The 1917 season had ended, Miller Huggins had just taken over as manager of the Yankees and he was intent on completely re-hauling New York’s underachieving roster. The new skipper desperately wanted to add a good second baseman to his new team’s lineup. That second baseman’s name was Del Pratt, who was playing for the St. Louis Browns at the time and was considered the second best player at that position in the American League, behind only the future Hall-of-Famer, Eddie Collins. Huggins got the permission of Yankee co-owner, Jacob Ruppert, to send three Yankee starting position players and two of the team’s younger pitchers to the Browns for Pratt and the future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Eddie Plank. The problem was that Plank, who was already 42-years-old at the time, had already told the Browns he was retiring. Huggins knew that but he told Ruppert he could talk the veteran southpaw out of quitting to pitch for New York.
Plank had spent the first 14 years of his brilliant career pitching for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. He had perfected a distinctive cross-body, side-arm pitching motion that helped him win 326 games and throw 69 shutouts. Though he pitched in an era of pitching legends and was often pushed out of the headlines by the likes of Cy Young, Christy Matthewson and Walter Johnson, “Gettysburg Eddie” was as good as it gets on a Major League pitching mound. To visualize Plank at work, think of Mark Fydrich. Like “the Bird,” Plank employed constant motion and muttering on the pitching mound. When he wasn’t tugging at his jersey, tightening the laces on his spikes or furiously rubbing up the baseball, he’d be talking to himself, the batter, his catcher, the ump or anyone who’d listen to him. If you’re one of the many who thinks it takes Josh Beckett too long to throw a pitch, you’d probably would have been screaming at Plank. He could take forever to agree on a sign with his catcher and God forbid if there was a runner on first base because Eddie would often just stare at him until the player shortened his lead or Plank’s stare lulled him to sleep and he picked the guy off.
In 1915, Plank had abandoned the A’s and jumped to the rival Federal League to play for the St. Louis franchise, where he won 21 games. When that franchise went under, its owner purchased the Browns and brought Plank back to the AL. Though he was able to win 16 games at the age of 40, the years were catching up to him and when he went 5-6 for St Louis in 1917, he told the team he was going back to his farm in Pennsylvania and staying there.
Huggins assured the New York sports press that he would convince Plank to pitch again in 1918. The Yankee skipper’s plan was to stop by Plank’s farm on the way to spring training, make him an offer he couldn’t refuse and bring Plank south with him. But when Huggins arrived at spring training he was alone and Plank was still on his farm. The Browns sent the Yankees a rebate check for $2,500, a great career was over and the newest Yankee was never a Yankee after all.
This former Yankee outfielder shares Plank’s August 31 birthday.
Joe McCarthy first laid eyes on Billy Johnson in the spring of 1943, during a snowy morning at a Newark Bears’ training camp in Asbury Park, NJ. Marse Joe evidently liked what he saw because just a few short weeks later, the 24-year-old native of Montclair, NJ opened the 1943 season as the starting third baseman for McCarthy’s Yankees.
The “Bull” justified his manager’s faith in him by putting together a great rookie season at the hot corner. He played in every single game that season and drove in 94 runs, hit .280, played great defense and actually finished fourth in that year’s AL MVP voting. He followed that up with a strong performance in the 1943 World Series. He hit .300 against the Cardinals and his three run triple in the eighth inning of Game 3 erased a 2-1 St. Louis lead, as the Yanks went on to beat the Red Birds in five games.
Johnson then entered the armed services and did not play another big league game until the middle of the 1946 season. By 1947, he was an AL All Star. That year he hit .285 and drove in a career high 95 runs. That fall he won his second ring, when New York beat Brooklyn in a seven-game Fall Classic. He would end up winning a total of four rings during his seven seasons in pinstripes.
Johnson was one of the many ex-Yankees who did not play himself out of a job but was instead pushed out by the constant influx of high quality prospects produced by baseball’s best minor league system. It also didn’t help that Billy was constantly haggling with the Yankee front office about his contract. In 1948, then Yankee skipper, Bucky Harris began platooning Johnson at third with a young Bobby Brown. Brown was a better hitter than Bull was but he was also a terrible fielder. When Gil McDougald was ready for the big leagues a couple of seasons later, New York traded Johnson to St Louis. I’d compare Johnson’s career as the Yankee starting third baseman with that of Scott Brosius. It didn’t last long but it was very good while it lasted.
|NYY (7 yrs)||735||2831||2524||344||694||107||30||45||388||7||266||219||.275||.349||.395||.743|
|STL (3 yrs)||229||828||729||75||188||34||3||16||99||6||81||71||.258||.339||.379||.718|
His Yankee teammates used to call him “Wardie.” He had put on the pinstripes for the first time in 1917, when he was just 20 years-old. A year later, Miller Huggins became Yankee Manager and Ward sat on his bench for two seasons, listening, watching and learning how the game was played. In 1920, the wife of Yankee third baseman, Frank “Home Run” Baker, died suddenly. Baker decided to take a year off from playing baseball to be with his two young children. “Hug” started playing Ward at third that season and the Akansas native did OK, hitting 11 home runs and driving in 54 for an improving Yankee team that also featured newcomer Babe Ruth that year. When Baker decided to return to the game the following year, the Yankees traded their starting second baseman, Del Pratt to the Red Sox and Huggins made Ward the team’s new starting second sacker.
For the next three seasons, he was as valuable a Yankee as any with the exception of Ruth. Ward hit a career high .306 in 1921, helping Huggins and New York reach their first World Series, which they lost to their hometown rivals, the Giants. They lost to them again in the ’22 Fall Classic but the third time proved to be the charm the following year and Ward played a huge roll in the Yankees first-ever World Championship. He hit .284 in the regular season and drove in a career-high 82 runs. Than in the ’23 World Series, Wardie led the Yankees with 10 hits and a .417 batting average, while providing excellent defense at second. Yankee owner, Jacob Rupert told the press that Ward deserved as much credit as Ruth and Huggins, for the Yankees’ first title.
Neither the Yankees or Ward could continue their success in 1924, as the team finished in second place and the second baseman slumped to .253. The bigger problem facing Huggins was Ruth’s outlandish personal behavior and the impact it was having on not only the Bambino’s play but also the attitude of the entire Yankee team. It came to a head in 1925, the year of Ruth’s famous “big bellyache,” which in actuality was a complete physical and mental breakdown. The Yankees fell all the way to seventh place in the final standings.
The Bambino had been scared straight. He worked harder during the 1925 off season than he ever had before and helped the Yankees win another AL Pennant in ’26. But he sure didn’t do it by himself. New York had introduced a whole new right side of their infield that year. Lou Gehrig took over for Wally Pipp at first and Aaron Ward lost his job at second to a kid named Tony Lazzeri. He appeared in just 22 games during his final season in the Bronx and then got traded to the White Sox. He retired two seasons later with a .268 lifetime average and 966 hits during his dozen-year big league career.
Wardie shares his birthday with this former Cy Young Award winner, this outfielder known for his sweet swing, this one-time Yankee pitcher who also gave up Bucky Dent’s home run and this former Yankee reliever.
|NYY (10 yrs)||908||3582||3139||382||840||133||46||45||390||30||275||399||.268||.331||.382||.713|
|CLE (1 yr)||6||11||9||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||1||2||.111||.200||.111||.311|
|CHW (1 yr)||145||550||463||75||125||25||8||5||56||6||63||56||.270||.360||.391||.751|