The Yankees traded their number 1 pick in the 1971 MLB Draft, a guy named Terry Whitfield, to the Giants in 1977 for the veteran infielder, Marty Perez. Perez had come up to the big leagues with the Angels in 1969. He then spent most of his career as a valuable middle infielder for the Atlanta Braves. He made his Yankee debut in an April 1977 game against Baltimore when Billy Martin gave Graig Nettles the day off and started Marty at third base. He went 2 for 4 in New York’s 6-2 victory. The next day, the Yankees included Perez and their unpredictable pitcher, Dock Ellis in a swap with Oakland that brought pitcher Mike Torrez to New York. Terry Whitfield ended up spending parts of ten seasons in the big leagues, mostly with San Francisco and hitting .281 lifetime. Torrez would win two games for New York in the 1977 World Series and then sign with Boston the following year and give up the Bucky Dent home run. Perez hit .231 for the A’s in 1977 and was out of the big leagues the following year. He is the only member of the Yankees’ all-time roster to celebrate a birthday on this date.
Perez was born in Visalia, California on February 28, 1946. If the Yankees had to field an all-time line up of native Californians, Perez would not be on it but the following guys probably would:
1b Hal Chase (Los Gatos)
2b Tony Lazzeri (San Francisco)
3b Graig Nettles (San Francisco)
SS Frank Crosetti (San Francisco)
c Matt Nokes (San Diego)
OF Bob Meusel (San Jose)
OF Joe DiMaggio (Martinez)
OF Roy White (Los Angeles)
DH Jason Giambi (West Covina)
SP Lefty Gomez (Rodeo)
RP Dave Righetti (San Jose)
Mgr Billy Martin (Berkeley)
Marty Perez wore uniform number 27 during the short time he played for the Bronx Bombers. The last six Yankees to wear this same number were: Raul Ibanez, Chris Dickerson, Kevin Russo, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson, and Joe Girardi. Number 27 was also worn on the backs of Kevin Brown, Graeme Lloyd, Mel Hall, Butch Wynegar, Elliott Maddox and Johnny Lindell.
Shortly after Joe McCarthy took over as Yankee manager following the 1930 season, the Philadelphia A’s put their long-time catcher, Cy Perkins on waivers. Seeing an opportunity to take ownership of Perkins’ years of experience as one of the American League’s best defensive catchers, Marse Joe told the Yankee front office to claim the native of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Perkins had been the A’s starting catcher for six seasons, from 1919 until 1924, which included some of the worst teams in the franchise’s history. In 1925, Mickey Cochrane took over as Philadelphia’s starter behind the plate and Perkins became his backup for the next six seasons, during which Philadelphia developed into the best team in the American League. Cochrane was born a great hitter but when he made his debut with Philadelphia, he was a horrible defensive catcher. It was Perkins who taught the future Hall-of-Famer how to catch and he proved to be an excellent teacher.
His real name was Ralph Foster Perkins which makes me wonder how in the hell he came to be known as “Cy.” He was a pretty good hitter himself, averaging right around .270 during his starting days with the A’s and usually driving in between 60 and 70 runs a year. When he got to the Yankees in 1931, Bill Dickey was firmly ensconced as the team’s number one catcher but just as McCarthy had hoped, Perkins became a huge asset on the Yankee bench. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of every hitter in the league and Dickey and the entire Yankee pitching staff took full advantage of his expert advice. New York’s staff gave gave up 138 fewer runs than they surrendered in 1930 and some of the credit for that improvement had to go to their new third-string catcher.
With both Dickey and Arndt Jorgens in front of him on the depth chart, Perkins didn’t get much of a chance to actually catch during his only season as a Yankee player. He appeared in just 16 games during the ’31 season, collecting 12 hits with 7 RBIs and a .255 batting average. He then spent the next two seasons as a Yankee coach, joining the legendary Art Fletcher to provide McCarthy with a dynamic duo of baseball brainpower that would help him direct New York to a World Championship in 1932. After two seasons of coaching for the Yankees, he rejoined his former student Cochrane, who had become the player-manager of the Detroit Tigers. That Tiger ball club then went to two straight World Series and won the 1935 Fall Classic. Perkins died in 1963 at the age of 67.
How many third string catchers hit 21 home runs in a season? That’s exactly what this Minneapolis native did in 1961, while playing behind both Elston Howard and Yogi Berra. In the 1961 Fall Classic, Blanchard blasted two home runs against the Reds in just ten total at-bats.
He had been a three sport all-star in high school who could have attended the University of Minnesota on a basketball scholarship, but chose to play baseball instead. The Yankees gave him a $50,000 bonus to sign with them in 1951, which at the time was a huge amount of money. Having been an outfielder during his high school days, Blanchard entered a Yankee organization loaded with outfielders at every level. Since they gave him so much money to sign, New York decided to start him near the top, in triple A ball with their Kansas City affiliate. When he struggled there he was demoted to single A Binghamton, where he played even worse. It was right about this time that the Yankees got the idea to convert him to catcher, and that conversion began when Blanchard was again demoted during his first season in the minors, this time to the Class C Amsterdam Rugmakers, who used to play in my New York State hometown.
The following year, he started to catch full time for the Yankees’ class C team in Joplin Missouri and banged 30 home runs and averaged .301. Just when he thought he was on his way, Uncle Sam called and Blanchard spent the next two years of his life in the US Army. He made his Yankee debut during a brief 1955 cup-of-coffee preview and then was brought up for good in 1959. The problem was that when he finally reached the Bronx, both Yogi Berra and Elston Howard were doing his job just fine and Blanchard quickly became convinced that Yankee skipper Casey Stengel did not like him. He did however, appear in five games during New York’s 1960 World series defeat to Pittsburgh and averaged .455 in that Fall Classic. But it wasn’t until Ralph Houk took over the team in 1961 and made Berra his left fielder that Blanchard finally started seeing more game action.
Johnny played seven seasons in all for the Yankees and got to the World Series five times. Nobody loved wearing the pinstripes more than this guy. I read an interview with Mel Stottlemyre not too long ago in which the former Yankee pitcher recalled the day during the 1965 season when he walked into the Yankee clubhouse before a game and found Blanchard crying inconsolably. The Yankees had just traded the catcher and pitcher Roland Sheldon to the A’s for catcher Doc Edwards. Blanchard had a good bat but a weak arm. Elston Howard had just been injured and put on the disabled list and the Yankees feared opposing teams would run crazy on Blanchard so they made the trade. Like everything else New York did during that 1965 season, Edwards turned out to be a bust. This popular Yankee died in March of 2009.
Blanchard had been a big drinker during his Yankee days. In fact, one of his best friends on the Yankees had been Ryne Duren, who was hardly ever sober. Fortunately, after he retired, Blanchard realized his problem and kicked the habit. He became a successful salesman for printing companies.
Just recently, David Price, the AL’s 2012 Cy Young Award winner got quite a rise out of Yankee Universe when he told reporters that should he become a free agent in the future, he would most likely not sign with a team like the Bronx Bombers. He explained that he was not a fan of all the rules the organization requires its players to follow off the field. Price singled out the Yankee front office’s obsession with hair. He indicated that he could not play for anyone who told him he had to shave or get a haircut.
Based on the loud negative reaction of the Yankee media and fans to Price’s comments, you would have thought the talented young hurler had urinated on the grave of Babe Ruth. Perhaps these over-sensitive Yankee rooters have forgotten or weren’t around when one of our team’s all-time favorite players refused to follow the orders of today’s Pinstriped Birthday Celebrant to get his hair cut and was actually pulled from the team’s regular season lineup as punishment. The player with the long locks was none other than Don Mattingly and the guy who ordered “Donnie Baseball” to cut them is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
When I hear the name Stump Merrill, two phrases pop into my mind. The first is “nice guy.” The second is “yes man.” He was actually a curmudgeonly native of Maine who had become a baseball-lifer after spending the late nineteen sixties and early seventies as a minor league catcher in the Phillies’ organization. By 1978 he was the 34-year-old manager of the Yankees double A affiliate in West Haven, Connecticut. During the next eight seasons he became one of the franchise’s more successful minor league skippers and George Steinbrenner took a liking to him. In 1986 he was rewarded with a job with the parent club as the team’s “eye-in-the-sky.” He would sit in the press box and from his perch, position the Yankee defense. The next season he was promoted to Lou Piniella’s first base coach. He became sort of famous during this first tenure with the Yankees for sleeping in the Stadium’s clubhouse whenever the Yankees were scheduled to play a day game following a night game. During the baseball season, the low-salaried Stump saved money by living with a sister who’s resided in the southern half of Jersey. Instead of making the long ride from the Bronx late at night and then getting up and reversing it early in the morning, Merrill saved some gas money and got his shut-eye on a clubhouse couch.
By 1988 he was back managing in the minors, willing to go anywhere and do anything the organization requested. Steinbrenner would soon reward that blind loyalty. It was during the late eighties that I remember thinking “the Boss” had either gone crazy or was suffering a nervous breakdown. He was up to his eyeballs in the bizarre Howie Spira episode, he was making some of the worst player personnel decisions in Yankee history and he was changing managers more often than a maid at the Hilton changes bed linens. Midway through the 1990 season, Steinbrenner decided Bucky Dent had to go and replaced him with Stump.
The Yankee team Merrill took over had been decimated by poor front-office decision making. Stump’s starting lineup included Bob Geren at catcher, Alvaro Espinosa at short, and a starting outfield of Oscar Azocar, Roberto Kelly and Jesse Barfield. That team’s batting average of .241 was worst in the American League and believe it or not, Stump’s first Yankee pitching staff was just as bad. His record during that first partial season was 49-64, the Yankees finished in last place in their division and me and just about everyone else who followed the team back then were certain Merill’s managing days were over. But the Boss thought differently. For some unknown reason, the owner who fired successful winning managers like Dick Howser, Lou Piniella and Bucky Showalter decided to extend Stump Merrill’s contract to manage the team for two additional years, through the 1992 season.
His first full year at the helm turned out be Merrill’s last. The 1991 Yankees finished with a 71-91 record and in fifth place in the AL East Division. Though his team’s pitching improved, that ’91 club finished third from the bottom in batting average and third from the top in most errors. The now boss-less organization (Steinbrenner was serving his Howie Spira-induced suspension) replaced him with Buck Showalter. Instead of leaving the organization, however, Merrill resumed his career as a Yankee minor league manager. I was happy about the move and didn’t miss the guy but since his dismissal, I’ve learned more about Merrill’s effectiveness for New York at the minor league level. He spent a total of seventeen seasons managing the organization’s farm teams and his overall record doing so was a very impressive 1625-1319. He also crossed paths and earned the respect of every Yankee prospect who in any way contributed to the outstanding success the parent club would enjoy on the field beginning in 1994. They included Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte.
Brett Gardner had just had his best game of the young season on April 17, 2012. Going 2 for 4 with two walks at the plate and scoring tree runs. But he had also made a dive in the outfield trying to catch a ball and sprained his right elbow. For the next several weeks, Yankee physicians would treat the lingering injury as a strain and kept telling Joe Girardi that his speedy outfielder should be returning in a week or so.
At first, the Yanks tried to fill Gardner’s spot in left field with their near-medicare-eligible-supposed-to-DH tandem of Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez. After two weeks of playing every day both guys were dragging and Gardner’s elbow was still hurting. Girardi tried using his utility infielders, Edwin Nunez and Jayson Nix in left for a few games and then someone in the Yankee front office evidently brought up a great point, “Hey, we signed Dewayne Wise last January and the good-fielding, nine-year veteran big league outfielder is hitting over .300 for our top farm club. Why don’t we call him up until Gardner’s elbow feels better?”
It turned out to be the “wisest” move the Yankees made all year. During the next three months, Wise, a native of Columbia, South Carolina appeared in 56 Yankee games. The team’s record in those games was 44-12.
Dewayne had made his big league debut with Toronto in 2000, but had never been more than a utility outfielder with any of the six teams he had played with before joining New York. He did however, already have an ESPN-worthy career highlight reel. White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen made Wise a starter during the 2008 ALDS versus Tampa Bay and he was Chicago’s best hitter, driving in five runs during their three-game defeat and averaging .286. Then in 2009, Guillen inserted him into a July game against that same Tampa team as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning with Chicago pitcher Mark Buehrle just three outs away from a perfect game. No fan of big league baseball who has seen the amazing catch Wise then made of a would-be-home run hit by Tampa’s Gabe Kapler, will ever forget it. In case you have, I’ve included a video of that catch here.
Wise averaged .262 in his 56 games in pinstripes, with 3 home runs and 8 RBIs. His presence also made it possible for Girardi to give the aging veterans throughout the Yankee lineup the periodic rests they needed. He also added a catch to his ESPN highlight reel, even though he really didn’t catch it. That took place in late June of the 2012 season when he leaped into Yankee Stadium’s left field stands attempting to catch a foul ball hit by Cleveland’s Jack Hannahan. The ball his his glove as he tumbled into the crowd but slow-motion replays clearly showed the ball exit his glove before he hit the ground. As the outfielder exited the stands, Umpire Mike DiMuro never asked to see the ball and Wise never offered to show it to him. If you missed this entertaining moment too, I’ve got it for you here.
The Yankee doctors finally figured out that Gardner’s injury was a lot more serious than they first thought and required surgery to repair. By late July, they were saying the speedy outfielder would not make it back for the rest of the season. I thought that might be good news for Wise’s future with the Yankees. Instead, Brian Cashman decided to go out and get Ichiro Suzuki from Seattle and the Yankees released Wise, permitting him to again once join the White Sox, where he finished the 2012 season as Chicago’s primary center-fielder and lead-off hitter.
Wise shares his birthday with this former Yankee prospect and World Series MVP.
Through the years, there have been several members of the Yankees’ all-time roster who have had brothers playing in the big leagues at the same time. The most current example would be Yankee catcher Austin Romine, who’s brother Andrew has thus far had three cup-of-coffee trials as a middle infielder for the Los Angeles Angels. The first ever New York Highlander team had a starting pitcher named Jesse Tannehill, who’s brother Lee was a starting third baseman for the White Sox.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant also had a brother in the big leagues when he became a Yankee in 1936. At the time, Roy Johnson was just coming off three straight seasons as the starting left fielder for the Boston Red Sox during which he averaged .313, .320 and .315. He had also driven in a career high 119 runs during the 1934 season. But when that RBI number fell to 66 the following year, Boston GM Eddie Collins took $75,000 of Tom Yawkey’s money and went out and got Doc Cramer from the A’s to play right field and traded Johnson to the Yankees.
Roy’s younger brother Bob was one of the best-hitting outfielders in the American League for most of the 1930′s. He had his best seasons for Connie Mack’s terrible Philadelphia A’s teams during that decade. Bob had much more power than his older sibling and put together seven straight 20 home run-100 RBI seasons. He also made seven AL All Star teams, an honor his brother never received.
The Yankee outfield picture Roy Johnson joined was one in transition. Babe Ruth had left New York two seasons earlier. The team’s 1935 starting left fielder, Jess Hill had been traded and the starting center fielder, the temperamental Ben Chapman would get dealt to the Senators three months into the 1936 regular season. It therefore looked like Johnson would have a pretty good shot at earning a starting berth with his new team until he got to spring training and ran into a rookie from the Pacific Coast League named Joe DiMaggio.
Johnson’s poor timing relegated him to the fourth outfielder’s spot on that ’36 Yankee team. He played in 63 games that year and hit .265, but he also got to appear in his one and only World Series (2 games and 1 hitless at-bat) and won a ring. He again made the team in spring training the following year but was placed on waivers by New York in early May and claimed by the Boston Braves. This part Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma retired with a .296 lifetime batting average. His younger brother would later leave the big leagues with the same exact lifetime average.
Here’s my all-time team of Yankees who had brothers playing in the big leagues while they wore the pinstripes:
1b Jason Giambi (brother of Jeremy)
2b Steve Sax (brother of Dave)
3b Clete Boyer (brother of Ken)
ss Jerry Hairston (brother of Scott)
of Joe DiMaggio (brother of Vince & Dom)
of Bob Meusel (brother of Irish)
of Matty Alou (brother of Felipe & Jesus)
c Bill Dickey (brother of George)
dh Carlos May (brother of Lee)
p Phil Niekro (brother of Joe)
The phone rang and he let it ring one more time before picking it up. His family, friends and coaches who were gathered in his Sarasota, Florida living room that early June day in 1993 all fell silent and turned their attention to the expression on the face of the eighteen-year-old high school pitcher who was now holding the receiver tightly to his ear. As soon as they saw the huge grin break out across his face, every person in the room knew not only who was on the other end of that phone conversation but also what he had just said. The caller was Yankee scout Paul Turco, and he had just told the talented teenager that he had been selected with the Yankees first draft pick (13th overall) in Major League Baseball’s 1993 Amateur Draft.
The kids name was Matt Drews and right after he hung up the phone that day, his Dad, Ron Drews handed him a Yankee cap and told him it was his now. But unlike the brand new New Era team lids most modern day top picks get to place on their heads, the Yankee hat Matt’s Dad had handed him looked a bit aged and odd. That’s because at the time, that particular hat was close to a half-century old. It had been given originally to Matt’s grandfather by Joe DiMaggio as a gift for Matt’s Dad. Ron Drew’s Dad and Matt Drew’s Grandfather was former Yankee pitcher and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Karl Drews. In his rookie year of 1947, Karl had gone 6-6 for New York, appearing in 30 games for Yankee skipper Bucky Harris, including ten starts. Six years earlier, Karl was pitching for the Class C farm team that used to play in my hometown of Amsterdam, NY. He had signed with the Yankees in 1939 and was working his way up the minor league ladder when he was called into the military for service in WWII. That’s why he was already 27 years-old during his first full season in the big leagues.
Drews threw very hard but he had trouble finding the strike zone consistently. Still, Harris had enough faith in his rookie to use him twice in the 1947 World Series against Brooklyn. After his first appearance in Game 3 of that Fall Classic, the gracious DiMaggio walked up to him in the clubhouse after the game and handed him the Yankee cap, telling Drews to give it to his boy as a souvenir of his first World Series game.
DiMaggio would return to three more World Series as a Yankee before retiring but unfortuntely for Karl Drews, 1947 would be his one and only appearance in postseason play. The following season, the Yankees found themselves in a year-long and eventually unsuccessful battle with the Red Sox and Indians to defend their AL Pennant. Drews was actually pitching better baseball than he had the season before, walking fewer hitters and lowering his ERA by over a full run, to 3.79. That didn’t prevent the Yankees from selling Drews to the St. Louis Browns in early August of that 1948 season.
Now pitching for one of the worst teams in baseball, Drews went 4-12 for the Browns in 1949 and was sent back to the minors, where he broke his skull in a base path collision. He got back to the big leagues with the Phillies in 1951 and had his best big league season a year later, as a member of Philadelphia’s starting rotation. He went 14-15 with a sparkling 2.72 ERA and threw 5 shutouts. He would last two more years in the big leagues and then settled with his family in Hollywood, Florida. On August 15th, 1963, he was taking his daughter to swimming practice when his car stalled on a Florida highway. When he got out of the disabled vehicle and attempted to wave a passing car down, the drunken driver of the car plowed into Drews and killed him instantly. He was just 43 years old at the time of his death and he would never get to meet his grandson Matt.
Unlike his grandfather, Matt Drews never made it to the mound of Yankee Stadium. His career started out well, as he went 22-13 during his first two seasons in the lowest levels of New York’s farm system, but during the next five he was 16-58. He left baseball after the 2000 season.
I’m getting close to posting my 800th Pinstripe Birthday Blog post highlighting the birthday of a member of the New York Yankees’ all-time roster. I’m not sure how many total players, coaches and managers have worn the franchise’s uniform, but my master spread sheet of birthdays still has plenty of names left to write about in the upcoming weeks and months. But I’m definitely getting to a point where even though I clearly remember the Yankee career of the guy I’m writing about, I’m not sure if the readers of my blog will. I know I’ll keep writing about these not-famous members of baseball’s most famous all-time roster for two reasons. I love learning about and sharing Yankee history and I have a huge amount of respect for any human being who was good enough to see or throw a single pitch as a professional baseball player at any level much less the Major Leagues.
I tried playing this game as a kid. I made my Little League’s All-Star team and played a pretty mean first base. But the next step up on my long path to a career with the Yankees was the local Babe Ruth League. In my first game at that level, I sat the bench till the last inning and was sent up to pinch hit. I forget what the score was but we were either way ahead or way behind and there was absolutely no pressure on me. But the kid I was facing on the pitcher’s mound was about three years-older than me and he could throw a really moving curve ball. The first pitch seemed to be coming right at my head and I bet you I jumped about four feet back out of that batter’s box only to watch and listen in shock as the ball swerved downward and crossed the inside of the plate and the umpire raised his right hand and called “strike one.” The opposing pitcher naturally took note of my startled, near infantile reaction to what I’m now sure was not that great of a curve ball and proceeded to throw six more to me. I did get better. By the sixth pitch of that at bat I was only jumping a few inches back from the plate and I actually ended up walking. But the thought of swinging my bat at any of those seven spinning spheres had never even occurred to me. In my very next at bat the following game, I faced the hardest throwing pitcher I’d ever seen up to that point in my playing career. I remember keeping my eye on his pitching hand throughout his first delivery and just when I thought I saw him releasing the ball, I heard the ump already yelling “strike one.”
It has been said that hitting a well-pitched moving baseball with a bat is the hardest thing to do in sports. It is why any human being who even reaches the lowest rung of any Major League team’s minor league organization has my deepest and eternal respect and deserves some recognition. So let’s learn something about the one-time Yankee outfielder, Tom Shopay.
I clearly remember owning the Shopay Topps baseball card I’ve included with this post. Even though it identifies him as a Baltimore Oriole, the photograph of Shopay used on the Card shows him when he was still a Yankee. Notice the pinstriped jersey. You can also see how a not-too-skilled member of the Topps art department blacked out the NY insignia on the baseball cap he was wearing.
This Bristol, Connecticut native was the Yankees 34th-round pick (633rd player overall) chosen in MLB’s very first amateur draft back in 1965. Of the 40 players chosen by New York in that historic draft, only eight ended up playing in at least one big league game and just three, Bill Burbach (the Yankees top pick that year) Stan Bahnsen (4th round) and Shopay, got to play for the Yankees.
Shopay’s turn came in September of 1967. By then he had reached the Triple A level of the minors and just completed a successful first season with the Yankees’ Syracuse farm team. At just 5’9″ tall and weighing only 160 pounds, the left-hand-hitting outfielder would never be a home run hitter but he hit the ball hard, had great speed and hustled every second he was on the field. He was hitting .277 for Syracuse at the time of his call-up, with 13 triples and 24 stolen bases. The Yankee team he was joining was among the worst in the fabled franchise’s history, about to finish in ninth place in the 1967 AL standings.
His first big league appearance came against Cleveland when Yankee manager, Ralph Houk started him in right field. In an October 2011 interview with the baseball Website Seamheads.com, Shopay recalled warming up in the outfield before that first game and hearing Mickey Mantle, who was starting in center that day, calling out his name and motioning that he wanted to talk to the young outfielder. Mantle had been Shopay’s favorite Yankee as a kid and now he found himself playing alongside him in the same outfield. When he jogged over to the aging, by then close-to-crippled outfielder he recalled Mickey telling him. ‘Hey Tom, take everything that you can get. Anything close to me that you can get, take it.’
Shopay got his first big league hit in his third at-bat, a bunt single against the great Luis Tiant. Six days later, he hit his first big league home run against the Twins, off a very good right-hander named Dave Boswell. He also stole his first two big league bases in that same game. A week later he homered again, this time against Kansas City. Despite an 0-4 final game, he ended his first cup-of-coffee Yankee trial with a .296 average, those two home runs and 6 RBIs.
He started the following season back in Syracuse but unfortunately, he did not have a good offensive season. His average fell into the .240s and he was not one of the Yankee’s September call-ups that year. He rebounded a bit in 1969 and in June of that season he was called back up to New York, where according to Shopay in that same 2011 Seamheads.com interview, Ralph Houk promised him he would start against all right handed pitching. But instead, he hardly ever started, serving primarily as a defensive replacement and pinch-hitter the rest of that year. The experience soured the youngster’s feelings for Houk, and he regrets to this day not approaching the Yankee skipper during that season to remind him of his promise and demand to be played more.
His final numbers from that 1969 season were ugly. He averaged just .083 with 4 hits in 48 at bats. It made the Yankee front-office decision to expose him to that December’s Rule 5 Draft a no-brainer and Shopay was selected by Baltimore. He ended up playing for the Orioles’ organization for the next seven years, including five with the parent club as a spare outfielder and pinch hitter. He loved playing for Baltimore manager Earl Weaver. His biggest thrill as a professional was getting five pinch-hit appearances in the 1971 World Series. He went hitless and the Orioles lost that Fall Classic to the Pirates, but they were all good at bats and included a successful sacrifice bunt in the seventh game.
After his final big league game in 1977, Shopay got into the nursery school business in his native Connecticut and eventually became partners with his brother in a successful Florida-based security company. He shares his February 21st birthday with this former Yankee catcher and this one-time Yankee outfielder.
He has one of the coolest names ever for an MLB player. Before Muddy Ruel became the greatest catcher in Washington Senator franchise history, he shared the New York Yankee starting catcher responsibilities during the 1919 and 1920 seasons with fellow receiver Truck Hannah. Despite being physically small for his position at 5’9″ and just 150 pounds, Ruel became one of the best defensive catchers in league history. There was nothing he could not do well from behind the plate and despite his diminutive size, Ruel was famous for his refusal to back down from much larger hard-charging base runners attempting to score. He was also a skilled hitter, averaging .275 during his 19 big league seasons.
With New York, Ruel averaged .251 during his two seasons in the Bronx. The Yankee team he joined as a 22-year-old had not yet acquired Babe Ruth from Boston but it was a quickly-improving ball club under the control of its talented skipper, Miller Huggins. Ruel started 69 games behind the plate for Huggins in 1919 and 76 more the following year. He was behind the plate in the August 1920 game, when New York pitcher Carl Mays beaned and killed Roy Chapman of the Cleveland Indians. Ruel would be asked about that tragic event for the rest of his days and always insisted Mays was not trying to hit Chapman.
When Ruth joined the team during Ruel’s second year as a starter, the Yankees instantly became one of the better teams in baseball and Ruel’s future with the emerging dynasty looked strong and secure. But that future ended abruptly in December of 1920, when the Yankees and Red Sox pulled off a huge eight player trade. The key players involved were Yankee second baseman Del Pratt and Boston pitcher Waite Hoyt, but the transaction also included a swap of the two teams’ catchers, Ruel for Wally Schang.
Muddy would start behind the plate for the Red Sox for the next two years and then get dealt to the Senators, where he would be paired with the immortal Walter Johnson, to form one of the great batteries in baseball history. The pair would lead Washington to the only two World Series appearances in that team’s long history in 1924 and ’25 and it would be Ruel who would score the winning run in the seventh and final game of the 1924 Fall Classic that earned that ball club its one and only world championship.
Ruel played for the Senators through 1930 and then spent the last four years of his playing career with four different teams. He had earned his law degree during his off-seasons with Washington, but instead of practicing law when his playing days were over, he went into coaching, then managing, then front office work and even became a special assistant to Baseball Commissioner, Happy Chandler for a while. He finally left the game for good in 1956 and moved to Italy for a year so his children could have the experience of attending school abroad. Ruel died in 1963 from a heart attack at the age of 67.
Right now is perhaps the most exciting time ever in Chris Stewart’s decade as a professional baseball player. He’s in Tampa, attending the Yankees’ spring training camp with a very good chance of winning the team’s starting catcher’s job vacated by recently departed free agent, Russell Martin. The odds of that happening may have also improved in his favor recently when it was revealed that his main competition for the job, Francisco Cervelli has been implicated in an investigation of a Miami-based PED dispensing clinic. When you consider the fact that this native of Fontana, California has been on five different teams during his six partial seasons in the Majors and has never appeared in more than 67 games or averaged higher than .243 in any of them, it is a near-miracle that he is this close to claiming a job once held by the likes of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.
As near as I can figure, Stewart’s most important asset is his ability to effectively frame pitches. That’s a term that describes how catchers position and quickly move their gloves on pitches that are just out of the strike zone in an effort to deceive umpires into thinking they are strikes. Now you probably find it as hard to believe as I do that the mighty Yankees would reward any catcher with the starting job behind the plate based on an ability to steal strikes. The truth is of course that the richest team in baseball has decided they are going to lower their annual player payroll to $189 million by 2014, which will save them $50 million in subsequent luxury tax payments. To get the dollars down to that level, they’ve decided to gamble, or actually penny-pinch with the catcher’s position. Instead of paying Russell Martin the $7.5 million in annual salary it would have taken to keep him in a Yankee uniform for the next two years, they are going to pay a career back-up like Stewart seven million per year less to take his place.
Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi believe that Stewart is or can be as good a defensive catcher as Martin was for them and I tend to agree. It appears that most of the Yankee rotation didn’t mind and might have actually preferred having Stewart behind the plate instead of Martin when they were on the mound. But Stewart lacks Martin’s offensive skills, especially in the power and base-running departments and he’s not as “fiery” as the former Yankee catcher either. My biggest concerns with Stewart behind the plate will be his near automatic out track record and his endurance. Opposing pitchers have little to fear when they face him and that won’t be a good situation for the Yankees during the upcoming season.
Setting these concerns aside for a moment, Stewart turns just 31-years-old today. He’s still young enough to improve his hitting stroke. He’s also physically a big guy, at 6’4″ tall and about 210 pounds, which should help him absorb the additional pounding his body will receive as a result of the increased playing time. If he is able to step up and play well enough to make people not miss Martin, it will mean a great deal to the Yankees’ chances of making another postseason. That’s exactly what I’m hoping for. Actually, I’m still hoping the Yankees make a trade for Joe Mauer before Opening Day but barring that, I’ll try to be Chris Stewart’s biggest fan in 2013.
In addition to the Yankees, Stewart has saw time with the White Sox, Rangers, Padres and Giants. He shares his birthday with this former Yankee shortstop.