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|
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.
|WSH (8 yrs)||903||3406||2875||336||834||116||24||2||373||44||403||123||.290||.382||.349||.731|
|NYY (4 yrs)||170||588||517||49||130||20||1||1||47||10||53||47||.251||.323||.300||.623|
|BOS (3 yrs)||262||917||802||81||216||41||2||1||79||6||91||47||.269||.345||.329||.674|
|DET (2 yrs)||65||211||186||11||38||5||2||0||21||1||22||7||.204||.288||.253||.541|
|SLB (2 yrs)||46||106||77||13||12||2||0||0||9||0||29||9||.156||.387||.182||.569|
|CHW (1 yr)||22||67||57||4||12||3||0||0||7||0||8||5||.211||.308||.263||.571|
As near as I could figure, Chris 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 had decided after the 2012 regular season that they were going to lower their annual player payroll to $189 million by 2014, which would save them $50 million in subsequent luxury tax payments. To get the dollars down to that level, they’ 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 let Martin go to the Pirates and put Chris Stewart in the starting catchers’ slot. That’s the same slot once filled by the likes of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Ellie Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada and last winter, the Yankee front office thought it was a good idea to put Stewart in it.
Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi believed that Stewart was as good a defensive catcher as Martin was for them and I guess that might have been true. It appeared 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 lacked 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 concern with Stewart behind the plate was his near automatic-out track record with the bat. Opposing pitchers had little to fear when they faced him and that wasn’t a good situation for the Yankees, especially during the team’s injury-plagued 2013 season during which every one of their top offensive weapons, with the exception of Robbie Cano spent mucho time on the DL.
As it turned out, the Yankee front office put Stewart in a no-win situation last year. He proved he couldn’t handle the starting catching responsibilities and in the process lost his claim to the role of serving as the team’s back-up receiver. This winter, New York went out and signed Brian McCann. He is everything Stewart was not and if he stays healthy, will help my favorite team return to postseason play. Meanwhile, the Yanks traded Stewart to the Pirates where ironically, he will once again serve as the backup to Russell Martin, a role that suits him perfectly. I wish him well.
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.
|NYY (3 yrs)||165||500||438||43||96||14||0||5||38||6||40||71||.219||.291||.285||.577|
|TEX (1 yr)||17||43||37||4||9||2||0||0||3||0||3||6||.243||.300||.297||.597|
|SDP (1 yr)||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|SFG (1 yr)||67||183||162||20||33||8||0||3||10||0||16||18||.204||.283||.309||.592|
|CHW (1 yr)||6||8||8||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||.000||.000||.000||.000|