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 at the end of his first month as a Yankee, 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 by his third month in pinstripes, both Hafner and the Yankees cooled off considerably. He was striking out more and his power disappeared. He underwent an MRI that showed tendinitis was again flaring up in his shoulder, but because the Yankees were in the midst of an unbelievable epidemic of position player injuries, Girardi kept writing Hafner’s name in the lineup. By the end of the season, his average was down to .202 and his Yankee days were over.
Pronk turns 37-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)||82||299||262||31||53||8||1||12||37||2||32||79||.202||.301||.378||.679|
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|
I’ve never forgiven Lou Piniella or the Seattle Mariners for trading catcher Jason Varitek and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant to the Red Sox for Boston closer Heathcliff Slocumb at the 1997 trading deadline. Varitek became the captain and anchor of those great Red Sox teams that gave the Yankees so much trouble during the first decade of the new century. All Derek Lowe did for Boston was first become the team’s ace closer for a couple of years including a 42 save season in 2000 and then convert to the Red Sox starting rotation and become a 20-game winner in 2002. He also pitched brilliantly during the 2004 postseason culminating in Boston’s first World Series victory since 1918. And then surprisingly, Boston let him walk away as a free agent.
Lowe pitched the next seven years in the NL thanks to two huge four-year deals he signed with the Dodgers and Braves respectively. After he slumped to 9-17 in 2011, during his third year in Atlanta, Lowe was dealt to the Indians. He was struggling with an 8-10 record for Cleveland when he was released in August of 2012 and signed as a free agent by the Yankees. Joe Girardi put the 39-year-old right hander in his bullpen and in his first pinstriped appearance against Texas, he relieved David Phelps in the fifth inning with a 5-2 lead and held Texas scoreless the rest of the way to earn his one and only Yankee save. In all, Lowe made 17 appearances during the final two months of his only season with New York, all of them as a reliever. He got his only Yankee victory against his old team, the Red Sox, in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
Girardi then put him on the 2012 postseason roster. The 17-year veteran made one scoreless appearance against the Orioles in the ALDS and then got roughed up by the Tigers in the ALCS. In his last appearance in Game 4 of that depressing series, Lowe gave up a home run to former Yankee prospect, Austin Jackson. Even though New York was already five runs behind when Jackson hit that dinger, I knew that would be the last time Lowe got to pitch in a Yankee uniform. Sure enough, he was released after that series. The Rangers signed him to a contract for 2013 but released him on May 23rd.
|BOS (8 yrs)||70||55||.560||3.72||384||111||154||2||1||85||1037.0||1024||488||429||69||312||673||48||1.288|
|LAD (4 yrs)||54||48||.529||3.59||137||135||1||7||2||0||850.1||832||394||339||76||214||563||12||1.230|
|ATL (3 yrs)||40||39||.506||4.57||101||101||0||0||0||0||575.1||648||307||292||48||194||384||11||1.463|
|TEX (1 yr)||1||0||1.000||9.00||9||0||2||0||0||0||13.0||16||13||13||3||3||8||2||1.462|
|CLE (1 yr)||8||10||.444||5.52||21||21||0||1||1||0||119.0||156||79||73||8||45||41||3||1.689|
|NYY (1 yr)||1||1||.500||3.04||17||0||10||0||0||1||23.2||24||9||8||2||6||14||0||1.268|
|SEA (1 yr)||2||4||.333||6.96||12||9||1||0||0||0||53.0||59||43||41||11||20||39||2||1.491|