Don “Jeep” Heffner was Tony Lazzeri’s primary back-up at second base during the final years of “Poosh Em Up’s” Hall of Fame career in New York. The only Major League player ever to be born in Rouzerville, PA, Heffner made a decent big league debut with the Yankees in 1934, appearing in 72 games and averaging .261 for a Joe McCarthy-led team that won 94 games that year but still finished second to Mickey Cochrane’s powerful Detroit Tiger ball club.
That turned out to be Heffner’s best offensive season in pinstripes but he stuck around in the Bronx long enough to win championship rings in both 1936 and ’37. When an aging Lazzeri was let go by New York after the ’37 season, Hefner’s weak bat removed him from consideration for the vacant starting job. Instead, he was traded to the Browns for a better hitting second baseman named Bill Knickerbocker.
Heffner spent the next four seasons starting at second for St. Louis while Knickerbocker lost the battle for the Yankees’ starting second base job to rookie Joe Gordon. Heffner continued playing in the big leagues until 1943 and then got into coaching and managing. In 1966, he skippered the Cincinnati Reds for 83 games, his only big league managerial position.
|SLB (6 yrs)||524||2039||1803||196||434||73||9||6||179||13||193||162||.241||.317||.301||.618|
|NYY (4 yrs)||161||586||526||62||135||19||10||0||60||2||54||43||.257||.326||.331||.657|
|PHA (1 yr)||52||198||178||17||37||6||0||0||8||3||18||12||.208||.284||.242||.526|
|DET (1 yr)||6||24||19||0||4||1||0||0||1||0||5||1||.211||.375||.263||.638|
They were called “Bonus Rules” and before salary caps and luxury taxes existed, they were used to prevent Baseball’s richest teams from signing up all the best amateur talent around the country so their competition could not. Teams like the Yankees would then stock the rosters of their minor league affiliates with these outstanding prospects and keep them down on the farm until they were needed at the big league level or could be sold at hefty profits to other talent-starved organizations.
Major League Baseball’s first Bonus Rule went into effect in 1947. It stated that any amateur player signed by a big league team for a bonus of $4,000 or more had to remain on that team’s 40-man big league roster for a minimum of two full years. If the prospect was removed from the roster before his two years were up, the team lost its contract rights to the player and he was automatically placed on waivers. This rule was repeatedly challenged, put on temporary moratorium and frequently modified but some version of it remained in force right up until Baseball’s Amateur Draft began in 1965. The Bonus Rule is partially credited with destroying the big league career of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
His name was Frank Leja. When he was signed by legendary Yankee scout Paul Krichell, this powerful 6’4″ native of Holyoke, MA was being favorably compared with another first baseman signed by Krichell who was known by the nickname “the Iron Horse.” Leja’s first workout at Yankee Stadium became part of franchise legend. At one point, the young left-handed slugger hit nine of the ten pitches he was thrown into the Stadium’s stands in fair territory. This helps explain why the Yankees paid this kid a $100,000 bonus to sign with them in 1953 and the Bonus Rule helps explain why New York then let this kid spend his first two seasons under contract rotting on their big league bench instead of developing his skills in live-game action as a member of one of their minor league ball clubs.
When the two-year time period expired, Leja was finally sent down. He was still just 20-years-old and the Yankees were hoping that he would simply turn his game-playing switch back on and get his career going. That didn’t happen. He spent the next four seasons hitting a decent number of home runs for Yankee affiliates in Binghamton, New Orleans and Richmond but by the time he might have been really ready for a big league trial, Moose Skowren had a solid hold on the parent club’s first base position. Perhaps if he had been able to spend those first two wasted years after his signing playing instead of sitting, Leja would have been ready to challenge Skowren before big Moose had locked up the job.
The Yankees ended up trading Leja to the Cardinal organization in 1960. His entire Yankee career consisted of nineteen games, eighteen plate appearances and just one hit, all of which took place during his 1954 and ’55 Bonus Rule sit-the-bench mandated seasons. He would eventually get another shot at the big leagues in 1962 as a member of the Los Angeles Angels but that didn’t work out either. Leja passed away at the very young age of 55, in 1991. He shares his February 7th birthday with this one-time Yankee infield prospect.
|NYY (2 yrs)||19||7||7||3||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||.143||.143||.143||.286|
|LAA (1 yr)||7||18||16||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||6||.000||.059||.000||.059|
I was a fan of Bob Wickman, even if I couldn’t remember his name. Both my sons were avid Yankee rooters growing up and we used to spend many a summer evening sitting in front of our family room television, watching Bronx Bomber games together during the early 1990’s. Whenever a Yankee pitcher began struggling, I’d say to my boys, “They ought to bring in Wickham.” Both Matt and Mike would scream in unison, “Its Wick-MAN Dad, not Wick-HAM!”
This right-handed native of Green Bay, WI was originally a second round draft choice of the Chicago White Sox in 1990. Two years later, the Yankees acquired him, Melido Perez and another minor league pitcher named Domingo Jean in exchange for second baseman, Steve Sax. New York GM Gene Michael was desperate for pitching at the time and he was hoping Perez would become a solid long-time member of the Yankees’ starting rotation. But “the Stick” also liked Wickman a lot as a prospect and was thinking he’d be ready to contribute some wins at the Major League level two years down the road. It happened a lot faster than that.
One guy who didn’t like the deal was Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. He lambasted his GM publicly for getting too little in return for Sax, who had been New York’s only .300 hitter the season before. But it was Michael who was proven right, when Perez developed into the Yankees best starter during that 1992 season while Sax’s batting average was plunging to .234 in the Windy City. Making the trade an even bigger-time win for the Bronx Bombers was Wickman’s surprisingly good 6-1 record after being called up that August and inserted into manager Buck Showalter’s starting rotation.
Wickman had lost part of the index finger of his pitching hand in a childhood farming accident. He credited that partially missing digit as the reason his sinker ball sank so dramatically. He really had that pitch working during his second year in pinstripes, as he went 14-4 over 41 games, including 19 starts. Showalter than converted him into a full-time reliever and he became a workhorse for New York in that role over the next three seasons, appearing in 174 games during that span.
There were times during his years with the Yankees that he struggled with his control and had stretches during which he surrendered a rash of home-runs but for the most part Wickman pitched effectively in the pinstripes. That’s why I can clearly remember being disappointed in late August of 1996, when I first heard the news that the Yanks had traded him and outfielder Gerald Williams to the Brewers for utility man Pat Listach and reliever Graeme Lloyd. Wickman had been a big reason why the Yankees found themselves heading for the AL East crown that season and he was well-liked by his New York teammates. The deal prevented him from pitching in the 1996 World Series but he did receive a World Series ring for his contribution.
By 1998, he had worked himself into the closer’s role with the Brewers. He went on to accumulate over 250 saves during the final nine seasons of his pitching career, including a league-leading 45 with the Indians in 2005.
|CLE (6 yrs)||8||16||.333||3.23||255||0||215||0||0||139||248.1||249||98||89||21||78||197||1.317|
|NYY (5 yrs)||31||14||.689||4.21||223||28||56||1||1||11||419.1||432||212||196||31||183||259||1.467|
|MIL (5 yrs)||21||25||.457||3.20||272||0||174||0||0||79||315.0||292||128||112||23||148||267||1.397|
|ATL (2 yrs)||3||5||.375||2.84||77||0||65||0||0||38||69.2||72||29||22||5||22||60||1.349|
|ARI (1 yr)||0||1||.000||1.35||8||0||1||0||0||0||6.2||6||2||1||0||1||2||1.050|
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant had the opportunity to replace the great Thurman Munson as the Yankees’ starting catcher. This opportunity arose for the Tampa, FL native not in 1979, when Munson was tragically killed in his plane crash, but the year before, when the great Yankee catcher was still an All Star.
For Yankee fans, 1978 will always be an historic year. It was the season of the great comeback, when New York came from 14 games behind their hated rival, the Red Sox, on July 18th to capture the AL East crown. As that year’s All Star break approached, George Steinbrenner was panicking. He was certain he could make better lineup decisions than Billy Martin, so he decided to go ahead and make them. At the time, Martin was near a nervous breakdown. He was fighting with Steinbrenner, feuding with Reggie Jackson and drinking way too much. He loved being Manager of the Yankees so much that he let “The Boss” make his moves.
Steinbrenner benched veteran Roy White and inserted Gary Thomasson in left field. He also ordered Martin to play Munson in right field to rest the aging catcher’s knees and revive his batting stroke. He wanted to platoon Lou Piniella and Reggie Jackson at DH and start the 23-year-old rookie catcher, Mike Heath, who had just been called up from the Yankees’ double A team in West Haven, CT.
Steinbrenner’s revised lineup made their debut on July 13, a Thursday afternoon game against the White Sox, at Yankee Stadium. They lost four of the next five and in that fifth game; Billy Martin gave Reggie Jackson the infamous bunt sign and then tried to remove it. When Jackson defied Martin, Billy benched the slugger, with Steinbrenner’s approval. The Yankees proceeded to win five straight and Heath was actually doing fine both behind and at the plate, keeping his average right around .300. That’s when Martin made his famous “One’s a born liar and the others a convicted one” comment that got him fired.
The rest is Yankee history. Bob Lemon replaced Martin and Bucky Dent’s blast a few weeks’ later capped off the best Cinderella comeback story in New York’s franchise history. What happened to Heath?
Lemon continued to start the rookie at catcher for about a week, but when Heath’s offense cooled off a bit, the Manager put Munson back behind the plate so he could get both Piniella’s and Jackson’s bats back in the lineup. Lemon also began using Cliff Johnson as Munson’s primary backup receiver and Heath saw his playing time pretty much disappear during New York’s historic stretch run.
He did make the postseason roster but right after the Yankees won their second straight World Series against the Dodgers, Heath was included in the Sparky Lyle trade to Texas that brought Dave Righetti to New York. He ended up on Oakland in 1979 and became a very good big league catcher, primarily for the A’s and then the Tigers for the next fourteen seasons.
Would Heath have been able to replace Munson the following season, after the tragic plane crash? I don’t think so. His offense was probably not strong enough to keep him in that Yankee lineup.
|OAK (7 yrs)||725||2653||2438||280||612||99||18||47||281||32||158||312||.251||.296||.364||.660|
|DET (5 yrs)||453||1468||1353||153||360||60||6||34||143||20||86||233||.266||.314||.395||.708|
|ATL (1 yr)||49||150||139||4||29||3||1||1||12||0||7||26||.209||.250||.266||.516|
|STL (1 yr)||65||216||190||19||39||8||1||4||25||2||23||36||.205||.293||.321||.614|
|NYY (1 yr)||33||99||92||6||21||3||1||0||8||0||4||9||.228||.265||.283||.548|
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant had over 4,300 plate appearances during his fifteen-year big league career but only one of them was in a Yankee uniform. That was too bad for that era’s Yankee fans because William Herman Schaefer, or “Germany,” as he liked to be called, was one of the funniest, most entertaining Major League baseball players in the history of the game. He came up with the Cubs in 1901 and spent most of the rest of his career with Detroit and Washington. He played all of the infield positions at one time or another but mostly second base. He got his only Yankee at bat during the 1916 season and made an out. He also served as a coach on that New York team.
I don’t know who first came up with the saying, “You can’t steal first base,” but before 1920, Major League Baseball players actually could and today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant invented the maneuver. During a game against the White Sox in 1911, Germany was the runner on first and with a teammate on third the signal was on for a double steal. Schaefer did his part, making it safely to second. But when he looked over at third, the runner was still standing there. On the next pitch, old Germany became the first player in history to steal first base. He figured he had to do it so that the double steal could be attempted again and because it had never been done before, the umpires allowed it. Eventually the league passed a rule outlawing the maneuver.
In 1907, he hit his only home run of the season off Philadelphia A’s, Rube Waddell. Schaefer carried the bat with him around the bases and when he got to home plate, aimed it like a rifle at Hall of Fame hurler’s noggin and pulled the trigger. Every pitch Germany saw from Waddell for the rest of that season was aimed directly at his head. He once hit a home run and slid into every base on his way to home plate. If his team was ahead late in a game and it started raining, Schaefer would come to the plate wearing a raincoat or carrying an umbrella. Schaefer was so good at making the fans laugh he started a baseball-related vaudeville act after his playing days were over. That act served as the inspiration for the Hollywood film, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Schaefer also quickly changed his nickname from “Germany” to “Liberty” when America entered WWI .
He died of a heart attack, while on a train bound for Saranac Lake in northern New York state in 1919. Germany shares his birthday with this long-ago starting Highlander outfielder.
|WSH (6 yrs)||380||1267||1092||157||321||34||17||1||91||62||129||135||.294||.372||.359||.731|
|DET (5 yrs)||626||2519||2236||278||558||75||25||8||195||123||158||305||.250||.300||.316||.616|
|CHC (2 yrs)||83||330||296||32||60||3||3||0||14||12||21||48||.203||.260||.233||.493|
|NEW (1 yr)||59||183||154||26||33||5||3||0||8||3||25||11||.214||.328||.286||.613|
|CLE (1 yr)||1||5||5||2||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||.000||.000||.000||.000|
|NYY (1 yr)||1||1||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000||.000||.000||.000|
Celerino was born in El Guayabel, Mexico in 1944 and I believe he was the first native born Mexican to play for the Yankees. He didn’t get to do so for very long. He took over from Rich McKinney as New York’s starting third baseman during the 1972 season but the Yankees traded for Graig Nettles that November. Sanchez appeared in 34 games for New York in 1973 and was released. He returned to Mexico where he was killed in an automobile accident in 1992. He finished his Yankee and big league career with 76 hits, one home run and a .242 batting average.
I’ve listened to a lot of play-by-play announcers do baseball games, especially Yankee baseball games and I have to admit that none of them have done it better than Michael Kay is doing it right now. He’s knowledgeable, always well prepared, he’s got a sharp sense of humor and he’s got a great broadcasting voice to boot.
I thought Kay’s call of Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit was one of the best ever made. His ability to adjust to whoever YES throws in the booth with him is very impressive. Doesn’t matter if Paul O’Neill is insulting him, or David Cone is droning on and on about some pitcher’s delivery, Kay not only complements his partners in the booth, his ability to ask them extremely pertinent questions that draw on their own expertise and experience is a real plus for fans watching the game.
A native of the Bronx, Kay was a sports reporter for both the New York Post and Daily News before he began doing Yankee games on the radio for WABC in 1992. A gifted interviewer, if you haven’t seen his Center Stage interview program on the YES network make sure you check it out. He’s already won numerous Emmys for his television work and his daily ESPN Radio show is also very popular.
Like most Yankee fans, I sometimes get irked by some of the things Mr Kay has said into a microphone. I thought the biggest goof of his career was predicting the Texas Rangers were toast after the Yankees came back from a five run deficit to beat them in Game 1 of the 2010 ALCS. Despite these occasional misspeak’s, Kay has been an outstanding asset to Yankee broadcasting and I predict that some day he will end up in the broadcaster’s wing of Cooperstown.
I still remember the play. Opening Day 2003, Yanks are playing the Jays in Toronto and leading 1-0 when Derek Jeter walked with one out in the third inning. The next Yankee hitter, Jason Giambi hit a dribbler between the mound and third base. Jay third baseman Erik Hinske, shortstop Chris Woodward and pitcher Roy Halladay all went after the ball with Halladay reaching it first and nailing Giambi with a good throw to first. Meanwhile, Jeter raced to second and when he saw that neither Hinske or Woodward was covering third he kept running. Ken Huckaby, the Toronto catcher also saw that third base was uncovered and he ran like hell to get there before Jeter. In the mean time, first baseman Carlos Degado threw a bullet to the third base bag, hoping Huckaby would get there before both the ball and Jeter did. Jeter got their first and was safe on the play but a millisecond later, Huckaby arrived and when he tried to catch the ball and stop at the same time, he barreled into the Yankee shortstop, separating his shoulder in the process. Jeter went on the DL for the first time in his career and everyone wondered, what will the Yankees do without their shortstop.
The immediate options to take his place were Enrique Wilson, who was the utility infielder on that year’s Yankee roster or Erick Almonte, who was considered the organization’s top minor league shortstop at that time. The Dominican native had put together some decent offensive seasons in the Yankee farm system up to that point but his bat had actually been regressing more recently. In fact, the year before Jeter’s injury occurred, New York had demoted Almonte from triple A to double A because of his inability to hit.
That’s why everyone was pleasantly surprised when the Yanks decided to go with Almonte and he got off to a torrid start at the plate when he was called up to the Bronx. In his first game he homered, went 2-for-5 and drove in three runs. He hit safely in six of his first seven games and was averaging .333 after his first ten days as the Yankee shortstop. He would tail off a bit but was still hitting .272 when Jeter returned to the lineup in early May and the Yankees were in first place with a three game lead and a 26-10 record. While Yankee fans had missed the Captain, the truth is the Yankee team hadn’t. Erick Almonte had stepped up big time in Jeter’s absence. He would never get another chance to do so.
He was sent back down to Columbus for most of the rest of that 2003 season. He would later sign as a free agent with the Rockies and then play ball in Japan for a few years. He did not get back to the big leagues until 2011, when he made the Milwaukee Brewer roster as a spare outfielder. Unfortunately, he was beaned pretty severely and didn’t get a chance to play much. As of 2013, he was still playing minor league baseball. He turns 36-years-old today.
He shares his birthday with this former Yankee reliever, this Gold-Glove-winning center fielder, this one-time Yankee prospect and the player the Yanks got when they traded Tom Tresh.
|NYY (2 yrs)||39||115||104||17||28||7||0||1||11||3||8||25||.269||.327||.365||.693|
|MIL (1 yr)||16||29||29||1||3||0||0||1||3||0||0||4||.103||.103||.207||.310|
Today is the birthday of the player who got the first base hit in the original Yankee Stadium. His name was George Burns and he spent a large part of his life answering the question, “Which George Burns are you?” Back during the WWI era of MLB history there were two pretty good players using the same name as well as an up and coming Vaudeville performer who would later marry Gracie Allen and star with her in a popular TV show in the 1950’s.
The National League George Burns played most of his career with the Giants as an outfielder and averaged a very impressive .287 during his 15-years in the Senior Circuit. Then there was the American League George Burns, who averaged an even more robust .307 during his 16-year career in the Junior Circuit, which included brief appearances in a Yankee uniform at the very end of his playing career, during both the 1928 and ’29 seasons.
The NL George Burns was a very good defensive outfielder. The AL George Burns was a horrible defensive player but because he hit from the left side and handled a bat real well, he never had a problem finding a team that wanted him. To help keep the two straight, sportswriters back in the day would refer to the AL George Burns by his nickname, “Tioga George.” He had lived in Tioga, Pennsylvania for quite a while.
He put together some great seasons for the A’s, the Red Sox and the Indians, actually winning the AL MVP Award with Cleveland in 1925, when he set career highs in batting average (.356) and RBIs (112) while leading the league in both base hits (216) and doubles (64). On April 18, 1923, his single off of New York’s Bob Shawkey was the first official regular season hit recorded in the House that Ruth built. A few pitches later, Burns became the first runner ever thrown out attempting to steal a base in the new ballpark.
In September of 1928, Burns had been put on waivers by the Tribe and Miller Huggins told Yankee exec Ed Barrow to pick him up. The Yankee skipper wanted Burns on his bench for those times that called for a skilled left handed hitter. Burns, however, wasn’t sure he wanted to come to the Bronx and he refused to report until he had a chance to talk to Huggins to make sure it was not just an end-of-the-year and then you’re gone sort of deal. When Huggins assured him there’d be a spot for him on the team in 1929 as well, Burns made the move put on the pinstripes.
He was then used exclusively as a pinch-hitter and though he did start the ’29 season on the Yankee roster as Huggins had promised, he was sold back to the A’s that June. That suited Burns just fine because by then he made his home in Philly. He retired following that season and became a coach and manager in the Pacific Coast League following his playing career.
|CLE (7 yrs)||757||2882||2611||402||853||230||20||22||432||62||157||144||.327||.375||.455||.830|
|PHA (4 yrs)||307||1175||1084||130||344||59||18||16||145||28||50||53||.317||.359||.449||.809|
|DET (4 yrs)||496||1952||1756||206||467||76||24||15||220||47||91||170||.266||.313||.362||.675|
|BOS (2 yrs)||293||1218||1109||162||352||79||10||19||155||17||65||61||.317||.364||.458||.822|
|NYY (2 yrs)||13||13||13||1||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||5||.154||.154||.154||.308|