From the moment I started following my Yankees as a six-year-old in 1960 right up until the team’s fifth place finish in the AL Pennant race in 1965, I loved Major League Baseball’s Reserve Clause. It is what had permitted the Yankee’s skillful and ruthless front office to firmly imprison the best baseball talent in America in Pinstripes until they could no longer run, hit, field, or throw or at least until they could be traded for someone who could do these things a bit better.
But after 1966, my stance on the sanctity of this oppressive piece of contract language began to soften. Overnight, the Yankees’ glamorous galaxy of star players seemed to grow old. Compounding the problem was that CBS, the team’s new owner, stopped investing in the Yankee farm system and that thriftiness, combined with the impact of the newly introduced MLB Amateur Draft, caused New York’s cupboard of bonafide home grown prospects to quickly grow bare. Also coming back to bite the team in the rear end was the tendency of the Yankee front office to avoid signing black prospects all throughout the late forties and fifties.
So by the late sixties I was one of the biggest advocates of testing baseball’s reserve clause in the courts and when George Steinbrenner took control of my favorite team, I was actively rooting for Curt Flood’s legal victory.
The New York Yankee’s first signing in Baseball’s new free agent era took place on the very last day of 1974. At the time, Jim Catfish Hunter was the American League’s premier starter. He had just completed a string of four consecutive 20-victory seasons for Oakland, the ace pitcher on a team that had won the last three World Series.
Hunter’s best season in pinstripes turned out to be his first, in 1975. He won 23 of his 37 decisions, threw 7 shutouts and compiled a 2.49 ERA. It wasn’t enough to win the Yankees a pennant but that certainly was not Catfish’s fault. He literally pitched his arm off that year, completing 30 games and amassing 328 innings pitched. In fact, during the three seasons of 1974, ’75 and ’76, Hunter threw 944 innings of baseball and the damage caused to his arm by that strain helps explain why he spent much of his last three seasons with New York on the DL.
What many Yankee fans fail to fully appreciate about Hunter was his ability to pitch effectively and be a clubhouse leader on teams that had rosters full of strong player personalities led by eccentric, very vocal owners. Hunter’s experience with Charley Finley’s Oakland A’s prepared him well for the Bronx Zoo and George Steinbrenner. And even though he had just that one twenty-victory season with the Yankees, Catfish showed his Yankee teammates how to focus on winning while on the field and how to survive the glare of a hyperactive media, monitoring a crazy clubhouse.
I will never forget Catfish’s gutty seven-inning performance in Game 6 of the 1978 World Series. That victory clinched a second straight championship for New York and I felt it was Hunter’s finest moment as a Yankee.
Inducted into Cooperstown in 1987, Catfish died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, twelve years later.
Below is my all-time Yankee free agent lineup. Only players who became Yankees’ originally via free agency are eligible. This disqualifies Yankees like Derek Jeter, who became a free agent while he was a Yankee and re-signed with the team. It also disqualifies free agent signers like Andy Pettitte, who was a Yankee, left and then re-signed with NY as a free agent.
The Pinstripe Birthday Blog’s All-Time Yankee Free Agent Line-Up
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Steve Sax
3B Wade Boggs
SS Tony Fernandez
C Russ Martin/Butch Wynegar
OF Reggie Jackson
OF Dave Winfield
OF Hideki Matsui
DH Jason Giambi
P CC Sabathia
P Catfish Hunter
P Mike Mussina
P David Wells
CL Goose Gossage
Kenny Clay’s most famous moment in pinstripes was not a positive one. He had started a home game against the Royals in September of 1979 and was quickly staked to a 5-0 lead. By the time Billy Martin pulled him in the third inning, the lead had shrunk to one run and the Yankees ended up losing that contest 9-8. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was livid after the loss and when reporters asked him what he thought about Clay’s performance, the Boss told them that his once-prized pitching prospect had “spit the bit.”
Just four years earlier, Kenny Clay had been considered a can’t miss future member of the team’s starting rotation. The hard-throwing right-hander had put together a 28-18 record at the Triple A level of the minors but he could never duplicate that success in the big leagues. In three separate trials in the Bronx he was 6-14. After blowing that game in Kansas City and finishing the ’79 season with a horrible 1-7 record, Steinbrenner had seen enough and he traded Clay to Texas for Gaylord Perry during the 1980 season. Old Gaylord went 4-4 for New York the rest of that year while Clay was going 2-3 for the Rangers. Clay’s failure at the big league level gave the Boss even more impetus to turn to free agency and trades instead of his own farm system when the Yankees needed pitching talent.
Turns out that Clay had a bad habit of disappointing his employers. In 1986, he was convicted for stealing $30,000 from Jostens Inc. The company makes class rings for high schools and colleges and had hired Clay as a salesman. He escaped jail by making restitution and doing community service. In 1992 he stole a car from the car dealership he worked for and served hard time for that crime. In 1999 he went back to jail for forgery. Six years later, he forged the sale of a copier in an attempt to obtain a $7,500 commission check and ended up back in the slammer.
Clay is not the only one-time Yankee prospect to be born on April 6th. This first baseman and this Hawaiian-born outfielder both were considered top Yankee prospects in the first decade of the 21st century, but like Clay, neither made much of an impact as a Yankee or as a big leaguer.
They called today’s birthday celebrant “Silent John” because he never argued with umpires. Back during the first two decades of the twentieth century, when Hummel became one of baseball’s best known utility players for the old Brooklyn Superbas, not arguing with the umps was almost equivalent to playing the game without your uniform on. The flexible Hummel played a lot of first base, second, shortstop and outfield for Brooklyn, during his 11 seasons with that team. The Superbas released Hummel after the 1915 season and he spent the next two years playing minor league ball. During the 1918 season, an injury bug and WWI forced the Yankees and their first-year Manager, Miller Huggins, to raid the minor leagues for talent. They found Hummel and put him in Yankee pinstripes. He appeared in just 22 games that year, which turned out to be the final 22 games of his big league career. He is the only Yankee to be born on April 4 but he is not the only Yankee to have been born in The Keystone State. Here is my list of the top five Yankees to be born in Pennsylvania:
There are also a bunch of good players named “John” on the all-time Yankee roster. My top five list of Pinstripe John’s would include: Johnny Damon, John Wetteland, Johnny Blanchard, Johnny Lindell and of course, two-time Yankee 20-game-winner, Tommy John. There was also the only Yankee player named “John” to make it into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. That would be the Big Cat, Johnny Mize.
Casey Stengel fell in love with Art Ditmar during the 1959 and 1960 regular seasons. The “Ol Perfessor” had good reason to. Ditmar won 13 games in ’59 and then surprised everyone by leading the Yankees back to the World Series in 1960 by going 15-9. But that’s when Casey overplayed his hand with the right-hander. He gave the Winthrop, MA native the start in Game 1 against the Pirates instead of Whitey Ford. Ditmar lasted only an inning and took the loss. By holding Ford out of Game 1, Stengel could only pitch his left-handed ace twice if the series went to seven games and that of course is exactly what happened. Ditmar got hit hard and yanked early again in Game 5 while Ford pitched complete game shutouts in Games 2 and 6. After the Yankees lost the Series on Bill Mazeroski’s historic game-winning home-run, Stengel was fired and Ditmar’s Yankee career was on borrowed time. During his four-plus seasons in pinstripes, Art went 47-32 with a 3.24 ERA and 11 saves.
Ditmar may have been a big goat in the 1960 Series but he went to court years later to prove he wasn’t the only goat. When Mazeroski hit his home run, the announcer, Chuck Thompson, mistakingly said that the Pirate second baseman had hit a pitch from Ditmar instead of the actual pitcher at the time, Ralph Terry. When one of those “taste great – less filling” Miller Beer commercials repeated the same error in the 1980′s, Ditmar attempted to sue for damages, claiming the advertisement held him up to undeserved public ridicule and might be costing him autograph, special appearance and memorabilia revenues. The judge hearing the case threw the suit out of court.
Talk about a perfect birthday celebrant for April Fools’ Day, this five-time All Star’s legendary knuckleball fooled thousands of Major League hitters during a 24-year career. The late Bobby Murcer once said that trying to hit Niekro’s signature pitch was like trying to eat jello with chopsticks. The Pitcher once told a Baseball Digest columnist that his goal was to throw the knuckler right down the heart of the plate and let the ball do the rest. He confessed to having no idea where his pitches would end up but either did the hitter. “Knucksie” spent 21 seasons pitching for the Braves before signing with the Yankees in 1984, as a free agent. In his two seasons in pinstripes, he won 32 games including his 300th career victory in 1985. Only five other Major League hurlers won more games than Niekro did during the two seasons he pitched in the Bronx.
Following the 1985 season, New York signed Phil’s younger brother Joe, also a knuckleballer, as a free agent. The Neikro’s were looking forward to pursuing and eclipsing Gaylord and Jim Perry’s record for most ML victories by two brothers, as Yankee teammates. That didn’t happen. Right before their 1986 spring training camp broke, the Yankees played a cruel and early April Fools joke on the Niekro siblings when they unexpectedly released Phil. Both Niekro’s were bitter about the decision claiming the New York front office knew the only reason Joe signed with the team was the opportunity to pitch with his older brother. Phil pitched for two more seasons, retiring in 1987 with a lifetime record of 318-274. He also won five Gold Gloves and made five All Star teams during his long career. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997. The Niekro boys did become the winning-est set of siblings in league history with 538, surpassing the Perry’s by nine victories.
There have been a total of four 300-game-winning pitchers who wore the Yankee pinstripes during their careers. They are listed below in order of their lifetime victories:
He’s back and I wish I could honestly end this sentence with the phrase “he’s better than ever,” but that would be a stretch. That’s because in 2006 and 2007 when this elegant Taiwanese right-hander was throwing his hard sinking slider every fifth day in the Yankee rotation, he was one of the very best pitchers in baseball.
If it had been any other player in that fateful day’s Yankee lineup besides Jorge Posada on first base when Chien-Ming Wang laid down that bunt against the Houston Astros, Wang might still be a Yankee today.
At the time, Wang was on his way to earning his eighth victory of the 2008 season against just two defeats. Because it was an inter-league game being played at the NL team’s home park, there was no DH and Wang had to take at bats. Leading 3-0 in the sixth, Wang came to the plate with men on first and second with one out. He attempted a sacrifice but Astro pitcher Roy Oswalt was able to field the bunt and make the throw to third in time to nail the very slow Posada. The play forced Wang to become the baserunner at first. That’s when the floodgates opened for the Yankee offense as they proceeded to score six runs. Unfortunately for Wang and the Yankees, as he was running the bases to score the second of those six runs, he tore a tendon in his right foot and his season was over. As it turned out, so was the Yankees’ thirteen year streak of playoff appearances and effectively, so was Wang’s Yankee career.
My point is this. If its Jeter or A-Rod or Abreu on second at the time, Oswalt probably forgets about the play at third and goes to first for the second out of the inning.
I am a big fan of Wang despite the fact that he never seemed to pitch well in the playoffs. He had a 55-26 career record with New York. Four years ago at his time I was hoping he’d settle in as the number three starter behind CC and AJ and have a great year. That didn’t happen. When he did come back from his foot injury, probably a bit too early, he wasn’t able to replicate his old delivery and hurt his throwing shoulder. He underwent shoulder surgery and signed with the Nationals, finally making it back to a big league mound in late July of 2011. He got 11 starts for Washington during the second half of that season. He finished with a 4-3 record and the Nats re-signed him to a $4 million deal to pitch for them in 2012. He then regressed last year and Washington let him walk. I thought his career was over. But then came this year’s World Baseball Championships during which Wang pitched 12 effective innings for his native Taiwan.
The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal after the tournament and now we will see if Wang can work his way back onto the Yankee pitching staff. His best shot would most likely be as a long reliever. This guy’s been through a lot during the past five years, not just physically with his injuries but emotionally in his private life as well. I’d love to see him get a chance to help the Yankees get into another postseason.
The only former Yankee celebrating a birthday today is a big right hander named Dick Woodson, who appeared in just eight games for New York during the 1974 season and then left the big leagues. Woodson did all of his other pitching for the Twins. I can actually remember when he broke into their rotation. Back then, Minnesota had a young Bert Blyleven, veteran Jim Perry and one of my all-time favorite Yankee announcers, Jim “Kitty” Kaat, as starters. Those three guys had a total of 785 regular season victories between them. Woodson won 14 games as a Twin starter in 1972 and 10 more the following season. Then in May of 1974, Minnesota swapped Woodson for a lefthanded pitching prospect named Mike Pazik, who had been the Yankees first round pick in the 1971 draft. Neither pitcher performed well for their new teams. Woodson had actually torn his rotator cuff before the trade and back in those days, that injury ended a pitcher’s career.
Woodson did, however, play a significant role in baseball history when, in 1974 he was handpicked by the legendary Marvin Miller to become the first Major League Player to go through the newly established arbitration process. Miller had studied every eligible player’s contract and discovered Woodson was the most underpaid player in baseball. At the time, the Twins stingy owner, Calvin Griffith was paying the pitcher $15,000 and had offered him a $2,000 raise after a 14-victory season. Miller’s minions had discovered that pitchers with similar stats were making two and even three times more than Woodson was being offered. Woodson’s arbitration starting point was $30,000 and he won his case easily.
Cy Young was born on today’s date, way back in 1867. The legendary right-hander won 511 games during his 22-season career, more than any other man in baseball history. Young ended up in Cooperstown. He set such a standard for pitching excellence that the award given annually to the best pitcher in each league is named after him. One of the pitchers to win that award was also born on this date, 77 years after Young. His name was Denny McLain and he actually won the AL Cy Young Award two times in a row. McLain was baseball’s last thirty-game winner and he’s also quite a character who battled both drinking and gambling addictions and ended up in jail.
A Yankee pitcher also born on this date never came close to winning thirty games in a season or a Cy Young Award. His name is Bill Castro. He was a very good relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers for much of the 1970′s, winning 25 games and saving 44 more during his seven seasons with that team. The Yankees signed this right-handed native of the Dominican Republic as a free agent in February of 1981. Castro ended up pitching in just eleven games for New York during the strike-shortened season that followed, winning one and losing one decision. The Yankees then traded him to the Royals for third baseman Butch Hobson. When he stopped playing he got into coaching and worked for the Brewers organization until 2009. We know Castro won’t be following Cy Young to Cooperstown and let’s hope he never follows Denny McLain to jail, either.
2013 Yankee Regular Season Finish Prediction
I still can’t believe a New York Yankee team with a payroll that exceeds $200 million will be featuring the Opening Day lineup I’ve projected above. When the Yankees postseason ended last October, I was pretty certain that Nick Swisher would not be returning to New York this year and though I was hoping they’d re-sign Russell Martin, I knew there was a better than even chance that he wouldn’t be around the next Opening Day either. But I figured Cashman had to re-sign Raul Ibanez after his great postseason run.
Well the Yanks will open their 2013 season this week and in addition to Martin, Swisher and Ibanez, they will also be missing Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson from the lineup they fielded for Opening Day just one year earlier. Teixeira and A-Rod are recuperating from serious injuries that may keep them on the sidelines for much of this regular season. Jeter is still recovering from a badly broken ankle and the Grandy Man won’t be back till May, when a broken arm he suffered during his first spring training at-bat is fully healed.
Fortunately, New York’s starting pitching staff is mostly healthy (except for Phil Hughes) and relatively deep. Ditto for their very strong bullpen. So the task at hand for this skimpy patched together Yankee offense is to score enough runs to win enough games to keep New York within single digits of the AL East lead by June 1. Their record was 27-23 on that date last year. As long as they can keep it around the .500 mark this year, the returning members of the Yankee offense should provide the added boost needed to get them close to at least a postseason wild card spot. But I confess that I honestly have no idea if this new Yankee lineup is capable of doing that. A lot depends on how well their AL East opponents do. Toronto made the biggest roster improvements this off season and Tampa should again have the pitching quality necessary to keep the Rays in contention. I don’t expect Baltimore to digress and even Boston should be better because they no longer have their crazy skipper and added several positive pieces to their lineup during the winter.
Only the Yankee Opening Day lineup looks significantly worse on paper than it did last year so we need to remember that looks can be deceiving, at least until June.
Whatever happened to the bullpen cars and golf carts that Major League teams use to use to transport relief pitchers from the home team’s bullpen to the pitching mound? The Yankees had a pinstriped Datsun making this trip for quite a while. I remember thinking how unneighborly it was to force the opposing team’s relievers to walk from their pen to the mound while providing air conditioned transport to the homie’s. Did the occupants of the car listen to the radio during these rides? What did the conversation between driver and pitcher consist of? You’d think teams would have been smart enough to have their bullpen coaches drive these vehicles so they could spend those last precious few moments discussing the best pitching strategies for the passenger to use with the hitters he was about to face. How many times did we see anxious relief pitchers waiting for their ride to show up alongside the bullpen? Where was the vehicle, out getting gas?
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant causes me to ponder an even more important historical question about the New York franchise’s use of bullpen vehicles. Bill Zuber became a Yankee pitcher in 1943, just as the exodus of Major League players to wartime service was peaking. The deal that brought this native of Iowa to the Bronx was decidedly one-sided. New York gave the Senators a very good second baseman named Jerry Priddy and a promising young pitcher named Milo Candini in exchange for Zuber and both had very strong first years for Washington in 1943.
Perhaps New York’s motivation for the deal was their certainty that their new acquisition would be around to pitch despite the conflicts going on in Europe and the Pacific at the time. The Yankees knew they could depend on having Zuber on their roster through the War’s end because he was a member of a religious group known as The Amana Church Society. Members of this group were against all wars and were granted conscientious objector status by the US Government. This Society also believed that it was a sin to make use of modern machinery like automobiles. So what would have happened if back in 1943, ’44 or ’45, when Zuber was putting together an 18-23 record for Joe McCarthy’s wartime Yankees as a starter and reliever, the Skipper summoned this big peace-loving right hander from the bullpen to pitch in a game and the Yankees were making use of a bullpen vehicle? Would Zuber have put himself in the passenger seat or would he instead have pointed to the sky, like Bobby Abreu used to do every time he got a base hit and proceed to walk the walk?
In any event, as you can see from the graphic accompanying this post, Zuber went into the restaurant business after his baseball career ended. He found away to merge his new business, his Yankee past and his religiosity by adorning the back page of his restaurant’s menu with his former Yankee Manager’s “Ten Commandments of Baseball.”
Also born on March 26th is this former Yankee infielder who played a lot of second base for New York when Chuck Knoblaugh developed his severe case of the Steve Blass throwing disease.
Lee Mazzilli had the good fortune of joining the Mets during the late seventies. He had Hollywood looks, was born in Brooklyn and during the first six seasons of his big league career he became a darling of Met fans, but not because he was an All Star caliber player. No, “Maz” became a Shea Stadium favorite because he played hard every day on some of the worst teams in Met history and alongside many mediocre teammates. So in comparison, Lee looked like an All Star even though he was a pretty ordinary player.
After the 1981 strike-shortened season, the Mets sent Mazzilli to Texas for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. The Yankees then swapped Bucky Dent for Lee during the 1982 season and Mazzilli hit .266 during his 37-game playing career in pinstripes. He retired as a player in 1989 with 93 home runs, 1068 hits and a .259 lifetime batting average during his 14-seasons in the bigs. After hanging up his glove, Mazzilli got into coaching and was reunited with his old Met manager, Joe Torre on the Yankee coaching staff in 2000. He was then hired to manage Baltimore in 2004 but that didn’t work out too well. Lee turns 58 years old today but he still looks like he’s in his thirties.
Another former Yankee who has a March 25th birthday is this former middle infielder who played most of his big league ball outside of the Bronx.