Johnny Oates’ two most significant interactions with the New York Yankees during his long career as a big league back-up catcher and manager, suffered from the same problem, poor timing. By the time he got to wear the pinstripes as a player, he was 34-years old and at the very tail end of his career. The Yankees signed Oates as a free agent at the very beginning of the 1980 regular season to serve as Rick Cerone’s backup. That happened to also be Cerone’s first season as the Yankees’ successor to Thurman Munson and he went out and had the greatest year of his entire big league career, starting an incredible 147 games behind the plate. That left Oates with a table-scrap portion of catching to do and when he hit just .188 while doing it, you knew his pinstriped days were numbered. He did manage to make the Yankees’ Opening Day roster the following year, but when his anemic offense continued during the first two months of the 1981 season, the Yankees turned to Barry Foote as Cerone’s new backup and released Oates as a player, offering instead to employ him as a minor league manager.
A decade later, the native North Carolinian became the skipper of the Baltimore Orioles, replacing Frank Robinson, 37 games into the 1991 regular season. He lasted in that job for the next three seasons, finishing with a winning record in each of them and earning plenty of admirers along the way. One of them was Texas Ranger GM Doug Melvin who hired Oates to manage his Arlington-based ball club. Johnny would spend seven seasons in that position, leading the Rangers to three AL West Division titles during that time and winning the 1996 AL Manager of the Year Award. His one abject failure during his Ranger years was his inability to get his Texas teams past the Yankees in three different postseasons. The Rangers’ record against New York during their three ALDS confrontations was 1-9. The last of those three series was particularly hard on Oates, as the Rangers high-powered offense was able to produce just one measly run in their three games against the Bronx Bombers.
Less than two years later, Oates was replaced as Ranger skipper by Jerry Narron, the former Yankee backup catcher Oates himself had replaced two decades earlier. Johnny Oates would never manage another big league team, ending his 11-year career with an overall 797-746 record as a skipper. Shortly after being dismissed as the Texas manager, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in Oates’ brain. Though given just a year to live, a determined Oates lasted three, dying in 2004 at the age of 58.
|ATL (3 yrs)||201||697||631||49||149||17||0||5||48||3||46||59||.236||.288||.287||.575|
|LAD (3 yrs)||126||302||277||27||71||7||0||3||19||1||20||15||.256||.304||.314||.618|
|PHI (2 yrs)||127||417||368||38||102||16||0||1||33||1||41||41||.277||.346||.329||.675|
|NYY (2 yrs)||49||95||90||10||17||4||0||1||3||1||4||3||.189||.232||.267||.498|
|BAL (2 yrs)||90||309||271||22||71||12||2||4||23||5||30||31||.262||.332||.365||.698|
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about authoring this blog is finding out some incredible things about Yankees that I didn’t know much about. Take today’s birthday celebrant for example. Before becoming a Yankee, Jesse “Jess” Hill was a three-sport starter at USC. Think about that for just a second. This native of Yates, Missouri, was such an exceptional athletic talent that he was able to become a national champion broad jumper on the school’s track squad, a running back on a Rose Bowl-winning football team who averaged 8.3 yards per carry and an outfielder on the Trojans’ baseball team. After graduating in 1929, he signed a contract to play baseball with the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, where he averaged .356 in 1930 and .318 in 1931.
Those batting averages got the attention of the Yankees, who purchased Hill’s contract in 1932. He spent the next three years tearing up minor league pitching on Yankee farm teams in Newark and St. Paul. Meanwhile, the 1934 season would be a year of transition for the Yankee outfield. Thirty-nine-year-old Babe Ruth had hoped to become Yankee manager but when Jacob Rupert refused his request, the Bambino asked for and received his unconditional release. The great Yankee center-fielder Earl Combs had run into one too many outfield walls during his outstanding career and he became a part-time outfielder during that 1934 season. That left two Hall-of-Fame-sized holes in New York’s outfield and Jess Hill was invited to the team’s 1935 spring training camp and given the opportunity to try and fill one of them.
He performed well enough to make the team, but with Combs still on the roster, Ben Chapman starting in center and George Selkirk replacing Ruth in right, Hill began the year battling for playing time with fellow outfielders Myril Hoag and Dixie Walker. His turning point came in the Yankees ninth game of the season versus Boston. Combs had gotten off to a horrible start that year with his bat, which was probably one of the reasons Manager Joe McCarthy penciled Hill’s name in on the Yankee lineup card to lead off and play left field. The 28-year-old rookie responded with three hits, his first big league home run, four RBIs and two runs scored. From that point, for the rest of the season, Hill started in the Yankee outfield more often than not and hit a very respectable .293 with 14 stolen bases. Ordinarily, a first year-performance at that level would pretty much assure a welcome-back for a sophomore season with the same ball club, especially since Combs announced that he would not be returning in 1936. That wasn’t the case for Hill however. There was this youngster named Joe DiMaggio joining the Yankees that year who scouts were raving about. The Yankee front-office decided to convert their sudden surplus of outfielders into more depth in their pitching staff and that January, Hill was traded to the Senators for a veteran right-handed hurler named Bump Hadley.
Hill played decently in DC, averaging .305 in 87 games as the Senators’s fourth outfielder in 1936. But after he got off to a slow start at the plate the following season, he was traded to the Philadelphia A’s, where he duplicated his rookie year batting average of .293. That wasn’t good enough to stick with the A’s so he was forced back to the PCL which turned out to be a huge break for Hill.
Back in LA, he started coaching high school sports teams during the offseason. He then joined the Navy during WWII and served with a guy who just happened to be athletic director at Hill’s Alma Mater. After the war ended, the AD hired Hill to coach the Trojans’ freshmen teams in football and track. His next assignment was head coach of USC’s varsity track team. He led them to two consecutive national titles in 1949 and ’50. He became USC’s varsity football coach in 1951 and during his five years in that job, his teams went 45-17-1. His most celebrated player was frank Gifford. In 1957 he accepted an offer to become USC’s Athletic Director and he served in that job for the next fifteen years. During his tenure as AD, USC teams won 29 national titles.
What an incredible athlete and leader Jess Hill must have been, He passed away in 1993 at the age of 86. Hill shares his birthday with this one-time Yankee phee-nom and this one-time Yankee catching prospect.
RIP Stan Musial and Earl Weaver.
|WSH (2 yrs)||118||371||325||74||91||21||6||1||38||13||42||39||.280||.364||.391||.755|
|PHA (1 yr)||70||275||242||32||71||12||3||1||37||16||31||20||.293||.374||.380||.754|
|NYY (1 yr)||107||445||392||69||115||20||3||4||33||14||42||32||.293||.362||.390||.752|
One of the amazing things about the on-the-field dominance of the Yankee teams during the late nineties was the fact that off-the-field, the franchise’s player personnel decision making process was in disarray. I like to call the reason for that disarray “the Boss’s Tale of Two Cities.” The ball club George Steinbrenner owned played in New York but he lived and made his base of operations in Tampa, Florida. The Yankee GM and Manager were based in the Big Apple while the team’s administrative personnel, including Steinbrenner’s unofficial cabinet of baseball advisors operated out of the central Florida city. The eccentric Yankee owner loved to create conflict among his upper-echelon staff because he felt it fostered a competition to out-do each other and keep everyone in line. But if you asked Brian Cashman and Joe Torre if they enjoyed fighting every Yankee player move with a bunch of George’s yes men located 1,500 miles away, you’d have received a much different opinion.
A classic example of this two-headed management battle is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, pitcher Jeff Juden. A 1989 first round draft pick of the Houston Astros, the 6 foot 8 inch, 265 pound right-hander had pitched for seven different teams during his first seven big league seasons. One of the reasons this Salem, Massachusetts native was hiring moving vans every season was because he was purportedly not a nice guy. Prior to him signing as a free agent with the Yankees in February of 1999, Juden had a long history of not getting along with opponents on the field or teammates in his own clubhouse. It has been alleged that when Juden was pitching for Montreal in 1996, some Expo players actually told management they would no longer play if Juden wasn’t banished from the team. The Expos got rid of him, even though he had an 11-5 record at the time. But as George Steinbrenner’s on-again, off-again love affair with the cantankerous Billy Martin had proven, the Boss had a special place in his heart for fight-loving trouble-makers and the Yankees signed Juden.
The pitcher was assigned to New York’s triple A Columbus affiliate to begin the 1999 season. Sure enough, he got into trouble in his new clubhouse almost immediately in an incident with Clipper teammate, Andy Stankiewicz. His on-the-field performance was nothing to write home about either. In 26 starts with Columbus, he was 11-12 with a 5.56 ERA. Despite it all, Juden was promoted to the big league roster that September, with the Yanks still battling the Red Sox for the AL East flag. It became apparent to the Yankee press pool that the huge hurler’s ascension had been the decision of the Tampa-side of Yankee management, when Torre responded to their questions about the new arrival by telling reporters he didn’t know why the pitcher was there because neither he or Yankee M Cashman had requested him.
Juden’s only start as a Yankee was ruined by an error by first baseman Jim Leyritz that led to five unearned runs and an 0-1 lifetime Yankee record for the controversial pitcher. Ironically, the Tampa committee had convinced Steinbrenner the Yankees should reacquire Leyritz earlier that same season over the objections of both Torre and Cashman. The Tampa connection brought Juden back for spring training the following season but it was no surprise to any one that Torre chose to go north without him. The Yankees released him and after a few more years of trying to regain his form and control his temper in the minors, he retired with a 27-32 lifetime record.
|PHI (2 yrs)||3||8||.273||4.68||19||15||0||1||0||0||90.1||82||56||47||10||43||69||1.384|
|MON (2 yrs)||12||5||.706||3.82||44||22||7||3||0||0||162.2||147||76||69||18||71||133||1.340|
|HOU (2 yrs)||0||3||.000||5.87||6||3||1||0||0||0||23.0||23||17||15||4||11||18||1.478|
|SFG (1 yr)||4||0||1.000||4.10||36||0||9||0||0||0||41.2||39||23||19||7||20||35||1.416|
|ANA (1 yr)||1||3||.250||6.75||8||6||1||0||0||0||40.0||33||32||30||7||18||39||1.275|
|CLE (1 yr)||0||1||.000||5.46||8||5||0||0||0||0||31.1||32||21||19||6||15||29||1.500|
|NYY (1 yr)||0||1||.000||1.59||2||1||0||0||0||0||5.2||5||9||1||1||3||9||1.412|
|MIL (1 yr)||7||11||.389||5.53||24||24||0||2||0||0||138.1||149||91||85||20||66||109||1.554|
Since my home town is Amsterdam, NY and I’m a passionate long-time fan of the New York Yankees, its only natural that I have a strong interest in the history of a now-defunct minor league franchise known as the Amsterdam Rugmakers. The team was the Yankees’ affiliate in the Class C Canadian-American League from 1938 until 1951. They were immediately successful, winning their league’s pennant during the first two years of their existence and the CanAm Championship in their third. Several future Yankee players made early career marks in Amsterdam. They included the great Vic Raschi, Spec Shea, Joe Page, Lew Burdette, Bob Grim, Joe Collins, Gus Triandous and Johnny Blanchard.
The team ceased operations during the WWII years and when play resumed in 1946, the Rugmakers struggled to regain their pre-war winning ways. They hit bottom in 1948, finishing in seventh place with a 57-80 record, setting a franchise record for most losses in a season. It was decided that a managerial change was in order. At the time, Jim Turner, the former Yankee relief pitcher and future Yankee pitching coach was managing a minor league team in Portland. His starting center fielder on that team was a 33-year-old native Floridian who had failed to stick in his one trial as a big leaguer. His name was Mayo Smith and Turner recommended him to the Yankees for the Rugmakers’ job. Seeing a chance to save some money by employing a player/manager, Smith was hired and spent two years managing and playing outfield for Amsterdam.
After a 67-71 fifth place finish in 1949, Smith’s 1950 Rugmakers got back into the playoffs with a 72-65 fourth place finish and advanced to but lost in the finals. Smith was rewarded with a promotion to the Yankee’s Class B Piedmont League affiliate in Norfolk, VA. He managed that team to two straight league championships and then got promoted again, this time to the Yankee Class A Southern League affiliate in Birmingham, where his team advanced to the league championship finals(but lost) in his first season at the helm. Suddenly, Smith was being mentioned as the potential successor for Yankee legend Casey Stengel. In fact, the Ol Perfessor told reporters that Smith was the most impressive coach he encountered during New York’s spring training camps and he predicted great things for Smith’s future.
Stengel was right. In 1955 Smith got his first big league managerial position with the Philadelphia Phillies. He did a solid job with a pretty mediocre ball club for three-and-a-half seasons. After getting let go by the Phillies midway through the 1958 season he was hired to manage the Reds in ’59. After lasting just a half year in Cincinnati, Smith left managing to return to the Yankees as a scout. Actually, he became the team’s first ever super scout. Major League Baseball had just instituted its inter-league trading period. Previously, if a team in one league wanted to trade a player to a team in the other league, that player would have to clear waivers within his own league first. The Yankees gave Smith the responsibility of scouting all NL teams and in that capacity he became a well-known fixture at all of the senior circuit’s ballparks. Smith remained in that role for six years until he was hired to manage the Detroit Tigers. He managed his 1968 team to a World Series win over the Cardinals. A key move made by Smith during that fall classic to play outfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop so he could keep both Stanley’s and Al Kaline’s bat in the lineup, was praised for years afterwards by the baseball press.
It was just before Christmas in 2007 that former US Senator George Mitchell held a press conference at New York City’s Grand Hyatt Hotel and announced that steroid use was rampant and widespread in Major League Baseball. His report indicated that the Yankees were among the biggest abusers. He listed the names of twenty current and former Yankee players who his investigation had discovered evidence had used the performance enhancing drug. In minutes, that list of Bronx Bombers found its way on to every Web site of every New York City newspaper. Yankee Universe went into collective shock. Yankee stars who had made significant contributions to the four World Series Championships and numerous postseason appearances the team had achieved in the previous decade were on that list. If Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, David Justice, Gary Sheffield and even Chuck Knoblauch and Mike Stanton had used the juice that meant the Yankee teams they played so well for and the wins those teams accumulated were tainted.
As I reviewed the list, it became clear to me that the players who took PEDs did it for different reasons. Superstars like Clemens, who’d already made their millions did it because they loved the ride they had at the top of their profession and didn’t want it to end. Several on the list, including Pettitte claimed they used the drug to help them recover from injuries faster. But than there were players named on that list like today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Ron Villone. He was an aging journeyman pitcher who had been in the big leagues since 1995. When he put on the Yankee pinstripes for the first time in 2006, two seasons before the Mitchell Report was released, it was the tenth different uniform he had worn in his Major League career. He would get to wear two more different team jerseys after he left the Yankees and before he was released by the Nationals in 2009. Except for three seasons with Cincinnati, he had been a mostly under-the-radar bullpen pitcher with most of those ball clubs.
Villone was not a star or a stopper. He kept working because he threw left handed and every big league team at one time or another is looking for a left handed relief pitcher who can come into a game on short notice and get a left handed hitter in the opposing lineup out. In order to do that, situational southpaws like Villone had to stay ready. That meant frequent warming up in the bullpen during games. When you add up all the pitches situational lefties like Villone threw in the bullpen and during games and you add in the fact that he was 36-years-old when the Yanks signed him, its easier to understand why Villone would take steroids. That first year with the Yanks in 2006, Joe Torre used him in 70 games and probably warmed him up but didn’t use him in four dozen others. That’s what Joe Torre and loads of other big league managers did and do to their situational relievers. In order to survive in that role and earn the one-to-two million dollar salaries good one’s get, you have to be ready not only when needed but also when the skipper even thinks you may be needed. Villone probably used steroids to help his 36-year-old arm get ready fast during just about every game the Yankees played. But unlike Clemens or Pettitte or A-Rod, Villone won’t have to worry that his use of PEDs might keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
|SEA (3 yrs)||10||11||.476||4.13||127||10||35||0||0||1||176.2||155||97||81||20||110||153||1.500|
|SDP (2 yrs)||3||2||.600||3.68||40||0||17||0||0||1||44.0||41||18||18||7||18||56||1.341|
|CIN (2 yrs)||19||17||.528||4.82||64||45||7||2||0||2||283.2||268||165||152||30||151||174||1.477|
|NYY (2 yrs)||3||3||.500||4.77||107||0||32||0||0||0||122.2||111||68||65||14||69||97||1.467|
|HOU (2 yrs)||11||13||.458||4.69||50||25||6||0||0||0||174.2||168||97||91||28||72||156||1.374|
|MIL (2 yrs)||1||0||1.000||3.38||73||0||25||0||0||2||77.1||68||32||29||8||54||59||1.578|
|COL (1 yr)||1||3||.250||6.36||22||6||6||0||0||0||46.2||56||35||33||6||29||48||1.821|
|PIT (1 yr)||4||6||.400||5.81||45||7||6||0||0||0||93.0||95||63||60||8||34||55||1.387|
|STL (1 yr)||1||2||.333||4.68||74||0||11||0||0||1||50.0||45||27||26||4||37||50||1.640|
|WSN (1 yr)||5||6||.455||4.25||63||0||7||0||0||1||48.2||54||25||23||6||29||33||1.705|
|CLE (1 yr)||0||0||6.00||25||0||6||0||0||0||27.0||30||18||18||3||22||15||1.926|
|FLA (1 yr)||3||2||.600||6.85||27||0||10||0||0||0||23.2||24||20||18||2||12||29||1.521|