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.
One of the things I find interesting as a long-time Yankee fan is examining the big league careers of former Yankee prospects who’s paths to the Bronx were blocked by good players already in their positions. Take David Adams as an example. He’s been being groomed as a Yankee second baseman for the past five years even though the only way Robbie Cano would lose that job is if he chooses to leave it as a free agent after this season.
The obstacle blocking today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant’s ascent to the Yankee roster in the mid 1970’s was the all star first baseman and postseason hero, Chris Chambliss. Dave Bergman was a good enough player in high school to get drafted by the Cubs in the 12th round of the 1971 amateur draft but he decided to attend college instead. Three years later the Yankees drafted him in the third round. If he’d signed with the Cubs the first time around and took five years to make it to Wrigley, he’d have been challenging guys like Pete LaCock and Billy Buckner instead of Chambliss.
By 1977, Bergman had put together four consecutive strong seasons in New York’s farm system, averaging well over .300 with an on base percentage in the .430 range. The only thing he had to show for it however was a seven-game cup-of-coffee preview with the parent club at the end of 1975 and another five-game late-season call-up, two years later.
So as often happens with an organization’s good but unneeded prospects, Bergman was traded to fill an immediate need on the Yankees’ big league roster. With his 1977 club again in the hunt for the AL Pennant, Yankee GM Gabe Paul was looking for a right-handed bat with power that Billy Martin could use to dissuade opposing teams from bringing in lefthanders to pitch to Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson. So in June of that year, Paul swung a deal for Houston’s Cliff Johnson. Bergman was the Yankee player to be named later (in November of ’77) that was included in that swap.
The trade was an opportunity for Bergman to finally spend an entire season in the big leagues, as he took over Johnson’s old role with Houston as a backup first baseman and outfielder during the ’78 season. He hit just .231 that year in 104 games and spent the next two seasons going back and forth between the Astros and their top farm team.
Then right after the 1981 season started, Bergman was traded with Houston outfielder Jeffrey Leonard to the Giants for first baseman, Mike Ivie. He spent three decent years in San Francisco and then finally found his home in the big leagues.
Toward the end of the 1984 spring training season, the Giants traded Bergman to the Phillies. On that same day, before he could say “the City of brotherly love” Philadelphia traded Bergman and reliever Willie Hernandez to the Tigers. That trade was the key to Detroit becoming World Champions that year, but not because of Bergman. Don’t get me wrong, the native of Evanston, IL had a great first season in Mo-Town, becoming a favorite guy off the bench for manager Sparky Anderson, appearing in 120 games and averaging .273. But it was the relief pitching of Hernandez that turned that ’84 Tiger team into World Series winners.
Bergman spent the next eight seasons playing for Anderson whenever the need arose and loving every minute of it. When he retired after the 1992 season at the age of 39, he had played in 1,349 big league ball games.
Bergman shares his birthday with this Yankee legend.
|DET (9 yrs)||871||2276||1967||225||509||73||12||39||219||9||268||248||.259||.346||.368||.714|
|HOU (4 yrs)||213||340||285||32||70||11||2||2||18||3||49||45||.246||.354||.319||.673|
|SFG (3 yrs)||253||474||406||54||110||16||2||13||51||7||61||50||.271||.366||.416||.782|
|NYY (2 yrs)||12||24||21||1||1||0||0||0||1||0||2||4||.048||.125||.048||.173|
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant may not have been very famous as a Yankee or even a big leaguer, but he was a legend of the game none-the-less. His name was James Harrison Hannah and he shared the Yankees catching duties with at first, Roxy Walters and then Muddy Ruel. “James Harrison” was what was on his birth certificate, but like both Walters and Ruel, he too had a nickname, one of the most fitting aka’s ever for a baseball catcher. Being six feet one inch tall and weighing 190 pounds, Hannah was close to half a foot taller and forty-to-fifty pounds heavier than the dimensions of an average American male back during WWI. So folks called him “Truck.”
As the war raged in Europe, the Yankees were well on there way to laying the foundation of what would become the game’s greatest dynasty. The cornerstone was an owner with lots of money who truly understood how spending big chunks of that cash to build a winning baseball team could be a wise investment. That owner, a beer brewer named Jake Ruppert showed up in 1915. The next piece of the foundation was a team manager who was not just a good judge of talent and effective field technician, but one who was tough enough to handle the rowdy, hard-living young men who played the game back then. For the Yankees, that was Miller Huggins, who took over as New York skipper the same year that Truck Hannah joined the team, in 1918.
One of just 15 big league players (and three Yankees) to be born in the state of North Dakota, Truck Hannah had started playing professional baseball as a 20-year-old back in 1909, with the Tacoma Tigers in the Northwestern League. He pretty much lived out of his suitcase the next half-dozen years, moving from one town and minor league team to another until he found a more permanent home in Salt Lake City, catching for the Bee’s, that city’s Pacific Coast League franchise. He was that team’s starting catcher for the next three years, giving Major League scouts a wide enough window to notice both his decent bat and huge physical size. Sure enough, New York offered him a contract and on Opening Day 1918, Huggins put “Truck” behind home plate and the two participated in their very first games as Yankees.
Unfortunately for Hannah, he got to the Major Leagues just as the game was changing. The deadball era was coming to a close and every team wanted players who could hit as well as field. Hannah had averaged right around .275 during his three seasons at Salt Lake and if he had been able to do likewise with New York, we may have been able to include the name “Truck” as the first in the long line of great catchers who have worn the pinstripes. But Hannah hit just .235 during his three seasons as a Yankee and that simply wasn’t good enough.
The Yankees released Hannah after the 1920 season. That December, the Yankees made a deal that sent Muddy Ruel to Boston and brought Red Sox catcher, Wally Schang to New York. The switch-hitting Schang would hit .316 in his first year in pinstripes and start behind the plate for the Yankees’ first-ever World Championship team two years later.
Meanwhile Hannah returned to the Pacific Coast League, where he would continue to catch (and also manage) for the next 18 seasons, finally leaving the employ of the Los Angeles Angels in 1939 at the age of 49. Along the way, he appeared (as himself) in two of Hollywood’s earliest talking films and became famous for throwing handfuls of dirt into an opposing hitter’s shoes or at their hands as pitches approached the plate. He might not be in Cooperstown but Hannah did become a PCL Hall of Famer. And even after he left the Angels, the old Truck wasn’t quite ready for the junk heap. He accepted a job to manage the Memphis Chicasaws and during the team’s 1942 season, both Memphis catchers were hurt and unable to play on the day of a doubleheader. Hannah suited up and at the age of 52 caught both ends of the twin bill.
By the way, the other two Yankees to have been born in North Dakota were former outfielder Ken Hunt and the current Yankee DH, Travis Hafner. Hannah shares his birthday with this record-setting pitcher and another former Yankee catcher.
When Jake Ruppert and TL Huston purchased the Yankees in 1915, they agreed they were going to spend some of their personal fortunes to bring star players to New York. Wally Pipp and Home Run Baker were two of their more successful mutual investments and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was not.
Lee Magee had played his first big league game on July 4, 1911 with the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 22. The native of Cincinnati put together three solid seasons with the Cardinals and then jumped to the Federal League in 1915 to accept an offer to become the player-manager of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops. He did better as the team’s starting second baseman than as manager, averaging a robust .323 and stealing 32 bases for a Brooklyn ball club that finished the season in seventh place with a 70-82 record. Since the Tip-Tops played their home games just a couple of bridges away from where the Yankees played their’s, Rupert and Huston were well aware of Magee’s good numbers with Brooklyn and decided to go after him hard. They offered the Brooklyn owner $20,000 and he countered with $25K. They compromised at $22,500 and Magee became a Yankee.
The New York skipper during the 1916 season was Wild Bill Donovan and he initially penciled in Magee to be his starting second baseman. But when Opening Day came around, the infielder found himself in the Yankee outfield, where he remained during his entire one-and-a-half year tenure with the team. He hit .257 that first year with the Yankees, which was 11 points higher than the American League’s cumulative batting average that season and he was the Opening Day center-fielder for Donovan in 1917. But after 51 games that year his average was just .220 and he was traded to the St. Louis Browns for another former Federal League outfielder named Armando Marsans.
It was after leaving the Yankees that Magee’s name began getting tossed around in gambling allegations. After spending the second half of the 1917 season with St. Louis, he had been traded to Cincinnati, where he became a teammate and close acquaintance of former Yankee Hal Chase. Chase had been accused of throwing games during his days with New York more than once and had been traded away because of those accusations. In January of 1920, Magee, who was by then playing for Brooklyn, confessed to the National League President that he and Chase had each bet $500 on a 1918 Reds-Braves game with a Boston gambler. The Reds ended up winning the game in extra innings despite two critical errors by Magee. It certainly wasn’t a guilty conscience or noble act of redemption that prompted Magee’s confession. Though he insisted he had bet on his own team to win the game, he had stopped payment on the $500 check he had given to the Boston gambler, who was now suing Magee for non-payment of a debt with Magee’s signed check as evidence. If he in fact had bet on his own team to win, why would he have cancelled a check which represented his wager on his team winning the game? It made no sense and that’s exactly what league officials decided when he was banned from the league.
|STL (4 yrs)||433||1796||1587||182||443||50||20||4||119||79||123||91||.279||.333||.343||.676|
|NYY (2 yrs)||182||781||683||74||169||22||5||3||53||32||63||49||.247||.313||.307||.620|
|BTT (1 yr)||121||494||452||87||146||19||10||4||49||34||22||19||.323||.356||.436||.792|
|BRO (1 yr)||45||200||181||16||43||7||2||0||7||5||5||8||.238||.262||.298||.560|
|CHC (1 yr)||79||299||267||36||78||12||4||1||17||14||18||16||.292||.339||.378||.717|
|CIN (1 yr)||119||514||459||61||133||22||13||0||28||19||28||19||.290||.331||.394||.725|
|SLB (1 yr)||36||127||112||11||19||1||0||0||4||3||6||6||.170||.212||.179||.390|
There was no doubt in my mind that the Yanks were going to re-sign Raul Ibanez to once again serve as their left-handed DH for the 2013 season. After all, the guy had just hit four of the most clutch home runs in franchise history last fall and even though he turned 40-years-old yesterday, he had proven he was in great physical condition by handling an almost full-time outfielder’s slot after Brett Gardner went down with an injury last spring. So I was certain GM Brian Cashman would sit down with Ibanez sometime over the winter and work out a new one year deal. I was dead wrong.
Evidently, Cashman did not think those four huge home runs warranted a $1.6 million dollar raise for Ibanez because that’s what he got when he signed with the Mariners in December. Five weeks later, the Yankees signed Travis Hafner to a one-year deal for $2 million, which was $750,000 less than the Mariners agreed to pay Ibanez.
I had always liked Hafner’s bat during the 11 seasons he played in Cleveland, but what I didn’t like about his signing was the fact that he was strictly a DH. Coming into the 2013 season, Hafner had played in a total of 1,043 big league games and served as the DH in all but just 71 of them. On top of that, even though all he did was swing a bat and run when he hit the ball, this native of Jamestown, North Dakota had become injury prone. He averaged just 86 games played per year during his last five seasons with the Indians.
If I’d finished this post about Hafner just one month ago, its tone would have most certainly been different. That’s because “Pronk” got off to a great start with New York and by the end of April he was hitting .319 with six home runs and 19 RBIs. With high-paid Yankee hitters like A-Rod, Jeter, Teixeira and Granderson on the DL at the start of the season, Hafner’s hot bat was crucial to the team’s surprising early success. But now, as the 2013 season enters its third month, both Hafner and the Yankees have cooled off considerably. He’s striking out more and hit just two home runs during the month of May. A couple of weeks ago, he underwent an MRI that showed tendinitis was again flaring up in his shoulder. Hopefully, as more injured Yankees return to action, this guy will get both the days off and protection in the lineup he probably needs to optimize his value to the team. Like thousands of anxious Yankee fans, I got my fingers crossed hoping the Hafner honeymoon in the Bronx isn’t over and like Ibanez, this guy will have the opportunity to pay some postseason dividends.
Pronk turns 36-years-old today. He was originally drafted by the Texas Rangers in the later rounds of the 1996 draft. He had some huge years in the minors but the Rangers hardly seemed to notice because they didn’t bring him up for a look-see until 2002 and then that December, they traded him to Cleveland.
Hafner shares his birthday with this former Yankee catcher.
|CLE (10 yrs)||1078||4413||3734||582||1039||238||11||200||688||9||558||882||.278||.382||.509||.890|
|TEX (1 yr)||23||70||62||6||15||4||1||1||6||0||8||15||.242||.329||.387||.716|
|NYY (1 yr)||44||159||135||21||33||5||1||8||25||2||22||42||.244||.358||.474||.833|
If you weren’t around during the 1960′s when the great New York teams led by Mantle and Maris were doing their thing, you missed a great era of the Yankee dynasty. Fortunately, you also missed the second-half of that decade as well, which means you didn’t see that dynasty crumble, as the players who comprised it grew old or got hurt seemingly all at once. What was left were a bunch of prospects who would never become good big league players along with a few who weren’t yet ready to do so. That forced the Yankees to fill in the holes and gaps with acquisitions from other teams and one of those deals was for a switch-hitting Dodger shortstop named Gene Michael.
The resident of Akron, Ohio had only been in the big leagues for a couple of seasons when the Yanks purchased his contract from Los Angeles, yet Michael was already 30 years old. He was considered a decent fielding shortstop but what had kept him in the minor leagues for so long was his inability to hit. He might have been a switch-hitter but the problem was he really couldn’t swing the bat very well from either side of the plate. In fact, after he averaged just .202 trying to replace Maury Wills as the Dodger shortstop in 1967, Michael spent the following winter in the Florida Instructional League, determined to become a pitcher. That’s when his phone rang and it was Yankee GM Larry MacPhail telling him he was coming to New York where Ralph Houk hoped to make him his starting shortstop. That plan looked like it had flopped decisively after Michael played 61 games at short during the ’68 season and hit just .198. That forced Houk to bring Tom Tresh back in from the outfield to once again play the position at which he had won the 1962 Rookie of the Year Award.
When the 1969 spring training season rolled around, Houk had penciled in Tresh to remain at short but was also hoping Bobby Murcer or Jerry Kenney might win the job in camp. Both players were returning from military service that spring but neither could handle the position and when Tresh started the regular season in a horrible slump, Houk again turned to Michael.
Even though this all happened over 45 years ago, I can remember feeling not-to-thrilled when I heard that Michael was being given the job again. If he had been with the Yankees just a half dozen seasons earlier and hit .198, he’d have been released or buried so deeply in the Yankee farm system his family would have needed a backhoe to find him. So what’s Michael do? He goes out and hits, 272 and fields the position close to brilliantly. Could I have been wrong? Was the player sarcastically nicknamed “Stick” actually evolving into a good stick? Unfortunately no. Houk and Yankee fans like me spent the next four years waiting for Michael to replicate the offense he generated during that 1969 season and he never did.
When Steinbrenner took over the team, Houk left to manage in Detroit and when the Yankees released Michael in January of 1975, he joined the Major in Mo-Town for his final season as a big league player. Steinbrenner may have not respected the Stick as a player but he valued his baseball smarts so he kept giving Michael jobs in the Yankee organization. In 1981, Steinbrenner made him Yankee manager and he had the Yankees in first place when baseball went on strike that June. When play resumed that August, Michael grew so sick of Steinbrenner’s meddling with his handling of the team that he told the Boss to either fire him or shut up. Steinbrenner felt he had no choice but the latter and replaced him with Bob Lemon. The following April, when Lemon’s decision making irked the Boss, he fired him too and replaced him with the Stick.
He would eventually ask Steinbrenner to relieve him as manager because the two argued too much when Michael was in that job. He wanted to work in the Yankee front office and fortunately for the Boss, he gave Michael his wish. So when Faye Vincent suspended the Yankee owner for his roll in the Dave Winfield-Howie Spira episode in 1990, Michael took over control of the organization and is credited with building the team that won four World Series between 1996 and 2000. So the shortstop who signified the end of one Yankee dynasty became the architect of another.
Michael’s Yankee playing record:
|NYY (7 yrs)||789||2656||2405||205||561||79||10||12||204||21||215||356||.233||.296||.289||.585|
|PIT (1 yr)||30||33||33||9||5||2||1||0||2||0||0||7||.152||.152||.273||.424|
|LAD (1 yr)||98||245||223||20||45||3||1||0||7||1||11||30||.202||.246||.224||.470|
|DET (1 yr)||56||158||145||15||31||2||0||3||13||0||8||28||.214||.253||.290||.543|
Michael’s Yankee managing record:
|1||1981||43||New York Yankees||AL||1st of 2||56||34||22||.607||1||First half of season|
|2||1981||43||New York Yankees||AL||1st of 2||26||14||12||.538||6||Second half of season|
|3||1982||44||New York Yankees||AL||2nd of 3||86||44||42||.512||5|
|New York Yankees||2 years||168||92||76||.548||4.0|
|Chicago Cubs||2 years||238||114||124||.479||5.5|