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|