Results tagged ‘ catcher ’
How many third string catchers hit 21 home runs in a season? That’s exactly what this Minneapolis native did in 1961, while playing behind both Elston Howard and Yogi Berra. In the 1961 Fall Classic, Blanchard blasted two home runs against the Reds in just ten total at-bats.
He had been a three sport all-star in high school who could have attended the University of Minnesota on a basketball scholarship, but chose to play baseball instead. The Yankees gave him a $50,000 bonus to sign with them in 1951, which at the time was a huge amount of money. Having been an outfielder during his high school days, Blanchard entered a Yankee organization loaded with outfielders at every level. Since they gave him so much money to sign, New York decided to start him near the top, in triple A ball with their Kansas City affiliate. When he struggled there he was demoted to single A Binghamton, where he played even worse. It was right about this time that the Yankees got the idea to convert him to catcher, and that conversion began when Blanchard was again demoted during his first season in the minors, this time to the Class C Amsterdam Rugmakers, who used to play in my New York State hometown.
The following year, he started to catch full time for the Yankees’ class C team in Joplin Missouri and banged 30 home runs and averaged .301. Just when he thought he was on his way, Uncle Sam called and Blanchard spent the next two years of his life in the US Army. He made his Yankee debut during a brief 1955 cup-of-coffee preview and then was brought up for good in 1959. The problem was that when he finally reached the Bronx, both Yogi Berra and Elston Howard were doing his job just fine and Blanchard quickly became convinced that Yankee skipper Casey Stengel did not like him. He did however, appear in five games during New York’s 1960 World series defeat to Pittsburgh and averaged .455 in that Fall Classic. But it wasn’t until Ralph Houk took over the team in 1961 and made Berra his left fielder that Blanchard finally started seeing more game action.
Johnny played seven seasons in all for the Yankees and got to the World Series five times. Nobody loved wearing the pinstripes more than this guy. I read an interview with Mel Stottlemyre not too long ago in which the former Yankee pitcher recalled the day during the 1965 season when he walked into the Yankee clubhouse before a game and found Blanchard crying inconsolably. The Yankees had just traded the catcher and pitcher Roland Sheldon to the A’s for catcher Doc Edwards. Blanchard had a good bat but a weak arm. Elston Howard had just been injured and put on the disabled list and the Yankees feared opposing teams would run crazy on Blanchard so they made the trade. Like everything else New York did during that 1965 season, Edwards turned out to be a bust. This popular Yankee died in March of 2009.
Blanchard had been a big drinker during his Yankee days. In fact, one of his best friends on the Yankees had been Ryne Duren, who was hardly ever sober. Fortunately, after he retired, Blanchard realized his problem and kicked the habit. He became a successful salesman for printing companies.
This pitcher who shares Blanchard’s birthday was the first ex Yankee to become a Texas Ranger. I’m not referring to the Texas Ranger baseball team, I mean the real Texas Rangers! This one-time Yankee first base prospect was also born on February 26.
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He has one of the coolest names ever for an MLB player. Before Muddy Ruel became the greatest catcher in Washington Senator franchise history, he shared the New York Yankee starting catcher responsibilities during the 1919 and 1920 seasons with fellow receiver Truck Hannah. Despite being physically small for his position at 5’9″ and just 150 pounds, Ruel became one of the best defensive catchers in league history. There was nothing he could not do well from behind the plate and despite his diminutive size, Ruel was famous for his refusal to back down from much larger hard-charging base runners attempting to score. He was also a skilled hitter, averaging .275 during his 19 big league seasons.
With New York, Ruel averaged .251 during his two seasons in the Bronx. The Yankee team he joined as a 22-year-old had not yet acquired Babe Ruth from Boston but it was a quickly-improving ball club under the control of its talented skipper, Miller Huggins. Ruel started 69 games behind the plate for Huggins in 1919 and 76 more the following year. He was behind the plate in the August 1920 game, when New York pitcher Carl Mays beaned and killed Roy Chapman of the Cleveland Indians. Ruel would be asked about that tragic event for the rest of his days and always insisted Mays was not trying to hit Chapman.
When Ruth joined the team during Ruel’s second year as a starter, the Yankees instantly became one of the better teams in baseball and Ruel’s future with the emerging dynasty looked strong and secure. But that future ended abruptly in December of 1920, when the Yankees and Red Sox pulled off a huge eight player trade. The key players involved were Yankee second baseman Del Pratt and Boston pitcher Waite Hoyt, but the transaction also included a swap of the two teams’ catchers, Ruel for Wally Schang.
Muddy would start behind the plate for the Red Sox for the next two years and then get dealt to the Senators, where he would be paired with the immortal Walter Johnson, to form one of the great batteries in baseball history. The pair would lead Washington to the only two World Series appearances in that team’s long history in 1924 and ’25 and it would be Ruel who would score the winning run in the seventh and final game of the 1924 Fall Classic that earned that ball club its one and only world championship.
Ruel played for the Senators through 1930 and then spent the last four years of his playing career with four different teams. He had earned his law degree during his off-seasons with Washington, but instead of practicing law when his playing days were over, he went into coaching, then managing, then front office work and even became a special assistant to Baseball Commissioner, Happy Chandler for a while. He finally left the game for good in 1956 and moved to Italy for a year so his children could have the experience of attending school abroad. Ruel died in 1963 from a heart attack at the age of 67.
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As near as I could figure, Chris Stewart’s most important asset is his ability to effectively frame pitches. That’s a term that describes how catchers position and quickly move their gloves on pitches that are just out of the strike zone in an effort to deceive umpires into thinking they are strikes. Now you probably find it as hard to believe as I do that the mighty Yankees would reward any catcher with the starting job behind the plate based on an ability to steal strikes. The truth is of course that the richest team in baseball had decided after the 2012 regular season that they were going to lower their annual player payroll to $189 million by 2014, which would save them $50 million in subsequent luxury tax payments. To get the dollars down to that level, they’ decided to gamble, or actually penny-pinch with the catcher’s position. Instead of paying Russell Martin the $7.5 million in annual salary it would have taken to keep him in a Yankee uniform for the next two years, they let Martin go to the Pirates and put Chris Stewart in the starting catchers’ slot. That’s the same slot once filled by the likes of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Ellie Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada and last winter, the Yankee front office thought it was a good idea to put Stewart in it.
Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi believed that Stewart was as good a defensive catcher as Martin was for them and I guess that might have been true. It appeared that most of the Yankee rotation didn’t mind and might have actually preferred having Stewart behind the plate instead of Martin when they were on the mound. But Stewart lacked Martin’s offensive skills, especially in the power and base-running departments and he’s not as “fiery” as the former Yankee catcher either. My biggest concern with Stewart behind the plate was his near automatic-out track record with the bat. Opposing pitchers had little to fear when they faced him and that wasn’t a good situation for the Yankees, especially during the team’s injury-plagued 2013 season during which every one of their top offensive weapons, with the exception of Robbie Cano spent mucho time on the DL.
As it turned out, the Yankee front office put Stewart in a no-win situation last year. He proved he couldn’t handle the starting catching responsibilities and in the process lost his claim to the role of serving as the team’s back-up receiver. This winter, New York went out and signed Brian McCann. He is everything Stewart was not and if he stays healthy, will help my favorite team return to postseason play. Meanwhile, the Yanks traded Stewart to the Pirates where ironically, he will once again serve as the backup to Russell Martin, a role that suits him perfectly. I wish him well.
In addition to the Yankees, Stewart has saw time with the White Sox, Rangers, Padres and Giants. He shares his birthday with this former Yankee shortstop.
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When Jorge Posada tore his shoulder muscle during the 2008 season, the Yankees tried to make do with the backstop platoon of Jose Molina and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Originally drafted by New York out of high school in 1993, Moeller decided to instead play college ball for USC. Three years later, he was the Twins seventh round pick, even though he had torn his ACL in a home plate collision on the very last play of his USC career. He made his big league debut with Minnesota in 2000 and the following spring he was traded to the Diamondbacks where he would eventually become Randy Johnson’s personal receiver.
Tall for a catcher at 6′ 3″, Moeller had decent defensive skills but he was always a below-average big league hitter. His only shot at starting had come with the Brewers in 2004 and when he averaged just .208 that season, he was destined to remain a second-string receiver for the rest of his career. If you’re going to be a backup position player and survive in the big leagues, your best shot is as a catcher since every team is forced to carry at least two of them at all times. That fact helped Moeller put together an 11-year Major League career with seven different teams.
When Posada’s shoulder started hurting during the 2008 spring training season, the Yanks signed Moeller as a free agent insurance policy. When Hip Hip Jorge’s injury did not improve, the Yanks restricted him to DH duty and brought Moeller up in mid April to back up Molina. The Upland, California native surprised everyone including me by hitting a robust .350 during that initial call-up. When it was later determined that Posada’s shoulder would require season-ending surgery, Moeller was brought back up to the Bronx where he would pretty much become the personal catcher of Yankee veteran Andy Pettitte and Yankee rookie, Darrell Rasner.
Moeller ended up appearing in 41 games for New York that year. It would have been more but neither he (Moeller finished 2008 with a .231 average) or Molina (who finished with a .216 average) were hitting well and the Yankees’ offense was sputtering. That’s why, on July 30th of that season, GM Brian Cashman acquired veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez from the Tigers for Yankee reliever Kyle Farnesworth. Unfortunately by then, I-Rod’s best offensive days were behind him and he would end up hitting just .218 in pinstripes and the Yankees ended up missing the postseason for the first time in thirteen years. One thing Moeller did exhibit that year was an improved throwing arm. He threw out almost 40% of the runners attempting to steal off of him in 2008, a career high. His lifetime average was just 24%.
New York let Moeller become a free agent after that 2008 season. He spent the following year as a backup catcher with Baltimore. The Yankees re-signed him in April of 2010 and he played his final nine big-league games in pinstripes. He retired with 315 career hits, 29 home runs and a lifetime batting average of .226.
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Unless they had another move to acquire a catcher in mind before Opening Day of the 2013 regular season, the Yankees made a mistake by not re-signing Russell Martin. Instead, they allowed their starting catcher for the 2011 and ’12 seasons to make a new two-year $15 million deal for himself with Pittsburgh. I realize this native Canadian had a very bad offensive season in 2012, but his game management skills and defense remained steady and he did pound 21 home runs. None of the trio of receivers who will battle to take over Martin’s job in 2013 will be as good as he was for New York.
My single biggest concern about the former Dodger catcher when the Yankees signed him before the 2011 season was his health. He had hurt his hip during the 2010 season and the injury required surgery. But Martin had worked like crazy to recuperate from that operation and was able to catch 253 games during his two years in the Big Apple. His pinstripe career got off to a great start during the first half of 2011 and he made the AL All Star team. But his offense then pretty much abandoned him until he finally started hitting again during the final month of the 2012 season. Fortunately, he never let those hitting woes impact his solid work behind the plate. I loved the fact that he had the confidence and catching ability necessary to have Yankee pitchers throw their nastiest curves and sliders when hitters were ahead in the count or with opposing runners on base. When Martin was on a roll, be could block short pitches and dig them out of the dirt as well as any catcher I’ve seen. I also liked the fact that Martin had some pop in his bat (39 home runs in his two seasons with New York) and some speed in his legs. He’s stolen 80 bases during his seven years in the big leagues. Plus the guy turns just 30-years-old today.
I think Pittsburgh got themselves one of the ten best catchers in baseball for their 2013 lineup. Meanwhile, neither Chris Stewart or Francisco Cervelli have really proven they’ve got the all-around skills to handle the role of a big league team’s starting catcher. A still developing Austin Romine hasn’t either. That means the Yanks go into a new season with a big question mark at one of baseball’s most important positions, when for $15 million over the next two seasons they could have had one of the better catchers in baseball in that slot. Brian Cashman has said the organization is just biding time, waiting for 19-year-old Gary Sanchez, the franchise’s number 1 catching prospect to be ready for the big show. But that’s at least two years and two postseasons away. Having Martin behind the plate until that happened was a wise and affordable option.
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All the hopeful comments I read and hear about the Yankee’s top catching prospect, Gary Sanchez, remind me of the similar hype surrounding today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant back at the turn of this century. The Yankees signed Dioner Navarro as an amateur free agent in 2000 and three seasons later this native Venezuelan hit .341 for double-A Trenton and was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year. Only 19-years-old at the time, he was being groomed as the eventual replacement for Jorge Posada. He got Yankee fans really excited when New York brought him up to the parent club in September of 2004 and the kid hit .429 in the seven games in which he got a chance to play.
Just a few weeks later, the Yankees suffered their famous collapse against Boston in the 2004 ALCS and New York’s front office went into a panic mode for a pitching ace. They settled on Randy Johnson but it cost them Navarro. Arizona then turned right around and traded their new acquisition to the Dodgers in a deal for Shawn Greene. He was given a shot to battle Russell Martin for the Los Angeles starting catcher’s job but he broke his wrist. The Dodgers ended up dealing him to Tampa Bay the following season and he started for the Rays behind the plate from 2007 until 2010, when he lost his job to John Jaso. Navarro’s best season was 2008 when he averaged .297 and made the AL All Star team. He turns just 29-years-old today and spent the 2012 season as a backup catcher for the Reds.
After the Yankees traded Navarro, they signed another teen-aged native-Venezuelan catching prospect to take his place as Posada’s heir apparent. The new kid’s name was Jesus Montero. He too gave Yankee fans something to get excited about in a late season call-up a couple seasons ago and then got traded to Seattle. Perhaps now you understand why I refuse to get too excited about Gary Sanchez.
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Johnny Oates’ two most significant interactions with the New York Yankees during his long career as a big league back-up catcher and manager, suffered from the same problem, poor timing. By the time he got to wear the pinstripes as a player, he was 34-years old and at the very tail end of his career. The Yankees signed Oates as a free agent at the very beginning of the 1980 regular season to serve as Rick Cerone’s backup. That happened to also be Cerone’s first season as the Yankees’ successor to Thurman Munson and he went out and had the greatest year of his entire big league career, starting an incredible 147 games behind the plate. That left Oates with a table-scrap portion of catching to do and when he hit just .188 while doing it, you knew his pinstriped days were numbered. He did manage to make the Yankees’ Opening Day roster the following year, but when his anemic offense continued during the first two months of the 1981 season, the Yankees turned to Barry Foote as Cerone’s new backup and released Oates as a player, offering instead to employ him as a minor league manager.
A decade later, the native North Carolinian became the skipper of the Baltimore Orioles, replacing Frank Robinson, 37 games into the 1991 regular season. He lasted in that job for the next three seasons, finishing with a winning record in each of them and earning plenty of admirers along the way. One of them was Texas Ranger GM Doug Melvin who hired Oates to manage his Arlington-based ball club. Johnny would spend seven seasons in that position, leading the Rangers to three AL West Division titles during that time and winning the 1996 AL Manager of the Year Award. His one abject failure during his Ranger years was his inability to get his Texas teams past the Yankees in three different postseasons. The Rangers’ record against New York during their three ALDS confrontations was 1-9. The last of those three series was particularly hard on Oates, as the Rangers high-powered offense was able to produce just one measly run in their three games against the Bronx Bombers.
Less than two years later, Oates was replaced as Ranger skipper by Jerry Narron, the former Yankee backup catcher Oates himself had replaced two decades earlier. Johnny Oates would never manage another big league team, ending his 11-year career with an overall 797-746 record as a skipper. Shortly after being dismissed as the Texas manager, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in Oates’ brain. Though given just a year to live, a determined Oates lasted three, dying in 2004 at the age of 58.
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Jerry began his eight-year big league career as a Yankee in 1979, the same year New York’s captain and catching great, Thurman Munson, was killed in a plane crash. Unable to produce with his bat, the Yankees traded Narron to Seattle the following season in a deal that brought Rupert Jones to the Bronx. After two seasons with the Mariners, he went back to the minors, emerging again in 1983 with California. He spent four seasons with the Angels backing up their starting catcher, Bob Boone. He finished his Major League playing days with a puny .211 average but as is often the case with utility catchers, he also became a student of the game. He got into coaching and then managing and has skippered both the Texas Rangers and more recently, the Reds.
Narron was born in Goldsboro, NC, on January 15, 1956. The Tar Heel State has not produced many Yankees although three of their native sons have worn the pinstripes during Hall of Fame careers. They are Catfish Hunter, Enos Slaughter and Gaylord Perry.
Narron shares his January 15th birthday with the only big league player to be born on the Island of Samoa and this short-term Yankee reliever.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was the back up catcher on one of the greatest teams in MLB history, the 1927 Yankees. Johnny Grabowski had broke into the big leagues with the White Sox in 1924 and spent three seasons in the Windy City as a backup receiver to Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk. In January of 1927, Chicago traded him and a second baseman named Ray Morehart to the Yankees for second baseman, Aaron Ward. Ward had lost his starting position in New York to a rookie phee-nom named Tony Lazzeri in 1926, making him expendable. Grabowski was the key to the deal for New York. He had developed a reputation with the White Sox as a good defensive catcher and the Yankees wanted him to backup their regular receiver, Pat Collins.
Grabowski filled that spot admirably in 1927, getting 56 starts behind the plate that season and averaging a healthy .277. With Ruth and Gehrig providing the punch, that Yankee team set a record for wins in a 154 game season with 110 and then swept the Pirates in four games in the 1927 World Series. The juggernaut continued the following year as the Yankees won their second straight pennant and pulled off their second straight four-game World Series sweep, this time versus the Cardinals. Grabowski actually started more games behind the plate than any other New York catcher during the 1928 regular season, but his batting average plummeted to just .238 and that offensive ineptitude got him left off that year’s World Series roster. When Grabowski’s offensive troubles continued during the first half of the 1929 season, the Yankees released him.
Grabowski eventually returned to the minors and then got a second shot at the big leagues with Detroit in 1931. When he failed to stick there, he turned to umpiring. He was advancing up the ladder as a minor league man in blue when he was tragically killed attempting to fight a fire in his Guilderland, NY home, in May of 1946. Grabowski was only 46 years old at the time of his death. He shares his January 7th birthday with this former Yankee second baseman and this one-time MVP.
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There is no doubt whatsoever that the legendary Branch Rickey revolutionized Major League Baseball not once but twice. His first engineered earth change took place when he created a farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals. There had always been minor leagues and minor league teams in US baseball, but not one of those teams had ever been formally affiliated with a big league franchise. The “Mahatma” changed that. As first manager and then president of the St. Louis Cardinals, he began buying portions of ownership in select minor league teams so that he could control the development and contracts of the players on those teams. It was the fruit from Rickey’s pioneer farm system that provided the core players who formed the great St. Louis Gashouse Gang teams that would win six pennants and three World Series before WWII.
Next stop for Rickey was as GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. In that role he engineered the breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier which helped convert the Dodgers into a National League dynasty.
But before he became the greatest baseball executive in the history of the sport, Rickey actually played it. He broke into the big leagues as a catcher with the Browns in 1905. The following year, he started 55 games behind the plate for St. Louis, averaged .284 and threw out close to 40% of the runners attempting to steal against him. The New York Highlanders’ starting catcher, Red Kleinow, had hit just .220 that same season and his back-up, Deacon McGuire was 42 years old. This may help explain why New York traded an outfielder named Little Joe Yeager to the Browns for Rickey, after the 1906 season.
Rickey’s catching career in New York, however, would end up consisting of just 11 games. The biggest reason for that miniscule level of playing time was an injured throwing arm and that bum arm explains Rickey’s only appearance in the MLB record book as a player. When every other Highlander catcher on the roster came down with more serious injuries than Rickey’s at one point during that 1907 season, he was forced to play behind the plate during a game between New York and the Senators. Thirteen Washington base runners were credited with successful stolen base attempts against the then 25-year-old New York catcher that afternoon. In the eleven games in which he was New York’s catcher that year, he made nine errors. His injured wing and his .182 Highlander batting average probably explains why the future Hall of Famer quit playing baseball that year and went to law school. The rest is, as they say, history.
Rickey was born on this date in 1881, in Flat, Ohio. He died in 1965. He shares his birthday with the first starting second baseman in Yankee franchise history and this former Yankee DH and outfielder.
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