September 20 – Happy Birthday Mickey Klutts
The New York Yankees had won the 1976 AL Pennant but been swept by the Reds in that year’s Fall Classic. After watching my favorite team miss the postseason for eleven straight years, I for one was satisfied with that season’s results and I remember looking forward to the ’77 season with lots of positive anticipation. I’ll tell you who wasn’t satisfied though, George Steinbrenner. The Boss was OK with Pennants but what he really wanted was rings and after he watched Cincinnati’s lineup of all stars undress his outmatched ball club in that ’76 Series, the Yankee owner was determined to field players at every position who could match up with their counterparts on the Big Red Machine.
Steinbrenner’s goal was not that far-fetched. The Yankees already had seven bonafide all stars in their ’76 lineup in Thurman Munson, Chris Chambliss, Wille Randolph, Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers, Lou Piniella and Roy White. His signing of Reggie Jackson that offseason made it eight. The only missing link was at shortstop. Fred “Chicken” Stanley had held down that position the previous season and performed well. He was more than adequate defensively but Steinbrenner would point to his .239 average during the 1976 season and insist the Yankees couldn’t win a championship with Stanley at shortstop.
New York was actively shopping around for an all star replacement for Chicken. The best one available in that year’s free agent pool was the Oakland A’s veteran, Bert Campaneris. But Campy was already 34 years old at the time and Yankee GM Gabe Paul was convinced he was on the downside of his brilliant career. Instead, Paul convinced Steinbrenner to try and sign Bobby Grich, the Baltimore second baseman who also became a free agent after the ’76 season. Paul was certain that Grich could be converted into a shortstop and he and the Boss went after the about-to-be ex-Oriole hard. But Grich, a native of California chose the Angels instead. Out of free agent options and still determined that Stanley was not the solution, Steinbrenner and Yankee manager Billy Martin agreed that they would give the franchise’s top minor league shortstop every chance to win the starter’s job during New York’s 1977 spring training season.
At the time, I was well aware of Mickey Klutts’ impressive numbers at the minor league level. Back then, the Syracuse Chiefs were the Yankee’s triple A farm team. I had cousins living in Syracuse who were huge Yankee fans, who would follow the Chiefs closely and let me know if there were any especially promising prospects on their way to the Bronx. My cousins were crazy about Klutts. He was a right-handed hitter who was just 21 years-old in 1976 and he had hit 24 home runs for the Chiefs that season and driven in 80 in just 119 games. The Yankees had brought him up to the parent club for a short time that same year and Billy Martin took a liking to the kid’s attitude. Since his first name was Mickey, he had good power and he was starting out as a shortstop, I couldn’t help hoping Klutts would have even more in common with another Yankee named “Mickey” at the end of his career as he did starting out.
Unfortunately for Klutts, he jammed his wrist in his first ’77 spring training game. Day’s later, he broke his thumb. An impatient Steinbrenner was in no mood to wait around for his snake-bitten prospect’s injuries to heel. He ordered Paul to trade for White Sox shortstop, Bucky Dent. As soon as Dent became a Yankee, Klutts’ future with the team became clouded. After his hand recovered, he went back to Syracuse and put together a solid season. That August, he returned to the big league roster. During the final game of the ’77 season, Klutts hit a two-run home run against the Tigers. That would be the only home run he would hit while wearing the pinstripes.
The Yankees and Steinbrenner got their ring at the end of that ’77 season with Dent starting at shortstop. The following June, Mickey Klutts was traded to the A’s for outfielder Gary Thomasson. He would spend the next four years as a utility infielder and outfielder with Oakland and then play one more season with Toronto before his big league career was officially over. Mickey shares his birthday with another former Yankee shortstop prospect.