June 22 – Happy Birthday Jim Bronstad

This 6’3″ right-hander made his big league debut in 1959, as a member of the Yankee bullpen. He lost all three of his decisions but picked up two saves in his 16 appearances that season. He was sent back down to the minors in July of that season and the next time he pitched in the Majors was as a member of the Senators’ 1963 staff.

As I researched Bronstad’s career, I came across newspaper articles from the winter and spring of 1960 that talked about how the Yankees were really expecting this guy to make their big league roster that season. Then I came across a list of Yankee “prospects” who had been invited to the team’s 1960 spring training camp.The pitchers on that list were Bronstad, Bill Bethell, Tom Burrell, Frank Carpin, Ed Dick, Mark Freeman, John Gabler, George Haney, Johnny James, Billy Short, Bill Stafford, Hal Stowe and Don Thompson. Fritz Brickell was the only infield prospect invited to that camp and there were two catchers brought in by the names of Dan Bishop and Joe Miller. The outfielder invitees were Kent Hunt, Deron Johnson, Don Lock, Jack Reed and Roy Thomas. Of these 21 youngsters, only Stafford would end up making what I considered to be a significant contribution to the parent club during their subsequent careers. Deron Johnson and Don Lock would both become solid big leaguers with other organizations and Ken Hunt would have a couple of decent seasons as a member of the Angels. Remember, this was back in 1960, when Major League Baseball had just 16 teams so it was even tougher for a prospect to earn a roster spot with their parent club than it is today. Coincidentally, I was researching this information about the Yankees’ 1960 prospects last evening as I watched one of their 2013 prospects, outfielder Zoilio Almonte, hit his first big league home run against Tampa Bay. The odds are so stacked against these young kids, it truly has been and always will be a huge accomplishment for a young kid to become a star with the same big league organization that signs him.

Bronstad was born in Ft. Worth, TX. Just like “All my Ex’s” there have been some famous Yankees who have lived in Texas. There have not, however been many great Bronx Bombers who were born in the Lone Star State. Mickey Mantle moved his family to Dallas during his playing days. Roger Clemens was born in Ohio but moved to Texas when he was in high school. Andy Pettitte moved there from Louisiana. The honor of being the best-ever Texas-born Yankee is probably currently between Don Baylor, Chuck Knoblaugh and pitcher Ron Davis. Davis, in fact, is the only native born Texan to make an All Star team while wearing the Yankee uniform.

Jim Bronstad’s Yankee and career stats:

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1959 NYY 0 3 .000 5.22 16 3 8 0 0 2 29.1 34 19 17 2 13 14 1.602
3 Yrs 1 7 .125 5.48 45 3 20 0 0 3 93.2 110 61 57 11 37 45 1.569
WSA (2 yrs) 1 4 .200 5.60 29 0 12 0 0 1 64.1 76 42 40 9 24 31 1.554
NYY (1 yr) 0 3 .000 5.22 16 3 8 0 0 2 29.1 34 19 17 2 13 14 1.602
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/22/2013.

June 21 – Happy Birthday Russ Van Atta

Talk about hot starts, southpaw starting pitcher Russ Van Atta’s big league and Yankee debut on April 25, 1933 could have melted hard steel. The New Jersey native not only threw a complete game five-hit shutout against the Washington Senators in our nation’s capitol that day, he also had a perfect 4-for-4 day at the plate, scoring three runs and driving in another in New York’s 16-0 victory. The guy they called “Sheriff” would go on to win 12 of his 16 decisions in his rookie season and lead the AL with a .750 winning percentage. He also would end up hitting .283 that first season. You couldn’t blame the Yankee brass for thinking that Van Atta would be a key member of the their team’s starting rotation for at least the rest of that decade. It didn’t quite work out that way.

That December, a fire broke out in Van Atta’s home and while fighting or trying to escape the blaze, the Augusta, New Jersey native suffered a severe cut on his pitching hand. That injury severely impacted his pitching performance for the rest of his career. He began the ’34 season still a member of the Yankee rotation, but after getting hit hard in his first four starts, Joe McCarthy demoted Van Atta to the bullpen. Having watched both Joba and Phil Hughes try to go back and forth between the Yankee rotation and bullpen the past few seasons, it was not surprising for me to learn that Van Atta had problems making the moves as well. For the rest of that ’34 season he was used as a reliever and spot starter. He finished the year with a 3-5 record and a 5.30 ERA. He also developed a sore arm.

He was back in the bullpen to start the 1935 season but not for long. On May 15th of that year he was sold to the St. Louis Browns. He continued to struggle with his new team for the next four years, until his contract was sold to a minor league team in Toronto. After appearing in two games there, he hung up his glove for good. He finished his seven-year big league career 15-9 as a Yankee and 18-32 with St. Louis. He shares his June 21st birthday with another Yankee southpaw starting pitcher and the first Mormon to ever wear the Yankee pinstripes.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1933 NYY 12 4 .750 4.18 26 22 3 10 2 1 157.0 160 81 73 8 63 76 1.420
1934 NYY 3 5 .375 6.34 28 9 9 0 0 0 88.0 107 69 62 3 46 39 1.739
1935 NYY 0 0 3.86 5 0 2 0 0 0 4.2 5 5 2 0 4 3 1.929
7 Yrs 33 41 .446 5.60 207 76 66 17 3 6 712.1 838 498 443 39 368 339 1.693
SLB (5 yrs) 18 32 .360 5.95 148 45 52 7 1 5 462.2 566 343 306 28 255 221 1.774
NYY (3 yrs) 15 9 .625 4.94 59 31 14 10 2 1 249.2 272 155 137 11 113 118 1.542
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/21/2013.

June 20 – Happy Birthday Bill Werber

bill_werberhWhen he died in January of 2009, today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was 100 years old. He had become the oldest living MLB player and his book, Memories of a Ballplayer, co-written with baseball historian, Paul Rogers in 2001, represented his eye witness account of what playing in the big leagues was like back in the 1930s.

Werber’s Major League career actually began back in 1927, when he was a freshman at Duke University, where he was a brilliant athlete (the first Duke basketball player to be named All American) and a brilliant student (he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.) The legendary scout, Paul Krichell signed the first year collegian  to a Yankee contract and had him spend a couple of weeks during that ’27 season sitting on the bench of the famed Murderers Row team to pick up some knowledge of the game. According to Werber, he hated those two weeks because everybody simply ignored him.

He didn’t make it back to Yankee Stadium until 1930 when he got called up in June and appeared in three games at short and one at third for Manager Bob Shawkey’s team. He went 2-3 in his first big league start and also became Babe Ruth’s bridge partner on the train rides during Yankee road trips. Werber and Ruth would play partners against Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey and Werber remembered in his book, how Babe used to drink a bottle of Seagrams during those contests, gradually getting drunker and nastier as the game progressed.

Werber spent the 1932 season back in the minors and then was promoted back to the parent club when the ’33 season started, but not for long. The Yankees had a ton of left-side infielders in their organization back then, so they sold the native of Berwyn, Maryland to the Red Sox. That was the break Werber’s career needed. By 1934, he had become Boston’s starting third baseman and that year he reached the 200 hit mark for the first and only time of his career and led the AL with 40 stolen bases while batting .321. He ended up winning a total of three AL stolen base titles. Werber played until 1942 and finished his 11-year career with a .271 batting average and 1,363 career hits. He won a World Series ring in 1940 with the Reds. He was instrumental in Cincinnati’s victory in that seven game Fall Classic, as he smacked ten hits and batted .370.

Update: The above post was last updated in June of 2011. Since that time I have learned that when Werber left baseball in 1942, he sold life insurance for his father’s company. He evidently was pretty good at it because during his first year in that new career he earned over $100,000. When he retired from his second career he was a millionaire. I also learned from an interview with Werber published in a 2008 edition of the New York Times, that he was not Ruth’s bridge partner on those long-ago Yankee train rides but instead it would be him and Dickey versus the Bambino and Gehrig.  According to Werber, Babe and the Iron Horse weren’t too bright so he and Dickey would always win the $3.50 pot from card games. When Werber walked in his first ever Yankee at bat, Ruth came up behind him and hit a home run. Werber decided to take the opportunity to show his teammates just how fleet afoot he was and ran around the bases as fast as he could in front of Babe. When Ruth caught up to him in the dugout, he patted the rookie on top of the head and told him, “Son, you don’t have to run like that when the Babe hits one.

Here are Werber’s Yankee and career player stats:

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1930 NYY 4 17 14 5 4 0 0 0 2 0 3 1 .286 .412 .286 .697
1933 NYY 3 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
11 Yrs 1295 5842 5024 875 1363 271 50 78 539 215 701 363 .271 .364 .392 .756
BOS (4 yrs) 529 2372 2045 366 575 130 25 38 234 107 268 154 .281 .367 .425 .792
CIN (3 yrs) 399 1847 1601 276 435 79 12 21 151 45 212 110 .272 .362 .375 .738
PHA (2 yrs) 262 1175 992 177 273 53 11 18 139 54 167 76 .275 .381 .405 .786
NYY (2 yrs) 7 19 16 5 4 0 0 0 2 0 3 1 .250 .368 .250 .618
NYG (1 yr) 98 429 370 51 76 9 2 1 13 9 51 22 .205 .308 .249 .557
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/20/2013.