When I first started following the Yankees back in 1960, Major League Baseball was still in the two-league, sixteen-team format that it had been in since 1901. To finish last in an American or National League Pennant race had always meant your team had ended up in eighth place. By 1962 however, both the AL and then the NL had expanded to ten teams and suddenly finishing eighth no longer sounded as forlornly horrible as it had for big league franchises since the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, your team could actually finish ninth and still not be considered the worst team in the league.
The Yankees of course had developed a reputation for finishing in first place but in 1962, their new crosstown rivals, the Mets would begin battling their NL expansion brothers, the Houston Colt 45’s for ninth place bragging rights in the senior circuit. Neither team finished ninth in their 1962 inaugural seasons because Houston was able to surpass a woeful Chicago Cubs team that year and finish in eighth. But for the next four seasons, it was baseball’s first-ever-team based in Texas that won the NL race for ninth place over the Amazin’s and the reason was Houston had much better starting pitching than the Mets.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was in the original starting rotation of that Houston expansion team. He joined Turk Farrell and Bob Bruce to give the Colt 45’s a solid trio of starters that made it tough to sweep a series against the early versions of this ball club. That 1962 Houston pitching staff had a 3.83 cumulative ERA (the Mets first year ERA was 5.04.)
Ken Johnson was the ace of that first Houston pitching staff. The native of West Palm Beach, FL had made his big league debut with the Kansas City A’s in 1958 and spent his first three years struggling to establish himself with that very bad A’s team. He ended up in Toronto in 1961, picking for an unaffiliated minor league team in the American Association, when he caught the eye of the Reds, who were at the time in the thick of the NL Pennant race. He joined the Cincinnati starting rotation and finished 6-2 for that NL Championship club. He actually got to pitch two-thirds of an inning of scoreless relief against the Yankees in the ’61 Series. Johnson thought he had found a home but the Cincinnati front office left him unprotected in the NL expansion draft and he became Houston’s 29th pick.
His four-year record with the Colt 45’s was 32-51 but his ERA while there was a very respectable 3.41. The Milwaukee Braves, in search of starting pitching during the 1965 season, acquired Johnson for Lee Maye. With a solid offense finally supporting him, the six foot four inch right hander went 40-25 during his first three seasons with the Braves. He slumped to 5-8 during his fourth year with the team and by 1969 he was 35-years-old.
The Yankees happened to be looking for a right-hander they could add to Ralph Houk’s bullpen and Johnson’s name came up. The Braves sold him to New York on June 10, 1969. He made his pinstriped debut one day after his 36th birthday, pitching two scoreless innings against the Tigers in relief of Mike Kekich. Four days later, Houk inserted him in the tenth inning of a game against the Red Sox and he got shelled and took the loss. It took him a couple of weeks to get used to his new surroundings but by July he had settled down and allowed just one earned run in his six appearances that month. Just as he was getting comfortable working in the Bronx however, Johnson was sold to the Cubs on August 11th.
Johnson’s most famous moment as a big leaguer took place on April 24, 1963, when he became the first MLB pitcher in history to toss and lose a nine-inning no-hitter. In the ninth inning of that Houston-Cincinnati Reds game, Pete Rose tried to break up the hitless performance by bunting for a hit. Johnson fielded the ball cleanly and quickly but his throw to first was wild and Rose advanced to second on the pitcher’s error. After Rose was sacrificed to third, he scored when Houston second baseman, Nellie Fox booted a ground ball and when his team couldn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, Johnson lost the game 1-0.
|ATL (5 yrs)||45||34||.570||3.22||130||104||13||26||3||3||769.2||746||317||275||72||155||390||1.171|
|KCA (4 yrs)||6||15||.286||5.03||52||9||19||2||0||3||143.0||148||92||80||21||60||96||1.455|
|HOU (4 yrs)||32||51||.386||3.41||113||106||4||19||3||1||690.2||660||311||262||49||151||471||1.174|
|MON (1 yr)||0||0||7.50||3||0||2||0||0||0||6.0||9||6||5||1||1||4||1.667|
|CHC (1 yr)||1||2||.333||2.84||9||1||3||0||0||1||19.0||17||8||6||2||13||18||1.579|
|CIN (1 yr)||6||2||.750||3.25||15||11||1||3||1||1||83.0||71||33||30||11||22||42||1.120|
|NYY (1 yr)||1||2||.333||3.46||12||0||8||0||0||0||26.0||19||11||10||1||11||21||1.154|
To understand the size of the target that was on the back of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant when he got his chance to play for the New York Yankees, I need you to picture a fictional modern-day scenario. Imagine if Derek Jeter comes back from his broken ankle this summer and after struggling at the plate for a few games, tragically breaks his ankle again. While they are carrying the Yankee Captain off the field the Stadium’s PA announcer introduces the new Yankee shortstop, a young prospect Brian Cashman has just traded for who’s name happens to be Billy Mattingly. Not only does this poor kid have to replace one Yankee legend, he’s got a last name that will remind every Yankee fan of another one every time it is seen or heard. Then to make that target on this young guy’s back even bigger, after he plays decently for the rest of the season, the Yankees trade him to the Braves, even though they have nobody any better than him to take over at short. When another big league GM asks Cashman why he got rid of Mattingly, Cashman tells him its because the just-traded player has a drinking problem.
Now let’s turn the above fictional scenario into a non-fictional historical account of what actually happened to today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant’s baseball career. Substitute Lou Gehrig for Derek Jeter, instead of the new replacement player having the same last name as Donnie Baseball give him the same nickname as Babe Ruth. Now replace Brian Cashman’s name with the Yankee Hall-of-Fame managing legend, Joe McCarthy and instead of using alcohol as the substance being abused, make it marijuana. Do all that and you now will understand what happened to the once promising career of former Yankee first baseman, Babe Dahlgren.
This native of San Francisco had broken into the big leagues with the Red Sox in 1935, when he was just 23-years-old and put together a strong rookie season in Beantown. Then that winter, Boston acquired Philadelphia A’s slugging first baseman, Jimmie Foxx and Dahlgren spent almost all of his sophomore season on the Boston bench. Dahlgren probably realized his days as a Red Sox were numbered with Foxx playing his position, so imagine how he felt when he found out that his contract had been purchased by the Yankees just before the 1937 spring training camps opened. At least in Boston, Foxx liked to take a day off every once in a while. The first baseman Dahlgren would now be backing up over in the Bronx hadn’t missed a game a dozen years. Gherig’s streak would continue for the next two years and that meant more time on the pine (and in the minors) for Dahlgren who played in just 1 Yankee game in 1937 and then 27 more in 1938.
It was only after ALS disease struck the Iron Horse in April of 1939 that he got his chance to start in New York and as he had done in his rookie season with the Red Sox, Dahlgren performed well. Though he averaged just .235, he did bang 15 home runs and drive in 89 to help New York win its fourth straight pennant. He then appeared in his only World Series that year and hit a home run as the Yankees captured their fourth straight ring with their victory over Cincinnati in that Fall Classic.
The second Yankee “Babe” then began a streak of his own in 1940, appearing in all 155 of New York’s games that season and he got his average up to .264. But by that time, according to a book self-published by Dahlgren’s grandson in 2007 and based on an unfinished manuscript written by the player himself, an incident had already occurred that led Joe McCarthy to believe he couldn’t trust Dahlgren. The Yankee skipper and Dahlgren had both attended Joe DiMaggio’s wedding to Hollywood starlet Dorothy Arnold a month after the 1939 World Series. Also in attendance was former big leaguer Lefty O’Doul, who was then in the process of building a reputation as baseball’s best hitting instructor. Dahlgren later explained that his manager had seen him and O’Doul discussing the first baseman’s swing at the affair and McCarthy was worried that Lefty was trying to undermine him and possibly take his job. Far-fetched on the part of Dahlgren? Perhaps, but so was the explanation McCarthy gave the press when the Yankees sold the first baseman to the Boston Braves during the 1941 spring training season. Marse Joe told reporters that Dahlgren’s arms were too short to play his position even though Babe was by all accounts an excellent defensive first baseman. Since baseball insiders knew this couldn’t have been the real reason McCarthy traded his staring first baseman, Dahlgren says his skipper made one up and the lie he concocted ruined the player’s career. According to Babe, McCarthy told “baseball-insiders” that the reason Dahlgren had committed a costly error in a late-season 1940 Yankee game was because the player was a “marijuana smoker.”
Now-a-days, I wouldn’t be surprised if half of the players (and coaches & managers) in the big leagues toked an occasional joint but back in the 1940’s, using marijuana was a societal taboo that left a deep and dark stain on a person’s reputation, especially if that person was a professional athlete. According to Dahlgren, McCarthy’s false accusation would become the reason why he would play for seven different teams during the final seven seasons of his big league career and his grandson’s book does a very good job of validating this claim.
Babe Dahlgren’s big league playing career ended after the 1946 season. I wonder what went through his head just a few years later, when another Joe McCarthy became specifically infamous for making false accusations that ruined peoples’ careers? Dahlgren lived until 1996, passing away at the age of 84. By the way, his real name was Ellsworth Tenney Dahlgren.
He shares his birthday with this great Yankee pitcher, this Hall-of-Fame third baseman and the guy who just might actually replace Jeter should he re-injure his ankle in a late-season game this year (though trust me, that’s not going to happen!)
|NYY (4 yrs)||327||1270||1143||130||283||43||10||27||163||3||104||115||.248||.314||.374||.688|
|CHC (2 yrs)||116||463||415||54||113||21||1||16||65||2||47||41||.272||.348||.443||.791|
|PIT (2 yrs)||302||1252||1130||124||306||52||15||17||176||3||98||107||.271||.333||.388||.722|
|SLB (2 yrs)||30||91||82||2||14||1||0||0||9||0||8||13||.171||.244||.183||.427|
|BOS (2 yrs)||165||661||582||83||154||30||8||10||70||8||63||68||.265||.340||.395||.735|
|BRO (1 yr)||17||23||19||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||4||5||.053||.217||.053||.270|
|PHI (1 yr)||136||565||508||55||146||19||2||5||56||2||50||39||.287||.354||.362||.716|
|BSN (1 yr)||44||183||166||20||39||8||1||7||30||0||16||13||.235||.306||.422||.728|
The whole reason I started this blog was because I thought Yankee fans would enjoy learning which Yankee player(s) they shared a birthday with. I can’t say I was overly excited when my research uncovered the fact that the only Yankee born on my birthday was this weirdly named first baseman nicknamed “Muscles.”
Mole played just ten games for New York during the 1949 season and never again appeared in a big league game. He got his nickname from his days as a pretty good home run hitter in the Pacific Coast League. Mole’s playing time in New York wasn’t helped by the fact that he played first base. That 1949 Yankee team had six different first basemen on its roster including “Ol Reliable,” Tommy Henrich, Johnny Mize, Joe Collins, Dick Kryhoski, Jack Phillips and of course our birthday boy Fenton. Add in the fact that Casey Stengel, the platooning master was Yankee skipper that season and its a wonder Mr. Mole ever emerged from the dugout to see the light of a game day!
On the last day of the Yankee’s 1950 spring training camp, Stengel told the press that Mr. Mole would not be traveling north with the team. Instead, he would remain in Florida where he would continue to work out with the Kansas City farmhands. The best MLB player to be born on my birthday remains former Brooklyn Dodger ace Don Newcombe. The only current MLB player who celebrates his birthday on Flag Day is San Diego outfielder, Jesus Guzman. But I’m keeping my eye on a young Yankee reliever named Chase Whitley, who is currently pitching for the Yankees Scranton/WilkesBarre farm team. He’s a big right-hander who turns 23 today and he currently has a 5-2 record in Triple A ball.
As for Fenton Mole, he joins Andy Fox, Doug Bird, Goose Gossage, Yogi Berra, Jim Kitty Kaat and Bill Moose Skowren as former Yankees with animal or animal- sounding names or nicknames. I guess all the above would be a little nervous around Catfish Hunter and Enos Slaughter. Happy Flag Day everyone! Bulletin: There is a brand new June 14th birthday Yankee on the team’s 2014 roster.
The only New York Yankee to be born on June 13th is a not-to-well-known but well-travelled pitcher named Darrell May. (You can read May’s Pinstripe Birthday Post from last year, here) Well that’s not exactly true. Red Grange was also born on June 13th and he also played for the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Yes that Red Grange, the one and only “Galloping Ghost” who many sports historians considered to be the greatest football player who ever lived.
It happened in 1926. Grange had been involved in a bitter contract dispute with George Halas and the Chicago Bears. That’s when his flamboyant personal manager, C.C. (Cash & Carry) Pyle decided to pursue his own NFL franchise featuring Grange as the team’s star. Pyle approached the league and demanded permission to start a new team based in New York. Since Grange was the Babe Ruth of the NFL and the single biggest drawing card in the history of the league, every owner agreed to give Pyle his Big Apple team with the exception of one. Tim Mara, who owned the fledgling then one-year-old Giants’ franchise that played its home games in the Polo Grounds, vetoed the expansion attempt in his own backyard.
Pyle then formed his own league, the first American Football League, and the New York Yankees played their first season in 1926 in the House that Ruth had just built. The next year, the AFL was disbanded but the Yankees and Grange were absorbed into the NFL. The Ghost would return to the Bears the following year. Grange was born on June 13, 1903 and passed away in 1991.
The name of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant won’t sound familiar to any but the most astute Yankee fans. That’s because George Kontos pitched just six innings in relief for the Yankees after being drafted out of Northwestern University in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB Draft. He would spend most of the next six seasons pitching out of the bullpens of New York’s chain of minor league affiliates trying to get his ticket to the Bronx. That ticket finally came in September of 2012, when this Evanston, IL native was called up for a cup-of-coffee preview and appeared in seven games for a Yankee team that was in the process of winning that season’s AL East race by a comfortable six-game margin.
The six foot three inch right-hander performed well in those seven games, surrendering just 4 hits and two earned runs. That effort put him on the “players-to-watch-list” the following spring and one of the teams watching Kontos was the San Francisco Giants. Every member of the Yankee press corps was expecting Joe Girardi to start the 2012 season with Russell Martin as his starting catcher and Francisco Cervelli as Martin’s backup. That’s why the trade that took place just before Opening Day was treated as more than just a bit of a surprise. The Yankees sent Kontos to the Giants in exchange for catcher Chris Stewart. The deal might have gone largely unnoticed except for the fact that Stewart was out of minor league options so New York had to keep him on their big league roster or risk losing him. That meant Francisco Cervelli, who still had minor league options left was being sent down to the minors. At the time the deal was made, Brian Cashman was blaming Austin Romine’s back injury as the reason. The Yankee GM told the press that since Romine’s back wasn’t getting better he was forced to make the deal to add depth to the organization’s catching corps.
As it turned out, acquiring Stewart proved to be a wise move, especially after Cashman let free agent Russell Martin go to Pittsburgh this winter and Cervelli broke his finger during the opening month of the 2013 season. Kontos also proved to be a good-get for San Francisco. He got into 44 games for the Giants in 2012 and became one of their top middle relievers, finishing the year with a 2.47 ERA and 5 holds. He was at his best during that season’s NLDS against the Reds, appearing in four of that series’ five games and holding Cincinnati scoreless in the 3.2 innings he pitched. He then got hit pretty good in both the 2012 NLCS and the World Series but when all was said and done, Kontos had his first World Series ring and a secure spot in the Giants bullpen.
He got off to a slow start in 2013 but has pitched much better recently and is on pace to appear in 60 games for the defending World Champions this season.
Kontos shares his June 12th birthday with this former World Series MVP.
|SFG (2 yrs)||4||2||.667||3.50||74||0||17||0||0||0||72.0||62||31||28||6||21||1||69||1.153|
|NYY (1 yr)||0||0||3.00||7||0||4||0||0||0||6.0||4||2||2||1||3||0||6||1.167|
Dan Topping was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth but in his case that spoon was made of tin. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a baron of the world’s tin industry. In 1946, the grandson converted some of that inherited tin wealth into a one-third share ownership of the New York Yankees, forming a partnership with real estate and construction magnate, Del Webb and the baseball organizational wizard, Larry MacPhail. When he and Webb bought out MacPhail’s share two years later it was Topping who became the the more involved owner of the remaining pair. They maintained ownership for two decades during which the Yankees captured fifteen pennants and ten world championships, still the most successful twenty year period in the club’s history. Topping’s favorite player was Joe DiMaggio and he spent the earlier part of his ownership tenure constantly convincing the Yankee Clipper not to retire. When MacPhail was bought out, it was Topping who replaced him with the venerable George Weiss as Yankee GM. It was also Topping’s idea to make Yogi Berra the Yankee manager in 1964 because New York baseball fans were increasingly growing enthralled with the comical manager of the crosstown Mets, Casey Stengel. Topping figured Berra would serve as the lovable counterweight to the “Ol Perfessor.” Webb and Topping sold the club to CBS in 1964 for over 11 million dollars. In addition to world series rings, Topping also accumulated wedding bands and children. He got married six times and fathered nine children. His third wife was the three-time Olympic Gold Medalist in figure skating, Sonja Henie (see accompanying photo.) I guess no one was surprised when that Topping marriage also ended up on “thin ice.” Topping died in 1974 at the age of 62.
Topping shares his birthday with the first catcher in Yankee franchise history to make it into the Hall of Fame.
According to Al Lopez, this near-sighted native of Cape Cod threw the best curveball Lopez had ever seen. That was quite a compliment coming from a guy who spent 19 years as a big league catcher and 17 more as a big league manager. This right-hander made his Major League debut with the Red Sox when he was just 21 years old in 1926. I’ve read that Danny MacFayden was the first big league player in history to wear eyeglasses during a game. He grabbed the attention of the Yankees during the 1931 season, when he went 16-12 for a Boston team that won just 62 games that year. That’s why, even though MacFayden started out the 1932 campaign for the Red Sox by winning just one of his first 11 decisions, the Yankees were still willing to part with two decent pitchers and $50,000 to bring him to the Bronx in June of that season.
New York skipper Joe McCarthy inserted his new arrival into a deep-star-studded Yankee rotation that included Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Herb Pennock, Johnny Allen and George Pipgras. MacFayden more than held his own, winning 7 of his 12 decisions to help that great 1932 team win 107 regular season games. He didn’t get to pitch in that year’s World Series.
During his final two years with the Yankees, he was used as a reliever and spot starter and grew disgruntled with both his manager and his role on the team. McCarthy wanted all his pitchers to throw exclusively overhand but MacFayden had always switched between an overhand and sidearm delivery and was convinced that the different looks made it harder for hitters to figure him out. He may have had a point. His ERAs during his final two years in pinstripes were not impressive and he ended up getting sold to the Reds after the 1934 season. New York gave Cincinnati the option of returning MacFayden the following June which they did. Not surprisingly, McCarthy then put the pitcher on waivers and he was claimed by the Boston Bees who immediately began using MacFayden as a starter. It took him a year to get back into the starter’s mode but once he did, the pitcher known as “Deacon Danny” put together three straight solid seasons for some mediocre Boston teams.
When he finally retired as a player in 1942, MacFayden had won 139 big league games and had never spent a day pitching in the minors. He later became the highly respected baseball coach at Bowdoin College in Maine.
|BOS (7 yrs)||52||78||.400||4.23||185||148||26||71||8||4||1167.0||1273||643||548||45||430||344||1.459|
|BSN (6 yrs)||60||64||.484||3.45||169||142||16||71||10||2||1097.0||1178||485||420||36||292||311||1.340|
|NYY (3 yrs)||14||10||.583||4.68||64||32||16||15||0||1||307.2||367||188||160||24||105||102||1.534|
|WSH (1 yr)||0||1||.000||10.29||5||0||3||0||0||0||7.0||12||9||8||1||5||3||2.429|
|CIN (1 yr)||1||2||.333||4.75||7||4||1||1||0||0||36.0||39||22||19||1||13||13||1.444|
|PIT (1 yr)||5||4||.556||3.55||35||8||13||0||0||2||91.1||112||47||36||5||27||24||1.522|
The Yankee dynasty was a product of great players but those great players were a product of great front-office management and player development skills. Wealthy Yankee owners like Jake Ruppert, Del Webb, Dan Topping and George Steinbrenner came up with the necessary cash but it was the guys like Ed Barrow, George Weiss, Gabe Paul and Brian Cashman who converted that cash into the rosters that won pennants and World Series. And because the Yankees have been so successful for so long, even their GMs become legends and get inducted into Cooperstown. So how come nobody remembers Roy Hamey?
Henry Roy Hamey succeeded George Weiss as the Yankee GM right after New York had been dramatically upset in the 1960 World Series. Topping and Webb were the Yankee co-owners at the time and it was their decision to fire Casey Stengel after losing to the Pirates and make Ralph Houk the team’s new skipper. It was also their decision to simultaneously force Weiss out as GM and replace him with his former assistant.
Weiss had been the guy who originally hired Hamey to run the Yankees’ Class A minor league franchise in Binghamton in 1934. He did such a great job there that Weiss promoted him to run New York’s top minor league franchise in Kansas City. The two men made New York’s farm system the best in baseball and Weiss fully expected to become Yankee GM when Barrow retired and Hamey fully expected to replace Weiss as director of the team’s minor league operation. What neither man expected however was Larry MacPhail becoming part owner with Webb and Topping of the Yankee franchise in 1946 and effectively making himself the team’s new GM. Weiss licked his wounds and stuck with the organization but a disappointed Hamey jumped ship and became president of the American Association. A year later, he was hired as GM of the Pirates. He spent three seasons in that job but when he failed to produce a winning team he was replaced by Branch Rickey.
That’s when Weiss, who had finally become Yankee GM in 1947, rehired Hamey to serve as his assistant GM in New York. Hamey remained in that post for three years, leaving to become top dog for the Phillies in 1954. He once again failed in his efforts to build a winning club and “resigned” in 1958 to go back to work in his old job as assistant Yankee GM. The rumor at the time was that the Yankees had tried to hire Milwaukee Braves’ GM, John Quinn for that job but he wanted assurances that he would replace Weiss as GM when Weiss retired or was let go. When New York wouldn’t give Quinn that guarantee, the GM of the 1957 World Champions accepted an offer to become GM of the Phillies, replacing Hamey. If in fact Hamey was fired by the Phillies it proved to be the biggest break of his career because it put him in place to succeed Weiss two seasons later.
Hamey served as GM of three Yankee teams. Those three teams won three AL Pennants, two World Series and 309 regular season games. He also managed the Yankees first three amateur drafts. Though its true that Hamey inherited a loaded Yankee roster he did engineer several key acquisitions and call-ups during his short tenure at the helm. His biggest trade, which took place in November of 1962 was a controversial one in which he sent the popular Yankee first baseman, Moose Skowron to the Dodgers for pitcher Stan Williams. It was definitely the right time to deal Skowron but Williams turned out to be a dud in pinstripes and the deal was not remembered kindly by most Yankee fans of that era.
In 1964, Topping and Webb asked Hamey to retire as GM so they could promote Houk to that job. Hamey did as they wished and became a part time Yankee scout. When the new Seattle Pilots franchise was struggling to stay afloat after the 1969 season ended, AL President Joe Cronin asked Hamey to run the team until new ownership could be found. That would be the Havana, Illinois native’s last job in baseball. He retired to Arizona, where he died in 1983 at the age of 81.
After ten years as a utility infielder with the Brewers, Orioles and A’s, Sakata joined the Yankees for 19 games in 1987, his last big league season. Sakata is one of just three members of the Yankee’s all-time roster to be born in Hawaii. The others were pitcher, Brian Fisher and New York’s first round draft pick in 2001, Bronson Sardinha.
The Yankees’ intention when they signed Sakata as a free agent in November of 1986 was to make him their primary utility infielder, a role he told New York Times reporter Mike Martinez at the time that was not easy. He then explained why; ”Very rarely are you psychologically ready when you’re called. You might sit for a month and then you’re asked to play.
”But I’m on a major league team, and that means I’m one of the better players in the game today. Maybe I’m not one of the glamorous stars, but I’ve been able to make due with the ability I was given. I do the job when I’m called upon. I do what I can on that particular day, at that particular moment. And I go from there.”
What Sakata also found out about being a Yankee utility infielder in the mid eighties was how little job security came with the role. One error at a crucial time or one failure to successfully sacrifice with the “Boss” watching from the Stadium’s owner’s suite and you could be applying for unemployment checks the next day. But it was the other part-time-player no-no that ended this guy’s career.
It happened in a June 28th home game against Boston. Ironically, Lenny was having one of his best days as a Yankee, tripling off Al Nipper in the third inning and then singling off the Red Sox right hander in his second at bat, two innings later. The next hitter, Wayne Tolleson sacrificed Sakata to second. Nipper then attempted to pick him off and Sakata injured his ankle sliding back into second base. After that play, Ron Kittle helped his injured teammate return to the dugout. Sakata wrapped his arm around Kittle’s neck for support somehow causing Kittle to pull a muscle in his shoulder and end up joining Sakata on the DL. Kittle would later return to action for New York that season. For Sakata, that walk to the dugout after he injured his ankle was the last walk he would ever take as an active big league player.
Sakata was the last Oriole to play shortstop prior to the beginning of Cal Ripken’s incredible streak at that position. After his playing days were over, Lenn went into coaching and managing for the San Francisco Giants’ organization. He shares his June 8th birthday with this other one-time Yankee infielder.
|BAL (6 yrs)||442||1068||964||132||225||36||3||21||84||28||75||114||.233||.292||.342||.634|
|MIL (3 yrs)||87||269||246||22||47||8||0||2||16||2||17||34||.191||.243||.248||.491|
|NYY (1 yr)||19||48||45||5||12||0||1||2||4||0||2||4||.267||.313||.444||.757|
|OAK (1 yr)||17||38||34||4||12||2||0||0||5||0||3||6||.353||.395||.412||.807|
If you’ve read some of my earlier posts you know how it felt for some of us to be Yankee fans during the late sixties. Optimism was something you actually had to hope for. Nothing and no one looked promising. There seemed to be no silver lining in the huge gray cloud that hung over the Bronx.
And then suddenly he was there, squatting behind home plate with a rocket for an arm and a good bat to boot. He hit .300 his rookie season, made the All Star team and when they announced Thurman Munson won the 1970 AL Rookie of the Year award I can remember it felt almost as good as winning a pennant. There was hope again.
The next couple of years weren’t great statistically for Munson, but his fiery demeanor and leadership on the field began to take hold. If you were going to play on Munson’s team you were going to get your uniform dirty, run out every thing you hit, and be just as pissed as he was after every Yankee loss. By 1975, the talent on the Yankees caught up with the team’s attitude and one year later, Munson won the AL MVP and led New York back to the World Series.
Munson hit .529 in that Series but the Yankees were swept by the Reds and during a classless moment, Sparky Anderson felt a need to insult Thurman by telling sportswriters he’s no Johnny Bench. Then in 1977 the Yankees won it all but Jackson’s “straw that stirs the drink” comment knawed at Munson the whole season. So even when he reached baseball’s mountaintop Thurman seemed to have a difficult time simply enjoying the moment.
I believe that on the ball field, Thurman had to have that chip on his shoulder to stay motivated. Off the field he had his family and his flying. The Yankee team he left never recovered from his death. They lost their leader and they lost that chip. The Captain would have turned 65-years-old today.
Update: The above post about Thurman Munson was originally written in 2009 and updated once in 2011. I now add to it below:
Munson was the best defensive catcher in the American League until 1974, when he deeply bruised his throwing hand and also underwent surgery on his right shoulder. From that point on, Munson was forced to make his throws to second sidearmed and they began ending up in right center field with alarming regularity. But if you talk to Yankee pitchers who pitched to other big league catchers in addition to Munson during their careers, guys like Mel Stottlemyre, Catfish Hunter, Tommy John, and Goose Gossage, they will tell you that nobody managed a game better than Thurman.
As his throwing ability declined however his offensive game got better. Look at his numbers from 1975-77 in the stats matrix below and ask yourself how many big league catchers ever put three years like that together in their careers. All the one’s who did before Thurman came along are in Cooperstown.
It wasn’t until just recently that I learned how dysfunctional Munson’s family was, thanks largely to his long-distance truck driver father named Darrell. In Marty Appel’s second book about the Yankee captain published in 2009, the author revealed Munson’s true and very harsh feelings about his dad. Darrell Munson was described as an unloving, uncaring father who resented the fact that his son had achieved a level of success that he himself had no hope of replicating. At Munson’s funeral, Darrell approached his son’s coffin and according to witnesses addressed it out loud with the following words; “You always thought you were too big for this world. Well you weren’t. Look who’s still standing, you son of a bitch.”
Munson shares his June 7th birthday with the Yankee pitcher who was with Babe Ruth when the Bambino was shot by an angry husband.