season and was limited to just twelve games of action. While recovering from the surgery, however, he met and married a single Mom who’s son was Butch Patrick, the child actor who played Eddie Munster in the popular TV series, The Munsters. Eventually, Ken was cast as a baseball player in an episode of his step son’s series and got his Screen Actors Guild card. He would go on to play an extra in other Hollywood films.
Hunt needed a second career because his repaired shoulder continued to bother him. Though he did manage to hit 16 home runs in just 66 games of action for the Angels in 1963, his average fell into the .180′s and he was sold to the Senators in September of that same season.
He ended up divorcing Patrick’s Mom a few years later and starting a new career in the aerospace industry. It was there that he met and married his new wife and they opened a bar together near the aerospace plant where they both worked. He continued his close friendship with Roger Maris until Maris passed away from cancer. Hunt continued to return to North Dakota every year to play in the Memorial Golf Tournament. In fact, on the evening before he was supposed to leave for North Dakota to play in the 1997 event, he died of a heart attack while watching his former team, the Angels play on television.
No Yankees past or present were born on this date but it is the third anniversary of the passing of one of my favorites, Bobby Murcer. Yesterday was the second anniversary of the death of Yankee public address legend Bob Sheppard, who passed away at the ripe age of 99, on July 11th. Tomorrow, it will also be two years since George Steinbrenner died of a heart attack. So perhaps forever more, these three consecutive dates will most be remembered as anniversaries of Yankee deaths and not Yankee births.