Results tagged ‘ catcher ’
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.
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Ira Thomas was born on this date in 1881 about 20 miles north of my hometown, in Ballston Spa, NY. He grew into a sturdy 6’2″, 200 pound frame, which was considered “huge” back at the turn of the 20th century. That gave him the brawn he needed to handle the physical challenges of the catcher’s position. After a few years of minor league ball, he joined the New York Highlanders in 1906 and became Red Kleinow’s primary backup behind the plate.
Thomas had developed strong defensive skills for the position and he had a great arm for nailing opposing base runners. What he couldn’t do very well during his early big league days with New York was hit. In 44 games during his rookie season, he averaged just .200. Still, he was impressive enough defensively to remain with the team in 1907 and pretty much share the catching responsibilities evenly with Kleinow. Once again however, Thomas’s bat failed him. The increased at bats he got in 1907 did not improve his hitting stroke and he ended his second big league season with just a .192 average.
His weakness at the plate is what most likely got him sold to the Tigers in December of 1907. It was with Detroit that Thomas made MLB history and he did it ironically, with his bat. The Tigers faced the Cubs in the 1908 World Series and in the ninth inning of Game 1, Thomas got the first pinch hit, a single, in Series history.
Still just a backup with Detroit, Thomas was spending lots of time watching big league games and big league players perform from the bench. In doing so, he developed lots of knowledge that he would put to good and profitable use for the rest of his life. The first opportunity to do so came in 1909 when he was sold to Connie Mack’s A’s. Not only did his hitting improve in Philly, he also got his first chance to become a big league team’s starting catcher. Those Mack-led A’s teams would go onto win four AL Pennants in the next five years and Thomas was an integral part of each of them, first as the starting backstop and later as one of Mack’s most respected and knowledgeable bench coaches. The Yankees wanted to hire Thomas after the 1914 season ended to manage New York the following year but he wasn’t quite ready to retire as a player.
After he did quit playing in 1915, he accepted an offer to coach the baseball team at Williams College. Five years later, he revived his relationship with Mack and the A’s, as a coach, manager and later, a very talented scout for the organization. He also did some scouting for the Yankees late in his career. Thomas died in 1958 at the age of 77.
He shares his birthday with this former Yankee outfield prospect.
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Jesse Gonder was a pretty special prospect in the late 1950’s because he was a catcher who hit left-handed and hit pretty well at that. Originally signed by the Reds, the Yankees got him in 1960 and sent him to their top farm club in Richmond. He opened lots of eyes in the Yankee hierarchy when he hit .327 for the Virginians that season. That performance earned him a September call-up to the Bronx, where he got his first big league hit, a home run off of Boston’s Bill Monboquette.
Despite the fact that Gonder’s sweet left-handed swing was perfectly suited to the short porch in right field at the old Yankee Stadium, there were four obstacles preventing him from getting the opportunity to fulfill his potential in pinstripes. The first was his mediocre defensive ability behind the plate. The other three were Yankee catchers named Howard, Berra and Blanchard, who were all ahead of him on the Bronx Bomber’s behind-the-plate depth chart.
When Ralph Houk became Yankee skipper in 1961, he brought Gonder north with the team at the start of the season and for the next two months used him exclusively as a pinch-hitter. Since that ’61 Yankee team was one of the best offensive teams in MLB history, Gonder’s bat was very expendable. He was sent back to Richmond at the end of May and the following December, the Yankees traded him back to Cincinnati for reliever Marshall Bridges.
He would later get dealt to the Mets, where he achieved a good degree of fame when he won the starting catchers job for the Amazin’s in 1964 and hit a pretty solid .270. But his bad glove and weak arm prevented him from holding onto that job. Complicating his situation was the fact that he was not a good pinch-hitter. He needed live at-bats to keep his swing sharp. His last big league season was 1967 with the Pirates. He then went back to his hometown of Oakland, California, where he became a bus driver.
In researching Gonder’s career and life for this post, I came across several references to his outspokenness. Back in 1960, the spring training cities in Florida all had ordinances preventing black ballplayers from staying at the same hotels as their white teammates. Gonder made no attempt to hide his distaste for this codified racism. Imagine the reaction of today’s black athletes if they were barred from their team’s hotel because of the color of their skin? People today would be shocked if those black athletes did not speak out forcefully about such segregation. But when Gonder did so five decades ago, he was labeled as an outspoken athlete. My how times have changed.
Gonder shares his birthday with this one-time Yankee phee-nom and this former Yankee who was once served as USC varsity football coach.
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If you’re a long time Yankee fan, it was one of those multi-player trades you just don’t forget, the likes of which will probably never be seen again. Back in the 1950s, trades involving two big league teams and six to ten players were not unusual but they normally took place between a team in a pennant race and a team outside of one. In June of the 1976 season, the Yankees were battling Baltimore for supremacy in the AL East, when the two clubs announced a pretty stunning deal.
New York sent their backup catcher, Rick Dempsey, veteran starter, Rudy May, a young left-handed reliever named Tippy Martinez, pitching prospect Scott McGregor and starter/reliever Dave Pagan all to the Birds. In exchange, the Yankees received starting pitchers Ken Holtzman and Doyle Alexander, reliever Grant Jackson and today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant, Elrod Hendricks. Baltimore definitely got the best of this deal long term, as Dempsey became their starting catcher for the next decade, McGregor turned into one of the league’s premier starters and Martinez evolved into one of the best relievers in all of baseball. Even Rudy May paid dividends, going 29-21 during his two seasons with the Orioles. But the most immediate benefit went to the Yankees. During the second half of that season, Holtzman, Alexander and Jackson won an incredible 25 decisions between them, helping New York beat out the Birds for the AL East and capture the team’s first AL Pennant in over a decade.
Elrod Hendricks became the forgotten man in that transaction. He only got into 18-regular season games as a backup to the very durable Thurman Munson during his first half season in the Bronx. In 1977, the ten year big league veteran actually agreed to go down to the Yankee’s triple A team in Syracuse for most of the season, ceding his backup receiving role with the parent club to Fran Healy. But baby boomer aged fans like me remember when Hendricks caught those great Baltimore pitching staffs of the late sixties and early seventies. He was a solid receiver with a great arm. Hendricks is a native of the Virgin Islands who was born on this date in 1940. He passed away on the day before his 65th birthday in 2005.
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When the Yankees signed catcher, Gus Niarhos to his first contract, Hall-of-Famer Bill Dickey was still starting behind the plate for the parent club. Nine years later, when the Yankees placed the first Greek-American ever to wear pinstripes and play in a World Series on waivers, Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra was the team’s starting catcher. As Niarhos explained years later, when asked about his career as a Yankee, “That was a tough organization if you were a catcher.” It sure was.
Niarhos was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was a three-sport star as a high school athlete. He was actually enrolled at Auburn University on a football scholarship when the Yanks signed him and sent him to their Akron farm club. When WWII broke out, Niarhos joined the Navy and served his country for the next four years.
He got his first chance to play in the Bronx in 1946, when he was called up in June of that year, after Bill Dickey replaced Joe McCarthy as Yankee skipper. Though Dickey continued to catch occasionally after becoming manager , it was Niarhos who served as Aaron Robinson’s primary back-up during the second half of that season.
Solid defensively, Niarhos was pretty much a singles-hitter with the stick and he never hit a home run during his days with New York. After spending the entire 1947 season back in the minors, he shared the Yankees’ starting catching responsibilities with Yogi Berra in ’48, averaging a decent .268 but producing just 19 RBI’s.
Berra became the Yankees’ full time receiver the following season with Niarhos backing him up and since Yogi could catch 140 games a year in his prime, New York suddenly found itself with a glut of backup catching talent and released Niarhos.
He landed on his feet with the Chicago White Sox, where he hit a career high .324 backing up Phil Masi during the ’50 season. He hit his first and only big league home run the following year against his former team, when he connected off of Yankee reliever Bob Kuzava. He later played for both the Red Sox and the Phillies. He finally hung up his catcher’s mitt for good after the ’57 season and became a minor league manager and coach in the A’s organization. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 84.
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