Results tagged ‘ first baseman ’
Don Mattingly’s first game in a Yankee uniform took place in 1982, the season after the Yankees lost a World Series to the LA Dodgers. His career in pinstripes lasted until 1995. One year later the Yankees would finally make it back to the Fall Classic, with their victory over Atlanta. “Donnie Baseball” was the first person I thought about when New York third baseman Charlie Hayes squeezed the foul-popped final out of the 1996 World Series in his glove.
During his first six full seasons with New York, Mattingly averaged 203 hits per year, 27 home runs, 114 RBIs and hit .327. He also made the All Star team each of those seasons, won five Gold Gloves for his outstanding play at first base and was voted AL MVP in 1985. During that period, he was the best and most popular player in baseball and he along with Dave Winfield made the Yankees perennial contenders in the very tough AL East.
Even though they missed the playoffs every year, those Mattingly-Winfield-led Yankee teams played every inning of every game with a hustle and determination that made you proud to be a Yankee fan. In 1990, Mattingly injured his back and it never fully healed. The impact of the injury on his swing and his power was immediate, significant and permanent. Still he persevered, playing six more seasons. I remember feeling so bad for him when a strike ended the 1994 regular season and prevented the Yankees, who were in first place at the time, from playing in Mattingly’s first-ever postseason. Fortunately, New York did get there in ’95. Those of us who followed him closely throughout his career will never forget his outstanding performance during those five October games against the Mariners. He had ten hits in that series with a homer and six RBIs and he averaged .417. Even though New York lost, Mattingly’s farewell effort to Yankee fans was one of the most poignant moments in franchise history. Donnie Baseball turns fifty-two-years-old today. I still miss watching him play the game.
Mattingly shares his birthday with this long-ago New York outfielder.
Having seven bonafide candidates for the five spots in the Yankees’ 2012 starting rotation is certainly one of Joe Gerardi’s spring training dilemmas this year. But it pales in comparison to the crowd of first basemen Casey Stengel dealt with back in 1949. Stengel, however, loved platooning his ballplayers and he had a veritable ball with that particular Yankee team. To begin with, Joe DiMaggio was disabled with a sore heel that year, so Stengel shuffled his three outfield spots among Hank Bauer, Johnny Lindell, Gene Woodling and Cliff Mapes. At third base, he had the good fielding Billy “the Bull” Johnson and the good hitting but horrible fielding future doctor, Bobby Brown. His two alternatives at second were Snuffy Stirnweiss and Jerry Coleman. But it was at first that the Ol Perfessor had a real logjam. The veteran ex-outfielder, Tommy Henrich was considered the starter but he was joined by fellow first-sackers, Jack Phillips, Fenton Mole, Joe Collins and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Dick Kryhoski.
I know that baseball fans in my hometown of Amsterdam New York were rooting for Kryhoski to make Stengel’s cut. That’s because he had spent part of his first year in the Yankee organization playing for the Amsterdam Rugmakers, New York’s old Class C affiliate in the Canadian American League. Not only did the Livonia, NJ native make the parent club that spring, he also returned to Amsterdam when the Yankees squared off against the Rugmakers in an exhibition and thrilled the crowd with a home run that day.
As the season began, Stengel inserted Kryhoski at first quite a bit to give the then-36-year-old Henrich a breather. Though both he and Henrich batted from the left side, Stengel played him almost exclusively against right-handed pitching. If you played first base for the Yankees and swung from the left side, you better have been able to pull the ball into the old Stadium’s short right field porch. Kryhoski’s inability to do so frustrated Casey and even though the kid had his batting average up over .300, it did not prevent Casey from looking for a better alternative among the aforementioned group of first-sackers already in the Yankee organization. When none of them caught fire, the Yankees went out and purchased “the Big Cat,” Johnny Mize from the cross-town Giants and Kryhoski’s days in Pinstripes were effectively over. He did hit .291 during his rookie season. That December, he was traded to the Tigers. He ended up playing two seasons in Detroit, three seasons for the Browns/Orioles and one more with the A’s. He retired in 1955, with a .265 career average in 569 big league games. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 82.
I guarantee you that very few Yankee fans have ever heard of Steve Souchok. That’s too bad because the guy was a genuine hero, not on the baseball field but on the battlefield. Souchok’s story begins in a town called Yatesboro, Pennsylvania, in the heart of coal-mining country, where he was born on March 3, 1919. He became a great high school athlete but he couldn’t think about college because with the country in the midst of a depression, his coal-miner Dad became ill and Souchok needed to find a job. He went to Detroit, hoping to work in the auto industry but grew homesick and returned to Yatesboro. He got a tryout with a Washington Senator farm team in nearby Greensberg. They offered him $65 a month to play for the team but within a year, the club went bankrupt and Souchok became the property of the New York Yankees. During the next three seasons he developed rapidly as a ballplayer but America’s entry into WWII changed his career path. He turned in his bat for a gun. Souchok enlisted in the army and was sent to France where he was made part of a tank destroyer battalion. He eventually became commander of his own gun crew. He would take that crew all the way to Germany during the final two years of the War, fighting so valiantly along the way that he was awarded both a silver and a bronze star. If you know any military veterans ask them what it takes to win either of these medals. Better yet, Google these commendations and find out for yourself. It will help you better understand the sort of exceptional soldier Steve Souchok actually was.
By the time the war ended and he got back to baseball, Souchok was already 27-years-old. To accommodate all the ballplayers returning from service to their country, Major League Baseball expanded the big league rosters from 25-to-30 players. Those five extra slots made it possible for Souchok to make his big league debut in pinstripes during the 1946 season and it was a pretty decent opening act for the returning war hero. He appeared in 46 games that season, mostly as a backup first baseman. He got 26 hits in 86 at bats to average .302 and hit his first two big league home runs. The following year, Souchok’s batting average fell 100 points and the well-stocked Yankees gave up on him, trading him to the White Sox. Souchok would spend just one season in the Windy City before returning to Detroit, where he was once a homesick auto worker. He would remain with the Tigers as a utility player for the final five years of his big league career, never earning a starting position during that time. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 83.
This Brooklyn-born Hall-of-Fame, former Yankee outfielder and this former Yankee starting pitcher also celebrate birthdays today.
By the early nineties it had become pretty evident that Don Mattingly was never going to regain the stroke that had made him the very best hitter in baseball during the first half of his career. The Yankees would need to find a new first baseman in the very near future and the question became would they go the free agent route, make a trade or was their a prospect down in the minors who had the game to at least attempt to fill “Donnie Baseball’s” hard-to-fill cleats. The best first base prospect at the time in New York’s farm system was today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant.
Jack Thomas Snow, better known as “J. T.” had the genetics of a professional athlete. His Dad was the great All-Pro receiver for the LA Rams, Jack Snow. The younger Snow played his college ball at the University of Arizona and the Yankees had selected him in the fifth round of the 1989 Amateur Draft. I saw him play for the Albany Colonie Yankees in the Eastern League in 1991. He had both a good bat and a fine glove. By 1992 he had made it to the top rung of New York’s farm system and put together a strong season for the Columbus Clippers, averaging .313 with 15 home runs and 78 RBIs. That was also the year that Snow made his big league debut via a seven-game call-up with New York in late September.
As it turned out, the Yankees needed started pitching back then more than they needed a replacement for Mattingly. In December of ’92, they went after the Angels one-handed starter, Jim Abbott. New York had to include Snow in the deal to close it. Getting a chance to watch the remarkable Abbott pitch regularly was certainly a thrill for me but California had gotten the best player in that trade. Snow started at first immediately for the Angels. By 1995, he had won his first Gold Glove and also hit 24 home runs and drove in 102 for California. But when he slumped at the plate the following season, the Halo’s traded him to the Giants, where he would play for the next nine years. His best years in San Fran were his first four, when he won the Gold Glove for first basemen each year while averaging 22 home runs and 94 RBIs per season. By then, Tino Martinez had also replaced Mattingly in New York. Martinez would prove to be the better choice for the Yankees but I’ve always felt J.T. Snow would have handled the job pretty well, himself. We’ll never know.
Snow shares his birthday with this former and pretty famous Yankee third-string catcher and this Yankee pitcher from the roaring twenties.
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I absolutely loved watching Paul O’Neill play baseball for the Yankees. I do admit, however, I had my doubts about the deal New York made with Cincinnati to bring him to the Bronx. To get O’Neill in the November 1992 transaction, the Yankees had to give up their starting center fielder at the time, Roberto Kelly. I’m sure there are some of you who have just read the previous line and are asking yourself one of two questions: ”Roberto who?” or “Is this guy kidding?” Not so fast.
If you can remember the Yankee team that was on the field in the very late eighties and very early-nineties than you know how really bad that team was. In 1990, for example, New York finished dead last in the Major Leagues with a .241 batting average. Their lineup cards back then could have been mistaken for a list of players who had just cleared waivers. The only bonafide superstar they had was Don Mattingly and by then his crippled back had forever changed his once classic swing. The only player in their starting lineup who could run, hit, hit with power, field, and throw was Kelly. Perhaps his five tools may not have been of the Craftsman variety, but the guy was the very best all-around player on that Yankee team and I admit I cringed when I read they had just traded him away for Paul O’Neill.
Of course I knew little about O’Neill. I remembered him a bit from the 1990 playoffs. I was rooting for the Reds in that postseason because Sweet Lou Piniella was their manager at the time. O’Neill had a very good NLCS against the Pirates that October but then disappeared and was hardly a factor in Cincinnati’s surprising four-game sweep of the A’s in the World Series. A review of his stats during his time playing with the Reds also underwhelmed you. He hit just .259 during his eight years there and I clearly remember thinking that Piniella was pulling a “get-even” fast one on his old employer by helping to convince the Yankees to trade O’Neill for Kelly.
Simply put, if I were the Yankee GM in November of 1992, I would not have made that deal. (I was so bad at judging the talent of baseball players that my brother-in-law, who co-managed a Little League baseball team with me when both our sons played, would tell me the annual player draft began at 8:30 PM when it actually started two hours earlier.)
In any event, Paul O’Neill went onto become not just a great Yankee but one of my all-time favorite Yankees. He and Bernie Williams took over their starting outfield positions together on that 1993 team and within a year, helped transform New York into perennial postseason participants who would go on to capture four World Series flags. Getting the opportunity to watch O’Neill play regularly, I was amazed at how good he was defensively out in right. I also quickly realized how perfect his swing was for Yankee Stadium. The .259 career hitter as a Red became a .303 hitter during his nine seasons in pinstripes. We could count on him to provide 20 homers and right around 100 RBIs every season.
Though he was so instrumental in turning the Yankees into winners, ironically it was during a Yankee defeat that I feel O’Neill gave us his greatest moment in pinstripes. It was the dramatic five-game 1997 ALDS between New York and Cleveland. In the opener, O’Neill’s homer contributed to an 8-6 Yankee victory. He then hit a grand slam and drove in five runs in Game 3 to once again give New York a one-game edge. Then in Game 5, with New York down by a run and just a single out from elimination, O’Neill came to the plate and faced Cleveland’s ace closer, Jose Mesa. Every Yankee fan watching that day can still picture O’Neill’s bullet-like drive hitting Jacobs Field’s center field wall, just inches from becoming a game-tying home run. But it was O’Neill’s harrowing slide into second base on that play, just ahead of Marquis Grissom’s outstanding throw, that I will always remember. I thought he had knocked himself out during the slide but he stood himself up and when he saw a pinch-runner heading toward second, he angrily tried to wave him back to the dugout. That pinch-runner did not score and Cleveland won that game and the Series, but with that one play, O’Neill proved he was indeed a “Warrior” in pinstripes.
One of the things I’ve truly missed since O’Neill retired is watching him go nuts on himself in the Yankee dugout after a bad at bat and seeing his Yankee teammates try to keep from laughing at his antics. Hearing New York fans serenade him with their “Paul O’Neill” chant during the final Yankee home game in the 2001 World Series was also an absolute great moment in Yankee franchise history.
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Imagine if at some time during the 2012 season, Joe Girardi held a press conference after a Yankee defeat to announce to the media that he suspected Mark Teixeira had just purposely played poorly in that game. How would the public react if Girardi went on to accuse Teixeira of throwing the game for gambling reasons? Then try to comprehend Teixeira pleading his case to Hal Steinbrenner, who ends up believing his star first baseman’s story, fires Girardi, and names Teixeira, of all people, to become the next Yankee manager. Unbelievable! Right? Such a course of events involving the current star Yankee first baseman is beyond the realm of imagination of today’s baseball fans. But this is exactly what happened to the very first star first baseman in the franchise’s history.
Hal Chase became the regular New York Highlander first baseman in 1905 and remained in that position for a little more than eight seasons and over 1,000 games. “Prince Hal” was a smart and gifted athlete who immediately became a fan favorite in New York. It was Chase who first began the now accepted defensive strategy of charging the plate in likely sacrifice situations. He also pioneered the practice of moving into the outfield to receive and relay cut-off throws. In addition to being an excellent and innovative fielder, Chase was also a strong hitter and a great base runner. He had a .291 lifetime batting average and his 248 stolen bases made him the all-time Yankee base stealer until Willie Randolph and Ricky Henderson passed him seven decades later.
Chase, however, had one passion greater than his love for baseball and that was money. Perhaps, if he lived in today’s era of free agency and multi-million dollar contracts, his story and career would have had a different ending. But at the turn of the century, professional baseball players were not paid royally. As a result, many of them were forced to earn a living doing other things.
Before the 1908 season, Chase tried holding out on the Yankees, to force team management to pay him more money. Even though the tactic was successful, Chase still jumped to the outlawed California league and played for the San Jose franchise using a fake name. Caught in this charade, Chase was suspended by the Highlanders but his immense popularity with New York fans quickly got him reinstated. It was after this episode that Chase’s reputation as an unsavory character began to emerge.
His manager, George Stallings, began to suspect Chase of throwing games. The skipper’s suspicions grew so strong during the 1910 season, he leveled the charges publicly. But Chase’s popularity on the field helped him earn enough support with Yankee President Frank Farrell and League President Ban Johnson to beat back Stallings’ charges and actually get the manager fired. Adding insult to injury, Chase got himself named to replace Stallings as the team’s field boss.
Chase was not a good manager and his continued unpredictable behavior on the playing field led to the resurfacing of attacks on Chase’s integrity as a ballplayer. By 1913, even the Yankee brass became convinced Chase could not be trusted and they shipped him to the White Sox, where in 1914, Chase chased the money again and jumped to the Buffalo team entry in the upstart Federal League. The smaller than normal confines of the Buffalo home field helped Chase accumulate 17 home runs during the 1915 season, so that when the league folded after that season, the Cincinnati Reds welcomed him to the National League with wide open arms.
Even though Chase won the National League batting title with a .339 average in 1916, the Reds skipper, Hall-of-Famer Christy Matthewson, felt the first baseman was involved in throwing games and promptly suspended him. This time the team ownership and league officers backed the Manager instead of Chase and upheld his suspension. The next year was the year of the Black Sox scandal effectively destroying any chance a player with Chase’s shady reputation would ever have of playing Major League Baseball, again.
Hal Chase’s story is a sad one, but only three other Yankee first sackers had more hits or more runs scored as a Yankee than Chase did. The fact of the matter is that if Hal Chase had not gotten himself accused of throwing baseball games, his career with New York would have been longer and his numbers and stature as a Bomber, even more impressive.
This former Yankee, also born on this date, once quarterbacked the Michigan Wolverines to a Big Ten title and a Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn. This former teammate of Chase’s and this one-time Yankee shortstop were also born on February 13.
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I was always a fan of Steve Balboni. Show me a power-hitting paisano in pinstripes with a great nickname and I guarantee I’ll love the guy. Balboni’s nickname was “Bye-Bye,” given to him in recognition of how far and fast squarely hit balls would travel off his bat. The Brockton, MA native was born on this date in 1957. He got my attention during his minor league years in the Yankee farm system by hitting 150 home runs over a five year period. The Yankees needed right hand power back in the early eighties and I thought Balboni would be a star in the Bronx. But by the time he was ready for the big leagues, Don Mattingly had claimed the Yankee first base job and Dave Winfield was providing the right-handed long-ball bat the team needed so Balboni was shipped to the Royals.
As he had done in the minors, Bye-Bye averaged thirty home runs a year during his four year stay in Kansas City but he also struck out about 140 times a season. The Royals released Balboni early in the 1988 season, he got picked up by the Mariners and then released by Seattle at the end of that year. As fate would have it, that spring the Yankees announced Dave Winfield would miss the entire 1989 regular season because of a back injury. New York needed to find a right-handed bat to put behind Mattingly in the batting order. They chose Balboni. Steve’s second tenure in pinstripes lasted two seasons. He hit 17 home runs in each of those years but when he averaged just .192 in 1990, the writing was on the wall. Steve was released on the final day of the Yankee’s 1991 spring training season. Even though his Yankee career did not turn out to be what I had hoped it would, I remember still feeling bad when New York said so long to Bye-Bye.
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Back in the mid-to-late sixties, the Yankees’ big league lineup had fallen apart. All of the great players from their early-sixties dynasty were over-the-hill or out-of-the-game all together and none of the players they traded for seemed to work out. We Yankee fans were left hoping that youngsters from the team’s farm system would be coming up soon to restore greatness to the franchise. But even the team’s prospects from that era seemed grossly over-matched when they reached the big dance. The promises the Yankee front office made about players like Steve Whitaker, Roger Repoz, Ross Mosschito, and Frank Tepedino all ended up being broken.
I thought Tony Solaita would be different. First of all, he was and still is the only native of American Samoa to play baseball. Secondly, he was a left-handed power hitter, perfectly suited for Yankee Stadium. In 1968, he had hit 51 home runs for the Yankees’ A-level affiliate in the Carolina League, and his name started popping up in the New York Daily News whenever Yankees of the future were being referred to. Then there was the home run contest before a Boston Red Sox/Yankee game at the Stadium. Tony competed against Mickey Mantle, Carl Yaztrzemski, Rocky Colavito, Hawk Harrelson and Reggie Smith. Solaita won the thing by hitting four home runs in his ten swings but it was a fifth swing he took that most impressed the fans and press in attendance that day. Solaita drove a ball barely foul down the the right field line that hit the famous facade at the top edge of the Stadium. That seemed to prove we finally had found the next Mickey Mantle. But we had not.
Solaita got just one at-bat in pinstripes, striking out against the Tigers John Hiller. I’m still not sure why, but the Yankees sent him back down to the minors and he seemed to get worse instead of better over the next five seasons. They ended up trading him to the Pirates organization in 1973 and then he was selected by the Royals in the Rule 5 Draft that same year. He finally got a chance to play some big league ball with Kansas City in 1974 but by that time he was already 27-years-old. He became a good backup to Royal first baseman, John Mayberry as well as a DH. After three years with Kansas City he was traded to the Angels and played three more seasons in Anaheim. He eventually went to Japan where he finally once again became a top home run hitter. During his seven years in the Majors, he played in just 525 games and he hit just 50 home runs.
After his playing career was over, Solaita returned to his native Samoa where, with his brother, he began a baseball program for Samoan children. In February of 1990, Tony was tragically shot and killed on the island, during an argument with a man. He was just 43-years-old.
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In 2009, Jason Giambi had concluded a seven year contract with New York that paid him about $120 million. Jason was one of baseball’s self-admitted steroid users. He was also a terrible defensive first baseman. The Yankees made it to only a single World Series during his seven years with the team, after having played in five during the previous six years. So there’s no way you can feel sorry for this guy, right? Wrong, at least according to my lovely wife and passionate Yankee fan, Rosemary.
In June of 2005, Rosie’s birthday present to me was two tickets to a Yankee game against the Pirates. At the time, the Yankees had been playing .500 ball and Giambi was contributing next to nothing. Yankee fans remember that 2004 had been the year they found a tumor on Giambi’s pituitary gland, ending what had already become the worst season of the slugger’s career. During the 2004 post season, reports of Giambi’s admitted steroid use became public and he then issued his famous “sort of an apology”. So when Rosie and I took our seats in the first row of Yankee Stadium’s right field upper deck, Giambi was lost at the plate and New York skipper, Joe Torre, was actually batting him eighth in that day’s lineup. What surprised me a whole lot more was the volume and fierceness of the jeers from the fans that met Giambi when his name was announced before his first at-bat in the bottom of the second inning. That’s when my wife stood up and began screaming “Let’s Go Giambi, you can do it.” When she sat down I asked her when she had become such a huge Giambi fan and she told me she felt sorry for him. On that day, Giambi became her new favorite Yankee. Jason proceeded to smash a hard line drive single to right field.
In his next three at bats he did not reach base and struck out twice but the Yankees did rally from a four run deficit to force the game into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Giambi came up with the winning run on second and with Rosemary standing on her feet and screaming at the top of her lungs, smashed a Jose Mesa fast ball into the right field upper deck for a game-winning two-run home run.
Remarkably, Giambi proceeded to go on a tear at the plate. When that day’s game against the Pirates started, Giambi’s batting average was .238 and he had a total of 4 home runs and 17 RBI’s for the season. By the end of that season Giambi had hit 32 home runs, driven in 87 and raised his average to .271. The Yankee record from the day of that game was 63-35 and they captured the 2005 divisional title.
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By 1949, Joe Collins had been in the Yankee farm system for eleven years, starting as a sixteen year old with the Easton (Maryland) Yankees in the old D-level Eastern Shore League. During his last three seasons in the minors, the Scranton, PA native had torn up the pitching at the triple A level and was more than ready to play in the Majors. The problem was that Casey Stengel’s 1949 Yankees had more first baseman than some teams had pitchers. They included Tommy Henrich, Johnny Mize, Billy Jones, Fenton Mole, Jack Phillips and Dick Kryhoski. But Collins had averaged 25 home runs during his last three Minor League seasons and by 1950, the Yankee brass decided the then 26-year-old prospect needed a shot at the big leagues. Joe then became the team’s most frequently used first baseman until Moose Skowren took over the position in 1955. When that happened, Stengel continued to use Collins as an outfielder for two seasons until the New York front office sold him to the Philadelphia Athletics. Collins chose to retire rather than play in a uniform other than the Yankee pinstripes, ending the career of one of the classiest Yankees ever. Collins’ Yankee teams got into eight World Series, winning five of them. He never displayed as much power as he showed at the Minor League level during his Major League career but he did hit 18 home runs during the the 1952 season and 17 more in 1953. Collins, who was born in 1922, passed away in 1989.