I remember the 1974 baseball season very well because it brought forth a personal and slightly painful milestone. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant made his big league debut as a much-heralded 19-year-old outfielder with the 1974 Oakland A’s. He and the Milwaukee Brewer’s Robin Yount were the first players to start regularly for a Major League team, who were younger than me. There of course have been many more since.
That Oakland team was about to capture its third straight World Championship and there were baseball pundits back then predicting that the multi-talented Washington would lead the team to many more. It looked like those experts might be right when in his sophomore season, Washington led the A’s with 182 hits and a .308 batting average as Oakland captured its fifth straight AL West Division title. But that was the same season the A’s lost the rights to Catfish Hunter due to their failure to honor an insurance clause in the pitcher’s contract and within a year, free agency would begin decimating Oakland’s All Star roster. Surprisingly, it would take Claudell thirteen years to top the .300 batting average barrier again and when it happened, he was wearing Yankee pinstripes.
Claudell played with seven different teams during his seventeen-season big league career including two stops in the Bronx. He first became a Yankee in 1988 when New York traded Ken Griffey Sr and Andre Robertson to the Braves for Washington and Paul Zuvella. After signing with the Angels as a free agent in 1989, the Yankees reacquired Claudell in exchange for outfielder Louis Polonia. His best season in pinstripes was his first, in 1988 when he hit .308. In April of that year, Washington hit the 10,000th home run in Yankee franchise history. Claudell was born on August 31, 1954, in Los Angeles. He shares his birthday with this Hall-of-Fame pitcher, who was traded to the Yankees but never pitched for them.
Here’s my version of the Yankee’s All-Presidential Team followed by Claudell’s Yankee and career stats.
1B – Nick Johnson
2B – Homer Bush
3B – Charley Hayes
SS – John Kennedy
C – Cliff Johnson
OF – Reggie Jackson
OF – Claudell Washington
OF – Otis Nixon or Lou Clinton
SP – Whitey Ford
RP – Grant Jackson
|ATL (6 yrs)||651||2586||2330||347||647||116||25||67||279||115||213||426||.278||.339||.435||.774|
|NYY (4 yrs)||315||1051||982||127||272||45||4||26||130||34||60||178||.277||.320||.410||.730|
|CHW (3 yrs)||249||938||875||127||241||53||12||20||109||28||45||169||.275||.312||.432||.744|
|OAK (3 yrs)||355||1402||1301||167||371||54||18||15||149||83||75||214||.285||.326||.389||.715|
|TEX (2 yrs)||141||597||563||64||155||31||2||12||70||21||26||124||.275||.309||.401||.710|
|CAL (2 yrs)||122||487||452||56||120||19||4||14||45||14||29||92||.265||.312||.418||.730|
|NYM (1 yr)||79||306||284||38||78||16||4||10||42||17||20||63||.275||.324||.465||.788|
Opening Day of the 1982 season marked the official beginning of the second fall of the Yankee Dynasty. At that point, George Steinbrenner’s team had played in five of the previous six postseasons and split their four World Series appearances. But fall ball would become a memory for the franchise as the ’82 regular season commenced. It would be fourteen seasons before the Yanks made it back to the playoffs and fifteen years before they once again were participants (and victors) in a Fall Classic.
The 1981 strike and the Yankees’ loss to the Dodgers in that year’s Series seemed to push the Boss a bit over the edge. He became even more directly involved in the team’s personnel decisions. Convinced that his Bronx Bombers needed to convert to a small ball offense, he began drafting and trading for pieces that he thought fit that scheme. He also seemed intent on seeking revenge on Yankee players who had disappointed him. In the process, he created a hodge-podge roster that floundered in the AL East.
One of the players he was pissed at was Yankee starting catcher Rick Cerone. The Boss and the receiver had gotten into a highly publicized locker-room argument after Cerone’s base-running blunder cost the Yankees a game during the 1981 ALDS. Enflaming that situation was Steinbrenner’s anger over the fact that Cerone had taken him to salary arbitration before that ’81 season and won. So when the catcher had a horrible ALCS and World Series, the Yankee owner had the excuse he needed to go out and get another starting catcher. That turned out to be Butch Wynegar, who after a strong first couple of years behind the plate in Minnesota, had evolved into a very ordinary big league receiver.
In late May of the 1982 season, the Yankees made the deal to bring the Twins’ catcher and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant to New York. Like Wynegar, Roger Erickson had gotten his big league career off to an excellent start in Minnesota with a 14-win rookie season in 1978 and like his battery mate, it had been pretty much downhill for him ever since. A tall slender right hander and a native of Springfield, Illinois, Erickson’s father Don had pitched one game for the Phillies and his Uncle and two cousins had all pitched for a time in the minors.
He got off to a horrible start as a Yankee losing his first four decisions, but then rebounded during the month of July to win four consecutive starts. That’s when he hurt his right shoulder and was pretty much shelved for the rest of the season. In the mean time, that 1982 Yankee team went through three managers and finished in fifth place in the AL East.
The following spring, a healthy Erickson was looking forward to getting back into New York’s starting rotation but instead was told he’d start the 1983 season pitching for Columbus. The bitterly disappointed pitcher told the team he would retire if he was sent back to the minors. The Yankees tried to assure him he was part of their future and in a classic retort, the pitcher told them he didn’t want to be part of their future because “Its frustrating enough being part of your present.” That just about sums up what it must have felt like for plenty of the players who came and went from the Bronx during that fourteen year period of post-seasonless play. A team owned by a ship-builder that ironically seemed to be operating without a rudder.
Eventually, Erickson did accept the demotion and then got called back up that September. Three months later, he was traded to the Royals with Steve Balboni for two guys you probably never heard of. Erickson never threw another pitch in the big leagues.
|MIN (5 yrs)||31||47||.397||4.10||114||106||2||24||0||0||712.0||769||375||324||62||226||321||1.397|
|NYY (2 yrs)||4||6||.400||4.43||21||11||3||0||0||1||87.1||99||44||43||6||25||44||1.420|
You have to be a very good and long-time Yankee fan to remember when George Zeber played for the Yankees. It was back in 1977, and Zeber surprised everyone by making the team in spring training. That year’s Yankee squad were the defending AL Champions. Manager Billy Martin liked the fact that Zeber could play second, short and third so he brought the native of Elwood City, PA north that April and made him one of his primary utility infielders.
At the time, Zeber was already 27 years old and his path to the Majors had been anything but a cakewalk. His Dad had died when he was just five years old. Fortunately, the man his Mom then married was a great guy and baseball fan who got his new stepson involved in the game. He was a fifth round draft choice of the Yankees in 1968 but after just one year in the minors he was drafted and actually spent a year in front line combat duty in the jungles of Vietnam. He survived the war but when he returned to the minors he suffered a severe knee injury that pretty much stalled his development for two years. All that adversity would serve him well when he became part of Manager Martin’s Bronx Zoo Clubhouse.
He got his first big league at bat that May and remained on the roster the entire season, appearing in 25 games, getting 75 plate appearances and hitting a healthy .325. He even made that year’s World Series roster getting two at bats against the Dodgers but striking out both times. In 1978 he lost his roster spot to Brian Doyle and was sent back down to Syracuse, never again appearing in a big league game. He played the 1978 season with the Yankee’s Tacoma affiliate and then hung up his spikes for good. He then got into real estate and built a successful career for himself. It probably didn’t hurt that he was wearing a New York Yankee World Championship ring when he introduced himself to new realty clients.