The Buck Showalter era in Yankee franchise history began in 1992. New York was coming off of three straight losing seasons under Stump Merrill and I remember wondering if this new guy was the right choice to turn the team around. The Yankee lineup that year featured a potpourri of well-travelled veterans like Danny Tartabull, Mel Hall and Charley Hayes, home grown kids like Roberto Kelly, Pat Kelly, Kevin Maas and Andy Stankiewicz and of course, Donnie Baseball. But it was two role players on that squad, who I thought Showalter took a particular liking to; Randy Velarde and a former Oakland A named Mike Gallego.
Gallego became that team’s primary backup at second and short and Velarde did the same at every other position on the field besides catcher. Neither put together glittering statistics. Velarde averaged .272, Gallego just .254 but whenever I watched a Yankee game that season, one or both of them seemed to make some sort of hustling play or put together a particularly good at bat. That ’92 Yankee team finished ten games under .500 but I clearly remember thinking they were finally on the right track.
The following year, the Yankees finished 14 games above .500 and Showalter started Gallego in 119 games at second, short or third. The Whittier, CA native put together his best big league offensive season, hitting .283 and knocking in 54 runs. By the following year, he had become New York’s de facto starting shortstop. That ’94 Yankee team was running away with their division race when a strike halted play and ended the season. At the time, Gallego’s average was just .239. and the three year free agent contract he had signed with New York was ending. When the strike finally ended and play resumed in 1995, Tony Fernandez was the Yankee shortstop and Mike Gallego was back playing for Oakland.
The 2009 Yankee team would not have challenged for a World Championship without a group of relievers who had a knack for holding down the opposing team’s offense while the Yankee lineup got their bats untracked and took the lead. The combined 2009 won-lost record of Alfredo Aceves, Jose Veras, Brian Bruney, Phil Hughes, Phil Coke and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was 35-9.
Albaladejo had become a Yankee via a December 2007 trade that sent the promising Tyler Clppard to the Nationals. A native of Puerto Rico, this right-hander’s huge 6’5″ 250 pound frame made him an imposing site on the mound and his ability to throw a fastball in the mid-to-high nineties made him even more intimidating. He spent most of his first season in the Yankee system on the DL and then pitched himself onto the Yankee roster during the 2009 spring training season.
He would put together several stretches of spot-on pitching during the 09 season, but it seemed as if once a month, his control would abandon him and he’d get shelled. Girardi called on him 32 times that year and he held the opposition scoreless in 24 of those appearances. But even though he finished the regular season with a 5-1 record, he was left off the Yankees’ postseason roster. He was then demoted to Scranton-Wilkes Barre in 2010 but he sucked it up and pitched brilliantly as that team’s closer, saving 43 games. The problem for this guy was that the Yankees already had Mo Rivera and Rafael Soriano on their roster so they released Albaladejo and he ended up pitching in Japan during the 2011 season. Meanwhile, Tyler Clippard blossomed into a very effective closer for the Nationals in 2012.
The 1970 Yankees had surprised everyone including me by finishing in second place in the AL East with the impressive total of 93 wins. That unexpected success put a lot of pressure on manager Ralph Houk to not only prove his team was that good but to also come up with a plan for making up the 15 games that had separated the second place Bronx Bombers from their division foes, the 1970 World Champion Baltimore Orioles.
The New York skipper was telling the press that the Yankee bullpen was one of the league’s best, thanks to the righty/lefty duo of veterans Jack Aker and Lindy McDaniel. He felt Mel Stottlemyre, Fritz Peterson and Stan Bahnsen were as good as any team’s first three starting pitchers. He touted Bobby Murcer, Roy White and 1970 AL Rookie of the Year Thurman Munson as the foundation of an efficient run-producing lineup. His goals that spring were to find a fourth starting pitcher and a corner infielder with some home run power. He also expected today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant to replace Gene Michael as the Yankees’ starting shortstop.
It wouldn’t be the first time the franchise was counting on a “Frank Baker” to help the team compete for an AL Pennant. Over a half century earlier, the Yankees had purchased the contract of Hall of Famer Frank “Home Run” Baker from the Philadelphia A’s. By the time that Frank Baker retired after the 1922 season, he had helped the Yankees make it to the franchise’s first two Fall Classics.
The “Frank Baker” Houk was introducing was a sleek fielding shortstop who had spent the previous four seasons playing that position brilliantly for the Yankee’s Syracuse Chiefs. But I had the same question everyone else had about Baker. Could the guy hit?
The shortstop he was replacing was Gene Michael. Nicknamed “Stick,” Michael was a mediocre switch hitter who would average just .229 lifetime, but he had somehow managed to hit a career high .272 during the 1969 season. That blip caused the Yankees to keep Michael at short instead of Baker for the 1970 season. When Stick reverted to form by averaging just .214 the following year, Houk was determined to move forward with the switch. Baker had been a career .250 hitter at the minor league level and had hit at that same level during a 1970 call-up from Syracuse. I remember clearly thinking that he would not make a huge impact offensively for the Yankees in 1971 and I was correct. In fact, he was so unimpressive in that year’s spring training season that Houk kept Michael as the team’s starting shortstop. Baker ended up seeing action in just 43 games that year and his batting average was a putrid .139. He found himself back in Syracuse the following year and was then traded to the Orioles in 1973. Meanwhile, Gene Michael kept starting at short for New York until 1974, finally losing the job to Jim Mason.
Before there could be a Rivera or Gossage or Lyle, there had to be a Joe Page. One of seven children, Page was born on October 28, 1917, the son of a Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania coal-miner. Page began his Yankee career as a starter in 1944 when he won five of his first six decisions and made the AL All Star team as a 27-year-old rookie. Page then hurt his shoulder in a fall while running the bases, kept the injury quiet from Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy and proceeded to lose his final six decisions that season. He was used mostly as a starter the next two seasons with mostly unspectacular results which is why he ended up in the place most under-performing starters ended up back in the forties, the bullpen. But instead of treating his new status as a bullpen pitcher as a demotion, Page seemed to relish it.
By 1947 he had evolved the role into one of baseball’s first great closers, leading the league in games finished for three straight seasons while winning 34 games in the process. When the “save” became an official Major League stat in 1969, baseball historians reviewed old box scores to apply it retroactively and found that Page led the league in saves in both 1947 and ’49, while saving 60 games over that three-season period. Page also appeared in two World Series, winning and saving a game in each Classic, both Yankee victories. After slumping to a 3-7 record in 1950 with an ERA that ballooned to over 5 runs per game, the Yankees released their first-ever ace closer. He tried an unsuccessful comeback with the Pirates a few years later before hanging it up for good.
Page was the first Yankee and first Major League reliever to reach the 20-save mark when he accumulated 27 in 1949. Sparky Lyle was the first Yankee to reach the 30-save mark when he had 35 in 1972. Dave Righetti became the first Yankee to break the 40-save barrier with his 46 in 1986 and the great Mariano Rivera is the only Yankee reliever to save 50 or more games and he’s done it twice, the first time in 2001.
You couldn’t blame the Yankee fans back in June of 1904 for getting real excited when they heard the news that their favorite team, then known as the Highlanders, had just traded a rookie named Bob Unglaub for Boston’s star left fielder, Patsy Dougherty. After all, Unglaub had barely played for New York during the first half of that season, while Dougherty had led the American League in both runs and hits the season before, averaged .331 and became the first player ever to hit two home runs in one World Series game the previous postseason against Pittsburgh. Patsy also held the distinction of being the first AL hitter ever to get an at bat in a regular season baseball game in the Big Apple when he led off for Boston in their 1903 season opener against New York in Hilltop Park.
Dougherty had a strong first season for New York, hitting .283 and leading the league in runs scored for the second straight year. But that turned out to be the apex of his Big Apple playing performance. During the next two seasons his batting average plummeted and as a result, so did his playing time. He was sold to the White Sox in June of 1906. The change of scenery revived him and he played five more years in the Windy City before retiring in 1911. Dougherty was born in Andover, NY in 1876 and passed away in 1940. He is the only member of the Yankee all-time roster who celebrates his birthday on October 26th.
Counting Patsy Dougherty, seventeen different Yankees have led the American League in runs scored during at least one of the past 111 big league seasons. Here they are in chronological order. Note multiple winners have the number of times they led league in scoring as a Yankee, in parenthesis following their names: Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez (2), Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, Ricky Henderson (2), Roy White, Bobby Murcer, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle (5), Tommy Henrich, Snuffy Stirnweiss (2), Red Rolfe, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig (4), Babe Ruth (7), Patsy Dougherty.
By the end of the 1983 season, the great Yankee third baseman, Graig Nettles was 38 years old and in addition to losing some of his skills to age, he had worn out his relationship with team owner George Steinbrenner. The following February, New York traded reliever George Frazier and outfield prospect Otis Nixon to Cleveland for the third baseman they hoped would replace Nettles. His name was Toby Harrah. I remember being optimistic about the trade. At the time of the deal, Harrah had already enjoyed a solid, fourteen-year Major League career with Texas and Cleveland and was a four-time AL All Star. He wasn’t as good a fielder as Nettles had been in his prime but hardly anyone was. Like Nettles, he could hit the long ball, having reached the 20-homer mark five times and unlike Nettles, Harrah had good speed on the base paths. But this was the early eighties when every deal the Yankees attempted seemed to backfire and the Harrah acquisition was no different. After one terrible season in pinstripes during which he hit just .217 in 84 games, Toby was back in a Ranger uniform the following year. He was born October 26, 1948, in Sissonville, WI.
Harrah shares his birthday with this former Yankee infielder and AL batting champion.
Mike Harkey is currently the New York Yankee bullpen coach, but twenty-five years ago, he was the number 1 draft choice of the Chicago Cubs. In fact, he was almost the number 1 overall pick. Since Mariners’ owner George Arygos lived in Orange County, California, he had taken an active interest in the baseball program at nearby Cal State Fullerton. The Titans had won the NCAA Division 1 baseball title in 1984 and a year later the 6’5″ Harkey joined the program and became a dominant right-handed collegiate pitcher. As draft day approached in 1987, the Mariners owned the top pick overall and Arygos let his front office know he wanted to use it to take Harkey. Seattle’s scouting office had other ideas and they were successful convincing their boss they were right. So Seattle used that top pick on Ken Griffey Jr. and Harkey was selected by the Cubs two picks later.
Harkey’s problem was a chronically weak right shoulder. After putting together a 16-4 record in his first full season in the Cub farm system, his shoulder gave out plus he injured his knee and he missed the entire 1989 campaign. Cubs manager, Don Zimmer made Harkey his fifth starter to open the 1990 season and the rookie responded by winning five of his first six decisions. Frustrated by his team’s mediocre record, Zimmer decided to go with a four man rotation during the second half of that season and Harkey’s shoulder just couldn’t bear the added strain. He managed to finish that season 12-5, good enough to get him a fifth place finish in that year’s Rookie of the Year voting but he would never again pitch as many innings (179) or win as many games (12) during his eight-year big league career.
The San Diego native got into coaching after his playing days were over and in 2006 he was hired by the Marlins as Joe Girardi’s bullpen coach. When Girardi became the Yankee Manager two years later, he hired Harkey to serve in the same capacity with New York and he’s been mentoring the team’s reliever corps ever since.
Harkey shares his October 25th birthday with this former Yankee shortstop, this former Yankee reliever and this former Yankee third baseman turned medical doctor.
Yesterday, we celebrated the birthday of a starting Yankee outfielder nicknamed “Birdie.” Today, we celebrate the birthday of the guy who took Birdie’s job and his nickname is “Bunny.” Hugh “Bunny” High was the oldest of three brothers to play big league baseball. He made his Major League debut in 1913 as an outfielder with the Detroit Tigers. At the time the Tigers had one of baseball’s best outfields in Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and Bobby Veach so High spent much of his first two big league seasons watching games from the Detroit dugout.
In 1915, the financially troubled New York Yankee franchise had been sold to Jake Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston and both men were determined to upgrade the team’s mediocre roster. One of their first purchases brought High and the slugging Tiger first baseman, Wally Pipp to New York. High immediately replaced Birdie Cree as the Yankees’ starting center fielder for the 1915 season and then became New York’s starting left-fielder for the next two years. Back then the league’s cumulative batting average was only in the high .240s so when High averaged .258 and .263 during his first two seasons in New York, it was considered a very respectable performance. But when he slumped to .236 in 1917 he became a marked man, especially after the Yankees fired Manager Wild Bill Donovan at the end of that season and replaced him with the much more demanding Miller Huggins. With World War I raging, baseball lost many of its upper tier outfielders to military service in 1918 so High was still a Yankee when that season opened but Huggins kept him on the bench. It became evident to the then 30-year-old outfielder that his future with New York was not very bright with Huggins calling the shots so he asked the team to trade him and when no deals for his services resulted, he simply left the team to begin a new career in the shipyards.
I couldn’t find out how Hugh High got the nickname of Bunny. If he had played for New York a half century later than he did, you could make a case that it was derived from another famous “Hugh” who had a special affinity for “bunnies.” In any event, Bunny shares his October 24th birthday with another Yankee outfielder.
His real name was William Franklin Cree. He got his nickname when after he hit for the cycle in his very first game at Penn State University, an excited teammate who had watched Cree fly around the bases that whole day said he looked like a “bird” out there. After being signed by the A’s organization and then getting traded to the Tigers, he ended up in the Highlander organization. He made his big league debut on September 17, 1908 as New York’s starting center fielder, when he was 25-years-old. That New York team was one of the worst in franchise history, finishing the ’08 season with a horrendous 51-103 record. That level of roster ineptitude certainly helped Cree get invited back to try out for the Highlanders the following spring and he was successful. Over the course of the next four seasons he established himself as a starting outfielder for the club, highlighted by his performance in 1911, when he hit a career high .348 with 181 hits, 88 RBIs and 90 runs scored. His 22 triples that season are still the second most ever hit by a Yankee in a single season.
After such an outstanding performance, sports pundits of that era figured Cree was on his way to stardom. That ascent ended the following June in a game against Boston when Cree was struck on the left hand by a pitch that resulted in a broken wrist and ended his season. He was hitting .332 at the time of the injury. He was never again the same hitter. When he returned to full time play in 1913, he hit just .272. The following year he was relegated to team’s utility outfielder’s spot and when he hit just .215 in that role in 1915, his baseball career was over but it was his own decision to end it.
Not wanting to face the possibility of a demotion back to the minor leagues, Cree returned to his home town in Pennsylvania and accepted an entry-level position with a local bank and continued to work there until he died at the age of 60 in 1942. Cree shares his birthday with this former Yankee pitcher who now is part of the YES Yankee broadcasting team.
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