January 5 – Happy Birthday Art Fletcher
I’m writing this post about a month before pitchers and catchers will be reporting to Tampa for the start of the Yankees’ 2013 spring training camp. You’d think at this time of year the only number New York’s front office would be concerned with would be “28,” because that’s the number of World Championships the franchise would have if they can get to and win the 2013 World Series. But instead of “28,” Yankee fans have been reading a whole lot about the number “189,” as in $189,000,000, the amount of money Major League Baseball has established as each team’s salary cap for the 2014 season. If the Yanks can get their payroll down to that level, the team will save millions in penalties. The question is however, can a team that has always spent its way to the top of the standings get there on a reduced budget?
Money has not been the object in Yankee Universe since two filthy-rich Colonels, Rupert and Huston, purchased the franchise in 1915. They immediately began spending their way to the top of the AL standings by looking for, trading for and paying for the best talent money could buy. And it wasn’t just talented proven big league players they coveted, they wanted the best minor league prospects, the best managers and yes even the best coaches. Which brings me finally to today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
Art Fletcher had been the outstanding starting shortstop for the New York Giants, during most of that team’s John McGraw-led golden era, from 1909 until 1920. He was a scrappy, singles-hitting, .277 lifetime hitter who knew every trick in the book when it came to winning a baseball game. McGraw traded him to the Phillies in the middle of the 1920 season when Fletcher was 35-years-old. Two years later, he was made manager of that team and he remained in that job for four seasons. In 1926, Miller Huggins approached him with a job offer to become a coach for the Yankees. Fletcher had figured out he was too high strung and aggressive to enjoy the manager’s role, especially for a losing team like the Phillies, so he accepted Hug’s offer. He remained on the New York staff until he suffered a heart attack during the 1945 season and was forced to retire.
During his nineteen seasons in pinstripes, Fletcher became a legend in the coaching box. He was a master at learning and playing the strengths of each Yankee player against the specific weaknesses of each of their opponents. Huggins loved the guy and when the diminutive Yankee skipper died tragically during the 1929 season, it was Fletcher the Yankees turned to as his interim replacement. During his tenure in New York, Fletcher turned down numerous offers to manage other teams and the Yankees made it worth his while to stay in pinstripes. His annual salary rose to $10,000, an unheard of sum for a coach at the time.
Fletcher willingly returned to a coaching role when the Yankees hired Bob Shawkey to manage the club in 1930. But when Shawkey’s team failed to win the Pennant that year, Rupert hired the former Cubs’ skipper, Joe McCarthy to take his place. Since there had been bad blood between McCarthy and Fletcher dating back to the time when they were opposing managers in the senior circuit, the rumor mill was rampant that Marse Joe would fire the coach when he took control of his new team. That didn’t happen. McCarthy recognized Fletcher’s sky-high baseball IQ and the two worked brilliantly together. So brilliantly in fact that by the end of Fletcher’s career with New York, he had cashed $75,000 worth of World Series checks. (The Yankees won ten AL Pennants and nine World Series during Fletcher’s Yankee coaching career.)