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.