I wanted Bubba Crosby to make it as a Yankee because I really liked his name. He thrilled us all with a home run in his first Yankee at bat versus the White Sox reliever, Shingo Takatsu. But with a starting outfield of Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield and subs like Kenny Lofton and Ruben Sierra on the 2004 Yankee roster, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing his very cool moniker too often in that season’s box scores. Joe Torre did get Bubba into 55 games during his first year in pinstripes, however it was mostly as a defensive replacement in the late innings. Crosby had only 58 plate appearances that year and hit a woeful .151.
Still, New York’s front office held onto him that offseason and with Lofton gone from the 2005 roster, Crosby did see more playing time in his second Yankee season. In 76 games and 103 plate appearances, the native of Houston, TX hit a more decent but punchless .276. In 2006, when starting left fielder Hideki Matsui broke his wrist in early May, Joe Torre turned to Melky Cabrera to replace Godzilla, which instantly put a dark cloud over Crosby’s future as a Yankee. Sure enough, the Yankees released him in October of 2006 and though he would later sign with Cincinnati and then Seattle, he has never again appeared in another big league game.
The Yankees originally acquired Crosby along with Scott Proctor from the Dodgers in the July 2003 trade that sent Robin Ventura to Los Anegels. Bubba shares his August 11th birthday with the same Yankee outfielder who beat him out as Matsui’s replacement.
I first saw today’s birthday celebrant play in 1990 when the “Williams boys,” Gerald and Bernie were patrolling the same outfield for the Albany Colonie Yankees, New York’s double A affiliate in the Eastern League. The two were pretty evenly matched in most offensive categories except one. Bernie walked a lot more than Gerald did and as a result had a much higher on base percentage. It was Bernie who moved up to the Yankees Triple A team in Columbus to begin the following season while Gerald stayed behind in Albany. It was also Bernie who got the first call-up to the parent club and it was Bernie who beat out Gerald to become the starting center fielder for the New York Yankees.
Gerald got his first cup-of-coffee look at Yankee Stadium in 1992 and by 1995 he was a permanent member of the big league team’s roster. He got into 100 games during the ’95 season, often as a late-inning defensive replacement and hit .247 for Buck Showalter’s wild card winners. He was doing even better the following year for new manager, Joe Torre. He was starting in left field and hitting a relatively solid .270 and leading the team in stolen bases. Then in late August, the Yankees made a trade that I remember upset me, not because New York got rid of Williams but because they also got rid of pitcher Bob Wickman. The two players were sent to Milwaukee for shortstop Pat Listach and lefty reliever Graeme Lloyd. I had been a Wickman fan since he went 6-1 as a starter during his 1992 Yankee debut. The Brewers would convert him to a closer and he would eventually become one of the best in the AL. Williams became the Brewers’ full-time center-fielder in 1997, playing in a career high 155 games. Unfortunately, he hit a very unproductive .252 with a woeful .288 on base percentage. He walked just 19 times in 601 plate appearances and it was most likely his lack of discipline at the plate that got him traded to Atlanta at the end of the ’97 season. He played better for the Braves and after two seasons playing for Bobby Cox he signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay. He had his best big league season in 2000, his first as a Devil Ray, when he set single-season career highs with 21 home runs and 89 RBIs, while averaging .274. His career then went downhill quickly.
He got off to a horrible start for Tampa Bay in 2001 and found himself released in June of that year. He was immediately re-signed by the Yankees but his hitting woes continued. He hit just .170 during the second half of 2001 and was 0-19 when New York released him the following June. He then played one season with the Marlins and two more as a Met never getting his average above the .230s and his big league career was over.
Williams was born in New Orleans on August 10, 1966. He remains a very close personal friend of Derek Jeter. He shares his birthday with this one-time Yankee outfielder and this former Yankee shortstop.
In the eulogy Bob Costas gave at Mickey Mantle’s funeral, he talked about how thrilled people my age used to be when as kids, we opened up a pack of baseball cards and found a Mantle lying in their between a Pumpsie Green and an Eli Grba card. I had a lot of those Grba cards back in the early sixties and many of them would end up clothes-pinned to the forks of my Schwinn bicycle, rattling like a Harley engine against the spokes of my bike’s front and rear wheels. Grba came up in the Yankee organization in the late fifties. He was a tall, hard-throwing right-hander who would pitch mostly out of the bullpen for Casey Stengel during the 1959 and ’60 seasons, with an occasional start thrown in. He was 2-5 with an ERA over six in 1959 and then improved to 6-4 the following year and lowered his ERA to 3.68. It began to look as if he had a future in pinstripes. Two things prevented that from happening.
The first was booze. Stengel’s Yankees loved to drink it. Grba fit right in. Teammates Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford would invite the wide-eyed rookie to join them for a cocktail or two and Eli was thrilled to accept. He might not have been able to keep up with those two superstars on the baseball field but he quickly proved he could do so in the bars of American League cities around the country. By the end of the 1960 World Series, Eli Grba’s drinking problem was in full swing.
The AL was expanding to ten teams in 1961 and Eli Grba became the number one pick of the Los Angeles Angels in the 1960 expansion draft that was used to create the initial rosters of those two added ball clubs. The newly formed Angels may have had more drinkers on their team than the Yankees. They included Grba and his former Yankee teammates Ryne Duren and Ken Hunt. Eli won the first game in franchise history and went 11-13 during his first season wearing a halo’d hat but the drinking problem also advanced to a full-scale disease. He finished 8-9 in ’62 and found himself out of the big leagues for good by 1964. His post-playing life was mired in failed marriages and jobs until he finally quit the booze in the early eighties.
He shares his August 9th birthday with this former Yankee manager.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was a legitimate monster of the game during the 1960′s. Nicknamed “Hondo,” he stood six feet eight inches tall, weighed close to 300 pounds and handled his tree-trunk sized bat as if it was a toothpick. Howard played both basketball and baseball at Ohio State and was signed by the Dodgers in 1958. During his two plus seasons in LA’s minor league system, he smashed 84 home runs and then became the NL Rookie of the Year in 1960. Five years later the Dodgers traded him to the Senators in the deal that brought pitcher Claude Osteen to Los Angeles.
During the next seven seasons, Hondo became the Senators first legitimate star player. He led the AL in homers in 1968 (44) and again in ’70 (44), when he also captured the AL RBI title with 126. He was a four-time AL All Star and hit some of the longest home runs in MLB history during his years playing in our Nation’s Capital. When the Senators moved to Texas in 1972, Howard’s stats nosedived and he was sold to the Tigers. Two years later he went to Japan but a knee injury prevented him from becoming the new “Godzilla.” He hit 382 big league home runs during his 16 season career back when reaching the 400 mark in that category meant automatic induction into Cooperstown.
He then turned to managing in the minor leagues and eventually got big league jobs skippering both the Padres and Mets. Though he didn’t have winning teams in either city he was considered a real good communicator, especially with the younger players. The Yankees hired him as a hitting coach in the late eighties and he served under both Stump Merrill and Bucky Showalter in that capacity. He was a tireless coach who would be the first person to arrive at the park every day of spring training and the last guy to leave at night. He’d hit fungos to Yankee outfielders for hours and stand by the batting cage just as long, helping young Yankee prospects like Bernie Williams work on weaknesses in their swings. He was widely respected by everyone on the team and his huge physical size made young Yankee prospects think twice about trying to skip out early on practice. He was born in Columbus, OH and turns 76 years old today. He shares his birthday with this former Yankee starting pitcher and this other one too.
Its a lot easier for me to criticize star players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for allegedly turning to PEDs to help them pad already impressive personal stats and lengthen their careers, than it is to criticize today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Back in 1996, it looked as if Jason Grimsley’s career as a Major League pitcher was over. In seven seasons, pitching mostly as a starter with the Phillies, Indians and Angels, he had not been able to win more than five games or earn much more than the league’s minimum salary. He was 28 years-old and being sent back to the minors and the odds were he’d never put on a big league uniform again.
Then three years later, he re-emerged in the Bronx, in Joe Torre’s Yankee bullpen. When New York’s late-inning relievers Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson both struggled during that 1999 season, it was Grimsley who picked them up. The tall right-hander appeared in 55 games that year, won seven of his nine decisions and finished with a 3.60 ERA. When asked to explain why he was pitching so much more effectively than he did earlier in his career, Grimsley credited the improvement to his conversion to a full-time reliever. He said the change in roles permitted him to focus on mastering one pitch, a hard sinking fastball, instead of trying to master four different ones. That made sense, but seven years later we learned that other factors may have also been involved.
In 2006, the front door doorbell of Grimsley’s Arizona home rang. When the Cleveland, Texas native answered it, he found federal agents with a search warrant. They were there looking for human growth hormone and in the conversation that followed, Grimsley not only admitted using the substance, he reportedly gave the agents the names of several teammates who used HGH, steroids and amphetamines. The next day, Grimsley asked his then current employer, the Arizona Diamondbacks to release him and they immediately obliged.
So why do I find it so hard to criticize Grimsley for turning to performance enhancers? Simply put, I feel he was cheating just to survive and feed his family, while guys like Clemens and Bonds, who had already made their marks and fortunes in the game, could only have been motivated by greed and/or ego. Grimsley’s drug-taking helped him get back to the majors and raise his salary from $425,000 to $2 million annually. During the eight years after his return to the big leagues, Grimsley earned over $8 million and probably secured his family’s future for life. If I were Grimsley, faced with the same choices, I’d have a real difficult time not making the same exact one he did.
Most of today’s MLB pitching coaches actually manage their team’s pitching staffs. That wasn’t always the case. It was Casey Stengel who revolutionized the role of that position when the Ol Perfessor made today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant his first Yankee pitching coach in 1949. Jim Turner decided who was going to pitch when for the Yankees and for the most part, Stengel never interfered. The arrangement worked, as New York won nine pennants and seven World Series under these two men.
Turner was a special mentor. It didn’t matter if his pitchers were stars, youngsters, grizzly old veterans or journeymen, Turner had the knack for getting them all to pitch better. He was revered by the Yankees’ big three of Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds and Eddie Lopat. He was the guy who figured out Whitey Ford was tipping his curve ball and the adjustment they made together helped Ford get to Cooperstown. Bob Grim told reporters he wouldn’t have won 20 games or his Rookie of the Year Award without Turner’s guidance. Johnny Kucks and Tom Sturdivant couldn’t win anywhere else but they won in New York. He convinced Bob Turley to pitch without a windup and the rotund right-hander won a Cy Young Award.
Known as the “Milkman,” Turner was a detail sort of guy who took copious notes during each of his pitchers’ outings. He was also a proponent of pitchers acting responsibly off the field as well and would often assign veteran hurlers to room with rookie pitchers on the road to keep the kids on the straight and narrow.
When the Yankees finished a disappointing third in the 1959 AL standings it was Turner who was turned into the sacrificial lamb. He was fired and replaced by Lopat. He later became pitching coach for the Reds, before returning to the Yankees and coaching under Ralph Houk from 1966 until ’73.
A native of Tennessee, Turner pitched in the minors for fourteen years before getting his first shot in the big leagues with the old Boston Braves in 1937 at the age of 33. He went 20-11 in his rookie season and led the NL with a 2.38 ERA, 24 complete games and 5 shutouts. The following year, Stengel took over as manager of the Braves and Turner finished 14-18. He ended up getting traded to the Reds in 1940, where he helped Cincinnati win the NL Pennant with a 14-7 record and also earned his first World Series ring. The Yankees got him in 1942 and Turner became New York’s top reliever during the WWII years, leading the AL in saves with 10 in 1945. That was his last year playing in the big leagues. When he retired from coaching after the 1973 season, Turners professional baseball career had lasted one year more than a half-century. He died in 1998 at the age of 95.
The 2004 season had been a bust for Jason Giambi. After apologizing for using PEDs before the beginning of that season, he came down with some sort of strange ailment involving his pituitary gland and he ended up playing in less than half of New York’s regular season games. At the beginning of the year, Tony Clarke subbed for Giambi. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant started out that season with the Mariners but had been given his unconditional release by Seattle in late July. A few weeks later, the Yankees decided to sign him and Joe Torre made Olerud his starting first baseman.
Olerud had won the AL Batting title in 1993 when he hit .363 for the Toronto Blue Jays. He had some good pop in his bat as well, accumulating 255 home runs during his 17-season big league career. His trademark was wearing his batting helmet at all times while on the field, even when he was playing first base on defense. He had suffered a brain aneurism as a child and the perpetual hard hat was worn as a precaution. Olerud was no stranger to the Big Apple. After spending his first eight big league seasons with the Blue Jays, he had been traded to the Mets in 1996, his contract’s option year. He played very good baseball for the Amazins for three straight seasons, but when the Mariners showed an interest, he returned to his home town of Seattle as a free agent in 2000.
He was 35-years-old by the time the Yankees got him but he played very good defense at first for New York and hit a solid .280 for Torre in 49 regular season games. With Giambi still injured, it was Olerud who started at first during the 2004 postseason. He hit a two-run homer against Boston’s Pedro Martinez to help the Yankees win Game 2 of that year’s ALCS. When the Yanks won the next game to go up 3-0 in that series, it looked like Olerud would have the opportunity to win a third World Series ring, He had won his first two with Toronto in 1992 and ’93.
Then disaster struck. Boston shocked the world by winning four straight. One of the after-effects of that traumatic Yankee defeat was letting Olerud go after that postseason. He turned around and signed with the Red Sox in 2005 and hit .289 in 87 games in Beantown before he retired for good. Olerud shares his August 5th birthday with this former Yankee outfielder and this former owner of the franchise.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was one of the meanest Yankee pitchers ever to take the mound. Jim Coates was a tall skinny right-handed starter and reliever for New York from 1959 until he was traded to the Senators in ’62, for an even taller and skinnier pitcher named Steve Hamilton. Coates’ nickname was “the Mummy,” given to him by his Yankee teammates because he always slept with his eyes open. On one Yankee plane trip, Manager Casey Stengel’s wife accompanied the team and when she passed a napping Coates on a return-trip from the bathroom, she told Casey one of his players was sitting back there dead.
Born in the tiny village of Farnham, Virginia, Coates had been signed by the Yankees in 1951 and pitched in their farm system for eight long years. His problem was control. He had none. In one minor league game he walked 13 hitters in a row. Fortunately for Coates, he got on a team managed by former Yankee pitcher, Eddie Lopat. Lopat helped him with his delivery and his tempo and pretty soon Coates had evolved into the organization’s very best pitching prospect. After a cup-of-coffee visit to the Bronx in 1956, Coates came up for good in 1959. He went 30-9 during his first three seasons with the team and finished his four year Yankee career with a 37-15 record. Except for one relief appearance for Whitey Ford in the 1961 World Series against the Reds, he did not pitch well in his three postseasons with New York and never really became the star the Yankees thought he would be.
Coates had a very bad temper and a reputation as one of baseball’s most aggressive headhunters. I’ve also read that he was considered pretty much a racist by some of his Yankee teammates. But the guy had a knack for winning quite a few more games than he lost every season for some very good Yankee teams.
Jim Hegan’s long career with the Yankees began in 1960. The then 40-year-old, five-time all-star catcher was released at midseason by the Chicago Cubs and signed a month later by New York, when both Yogi Berra and Ellie Howard went down with injuries. But Hegan never caught an inning in pinstripes because that Yankee team had a third catcher on its roster by the name of Johnny Blanchard. Blanchard had been wasting away on Casey Stengel’s bench for two seasons and when he heard New York had signed Hegan, he was irate and let Stengel and the Yankee front office know exactly how he felt. The outburst worked. Stengel finally played Blanchard behind the plate and Hegan sat the bench.
The Yankees replaced Stengel with Ralph Houk after that season and Houk asked Hegan to be his bullpen coach. Thus began Hegan’s fifteen year tenure as a coach with New York. During his seventeen-year playing career, he had established himself as one of the great defensive catchers of all-time. He was the master handler of those phenomenal Cleveland Indian starting rotations of the early 1950s, that included Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and later Herb Score. These guys never shook off a sign Hegan put down and each of them credited the catcher for making them better pitchers. Hegan also had perfect technique behind the plate and a shotgun for an arm, which enabled him to throw out 50% of the runners who attempted to steal against him, a phenomenal lifetime average.
The only thing Hegan couldn’t do was hit. His lifetime batting average was just .228. The Yankee relief pitchers and catchers Hegan later coached loved the guy. His son Mike was signed by New York during Hegan’s first season as Yankee coach and was considered a top prospect in the organization for years. In 1973, Hegan followed Ralph Houk to Detroit and became a Tiger coach. He rejoined the Yankee staff in 1979 and coached for New York for two more seasons. He died from a heart attack in 1984. at the age of 63.
Today, one out of every four Major League ballplayers is Latino. At the beginning of the twentieth century you could count the number of Latinos wearing Major League uniforms on the fingers of one hand and one of those fingers would briefly have represented this Yankee utility player, who was born in Cuba and is generally considered to be the first Latino player ever to wear the uniform of the New York Yankees. Just 5’5″ tall, Aragon got his first shot with the Yankees in 1914. He barely spoke or understood a word of English, making it especially difficult for Frank Chance, the Yankee manager at the time to communicate with him and Aragon was sent back down to the minors. He worked hard to learn English and reappeared briefly on the Yankee teams of both 1916 and 1917. He then spent the next eight seasons in the minors and never again appeared in a big league ball game.
Here are my personal selections for the all-time all- Latino Yankee team: