February 21 – Happy Birthday Tom Shopay
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.
|BAL (5 yrs)||217||262||234||36||50||6||0||1||14||9||23||36||.214||.284||.252||.536|
|NYY (2 yrs)||36||79||75||4||12||1||1||2||6||2||3||15||.160||.190||.280||.470|