In the late eighties, the Yankee starting rotation included promising prospects, Doug Drabek and Bob Tewksbury. Although scouts predicted both would become solid Major League starters, the ever impatient George Steinbrenner dealt them both. Drabek went on to win a Cy Young Award with the Pirates and Bob Tewksbury, who was born on today’s date in 1960, in Concord, NH, won 66 games during a five-season span with the Cardinals. “Tewks” is now a sports psychologist working for the Boston Red Sox. He had a chronically sore pitching arm throughout his big league career forcing him to experiment with different pitches and deliveries that he could use without stressing his right arm. These experiments included an eephus pitch he threw twice to Mark McGuire in a 1997, getting the slugger out each time.
Today also happens to be the birthday of another Yankee pitcher who used the eephus pitch successfully during his career.
Dick Williams had just won his second straight World Series as Oakland A’s manager in 1973, when he abruptly quit the job, angered over Charley Finley’s embarrassing attempt to get Mike Andrews kicked off the team’s World Series roster after the second baseman had made two errors in Game 2. George Steinbrenner immediately signed Williams to become the Yankees’ new field boss but Finley screamed foul and demanded New York give him their organization’s best pitching and hitting prospects as compensation for stealing his team’s disgruntled skipper. Those prospects respectively were southpaw Scott MacGregor and today’s Puerto Rican born Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, outfielder Otto Velez.
Steinbrenner refused to do so and Velez was returned to the roster of the Yankees Triple A farm team back then, the Syracuse Chiefs. Velez had belted 29 home runs and driven in 98 for Syracuse the season before and he had also walked 130 times, so the Yankees were justified in not giving him up. He would fail to make a memorable impression in three straight cup of coffee call ups to the Bronx in 1973, ’74 and ’75, but by 1976, Billy Martin had become Yankee manager and he put Velez on his team’s season-opening roster. Velez responded with a .266 batting average in 49 games that year and an impressive .410 on base percentage. He became a favorite of the fiery Martin, which explains why the Yankee manager fought fiercely to keep Velez’s name of the unprotected list for the 1976 American League expansion draft. He lost that argument and a few weeks later the Yankees lost Velez, when “Otto the Swatto” became the 53rd player selected in that draft and was headed to Toronto.
Velez would spend the next six years playing first base, the outfield, and doing some DH-ing for the Blue Jays. His best year was probably 1980, when he reached the 20-homer mark for the only time in his 11-year big-league career. His final season in the Majors was spent in Cleveland in 1983. He than played in Mexico. He hit 78 home runs during his career, with a lifetime batting average of .251.
When Dave Righetti went 8-4 and was named AL Rookie of the Year during the Yankees’ strike-shortened 1981 season, the Big Apple media was ready to anoint the tall Californian the best New York lefty starter since Whitey Ford. “Rags” was no Ford but he was very good. His brilliant no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox on July 4, 1983 was an unforgettable moment in Pinstripe history and is still being rebroadcast as part of the Yankee Classics series on the YES Network.
When Goose Gossage left in 1984, New York needed a closer and they turned to Righetti. His biggest apprehension about going to the bullpen was that he sometimes struggled with his control and had a tendency to give up walks in streaks, a nightmare situation for a closer. As it turned out, Righetti made the transition from starter to stopper smoothly. He set the AL record, since broken, for most saves in a season in 1986, with 46. When he left New York to sign a free agent contract with San Francisco after the 1990 season, he was the Yankees all-time saves leader with 224.
Unfortunately for Rags, 1981 would be the last postseason appearance for New York for the next fourteen years. After he retired in 1994, he got into coaching and eventually landed the pitching coach position with the San Francisco Giants. He’s now won two rings in that role and is getting much deserved praise for his ability to get the most out of the Giant rotation and bullpen, despite injuries to key members of his staff and significant performance slumps by others. Dave was born in San Jose, CA on November 28, 1958.
Rags shares his November 28th birthday with this one-time Yankee phee-nom.
His real name was Leslie Ambrose Bush and he won 196 regular season games during his seventeen-year big league career that began in 1912. He pitched for seven different Major League teams during that time including the Yankees for three seasons, from 1921 through 1924. During his first year in pinstripes. he won 26 games and lost 7, marking the first and only time the right-hander reached the 20-victory plateau. His performance propelled New York to the team’s second straight AL Pennant that year, but he lost both his starts in the 1922 World Series as the Yankees were swept by the Giants. The following season Bush went 19-15 and earned a victory in that year’s Fall Classic, helping New York to finally beat their inter-city rivals from the Polo Grounds in the third straight postseason match-up of the two teams. When New York failed to make it back to the Series in 1924 and Bush went 17-16, the Yankees then traded this native of Ehime, MN to the Browns for pitcher Urban Shocker. After winning 14 games in his first season in St. Louis the bullets were gone from Bush’s right arm and he won just 11 more games during the final three seasons of his career. Bush died in 1974 at the age of 81.
Another former Yankee who celebrates his birthday on November 27 is this catcher who is almost a sure bet to make the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.
After the Yankees acquired Jay Howell in a nondescript player-to-be-named-later transaction with the Cubs in 1982, they converted him into a full-time reliever and over the next three seasons, he evolved into the primary set-up guy for closer Dave Righetti. By 1984, he had mastered that role, going 9-4 with a 2.69 ERA that year and even getting 7 saves in situations when “Rags” needed a break. He also loved the intensity of pitching in Yankee Stadium and living in New York. I expected him to be a Yankee for quite awhile and remember even wondering if the organization might consider turning him back into a starter down the road.
That option became moot during the 1984 offseason, when New York traded Howell along with Jose Rijo, Tim Birtsas, Stan Javier, and Eric Plunk to the A’s for superstar Ricky Henderson. I absolutely loved the deal when it was made because at the time, the Yankees had failed to make postseason play for three consecutive years and putting Henderson in front of Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield in the Yankee lineup seemed like a certain recipe for success offensively and it was. But even though Henderson had some great years in pinstripes, he couldn’t put the team over the top. Meanwhile, the loss of Howell and Rijo would come back to bite New York in the rear end by the late 1980′s, when the Yankees pitching quality had plummeted and both these guys became All Stars and won rings with new teams.
Howell was the closer for the 1988 Dodger team that won the World Series over the A’s. In that same year’s NLCS versus the Mets, the Miami, FL native was forced to serve an embarrassing two-game suspension after the umps found pine tar inside his glove during a Game 3 inspection. Howell pitched in the big leagues until 1994, finishing his fifteen-year career with a 58-53 record and 155 saves. He then coached at the college level for the next ten years.
Today is like a holy day of obligation for Big Apple sports enthusiasts. On this date in 1916, the “Great DiMaggio” was born in Martinez, CA. He was and probably still is one of the most revered athletes in our country and perhaps the world. As a kid growing up, all I knew about DiMaggio was based on his statistics as a player, the nostalgic observations of sportswriters and the often embellished memories of the older generation of Yankee fans who were my neighbors on the west end of Amsterdam. While his stats indeed indicated DiMaggio was a great player, the latter two sources considered him a “God.” In fact, during my childhood, one of the most frequently heard lines in any argument between a young fan of Mickey Mantle and an older fan of Joe DiMaggio was “Mantle couldn’t carry DiMaggio’s jock strap.”
I’ve since read quite a few books about DiMaggio and about the Yankees during the DiMaggio era. The last one I read was the critical 2001 biography by Ben Cramer. I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the aura that surrounded the Yankee Clipper was based on his amazing baseball skills and achievements. But a large part of it was also due to the fact that the New York and national sports media of his era worshiped the guy and Joe maneuvered that worship brilliantly. This level of celebrity pandering by the media has become much less possible because today’s athletes get too much exposure. For example, Yankee fans can watch their team play every single spring training, regular and postseason game on high definition, big-screen TVs. Sportswriters are no longer free to embellish something that everyone is seeing with their own eyes. The Internet and the proliferation of sports bloggers has also made hiding a star player’s off-the-field behavior nearly impossible. Just ask A-Rod.
I would have loved to watch Joe DiMaggio play the game but I didn’t get the opportunity. As a die hard Yankee fan, I celebrate his accomplishments. But I believe the truth is that DiMaggio eventually got wrapped up in his own press clippings to the point that he actually believed he was perfect and that everyone else was out to get him. It was the pressure of maintaining that image that made DiMaggio a bitter man, the superstar who would not say a single word to a young Mickey Mantle during the Mick’s rookie season, who thought Casey Stengel was trying to embarrass him into retirement, and who pretty much abandoned his only son. Why is it that people who have so much going for them have such a difficult time just being happy?
Several years ago, I took my boys to a Yankee game and we were sitting next to a young Yankee fan who loved Don Mattingly. He knew everything about the then current team but not so much about Yankee history so when he told me that Mattingly was a better hitter than Mantle was, I couldn’t help myself. I found myself saying, “Son, Mattingly couldn’t carry Mickey Mantle’s jock strap.” I have to admit the line felt good coming out of my mouth until the completely unfazed kid responded with “What’s a jock strap, mister?”
Freddie Beene was one of those short-term Yankee players I will always remember. He was a little right-handed relief pitcher New York had picked up from Baltimore in a 1972 preseason trade. Yankee skipper Ralph Houk brought him north with the team after his first spring training season and he appeared in 29 regular season games that year. He won just one of his four decisions in ’72 but he saved three and finished with an excellent 2.34 ERA. He helped another Yankee newcomer that year named Sparky Lyle, rejuvenate the team’s bullpen.
But it was Beene’s 1973 season I remember best. Though he appeared in just 19 games that year including four as a starter, he was just about perfect in each of them. He finished 6-0 with one save and a microscopic 1.68 ERA. He entered the first month of the 1974 season as an established member of the Yankee pitching corp but by the time it ended, he was a member of the Cleveland Indians. On April 26, 1974, Yankee GM Gabe Paul had traded Beene, Fritz Peterson, Steve Kline and Tom Buskey to the Tribe for pitchers Dick Tidrow, Cecil Upshaw and the key player for New York in the deal, first baseman Chris Chambliss. Beene would spend his final two Major League seasons relieving in Cleveland, before returning to the minors, where he spent the final four seasons of his pitching career.
By 1967 it had become clear to most of us Bronx Bomber fans from the baby boom generation that the Yankee dynasty was no more. Mantle’s knees buckled every time he swung his bat. All Star names like Maris, Kubek, Richardson and Boyer no longer appeared in the New York lineup, replaced by the likes of Whitaker, Clarke, Smith and Amaro. We became desperate for talent and hoped that every Yankee prospect who got a cup-of-coffee call-up to 161st street was the answer. Surely a Mike Hegan or a Ross Moschitto would evolve into a 30 home run hitter, or maybe it would be the Brooklyn native with movie star looks named Frank Tepedino. But none of them did.
Tepedino was just 19 years old when he made his pinstriped debut in May of 1967. He was a left-handed hitter who played first base so he was behind both Mickey Mantle and Hegan on that Yankee team’s depth chart and barely saw any action during the three months he was on the Yankee roster. About the only thing he proved he could do at the big league level was drink, and by the time New York sent him back to the minors, Tepedino had become a full fledged alcoholic. He would get three more shots with the Yankees in 1969, ’70 and ’71 before getting traded to the Braves in 1973 for starting pitcher Pat Dobson. He had his best big league season his first year in Atlanta, hitting .304 in 74 games. He remained with the Braves until 1975, which is when his eight-season career in the Majors ended.
Tepedino returned to New York City and became a fireman. On September 11, 2001, he was on his way to the Twin Towers when they collapsed. He stopped drinking years ago and has since made over 60,000 speeches to youth groups and schools about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. He might not have made it big as a Yankee but he certainly made sure his life after baseball has been meaningful.
At the 1986 All Star break, just about everyone playing for and following that year’s Yankee team thought the club’s top acquisition priority was starting pitching. That’s why everyone was a bit surprised by the deal New York swung with the White Sox. The Yankees sent Chicago their starting catcher at the time, Ron Hassey and the organization’s top minor league shortstop, a guy named Carlos Martinez. In return, New York got power-hitting DH Ron Kittle, a new starting catcher in Joel Skinner and a scrappy middle infielder named Wayne Tolleson.
At the time of the deal, Tolleson, a native of Spartanburg, SC and an all-league star in baseball and football at Western Carolina was 30 years old. He had debuted in the big leagues in 1981 with Texas and became the Rangers starting shortstop in 1983. He was only five feet nine inches tall and weighed just 160 pounds, which helps explain why he would hit just 9 home runs during his decade in the big leagues. A switch hitter, he made up for his lack of pop with constant hustle, good speed and solid defense.
Yankee skipper, Lou Piniella made Tolleson his starting shortstop during the second half of the 1986 season, replacing Bobby Meacham. Tolleson put together a solid first half-season in pinstripes, averaging .284 and committing just five errors. That 1986 Yankee team finished with 90 wins but missed the postseason. Piniella stuck with Tolleson at short but his bat went ice cold and he hit just .221 during his first full season as a Yankee. That 1987 team again failed to reach the postseason and the New York front office decided Tolleson was no longer the answer at short. They went out and got Rafael Santana from the Mets and Tolleson his final three seasons in the Bronx as the Yankees top utility infielder.
The only member of the Yankee All-Time roster I came across, who was born on November 21 is this right handed reliever who pitched in a total of 20 games for New York during the 1998, ’99 and 2000 seasons. He recorded just one save in pinstripes during that time and had an ERA that exceed five runs for every nine innings pitched. The 1998 trade that brought Erdos to New York from the Arizona Diamondbacks was the same one that ended Andy Fox’s Yankee career. I happened to be a huge Andy Fox fan. Why? Because Andy was a member of the last Albany Colonie Yankee Team in the Double A Eastern league. That was 1994 and the following season, the Yankees switched their Double A affiliation to Greenwich, CT. The Albany ballpark was just a half-hour’s drive from my home in upstate New York. Me and my kids got to see some great future Yankees play in Albany from some very very good seats. In addition to Fox, that team’s final roster for that 1994 season included Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mo Rivera. Erdos is one of two Major League pitchers to be born in Washington, PA. The other one was also a relief pitcher for the Yankees by the name of Joe Verbanic.