Before Derek Jeter came along and reserved a spot on the wall of Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park for his pinstriped jersey, the most famous number “2” in Yankee history had been a red-headed graduate of Dartmouth named Robert Abial Rolfe. Though hair-color earned him the workingman’s nickname he made famous, Rolfe was an Ivy League gentleman. An article in “Baseball Digest” once referred to him as “the best-educated, best dressed, politest Bronx Bomber of the thirties.”
Those Joe McCarthy-led Yankee teams put up some incredible offensive numbers during their pre-WWII era of success and it was their great third baseman Rolfe, batting second, who would help light the fuse for the team’s explosive lineup. Here’s some examples: In the three-season period from 1937-to-1939, Rolfe scored a total of 414 runs. In 1937, Rolfe scored the incredible total of 143 runs and didn’t even lead the team in scoring that year because Joe DiMaggio scored 151. In 1938, five different Yankees scored at least 109 runs. The 1939 Yankee team lost Lou Gehrig to ALS disease yet seven members of their starting lineup scored at least 87 runs that year and the team won 106 regular season games and then swept the Reds four straight in the World Series. During Rolfe’s decade-long Yankee career, he averaged 130 runs scored for every 162 games he played.
Rolfe was one of Manager Joe McCarthy’s all-time favorite players because he worked so hard and so smart at getting better and gaining every possible advantage over an opponent on the field. It was Rolfe who was one of the first players in baseball to keep a “book” on opposing hitters that he would use to change his fielding position at the hot corner, based on who was in the batters box. His book on opposing pitchers was just as detailed. He knew and could tell his Yankee teammates what pitch to expect in a pressure situation from every pitcher in the league. He did not ignore opposing fielders either. He would make notes how an outfielder fielded line drives and if they had a tendency to drop to their knee or back up on the ball, you could be sure the next time Rolfe hit one of his patented line drives at them he’d end up sliding safely into second. It may have been because Rolfe did so much thinking as a player he never found time to just relax and enjoy the game he played so well. He developed painful ulcers which were the primary reason he retired at the young age of 33 after New York lost the 1942 World Series to the Cardinals.
Rolfe got back into the big leagues as a Manager with the Tigers in 1949 and led Detroit to a 95-win season the following year, just three games behind the AL Pennant-winning 1950 Yankees. At the time, he attributed his success to cracking the whip on a bunch of Detroit players who he claimed had grown complacent. By 1952, many of those same players turned on Rolfe, claiming he was impossible to satisfy and the Tigers fired him. Born on October 17, 1908 in Penacook, NH, Rolfe returned to Dartmouth as athletic director. He died in 1969. Dartmouth’s baseball stadium is named after him.
October 16th is a not a great day for notable Yankee birthdays. Neither was 1979 a great year for Yankee baseball. The two-time defending World Champions lost their team captain, the great Thurman Munson in August of that season and missed the postseason for the first time in four years. Munson’s death was not the only reason that Yankee team faltered. In June of that same season, Yankee DH Cliff Johnson got into a brawl with ace closer, Goose Gossage in the Yankee locker room showers. Gossage broke his thumb in the altercation and was out for the rest of the season. Without him, a dominating Yankee bullpen became very ordinary.
The Yankee front-office punished Johnson by quickly trading him to the Indians for today’s birthday celebrant. Don Hood, born on October 16, 1949 in Florence, SC, went 3-1 out of the Yankee bullpen during the remainder of that season. By 1980, he was pitching for the Cardinals.
Another October 16th birthday celebrant with Yankee connections is this former big league catcher who did color and play-by-play for Yankee games for a couple of seasons at the turn of this new century.
|CLE (5 yrs)||17||22||.436||4.17||152||49||25||4||0||2||494.2||491||255||229||38||238||225||1.474|
|KCR (2 yrs)||6||3||.667||2.99||57||3||32||0||0||1||114.1||119||51||38||12||36||48||1.356|
|BAL (2 yrs)||4||3||.571||3.61||28||6||14||1||1||2||89.2||78||43||36||2||26||44||1.160|
|STL (1 yr)||4||6||.400||3.39||33||8||4||1||0||0||82.1||90||39||31||2||34||35||1.506|
|NYY (1 yr)||3||1||.750||3.07||27||6||9||0||0||1||67.1||62||24||23||3||30||22||1.366|
Any newspaper or Web site that covers New York Yankee baseball has offered readers some type of editorial or polling content that focuses on what changes the Yankees need to make during the winter to get back into the postseason in 2014. Who should be signed, who should be released, who should be fired, who should retire, there have been dozens of articles published, offering opinions on the offseason fate of every current Yankee employee from Robbie Cano to Brian Cashman.
Permit me to throw today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant into that mix. Dana Cavalea has been the Yankees’ strength and conditioning coach since 2007. Though I don’t have specific facts to back this up, I’m willing to go out on the limb here and say that the average number of Yankee injuries and disabled list assignments per season have climbed to record levels under Cavalea’s watch, peaking in 2013 when New York was forced to make 28 different disabled list assignments.
You can’t blame Cavalea for broken bones but how many strained quads, rib cages, hamstrings, groins and tendons does it take before you begin to question the soundness of the team’s strength and conditioning program. I know I’m sounding a lot like George Steinbrenner here. For that matter, if the Boss were still running things in both Tampa and the Bronx, Mr. Cavalea would probably be looking for a new job right about now.
I certainly know nothing about strength and conditioning strategies and techniques for modern day athletes and I’m sure Cavalea is well credentialed and highly respected in the field. But when there are more starters on the Yankee DL list than in the team’s starting line-up, something’s got to change, doesn’t it?
Happy birthday Dana and please don’t take what I’ve written above personally or professionally for that matter since I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m just burning off some of the frustration I had left over from the just completed season of sickness.
The only Yankee player born on today’s date gave up playing baseball for golf.
Bill Renna was the prototypical California “golden boy” high school athlete. Born in Hanford, a city in the central part of the state near Fresno, Renna was a three-sport standout with Hollywood good looks. Baseball was his favorite sport, but being six feet three inches tall and over two hundred pounds, the guy was built for football. He earned a scholarship to the University of San Francisco in 1942 but was then drafted into the military.
After being discharged two years later, he was supposed to play on the gridiron for Stanford but a mix-up of his transcripts nixed that opportunity and he ended up in the lower-profile program at Santa Clara. Still, his ability with a football drew the interest of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams but by that time, Renna had decided he wanted to play professional baseball and the Yankees had decided they wanted to sign Renna.
He got off to a great start in the minors, hitting 21 home runs and batting .385 during his first 76-game season of C ball. That earned him a huge leap to triple A ball the following year and he struggled at that level. For the next couple of years that pattern continued. Renna would hit B level pitching well and then falter when he moved up and faced the minor’s upper tier pitching talent.
That changed in 1952. That year, Renna put together a 28 HR – 90 RBI – .295 season for the Yankees top farm team in Kansas City. A few months later, he found himself battling for an Opening Day roster spot in the parent club’s spring training camp. That 1953 Yankee team was a great one and its starting outfield was solid. Casey Stengel started Mickey Mantle in center and mixed and matched Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling and Irv Noren in the other two positions depending on the opposing pitcher. Renna also had to compete against fellow Yankee outfield prospects Bob Cerv and Ellie Howard for any remaining roster spot.
In the end, Stengel brought Renna north and it proved to be a good choice. He spent most of his big league rookie season platooning in left field with Gene Woodling. He got just two starts that April, but in his second one, he hit his first big league home run in Comiskey Park off of the White Sox southpaw, Gene Beardon. What made that blast even more memorable for the rookie was that it was also the rear-end of a back-to-backer with Mantle.
He would end up playing in 61 games that year and averaging a very impressive .314. Though he didn’t get a chance to pay in the Yankees fifth consecutive World Series championship that October, he did win his first and only World Series ring. He never got a chance to win a second one because that December, I think George Weiss was bored so he decided to engineer a huge but inconsequential 11-player trade between New York and the A’s. The most notable player the Yankees got in the deal was first baseman Eddie Robinson, who they really did not need. One of the players Weiss sent to Philly was Renna.
He would start in the A’s 1954 outfield and hit a career high 13 home runs. He then moved with the team to Kansas City, but became a part-time player and pinch hitter in the process. Weiss actually got him back in a deal he made with the A’s in June of the 1956 season that ironically sent Robinson back to the A’s, but Renna was sent to the minors and remained there until he was traded to Boston just before the 1957 season. After another year in the minors, he became a valuable Red Sox pinch hitter during the 1958 season, when his 15 pinch hits produced 18 RBIs.
What hurt Renna’s big league career was the late start he got with the Yankees. Military service and then college made him 24-years-old by the time he got signed and 28 when he made his debut in the Bronx. In an interview just five years ago, Renna told the reporter his one year as a Yankee was the best of his career and he loved every second of it. He said Mantle was the greatest player he ever saw. He ended up quitting baseball after the ’59 season to begin a long career in the concrete industry as a job estimator. He’s still alive and living in California and turns 89 years old today.
|KCA (3 yrs)||256||809||719||97||164||25||7||22||86||2||75||112||.228||.304||.374||.678|
|BOS (2 yrs)||53||89||78||7||17||5||0||4||20||0||11||23||.218||.315||.436||.751|
|NYY (1 yr)||61||137||121||19||38||6||3||2||13||0||13||31||.314||.385||.463||.848|
Walter Blair was a back-up catcher for the New York Highlanders during the first decade of the team’s existence. After playing college ball at Bucknell and spending a couple of seasons in the minors, New York signed him in 1907 to back up their starting receiver at the time, Red Kleinow. By then, the native of Landrus, Pennsylvania was 23-years-old and had developed solid defensive skills behind the plate and a sharp mind for the game. His problem was he couldn’t hit.
It was his offensive inabilities that doomed his one attempt at becoming New York’s starting catcher. In 1911, then manager, Hal Chase pretty much alternated Blair and 22-year-old Jeff Sweeney behind the plate the entire season. Sweeney hit just .231 and still outhit Blair by close to 40 points.
That performance ended Blair’s Highlander and big league career. He went back to the Minors for two seasons and then played in the upstart Federal League for a couple of more. He found he had a knack for helping young ballplayers develop their skills and got into managing and even purchased an interest in a minor league team back in his home state of Pennsylvania. Then in 1917, he took over as the coach of the University of Pittsburgh’s baseball team. Three years later, he moved into the same position for his alma mater, Bucknell. He passed away in 1948 at the age of 64.
|NYY (5 yrs)||216||652||587||35||115||16||6||1||53||8||36||80||.196||.251||.249||.500|