Tommy Byrne didn’t really have a nickname but if he did, it probably would have been “Wild Man.” This southpaw had a blazing fastball and a great biting curve but he had a real tough time throwing either of them over the plate with any consistency. Over his thirteen season big league career, the Baltimore native averaged just under seven walks for every nine innings he pitched, led the American League in that department three straight seasons and in one of them, 1951, he walked 150 batters in just 143 innings. And when Byrne didn’t walk a batter, chances were good that he’d hit him instead because the guy led the AL in hit batsmen five different times. So how did a pitcher who was so wild stay in the big leagues? There were two reasons really.
The first was that despite his aversion to the strike zone, Byrne would win games. He started pitching full time for the Yankees in 1948 and over the next three seasons his record was 38-21. He was a very effective fourth starter for New York, behind their legendary Raschi, Reynolds, Lopat triumvirate. The second reason the Yankees kept him was his ability to hit. Byrne was one of the best hitting pitchers in all of baseball. He averaged .326 in 1948 and .272 two seasons later. He was such a good stick that he was frequently used as a pinch hitter and actually had 80 pinch hits during his career.
So Manager Casey Stengel, Byrne’s Yankee teammates and even most Yankee fans would tolerate the left-handers mind-numbing spurts of wildness because he kept winning games and the team kept winning pennants in spite of them. Unfortunately for Byrne, the one guy who couldn’t tolerate it any longer turned out to be Yankee co-owner Dan Topping. On June 15th, 1951, Topping engineered a trade that sent Byrne to the Browns for another southpaw pitcher named Stubby Overmire. I read that Stengel was livid with Topping when he learned of the trade after it had already been consummated.
The Yankees didn’t miss Tommy at first because they still had the big three in their starting rotation along with a new young southpaw named Whitey Ford. Byrne, on the other hand did not find pitching for the lowly Browns anywhere near as enjoyable as pitching for the mighty Yankees. He went 11-24 during his two seasons in St. Louis and then was traded to the White Sox.
In addition to being wild, Byrne turned out to be pretty lucky too. By 1954, Raschi was gone and Reynolds and Lopat were nearing the end of their careers. Byrne in the mean time, had been sold by the White Sox to the Senators and then released. He spent most of the 1954 season pitching for Seattle in the PCL League, where he went 20-10 on the mound and hit .296 at the plate. That performance caught the attention of the Yankees and the then-34-year-old pitcher suddenly found himself back in pinstripes at the close of the 1954 season. The following year, Byrne rejoined the Yankees’ starting rotation and went 16-5 to lead the AL in winning percentage. He also pitched very well in the 1955 World Series against the Dodgers. Bryne got a complete-game 4-2 victory in Game 2 and also drove in the winning runs with his two-run single. He then held the Dodgers to just one run for five-plus innings of Game 7 before being lifted by Stengel in a game the Yankees would go on to lose.
Byrne pitched two more seasons for New York and then went back to college at Wake Forest. He ended his career with an 85-69 overall record and 72-40 as an eleven-year Yankee. He ended up getting into politics and served as Mayor of the college town for fifteen years. He passed away in 2007, at the age of 87. One of the things I learned about Byrne doing research for this post was that he was considered to be a flake. He was known for talking to opposing hitters during the game and according to Yogi Berra, Byrne’s chit chatting would drive all stars like Ted Williams and Al Rosen absolutely crazy. Often times, he would tell the hitter what pitch he was about to throw. The talking combined with his sharp biting curve ball and lack of control made Byrne Yogi’s choice as the toughest pitcher he ever had to catch.
Byrne shares his last-day-of-the-year birthday with this other former Yankee starting pitcher.
|NYY (11 yrs)||72||40||.643||3.93||221||118||65||42||10||12||993.2||799||480||434||74||763||592||1.572|
|SLB (2 yrs)||11||24||.314||4.35||48||41||7||21||2||0||318.2||286||173||154||21||226||148||1.607|
|WSH (1 yr)||0||5||.000||4.28||6||5||0||2||0||0||33.2||35||17||16||3||22||22||1.693|
|CHW (1 yr)||2||0||1.000||10.13||6||6||0||0||0||0||16.0||18||18||18||0||26||4||2.750|
Though the Yankees won nothing during the 2013 season, the top five highlights include achievements by players who’ve done plenty of winning during their amazing Yankee careers:
Number 1 - The incredible “Comeback of the Year” performance by the incomparable Mariano Rivera and his emotional farewell appearance in Yankee Stadium. The Sandman returned from a torn ACL suffered in May of 2012 to save 44 games for New York in 2013 and bring his final career regular-season record saves total to an amazing 652. Ironically, Mo’s final appearance of his career was in a non-save situation, which took place against the Rays on September 26th during the Yankees final home game of the 2013 season. With New York trailing by four runs in the eighth inning, Joe Girardi brought in the greatest Closer ever, in the eighth inning and then sent fellow Core Four members Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte out to the mound an inning later, to remove Mo from his last-ever game. It was a poignant moment, as Rivera sobbed uncontrollably in Pettitte’s arms.
Number 2 – The final start of Andy Pettitte’s 18-year career. It took place in Houston on September 28th and the veteran southpaw gave up just one run and five hits in a complete game victory over the Astros. it was Pettitte’s 256th career victory and his 219th Yankee win which puts him in third place on the franchise’s all-time wins list behind Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing.
Number 3 – Robbie Cano’s last year in pinstripes. As soon as the reports that the new agents of baseball’s very best second baseman were asking the Yankees for $300 million to re-sign their client, I realized Cano’s chances of remaining in New York for the remainder of his career were diminishing with each passing game. In a year when good hitting was mostly absent from the Yankee lineup, Cano belted 27 home runs, drove in107 and averaged .314. I doubt the Yankees will ever have another second baseman with as good an all-around game as Cano’s and I will miss seeing him play for my favorite team.
Number 4 – Jeter’s “welcome back” home run. On July 28th, I’m sure I was holding my breath as Derek Jeter made his way to the Yankee Stadium batters box to face Tampa Bay southpaw, Matt Moore. The Yankee Captain’s season debut had taken place seventeen days earlier and then abruptly ended right after that game against the Royals, when a sore calf landed him back on the DL. At the time of his second return, his team was struggling to remain competitive in the AL East race and desperately needed Jeter in the lineup to do so. When he hammered Moore’s first pitch into right-center field stands, for just that brief moment, Yankee Universe’s postseason hopes went sky-high.
Number 5 – Alfonso Soriano’s return to the Yankees. In 58 games, he smashed 17 home runs and drove in 50. The guy the Yanks traded to get A-Rod a decade earlier was now back in the Bronx doing for the Yankees what the Yankees were paying A-Rod to do. It was a magnificent stretch for Soriano and I hope it continues into 2014.
Remember Charley Lau? Many considered him the greatest hitting coach in MLB history. During his 11-season big league career as a catcher and pinch-hitter however, he was never more than a part-time player with a .255 lifetime batting average. So how does a guy who was never a great hitter himself in the big leagues teach others to become one? Honestly? I don’t know.
But at least Lau was a good enough hitter to make it to the big leagues. Kevin Long, the Yankees’ highly praised current hitting coach and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, never got out of the minors. After a good college career at the University of Arizona, the Phoenix native was signed by the Royals and spent eight years trying to get an official regular season at bat in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. When he failed to do so, he asked for and received a minor league coaching assignment with the Royals’ organization.
The Yankees hired him in 2004 as the hitting instructor for their Triple A affiliate Columbus Clippers. In 2007, he got the same job with the parent club, succeeding Don Mattingly, who had been promoted to Joe Torre’s bench coach.
During the next six seasons, Long had the benefit of working with a Yankee offense that was consistently near the top of the league’s run producers. His most notable achievements during that time were helping Curtis Granderson become a much better hitter against left-handed pitching and getting Robinson Cano to exercise more strike zone discipline.
Long’s biggest challenge by far was the roster of hitters he was given to work with during the 2013 season. A series of injuries and bad deals had decimated the Yankees’ highly potent offense and Long found himself working with the likes of Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay and Chris Stewart. There would be no miracles performed by the Yankee hitting coach with that crew. No one could possibly have been happier than Long, when the Yankees retooled their offense during the 2013 offseason by signing Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. If Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira can return to anything near their pre-injury hitting forms, the Yankee offense should once again score runs in bushels in 2014. That means Kevin Long will once again be recognized as one the game’s best hitting coaches.
This L.A.-born shortstop was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1931 and two year’s later he was the Tribe’s starting shortstop. An adept contact hitter, Knickerbocker might have become one of Cleveland’s all-time great shortstops if he didn’t have to actually play the field. This guy made 125 errors at that position during his three-and-a-half seasons as an Indian. So even though his lifetime average was a lofty .293 at the time and he was only 24-years-old, when his error total reached 40 during the 1936 season, Knickerbocker was traded to the Browns in January of the following year.
After his only season in St. Louis, he was dealt to the Yankees. New York had just released veteran second baseman, Tony Lazzeri following the 1937 World Series. Joe McCarthy intended to replace him with rookie Joe Gordon, but he wanted a safety valve just in case the kid wasn’t ready for prime time.
Fortunately for today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Yankee shortstop Frank Crosetti suffered a leg injury during spring training and Knickerbocker got plenty of opportunities to show the Yankee skipper his lively bat more than made up for his less than average glove work.
Sure enough, Gordon got off to a horrible start at the plate in ’38 and by May 1st, he was back in the minors and Knickerbocker was starting at second for New York. The move to the new position actually improved his defense and he set a career high in fielding percentage during his first season in pinstripes.
In the mean time, Gordon got his stroke back down on the farm and when he returned to the parent club in June, his torrid bat helped propel New York to the team’s third straight World Championship. The only one who suffered from Gordon’s emergence as an all star was, of course Knickerbocker, who saw action in just seven games during the final three months of the ’38 season and completely sat out that year’s World Series sweep of the Cubs.
In 1939, Knickerbocker had pretty-much a no-show job as Gordon started all but three regular season games at second for New York and Crosetti missed just two starts at short. In 1940, Knickerbocker saw prolonged stretches of playing time at both short and third due to injuries to Crosetti and Red Rolfe. His defense was again better than average though his offense was disappearing, no doubt due to the lack of playing time.
That December, New York traded Knickerbocker to the White Sox for catcher Ken Silvestri. Following the 1942 regular season, Chicago put him on waivers and he spent the ’43 season playing in the Pacific Coast League. He then entered the US Army and served his Country during WWII for the next two years. Though the Yankees invited him to their 1946 spring training camp, he failed to make the team and never again played big league or minor league ball. Knickerbocker was struck down by a heart attack in 1961, passing away at the age of just fifty-one.
|CLE (4 yrs)||513||2199||2030||260||594||117||16||14||227||14||119||131||.293||.333||.387||.719|
|NYY (3 yrs)||97||301||265||34||64||17||4||2||32||1||25||18||.242||.314||.358||.672|
|PHA (1 yr)||87||328||289||25||73||12||0||1||19||1||29||30||.253||.323||.304||.627|
|SLB (1 yr)||121||530||491||53||128||29||5||4||61||3||30||32||.261||.303||.365||.668|
|CHW (1 yr)||89||397||343||51||84||23||2||7||29||6||41||27||.245||.329||.385||.714|