February 25 – Happy Birthday Stump Merrill
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.