April 2013

April 10 – Happy Birthday Bob Watson

watson.jpgI was not a big fan of Bob Watson when he became the Yankee’s starting first baseman in 1980. The biggest reason for this was that I had been a big fan of the starting first baseman Watson replaced that season for New York, Chris Chambliss. In my humble opinion, the historic home run Chambliss had hit to get the Yankees into the 1976 World Series earned him the right to remain in pinstripes for the rest of his playing career. Instead, the Yankees had dealt him to the Blue Jays to get Toronto catcher, Rick Cerone. New York then signed Watson as a free agent to take over at first.

Watson was actually a very similar player to Chambliss. He averaged about 16 home-runs per season, drove in close to 90 and hit close to .300. He wasn’t as good defensively as Chambliss was, but few were. He had a good first year in pinstripes, hitting .307 and helping New York make the playoffs. He slumped badly in 1981, hitting just .212 during that strike shortened season. He then surprised me and every other Yankee fan by putting together an outstanding 1981 postseason. He hit .438 against the Brewers in that year’s ALDS and then had 2 home runs and 7 RBIs in the Yankees’ 6-game loss to the Dodgers in the ’81 World Series. That didn’t prevent the Yankees from trading the LA native to the Braves in April of the following season. Watson then spent the final three years of his 19-season big league career, backing up the same first baseman he had replaced as a Yankee starter in 1980.

After retiring in 1984, Watson became a coach with Oakland, then an assistant GM at Houston and in 1993, he was promoted to GM by the Astros, becoming the first black man in Major League history to hold that position. George Steinbrenner then hired Watson as GM of the Yankees in October of 1995 where he remained until Brian Cashman replaced him in February of 1998. Watson found out very quickly that working as GM for the Boss could be hazardous to one’s health. Steinbrenner would not let Watson make any decisions by himself, which still did not prevent the Yankee owner from berating his new GM’s every action. George even refused to congratulate Watson after the Yankees’ 1996 World Series win. The stress of working for Steinbrenner was so bad that the guy who’s nickname had been “the Bull” during his playing days, ended up in the hospital in April of 1997 with high blood pressure and orders from his doctors to reduce his Yankee GM workload by 25%.

Also born on this date was this father of one of baseball’s all-time great home run hitters.

Year Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1980 NYY AL 130 525 469 62 144 25 3 13 68 2 1 48 56 .307 .368 .456 .825
1981 NYY AL 59 180 156 15 33 3 3 6 12 0 0 24 17 .212 .317 .385 .701
1982 NYY AL 7 20 17 3 4 3 0 0 3 0 0 3 0 .235 .350 .412 .762
19 Yrs 1832 6962 6185 802 1826 307 41 184 989 27 28 653 796 .295 .364 .447 .811
HOU (14 yrs) 1381 5496 4883 640 1448 241 30 139 782 21 22 508 635 .297 .364 .444 .808
ATL (3 yrs) 171 394 348 34 92 16 1 13 71 1 3 41 55 .264 .338 .428 .766
NYY (3 yrs) 196 725 642 80 181 31 6 19 83 2 1 75 73 .282 .355 .438 .793
BOS (1 yr) 84 347 312 48 105 19 4 13 53 3 2 29 33 .337 .401 .548 .949
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/12/2013.

April 9 – Happy Birthday Hippo Vaughn

hippoHis real name was James Leslie Vaughn. He was born in Texas, the son of a stone mason and after playing ball for his high school team, he began a career as a minor league pitcher in 1906. The New York Highlanders took notice of him after he went 9-1 for a club in the Arkansas State League and signed Vaughn to a contract. He made his big league debut in June of 1908 as a reliever but after just two appearances he was sent back down to the minors for more seasoning.

He reappeared at the Highlander spring training camp in 1910 and pitched so well there that not only did he go north with the team, he was also given the Opening Day starting assignment. At just 22 years of age, he was and still is the youngest Opening Day starter in Yankee franchise history. In that game, he faced off against the Red Sox Eddie Cicotte in New York’s Hilltop Park and battled the Beantown knuckleballer to a 4-4 tie after 14 innings, when the contest was called because of darkness. Vaughn would go on to pitch brilliantly for Manager George Stallings ball club, finishing his rookie season with a 13-9 record and a sterling ERA of just 1.83. It looked as if the big young southpaw  was on his way to an outstanding career and he in fact was. The unfortunate thing was that the best part of that career would not take place in New York.

Vaughn’s Hilltopper team was in complete disarray. Its star player, first baseman Hal Chase had been accused of throwing games by George Stallings, the team’s manager. The team’s owner sided with his accused first baseman, fired Stallings and made Chase the new skipper. Under Stallings, the team had finished in second place in 1910 with an 88-63 record. They fell to sixth place the following year under Chase and Vaughn finished the 1911 season with a disappointing 8-10 record. Chase was fired but that move did nothing to prevent Vaughn from getting off to a horrible start in his third full season in New York. His record was just 2-8 and he had been relegated to the bullpen, when New York put him on waivers in June of the 1912 season. He was claimed by Washington.

He pitched OK for the Senators but still got sold to the minor league Kansas City Blues and the demotion seemed to help Vaughn recover his mound mojo. The Chicago Cubs purchased his contract from the Blues in June of the 1913 season and for five of the next six years, Vaughn was a 20-game winner for the Cubbies and became the top left-handed pitcher in the National League. If the Yanks had kept Vaughn long enough, his pitching may have helped them win their first AL Pennant a few years before they actually did and Vaughn would have certainly had a happier ending to his big league career.

Vaughn ran into two big problems while pitching in the Windy City. The first was his weight. Always heavy, which is how the nickname Hippo originated, by some accounts the six foot four inch Vaughn ballooned up to 300 pounds during the latter part of his career. His second problem arose when Chicago made their volatile infielder, Johnny Evers the team’s player manager at the beginning of the 1921 season. Imagine Joe Girardi telling the press that CC Sabathia was too fat and too lazy to keep winning in the big leagues? That’s what Evers was saying about Hippo, when Vaughn got off to a horrid start during the 1921 season, going just 3-11. After a disastrous appearance against the Giants that July, Evers pulled Hippo in the third inning and the dejected pitcher didn’t just leave the field, he got dressed and jumped the team. The Cubs then suspended him and Vaughn would never again pitch in a big league game. He finished his thirteen year Major League career with a 178-137 record, a lifetime ERA of just 2.49 and 41 shutouts.

He shares his April 10th birthday with this current Yankee reliever and this former one too.

April 8 – Happy Birthday Catfish Hunter

hunter-jim-1979.jpgFrom the moment I started following my Yankees as a six-year-old in 1960 right up until the team’s fifth place finish in the AL Pennant race in 1965, I loved Major League Baseball’s Reserve Clause. It is what had permitted the Yankee’s skillful and ruthless front office to firmly imprison the best baseball talent in America in Pinstripes until they could no longer run, hit, field, or throw or at least until they could be traded for someone who could do these things a bit better.

But after 1966, my stance on the sanctity of this oppressive piece of contract language began to soften. Overnight, the Yankees’ glamorous galaxy of star players seemed to grow old. Compounding the problem was that CBS, the team’s new owner, stopped investing in the Yankee farm system and that thriftiness, combined with the impact of the newly introduced MLB Amateur Draft, caused New York’s cupboard of bonafide home grown prospects to quickly grow bare. Also coming back to bite the team in the rear end was the tendency of the Yankee front office to avoid signing black prospects all throughout the late forties and fifties.

So by the late sixties I was one of the biggest advocates of testing baseball’s reserve clause in the courts and when George Steinbrenner took control of my favorite team, I was actively rooting for Curt Flood’s legal victory.

The New York Yankee’s first signing in Baseball’s new free agent era took place on the very last day of 1974. At the time, Jim Catfish Hunter was the American League’s premier starter. He had just completed a string of four consecutive 20-victory seasons for Oakland, the ace pitcher on a team that had won the last three World Series.

Hunter’s best season in pinstripes turned out to be his first, in 1975. He won 23 of his 37 decisions, threw 7 shutouts and compiled a 2.49 ERA. It wasn’t enough to win the Yankees a pennant but that certainly was not Catfish’s fault. He literally pitched his arm off that year, completing 30 games and amassing 328 innings pitched. In fact, during the three seasons of 1974, ’75 and ’76, Hunter threw 944 innings of baseball and the damage caused to his arm by that strain helps explain why he spent much of his last three seasons with New York on the DL.

What many Yankee fans fail to fully appreciate about Hunter was his ability to pitch effectively and be a clubhouse leader on teams that had rosters full of strong player personalities led by eccentric, very vocal owners. Hunter’s experience with Charley Finley’s Oakland A’s prepared him well for the Bronx Zoo and George Steinbrenner. And even though he had just that one twenty-victory season with the Yankees, Catfish showed his Yankee teammates how to focus on winning while on the field and how to survive the glare of a hyperactive media, monitoring a crazy clubhouse.

I will never forget Catfish’s gutty seven-inning performance in Game 6 of the 1978 World Series. That victory clinched a second straight championship for New York and I felt it was Hunter’s finest moment as a Yankee.

Inducted into Cooperstown in 1987, Catfish died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, twelve years later.

Below is my all-time Yankee free agent lineup. Only players who became Yankees’ originally via free agency are eligible. This disqualifies Yankees like Derek Jeter, who became a free agent while he was a Yankee and re-signed with the team. It also disqualifies free agent signers like Andy Pettitte, who was a Yankee, left and then re-signed with NY as a free agent.

The Pinstripe Birthday Blog’s All-Time Yankee Free Agent Line-Up

1B Mark Teixeira
2B Steve Sax
3B Wade Boggs
SS Tony Fernandez
C Russ Martin/Butch Wynegar
OF Reggie Jackson
OF Dave Winfield
OF Hideki Matsui
DH Jason Giambi
P CC Sabathia
P Catfish Hunter
P Mike Mussina
P David Wells
CL Goose Gossage

April 7 – Happy Birthday John McGraw

mcgrawSo much of the Yankees’ history is tied to the city of Baltimore. Not only was the franchise born in Maryland’s largest city, so was Babe Ruth, its biggest all-time star. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant’s legendary career sort of followed the same geographical route and like Ruth, McGraw’s childhood was not a happy one. His mom died when he was just 11-years old and his alcoholic father was ill-equipped to raise four children on his own. When McGraw was 12, his old man beat him so badly that the boy ran to an Inn, located across the street from his Truxton, NY home, for protection. Fortunately, he found it. The owner of the Inn ended up raising him as her own.

The young McGraw, again like Ruth, discovered an escape from his childhood miseries in baseball and became a very good player and pitcher for a local semi-pro ball club. He was good enough to earn roster spots with minor league teams, and in 1892, the 22-year-old McGraw, who was by then an infielder, made his debut with the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association, which was back then considered the major league of baseball. Over the next decade, he became a star for the Orioles, topping the .320 mark in batting average for nine straight seasons. Just five feet seven inches tall, he developed a playing style that was completely devoted to one primary goal, getting on base as often as humanly possible. He became so good at it that McGraw’s lifetime on base percentage of .466 places him third on the all-time list behind latter-day sluggers, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.

McGraw and his Oriole teammates became one of baseball’s first dynasties, when they won three-straight league pennants during the mid 1890′s. A celebrated sports hero, he had found a home in B-town, even marrying a local girl. But when the Orioles’ ticket sales took a dip in the late 1890′s, the team’s owner tried to transfer all of his star players to a new franchise he was starting in Brooklyn in 1899. McGraw refused to make the move and remained in Baltimore as the roster-raped club’s skipper. He impressed everyone by leading a team that had lost its entire starting lineup and its best pitchers to an 82-65 record. But during September of that ’99 season, McGraw’s wife died from a ruptured appendix. When the financially troubled Orioles collapsed the following year, McGraw’s reasons for wanting to stay in Baltimore were gone and he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Just one year later, the new American League was formed and McGraw accepted an offer to become the first manager and part owner of the AL’s Baltimore Orioles franchise. He then led the first team in Yankee franchise history to a 68-65 record during the 1901 season, but in the process constantly battled with Ban Johnson, who had founded and ran the new league. When McGraw was suspended by Johnson during the following season, the second-year skipper accepted a new position to manage the National League’s New York Giants team. That single move changed the course of history for two of baseball’s most fabled franchises.

This is the guy responsible for the brand new Yankee Stadium getting constructed. Why?  Because without McGraw the original Yankee Stadium might never have been built in the first place. The Yankees moved into the Polo Grounds as a co-tenant with McGraw’s Giants in 1914. The Giants were the better team back then, consistently winning or challenging for the NL pennant. They also outdrew the Yankees in attendance every year. That all changed in 1920, however, when Babe Ruth put on the Pinstripes for the first time. Suddenly, a Yankee game became the hottest ticket in town and McGraw didn’t like the change. Little Napoleon evicted the Yankees and they moved across the East River to their new home, the original Yankee Stadium, in 1923.

McGraw was considered the best baseball mind of his generation. His teams won ten NL pennants and four World Series. He was an outstanding judge of talent and a fiery, no-nonsense leader. He still holds the record for most wins by a National League manager with 2,669. He died in 1934 at the age of 60.

McGraw shares his April 7th birthday with this former Yankee pitcher and this one too.

April 6 – Happy Birthday Ken Clay

clayKenny Clay’s most famous moment in pinstripes was not a positive one. He had started a home game against the Royals in September of 1979 and was quickly staked to a 5-0 lead. By the time Billy Martin pulled him in the third inning, the lead had shrunk to one run and the Yankees ended up losing that contest 9-8. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was livid after the loss and when reporters asked him what he thought about Clay’s performance, the Boss told them that his once-prized pitching prospect had “spit the bit.”

Just four years earlier, Kenny Clay had been considered a can’t miss future member of the team’s starting rotation. The hard-throwing right-hander had put together a 28-18 record at the Triple A level of the minors but he could never duplicate that success in the big leagues. In three separate trials in the Bronx he was 6-14. After blowing that game in Kansas City and finishing the ’79 season with a horrible 1-7 record, Steinbrenner had seen enough and he traded Clay to Texas for Gaylord Perry during the 1980 season. Old Gaylord went 4-4 for New York the rest of that year while Clay was going 2-3 for the Rangers. Clay’s failure at the big league level gave the Boss even more impetus to turn to free agency and trades instead of his own farm system when the Yankees needed pitching talent.

Turns out that Clay had a bad habit of disappointing his employers. In 1986, he was convicted for stealing $30,000 from Jostens Inc. The company makes class rings for high schools and colleges and had hired Clay as a salesman. He escaped jail by making restitution and doing community service. In 1992 he stole a car from the car dealership he worked for and served hard time for that crime. In 1999 he went back to jail for forgery. Six years later, he forged the sale of a copier in an attempt to obtain a $7,500 commission check and ended up back in the slammer.

Clay is not the only one-time Yankee prospect to be born on April 6th. This first baseman and this Hawaiian-born outfielder both were considered top Yankee prospects in the first decade of the 21st century, but like Clay, neither made much of an impact as a Yankee or as a big leaguer.

April 5 – Happy Birthday Bobby Hogue

hogueOn August 20th of 1951, the Yankees made one of the most successful minor league recall decisions in franchise history. Bobby Hogue was a chubby, Miami-born WWII Navy veteran, who had made his big league debut in 1948 as a 27-year-old rookie reliever with that season’s NL Champion Boston Braves. The short and stocky right-hander did not make a very good first impression on Billy Southworth, the Braves’ skipper at the time, who took one look at Hogue’s waistline and told him he needed to lose some weight. What Southworth didn’t know was that Hogue may have looked out of shape but he was anything but. Back in Miami, before he joined the Navy, Hogue had been a promising amateur boxer who had won 36 fights. After watching the pitcher work his butt off during the Braves’ ’48 spring training camp, Southworth realized the rookie’s portly appearance actually disguised a well-conditioned athlete’s body and he brought Hogue north with the team.

That proved to be an excellent decision as Hogue went 8-2 during his rookie season in Beantown, with 2 saves and a 3.23 ERA. He didn’t get to make a single appearance in the Braves’ six-game World Series defeat to the Indians that year but he certainly was one of the key reasons Boston was able to get to that Fall Classic. He was blessed with a natural slider and he had always been able to locate it with extreme precision. He only walked 19 hitters in the 88-innings he pitched during that ’48 season.

He had another good year for the Braves in 1949 but the following year, his ERA ballooned to over five and his control began to erode. When he started off the 1951 season slowly, the Braves put him on waivers and he was picked up by the Browns. At first, the change of team’s and league’s did not benefit Hogue. By the end of July, he had appeared in 18 games for St. Louis and both his ERA and walk ratio were as high as ever. That’s when the Yankees purchased his contract and sent him to pitch for their Kansas City farm team. The demotion gave Hogue the opportunity to work on his knuckleball. That pitch helped him win four straight decisions in KC, which was good enough to earn him a ticket up to the Bronx on August 21 of the 1951 season.

At the time of the call-up, the Yankees were in second place, a game behind a very solid Indians’ ball club. They proceeded to finish the year by going 24-12 and capturing the AL flag by five games over second place Cleveland. Hogue made seven appearances in that stretch without allowing a run. He then put together two more goose-egg appearances against the Giants in that year’s World Series and got his second ring. Unfortunately, Hogue’s effectiveness abandoned him the following year. He was 3-5 with a 5.32 ERA when the Yankees put him on waivers in early August of the 1952 season. He was re-claimed by the Browns and though he pitched better once back in St Louis, he never again pitched in the big leagues after that 1952 season.

So you may be wondering why I started this post with the claim that Hogue’s recall from the minors in August of 1951 was one of the most successful recalls in Yankee franchise history? Yes he did finish the season and that year’s World Series un-scored upon but he only pitched a total of nine innings during that span. How could I place such historical significance on that front-office move that took place over a half-century ago? Well, Hogue was one of two Kansas City players the Yankees recalled that day. The other one was an infielder the Yankees were trying to convert into an outfielder. His name was Mickey Mantle.

Hogue shares his April 5th birthday with this former AL Rookie of the Year and the first starting third-baseman in Yankee franchise history.

April 2 – Happy Birthday Billy Sample

sampleSelected by Texas in the tenth round of the 1976 MLB Draft, Billy Sample had a strong rookie season for the Rangers two years later when he won the starting job in left field and averaged .292. He was pushed out of that starting position the following year and it took him three seasons to win it back and when he did in 1983, he put together his best big league season, setting career highs in just about every offensive category including a career high 44 stolen bases. He then had an off-year in ’84 and when it looked as if Texas was going to again make him a utility player, Sample let the team’s front office know he wouldn’t mind being traded.

Coincidentally, at that very same time, Toby Harrah was letting the Yankee front office know that after just one disappointing season in pinstripes, he too would not mind wearing a different uniform. So the deal was made on February 28, 1985 and the plan was to let Sample compete with Vic Mata and Henry Cotto to become the right handed portion of a left field platoon with Ken Griffey. Sample won that three-way competition and ended up appearing in 59 games for New York during the 1985 season. He averaged a quiet .288 and since he sat the bench for over 100 games, it gave him a lot of time to observe the craziness of George Steinbrenner’s mid-eighties Yankee organization up close and personal. Sample was shocked when Steinbrenner fired Yogi Berra in April of that year after publicly promising the Yankee legend he’d have a full year in that job.

This guy had always been both outspoken and well-spoken, so when New York dumped him via a trade to the Braves that December, Sample wrote an article for the New York Times documenting his feelings about the mismanagement tendencies of Steinbrenner’s organization. After one year with Atlanta, his big league playing days were over and he got into broadcasting and did a lot more writing about baseball for a variety of top-shelf publications. During his nine-year career, Sample appeared in 826 games and averaged .272 lifetime.

Sample shares his birthday with this former Yankee starting pitcher and this one too.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1985 NYY 59 154 139 18 40 5 0 1 15 2 9 10 .288 .336 .345 .681
9 Yrs 826 2798 2516 371 684 127 9 46 230 98 195 230 .272 .329 .384 .713
TEX (7 yrs) 675 2423 2177 330 587 111 9 39 201 92 172 194 .270 .327 .383 .710
ATL (1 yr) 92 221 200 23 57 11 0 6 14 4 14 26 .285 .338 .430 .768
NYY (1 yr) 59 154 139 18 40 5 0 1 15 2 9 10 .288 .336 .345 .681
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/16/2014.