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Category: 1960s

Observations From Cooperstown: Memories of Moose

Moose Skowron looked like a character out of “Moon Mullins.” Or in a more contemporary sense, he had the appearance of a secondary character in “The Simpsons.” With his lantern jaw, thick jowls, and military crew cut, he possessed the look of a man who could put his fist through your chest and pull your heart out.

Appearances are often deceiving, and they were exactly that with Skowron, who died at 81 on Friday after a battle with lung cancer. Oh, he could be gruff and curt on the outside, but once you opened a conversation with him, you discovered a down-to-earth guy who enjoyed telling stories from his days with the Yankees. And when you’ve played with characters like Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford, or managed for one-of-a-kind legends like Casey Stengel, you’ve got good material to work with.

There were other deceptions with Skowron. Like many fans, I always assumed that Skowron’s nickname came from his size, his power, and his brute physical strength. He was six feet, two inches, 200 pounds, with much of frame wrapped in muscle. Well, the true origins of his nickname had nothing to do with his physical dimensions. When Skowron was a boy, his grandfather gave him an impromptu haircut, which made the youngster look like the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Skowron’s friends called him “Mussolini,” and the family adapted by changing the nickname to “Moose.” By the time he was playing major league ball, everyone was calling him Moose. One of the few exceptions was the Topps Card Company, which always listed him as “Bill Skowron” on his cards.

After signing with the Yankees in 1950, the organization tried him as an outfielder and third baseman, before realizing he lacked the athletic agility needed of those positions. He moved to first base, where he was blocked by players like Johnny Mize and Joe Collins. He finally landed in the Bronx in 1954, when he platooned with Collins, before becoming an everyday player by the late 1950s.

How good was Skowron in his prime? Well, he was very good. From 1957 to 1961, he averaged 20 home runs a season while qualifying for five consecutive American League All-Star teams. During that stretch, he twice slugged better than .500; he also received some support for American League MVP on two occasions.

As a right-handed power hitter, the old Yankee Stadium was hardly made to order for Skowron. But he adapted, developing a power stroke that targeted right-center and right fields, where the dimensions were far more favorable for hitting the long ball. Skowron’s right-handed hitting presence was importance, given that most of their power hitters hit from the left side (including Roger Maris, Berra and the switch-hitting Mantle.) If opposing teams loaded up on left-handed pitching, Skowron could make them pay.

Skowron really had only two flaws in his game. A classic free swinger and bad ball hitter, Skowron could sometimes hit pitches up his eyes, but he could also flail away at other pitches outside of the strike zone. Since he didn’t walk much, his on-base percentage suffered. Skowron’s other weakness involved his health; he simply could not avoid injuries. One time, he hurt his back while lifting an air conditioner. On another occasion, he tore a muscle in his thigh. There were broken bones, too, including a fractured arm that resulted from an on-field collision. With such injuries forcing him to miss chunks of games at a time, he often played 120 to 130 games a season, instead of the 150 to 160 that he would have preferred.

The 1961 season provided contrasts and quandaries for Skowron. On the down side, his slugging percentage and his on-base percentage fell. More favorably, he hit a personal-best 28 home runs while playing in a career-high 150 games. Batting out of the sixth and seventh hole, Skowron provided protection for the middle-of-the-order thumpers, a group that included Maris, Mantle, and Berra.

As he often did, Skowron elevated his play in the World Series. In the 1961 Classic against the Reds, Yet, it was in the 1961 World Series. In five games against the upstart Reds, Skowron slugged .529 with one home run and five RBIs, reached base 45 per cent of the time, and hit a robust .353. Then again, Moose was almost always good in the Series. In 133 at-bats stretched over eight World Series appearances, Skowron hit eight home runs and slugged .519. In Game Seven situations alone, the Moose hit three home runs. If you believe in the existence of clutch, and I do, then Skowron belongs near the top of that list.

Skowron put up another good season in 1962, but his age and the presence of a young player in the system changed his status within the organization. Believing that Joe Pepitone was headed toward superstardom, the Yankees decided to trade Skowron that winter. They sent him to the Dodgers in exchange for Stan Williams, an intimidating veteran reliever who liked to throw pitches up and in as part of his quest for strikeouts.

In some ways, Skowron could not have been traded to a less ideal situation. Newly built Dodger Stadium, which had replaced the Los Angeles Coliseum as the Dodgers’ home, had a ridiculously high mound and outfield measurements that did not favor sluggers like Skowron. He also had to face a new set of pitchers in the National League; outside of World Series competition, Moose had little familiarity with senior circuit pitching. To make matters worse, Skowron did not play first base every day, instead platooning with Ron Fairly. Moose hit a miserable .203 and ripped only three home runs in well under 300 plate appearances.

To the surprise of many, Skowron still had something left for the World Series. Playing against his former Yankee mates, he swatted a home run and batted .385 to help the Dodgers to a four-game Series sweep.

World Series heroics aside, the Dodgers questioned whether Skowron had much left. So they sold him to the Washington Senators. He hit well during a half-season in the Capital City, but when the team fell out of contention, he was sent packing to the White Sox in a mid-season trade. Skowron hit well over the next season and a half, but slumped badly in 1966 before closing out his career in ’67.

Yet, there was much more to Skowron than on-the-field highlights and accomplishments. He made news off the field, sometimes in frivolous ways and sometimes through embarrassing situations. Let’s consider a couple of episodes from the 1960s:

*During the 1963 season, Skowron and several other Dodgers made a guest appearance on the TV show, “Mr. Ed.” Skowron, catcher John Roseboro, center fielder Willie Davis, and Hall of Fame left-hander Sandy Koufax played themselves. In the main plotline of “Leo Durocher meets Mr. Ed,” the talking horse gives batting tips to Durocher, who was billed as the Dodgers’ manager even though he was actually a coach under Walter Alston. Durocher is supposed to relay the tips to a slumping Skowron. Moose and the other Dodgers then watch in amazement as Mr. Ed completes an inside-the-park home run against Koufax. (In a complete aside, Durocher also appeared on an episode of “The Munsters,” and was once again mentioned as the Dodgers’ skipper. Either Alston wanted nothing to do with Hollywood, or someone was trying to send him the message that Durocher was the real Dodgers manager.)

*While training with the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Florida, he decided to make a surprise trip to see his wife at their home in Hilldale, New Jersey. When he arrived at the house, Skowron found his wife in bed with another man. Infuriated by the surprise discovery, Skowron proceeded to pummel his unwanted guest. Shortly thereafter, Skowron was charged with assault, though many were sympathetic to his situation.

Skowron had better long-term success with other relationships, particularly his fellow Yankees. Beloved in the Yankee clubhouse, Moose became especially close friends with Hank Bauer, a rough-and tumble character in his own right. They often made public appearances together, including numerous visits to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend signings. I remember meeting Skowron and Bauer back in the late 1980s, while I was still working in sports talk radio. They were signing at a table outside one of the many card shops on Main Street. I wanted to interview the two of them, but I was intimidated by Bauer’s raspy voice and Skowron’s rugged appearance. Feeling like a rookie cub reporter, I settled for making a few innocuous remarks to the two ex-Bombers.

It remains one of my regrets. I never did have another chance to interview either Skowron or Bauer. That was a real mistake on my part, losing out on the opportunity to have a real chat with Skowron, one of the game’s great storytellers.

If there is any consolation, some of Skowron’s stories can be found on You Tube, and in the many books that serve as oral histories of the Yankee franchise. This was a guy who was good friends with Mantle and Berra, a guy who knew Whitey Ford, a man who played with Maris, a guy who dealt with the idiosyncrasies of Casey Stengel. Skowron was a man worth listening to, a link to an era that was long ago, but an era that we always want to re-visit.

Moose was a man that we’ll miss.

Bruce Markusen is co-author of the newly revised edition of the book, Yankee World Series memories.

(Photo Credit: Washington Post; Alex Belth.)

[Editor's Note: Bruce will be on leave for the foreseeable future while he works on a book. We'll miss his weekly posts and he will drop in occasionally with a Card Corner piece. Meanwhile, we wish him good luck with his project and thank him for being the man.]

Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Roy White

At times the photographers at Topps have depicted a player just about right. Roy White’s 1972 Topps card is a good example of that; we see White practicing his in-game batting stance, holding his hands much lower than most players do, toward his back hip. All that’s missing is the inclusion of White’s feet. With a larger photograph, Topps would have been able to show his pigeon-toed posture, another classic feature of White’s unique batting stance.

White’s card also gives us a good look at the Yankees’ old-school road uniforms, which they used through the 1972 season. They’re you’re basic road gray, with no piping or striping around the sleeve. I’ve always preferred this most simplistic of road uniforms, partly because it’s iconic and partly because it brings back memories of the Mantle/Maris Yankees of the early 1960s.

All in all, this is a quality card for a quality player. In recalling the Yankees of the early 1970s, fans of that era glorified three players: star catcher Thurman Munson, All-Star outfielder Bobby Murcer and the team’s pitching ace, Mel Stottlemyre. Roy White was rarely held in similarly high regard by either the fans or the media. He was generally considered a good, solid player, but not a star, with the one flaw in his game (a poor throwing arm) sometimes becoming the subject of contempt, ridicule, and cruel humor.

The perception of White has changed–and changed drastically–since then. Largely due to Sabermetrics, both Yankee fans and non-Yankee fans have changed their tune with towards White‘s abilities. Or in some cases, it’s simply a matter of a younger generation of fans having a better understanding of players’ quality than we did in the sixties and seventies. White’s ability to draw walks, which was rarely highlighted in the early seventies, has now been given its full due; we better understand and appreciate White’s ability to reach base, and the important role it played in setting the table for other Yankee hitters. And then there is the matter of White’s defense. He was truly an excellent defensive left fielder, with enough speed and range to have played center, if not for Murcer’s presence there through the middle of the 1974 season. Yes, the throwing arm would have been a problem, but probably not anymore so than the weak arms of Mickey Rivers or a late-career Bernie Williams.

Some might argue that the tendency to underrate White in his day was also a product of racism. I have my doubts that was the case. Elston Howard, the Yankees’ first African American player, was popular with fans and held in high regard by almost all of the New York media. Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, and Mickey Rivers were all popular Yankees. And fans were just about as supportive as they could be of the controversial Reggie Jackson. When Reggie produced, the fans howled their approval with booming chants of “REG-GIE,REG-GIE” resonating though the upper decks of the old Yankee Stadium. Now Billy Martin might have been a different story; some of his dislike for Reggie might have been rooted in racism, but I don’t know for sure. But I just don’t see much evidence for racial antipathy, not from Martin or anyone else, toward a quiet and hard-working player like Roy White.

By 1972, the switch-hitting White had established himself as a very good player. Though underrated, he had already made two All-Star teams and had earned some MVP votes in three different seasons.  He was coming off a season in which he had led the American League in sacrifice flies, an unglamorous statistic to say the least, but one that showed his team-oriented nature.

In 1972, White’s power production fell off, as his OPS dipped from .857 to .760, his worst mark as the Yankees’ regular left fielder. Still, he managed to make some favorable contributions like lead the American League with 99 walks and steal 23 bases in 30 attempts, all while playing his usually sterling defense in the outfield. The following two seasons, he struggled, leading some to question whether he was on the downhill side at age 30. In the midst of the 1974 season, manager Bill Virdon made him a DH part of the time, a role that White abhorred, considering it an insult to his athletic talents.

In 1975, White’s career received a revival when the Yankees made a managerial switch, firing the placid, detached Virdon, and replacing him with Martin, who appreciated players of all-round ability like the speedy White. Martin put White back in left field and restored him to the No. 2 spot in the batting order. White bounced back beautifully, playing for White the way that he had once played for Ralph Houk.  In 1976, White led the American League with 104 runs scored and reached a career high with 31 stolen bases, becoming a huge part of the first Yankee team to reach the postseason since the ill-fated World Series of 1964.

In the meantime, White became known as a beacon of calm and kindness in a clubhouse that often swirled in turmoil. As Sparky Lyle wrote in his critically acclaimed book, The Bronx Zoo, everybody on the Yankees liked White. “Roy White is probably the nicest goddam guy on the club,” Lyle wrote in his blunt-force style. “He’s well respected by everybody, and he’s very classy.” Classy. The perfect word to describe the gentlemanly Roy White.

By 1978, the year that Lyle’s book hit the shelves, White’s on-field ability had slowed to the point of becoming a part-time player. No longer the everyday left fielder, he platooned with Lou Piniella and also made 23 appearances as a designated hitter, a role that he was now better equipped to handle. With the Yankees having extreme depth in the outfield, they could afford to use White more sparingly, a role into which he fit perfectly. Still able to reach base 35 per cent of the time, White became part of a squadron of role players that supported the Yankees’ stars during their second consecutive world championship run. He played some of his best ball of the season in the playoffs and World Series, hitting over .300 against both the Royals and Dodgers.

Then came the falloff of 1979. Spring training started poorly, as the Yankees refused to offer him an extension on a contract that had just one year remaining. The lack of an extension might have contributed to White’s nightmarish season. Appearing in only 81 games, White played poorly, his power and speed showing the decline that often comes with having a 35-year-old body. Free agency could not have come at a worse possible time. White wanted to keep playing, but the Yankees, looking to rebuild with youth after a season of tragedy and tumult, showed little interest. White received some offers from other teams, but he opted for a completely different career move. He took his aging talents to the Tokyo Giants of the Japanese Leagues, where he became a teammate of Sadaharu Oh.

Batting as the cleanup man behind Oh, White played very well in his first two seasons in Japan. He made the All-Star team one season and helped the Giants to the Japanese Leagues championship the next. In his third year with Tokyo, White found himself playing a utility role, but he fought his way back into the lineup and hit .330 the rest of the way. At season’s end, White decided to call it quits, leaving the game on a high note.

Since his playing days, White has returned to the Yankee organization several times, serving as the first base coach on three occasions and also putting in some time as an assistant to the general manager. In that latter role, he scouted Hideki Matsui during his time in Japan, giving the Yankees his first-hand assessment of a Far East player that they would eventually sign.

Unfortunately, every one of White’s coaching and front office assignments with the Yankees has ended with him being ousted, often with no reason given. I don’t know why that is. He seems like the kind of guy who should have a permanent place in the organization, whether as a scout or as a consultant. It’s almost as if the Yankee organization still doesn’t have a full appreciation for him, just as most of us fans failed to respect him at the time for the player that he truly was.

And that’s just not right. Roy White belongs with the Yankees. If he wants to work for them,  the Yankees should be able to find a place.

[Featured Image via Corbis]

Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Gene Michael

If you’re looking for connections between the current Yankee organization and the 1972 season, there are not many. Other than some minority shareholders and some old-time spring training instructors, there really is no one left from the 1972 days. Except for Gene Michael, that is. These days, he serves as one of Brian Cashman’s senior advisors, giving him advice on such newsworthy matters as the re-signing of the formerly retired Andy Pettitte. Back then, some 40 summers ago, Michael did his best to give the shortstop position the kind of defensive dignity it had lacked since the days of Tony Kubek.

Gene Michael looks a little bit surprised on his 1972 card, as if he isn’t quite ready for the snapshot taken by the Topps photographer. But it is most fitting that he is posed with a glove, for that was by far his best tool as a player. Michael really couldn’t run very fast, and he couldn’t hit a lick, though he did have enough patience to coax a walk here and there. He certainly had no power, with a total of 15 home runs in ten seasons. But he could handle the glove. And notice how small that glove was. We’ve always heard that middle infielders prefer small gloves so that they can take the ball out of the glove quickly and make a fast throw to one of the bases, but that glove is really stretching the limits of that theory.

It‘s rather amazing that Michael established himself as the master of the bidden ball trick using that small of a glove. Where exactly did he hide the ball? In his shirt? Yet, Michael could pull that play better than anyone in history. Here’s what he would do. With the runner at second base assuming that the pitcher was holding the ball, Michael would casually sidle over toward the second base bag with his ball nestled in his glove. He would then place a decisive tag on the unsuspecting victim before making the ball readily apparent to the umpire.

It’s a play that major leaguers rarely use in today’s game–I can’t remember the last time I saw a second baseman or shortstop pull it off–but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency. According to the official records, he executed the hidden ball trick at least five times. Considering that the hidden ball play relies on surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice.

By the time that Michael had refined the hidden ball trick, he was well established as a Yankee. But he did not start out in the organization, instead coming up through the Pirates’ system. Signed by the Pirates in 1959 after a standout career as a basketball player at Kent State, the six-foot, two-inch Michael might have wondered at times if he should have signed with one of the NBA teams that wanted him. “Stick” rode the minor league buses for seven seasons before finally making it to the major leagues in 1966, when he was already 28.

Though he was unusually tall and lanky for a shortstop of that era, he impressed the Pirates with his fielding and his range. His hitting was another story. A .152 batting average in 33 plate appearances will discourage a coaching staff. After the season, the Pirates had a chance to upgrade the position by acquiring Maury Wills, so they did just that. They packaged Michael with power hitting third baseman Bob “Beetle” Bailey, and sent them to the Dodgers for the mercurial Wills.

Michael didn’t hit much better for the Dodgers, who evaluated him for one season before deciding that he couldn’t play every day and selling him to the Yankees in a minor transaction. He entered the 1969 season with a chance to become New York’s No. 1 shortstop, but his bat remained quiet, limiting him to 61 games. Then came the best offensive outburst of his career. He lifted his average from .198 to .272 and cemented himself as the first-string shortstop.

He never came close to hitting that well again, but the Yankees didn’t seem to mind, as long as he gobbled up groundballs like a Hoover, showed a knack for heady plays, and turned his share of double plays with second base partner Horace Clarke. Steady and smooth, he remained the Yankees’ regular shortstop through the 1973 season. In 1974, he lost the job to Jim Mason. That winter, the Yankees, believing they had a capable replacement in Mason (boy, they were wrong on that one), released Michael. He later latched on with the Tigers, where he filled a role as a utility infielder for one season before being released.

It’s not particularly well remembered, but the Red Sox gave Michael a spring training invite in February of 1976. Michael stayed with the Red Sox through late May, but never actually appeared in a game for Boston before drawing his release. That’s why you won’t find Michael listed as a Red Sock in his entry at Baseball-Reference. The release not only ended his Red Sox tenure before it began, but it ended his well-traveled career.

While Michael’s playing career was unremarkable, it was after his playing days that he established his genius in the game. Michael’s intelligence had always impressed George Steinbrenner, who hired him as a coach and then as a manager, before making him a part of the front office. He then spent some time as manager with the Cubs, where he was criticized by Dallas Green for not being tough enough, before coming back to New York. In the early 1990s, the downtrodden Yankees, having hit one of the worst stretches in their history, turned the task of rebuilding the franchise over to Michael.

As a general manager, Michael didn’t bring much flash or showmanship. With his extremely deep voice and chopped manner of speaking, he wasn’t particularly engaging in interview settings; in some ways, he was the antithesis of Billy Beane (or Brad Pitt). While Michael didn’t know much about glitz or self-promoting, he knew what he was doing in putting a team together, while still emphasizing the Sabermetric principles of on-base percentage and defensive range. He placed an emphasis on player development, which included the drafting or signing of such cornerstone players as Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. He patiently waited for the right trade to come his way. On Election Day 1992, he made his signature move by trading Roberto Kelly to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. The trade changed the look of the lineup, while bringing an intensity, a property that had been sorely missing, to the Yankee clubhouse.

It’s unfortunate that Michael was fired as GM before he could see the benefits of his labors. The 1994 strike didn’t help matters either. It’s possible the Yankees would have advanced to the Series that ill-fated year, in what turned out to be Stick’s second-to-last season at the helm.

And those who know the game realize the importance that Michael had in laying the foundation for the success of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He deserves credit, just like Cashman and Bob Watson. Not bad for a guy who didn’t see the major leagues until he was 28.

Thankfully, Michael remains part of the Yankee organization today. I feel a lot better about things knowing that Gene “Stick” Michael is still around.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

[Featured Image Via Linnett Portraits]

Observations From Cooperstown: A Tribute to Don Mincher

I usually write exclusively about the Yankees, either past or present, in this space. That’s because many of the readers have told me they prefer to read about the Yankees in “Observations From Cooperstown” and “Card Corner.” But there are times when I find it necessary to deviate from that plan. The loss of former major league slugger Don Mincher is one of those times.

Don died a week ago at the age of 73, just about six months after retiring as president of the Southern League. Though I never met him face to face and only remember his playing career from a few highlights, he meant a lot to me personally. Don was the first player I interviewed for the first book I wrote: A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s.

I had never done an interview for a book-length project, so I really had no idea what I was doing. If the phone interview had gone poorly, I might have felt discouraged to do any more. But Don Mincher wouldn’t let that happen. He was friendly, accommodating, informative, helpful, and funny. At the end of our extended conversation, he gave me some helpful hints. He told me which A’s to avoid interviewing, and even warned me about one guy who would likely ask me for money in exchange for the interview.

The interview with Mincher went so well that I said to myself, “I can do this.” I interviewed several other players on the way to putting together a book over which I take a certain amount of pride and a great deal of pleasure.

Don provided me with some real insights into the inner workings of the A’s in 1971-72. When Mincher heard that t he fiery Dick Williams would replace the laid-back McNamara, he knew that the culture on the ballclub would change dramatically. “Well, I knew one thing right away; there would be some confrontations. I knew that,” Mincher told me back in 1997. “I knew Dick Williams from playing against him, his reputation and what-have-you. And I knew there would be some confrontations that would take place, and I knew that Dick Williams would win ‘em all.”

Mincher realized that a constant swirl of turmoil would result from the heated interaction between the feisty Williams and some of the egocentric players on the A’s. “You could just feel it coming,” Mincher said, “and sure enough there was.” More importantly, Mincher sensed that with the hiring of Williams, the A’s were about to start winning a lot more games than they done in the late 1960s. “That was really the beginning of a great ballclub,” Mincher said declaratively, “when Dick Williams was signed to that contract.”

In addition to the heavy demands imposed by Williams, the 1972 season also marked the beginning of an era of ill feelings between some of the Oakland players. “I can remember a lot of animosity in that clubhouse between individual guys, and it became a little bit cliquish to some degree at that time,” said Mincher, one of the few A’s who didn’t have conflicts with his teammates. “It was amazing the guys that had trouble with each other just forgot about it when they went out on the field, and then picked it up after the game. It was amazing to do that.”

Mincher would be long retired by the time player and owner controversies fully overtook the team in 1973 and ’74. But the roots of dissent all go back to 1972.“Yeah, I can remember it beginning in ’72. Of course, I wasn’t there when it really got hectic, but I can imagine what happened, and I can imagine who was in the middle of it. It wasn’t any fistfights or brawls or anything like that [in ’72], but I remember the bickering, sure.”

The catalyst to much of the controversy could be found in the form of a future Yankee. “Reggie [Jackson], who is probably the most intelligent individual I ever played with,” Mincher recalled, “was always the center of the media attention, either good or bad. And he seemed to always be there. I can remember some bickering with other players and him. You know, Dave Duncan, who was Reggie’s good friend—they had some problems. But David was a very stern individual himself, just like he is now, really demanding a lot of the pitching staff and himself. When an outfielder caused a pitcher to get in trouble with an overthrow or an error or something like that, there could be some things said and some words exchanged in those situations. And I can remember some of those. Of course, my old roomy, Sal Bando, he wasn’t very shy about stepping up to the plate either as far as telling people exactly what he thought. And there would be some words back and forth.”

At times, the wars of words forced a likable, even-tempered player like Mincher to assume the role of peacemaker. “I did,” said Mincher, who usually preferred to stay in the background. “Of course, when you’re not playing regularly and you’re just doing your thing, you try to get along with the players, and just sit down and be quiet… I tried to do my part and console everybody. But really, with those kinds of mentalities, egos, and talent, they worked themselves out.”

Mincher said that the uncomfortable feelings created by such verbal outbursts never seemed to interfere with the team’s on-field playing ability. “These guys were great, great players, and they learned from most things, and while I was there we never had any fistfights or anything like that. And all of the confrontations [actually] led to good things, and they just played better, it seemed like, as they went along.”

Mincher was traded to the Senators in the middle of the 1971 season, but he returned to Oakland in another deal the following season, primarily as a pinch hitter. He achieved his most indelible highlight as a member of the A’s with his appearance in Game Four of the World Series. Called upon as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning with the A’s down a run, Mincher faced Reds relief ace Clay Carroll. With the count one-and-oh, Carroll threw a fastball over the middle of the plate. “I was lucky enough to be able to get a good pitch I could drive, down in the strike zone,” Mincher said, his memory working in overdrive. “I tried to get a ball that you can drive up the middle or pull in the hole to first base. Those were the things I really thought about, and I thought about on that day. The ball went directly over the second baseman’s head. If it had been on the ground, it’d been a double play.”

But it wasn’t. Mincher’s uppercut swing enabled him to lift the ball over the infield. “I remember it just like it was yesterday,” Mincher told me in 1997. “I got it in the right-center field gap, which probably should have been for a double, but I was cold and couldn’t run.” Mincher’s golf shot into the alley scored pinch-runner Allan Lewis with the tying run and sent Gene Tenace, representing the potential game-winning run, to third base.

“It’s the last hit I ever got,” Mincher said in recalling the key RBI single that tied the game and set the table for Angel Mangual’s game-winning single, “and certainly it’s the most vivid in my memory.” Mincher’s pinch-hit RBI helped the A’s win Game Five of the Reds, on their way to a stunning upset in the 1972 World Series. It was also marked the final at-bat of Mincher’s career; he retired after the season, rejecting an overture from Finley to become the team’s first DH in 1973.

Mincher’s career ended with Oakland, but there was much that transpired in his other major league stops. Drafted and signed by the original Washington Senators, he then moved with the franchise when it became the Minnesota Twins. As the starting first baseman, he played an important on the 1965 American League pennant winners, hitting a home run against Don Drysdale in a seven-game World Series loss to the Dodgers.

From there he went to the California Angels, where he put up a productive season before ending up on the receiving end of a Sam McDowell fastball early in 1968. The ball struck him squarely in the face; Mincher slumped to the ground, his face bleeding. Limited to 120 games and plagued by dizzy spells throughout the summer, Mincher muddled through one of his worst seasons. Concerned that Mincher might never be able to return to form, the Angels left him unprotected in the expansion draft. That’s how he ended up with the Seattle Pilots in 1969. He had a good year for a bad team, while becoming the only All-Star representative in the franchise’s one-year existence.

The Pilots moved to Milwaukee, but Mincher never made the trip. He was traded to Oakland for a package of catcher Phil Roof, outfielder Mike Hershberger and pitchers Lew Krausse and Ken Sanders. He then moved on as part of a trade package to Washington for Mike Epstein and Darold Knowles, moved with the Senators franchise to Texas, and then made his last pitstop in Oakland. By the time he called it a career, he had hit exactly 200 home runs, put up an OPS of better than .800 seven times, and accumulated nearly as many walks as strikeouts. He was a hitter with power and smarts, and there is always value in that kind of player.

Yet, Mincher’s story did not end there. Remaining in baseball, he made a smooth transition to the front office, eventually becoming the GM and then the owner of the Double-A Huntsville Stars. (It was while he was owner that I interviewed him for the book on the A’s, and began to understand why he was beloved in the Huntsville community.) From there, he was promoted to president of the Southern League. Along the way, he became a revered figure in Huntsville, the unofficial “Mr. Baseball” of the community. They loved him for his work ethic, his easy going personality, his willingness to talk to just about anybody.

I interviewed Don only once, but I miss him. I can only imagine how much the people of Huntsville, who knew Don Mincher very well, are missing him today.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Observations From Cooperstown: Bill Hall, Mel Hall, and Jimmie Hall

The Yankees’ rumored interest in free agent utility man Bill Hall is a bit puzzling. Should we interpret that interest as a sign that the Yankees do not believe that Eduardo Nunez can handle the defensive responsibilities of being a utility infielder. Alternatively, is it a signal that the Yankees would like to trade Nunez, perhaps in a deal for a left-handed bat who can fill part of the DH role? To be honest, I’m not sure which of those thought processes are running through the mind of Brian Cashman.

Still, Hall is an interesting player. In 2006, he hit 35 home runs as a starting shortstop and looked like a budding star at the age of 26. Stardom never happened. In 2010, he was a reasonably productive utility man for the Red Sox, filling in around the infield and outfield. Then he signed a free agent contract with the Astros, where he flopped as the team’s everyday second baseman. After being released by the ‘Stros, the Giants took a flier on him, but watched him hit a mere .158 in 38 late-season at-bats.

Now 32 years old, Hall will never be a 30-home run man again, that’s for sure. But if he can revert back to the player of 2010, a versatile player who can play three infield positions and all three outfield positions while hitting with some pop, he’s be a useful guy to have. If not, if his 2011 numbers are an indication of his true current ability, then the Yankees will have to tread lightly here. If they sign Hall and trade Nunez, there may not be a safety net available in the event of a Hall breakdown.

When you’re a baseball fan, it’s funny how the mind works. When I hear the name “Hall,” I think of the Hall of Fame, and I think of past Yankees with the same last name. The Yankees have not had a player named Hall since the now-infamous Mel Hall, who was one of the team’s bright spots during the fallow years of the early 1990s. Hall played hard, pounded right-handed pitching, and delivered his fair share of clutch hits, but then he took some “hazing” of a young Bernie Williams to ridiculous extremes, driving the young outfielder to the verge of tears. He repeatedly referred to Williams as “Zero.” When Williams began talking in Hall’s presence, the veteran outfielder chided him by yelling, “Shut up, Zero.” Why this treatment was allowed to go on unchecked remains one of the great mysteries in Yankee history.

Hall also failed to make friends with the front office when he brought his two pet cougars–yes, a pair of pet cougars–into the Yankee clubhouse without warning, creating a mild panic in the process.

Yet, the hazing and the cougar incident pale in comparison to Hall’s post-career problems. Hall is currently sitting in a federal prison, where he will remain until he is old and gray because of his repulsive relationship with two underage girls. Hall was convicted of sexual assault; he essentially raped the girls, one of whom was 12 at the time of the relationship. Sentenced in 2009, he will have to serve a minimum of 22 years, or the year 2031, before he is eligible for parole. If he does not gain parole, the total sentence will run 45 years, putting him behind bars until 2054. Hall is 51 now, so that would put him at a ripe old 93 years. So who knows if he’ll even live that long.

There is one other “Hall” that I remember playing for the Yankees. He was Jimmie Hall, a left-handed power hitter of the 1960s. He began his career with a flourish, putting up OPS numbers of better than .800 in his three major league seasons with the Twins. As a rookie, he set a record for most home runs by a first-year player in the American League, busting the mark set by Ted Williams in 1939. He also had the ability to play all three outfield spots, making him particularly valuable toMinnesota.

Apparently on the verge of stardom, Hall then fell off the map. He struggled so badly in 1966 that the Twins traded him to the Angels. Some say his early decline was the result of being hit in the head with a pitch. Others pointed to his inability to handle left-handed pitching. And then there were those who felt that he was done in by the changes to the strike zone that hurt so many hitters during the mid-to-late sixties, when the second deadball era set in.

By the time that Jimmie Hall joined the Yankees, he was a fragment of the player who had once torn through the American League. The Yankees acquired him early in the 1969 season, picking him up from the Indians in a straight cash deal. Hall came to the plate 233 times for the Yankees, but hit just three home runs and reached base only 29 per cent of the time. Even in a deadball era, those numbers didn’t suffice.

Hall didn’t last the season in theBronx. On September 11, the Yankees dealt Hall to the Cubs for two players with wonderfully opposite names, minor league pitcher Terry Bongiovanni and outfielder Rick Bladt. If you remember either of those players, give yourself a cigar.

So that’s it for the Yankees’ legacy of Halls. Mel and Jimmie. If the Yankees end up signing Bill Hall, we can only hope that he’ll be a better player than Jimmie and a better man than Mel.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Observations From Cooperstown: Golden Era Fab Four

On Monday, the Hall of Fame could grow by as many as four. That’s the maximum number of candidates who could be elected by the Golden Era Committee. After giving careful consideration to the ballot, I’ve decided to pass on former players Ken Boyer, Tony Oliva, ex-Yankees Allie Reynolds, Luis Tiant, and Jim Kaat (a particularly tough choice), and longtime executive Buzzie Bavasi.

That leaves exactly four men who are deserving of making the grade in Cooperstown.

Ron Santo:

Of the ten men being considered by the Golden Era committee, there is no stronger candidate for election than the late Ron Santo. Arguably one of the five greatest third basemen of all time, and conservatively one of the ten greatest to play the position, Santo has long deserved enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Let’s consider just a few of Santo’s accomplishments. A patient hitter with a keen eye at the plate throughout his career, Santo compiled a lifetime .366 on-base percentage. With 342 home runs, he managed a .464 slugging percentage, despite playing a good portion of his career during an era in which pitchers held major advantages over hitters. Santo’s defensive accomplishments were only slightly less impressive. A five-time Gold Glove winner, the defensively superior Santo led the National League in total chances nine times and led the league in assists seven times. Those numbers indicate that Santo had good range, in addition to the soft hands and ability to start double plays that characterized his long tenure with the Cubs.

With 66 WAR, Santo compares favorably to Brooks (69) and comes within striking distance of George Brett (85) and former Yankee Wade Boggs (89), two offensive-minded third basemen.

Gil Hodges:

Based solely on his accomplishments as a player, or only on his managerial tenure, Hodges likely does not have the requisite resume for the Hall of Fame. But that’s not how the Hall of Fame election process is supposed to work. According to the rules for election, voters are encouraged to consider a candidate’s entire career in assessing his worth for the Hall of Fame.

As a player, Hodges was a fine all-round performer who hit with power, drew walks, and played a Gold Glove-caliber first base, as he contributed prominently to five National League championships for Brooklyn. During his peak, he slugged .500 or better over a span of eight consecutive seasons. As a manager, Hodges oversaw one of the great franchise turnarounds in major league history. He took command of a perennially poor Mets team that had won 57 games, immediately elevated them to a 73-win level, and then engineered one of the most memorable upsets in World Series history. Hodges also maintained the Mets at a level of better than .500 in 1970 and 1971, despite the team’s glaring lack of offense at a number of positions.

In looking at Hodges properly as a combination candidate, the argument for his Hall of Fame election becomes much clearer.

Minnie Minoso:

Like Hodges, Minoso requires more than a surface look to understand his worthiness for the Hall of Fame. He did not become a fulltime major leaguer until the age of 25, through no fault of his own, but because of the Jim Crow segregation that kept black players in the Negro Leagues or the Caribbean.

Over four Negro Leagues seasons, Minoso earned two All-Star game berths and led his teams to two appearances in the Colored World Series. If the game had already been integrated, Minoso might have spent those four seasons playing in the major leagues during his age 20 to 23 seasons.

Even without major league credit for his Negro Leagues years, Minoso’s numbers are impressive. A player in the mold of Enos Slaughter and Pete Rose, Minoso compiled a lifetime on-base percentage of .389 while providing value as both a left fielder and third baseman. Minoso led the league in hits and total bases one time each, in stolen bases and triples three times apiece, and in hit-by-pitches ten times. One of the game’s premier tablesetters, Minoso scored 100-plus runs five times, while topping 90 runs on five other occasions.

Charlie Finley:

Charlie O’s bitter and tempestuous personality will keep him out of the Hall, but an objective look at his accomplishments reveals a deserving Cooperstown candidate. Under the leadership of Finley, the A’s accomplished more during the 1970s than any other major league team, winning three world championships and five division titles. As the team’s owner beginning in 1962, Charlie Finley realized that he was a relative novice at baseball. He listened intently to his scouts—people like Joe Bowman, Dan Carnevale, Tom Giordano, Clyde Kluttz, and Don Pries—who told him which amateur players to pursue as free agents and which ones to draft. As a result, the A’s developed future standouts like Sal Bando, Vida Blue, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Blue Moon Odom, and Gene Tenace.

In later years, a more confident and penurious Finley pushed out many of his veteran scouts and tended to ignore the advice of those he still employed. Yet, he still managed to exhibit a deft hand in making trades and signing bargain basement role players. In 1971, Finley made perhaps his best trade, sending an underachieving Rick Monday to the Cubs for Ken Holtzman, who would win 77 games over four seasons in Oakland. Finley also engineered the five-player deal that brought a young left-handed power hitter (Mike Epstein) and an important left-handed reliever (Darold Knowles) to the Bay Area. In 1973, the A’s might not have won the World Series without Knowles, who pitched in all seven games against the Mets.

After the 1972 season, Finley acquired a much-needed center fielder in Billy North for aging middle reliever Bob Locker. In his first four years with the A’s, North played a solid center field, stole 212 bases, and become both a capable leadoff man and No. 2 hitter. Finley also swung unheralded deals for key role players like Matty Alou, Deron Johnson, and Horacio Pina, who would fill important holes in the outfield, at designated hitter, and in middle relief, respectively, during the 1972 and ’73 seasons.

Then there is Finley’s impact as an innovator. He championed the cause for night World Series games, the use of the designated hitter, and interleague play, all before they were officially adopted. He also dressed the A’s in colorful green and gold uniforms, giving the team a unique brand and setting a trend for the game’s changing on-field appearance in the 1970s.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Observations From Cooperstown: Remembering Mickey Scott

If you’re a Yankee fan who’s never heard of Mickey Scott, I cannot fault you for that. I remember Mickey Scott, but not as a Yankee. It was only after his death in late October that I realized his connection to the Yankee franchise, not to mention his ties to central New York.

Scott did not follow the traditional path to the major leagues. He was born in Weimar, Germany, to a military family that eventually settled in New York state. Scott grew up in Newburgh, located about 60 miles north of New York City. In 1965, the year of the first amateur draft, the Yankees took Scott on the 17th round out of Newburgh Free Academy. Given the rough winter weather in much of upstate New York, relatively few major leaguers have come out of the state from locations north of the city. But the Yankees liked Scott’s live left-handed arm enough to counteract any concerns they had about the small sample size of Scott’s work.

The skinny southpaw quickly showed the Yankees that he had enough stuff and experience to pitch professionally. He pitched brilliantly at two stops in 1965, before putting in a full season at Single-A Binghamton in 1966. He won a league-leading 15 of 20 decisions for the Triplets, held NY-Penn League opponents to a 2.75 ERA, and led the league in strikeouts.

With his career on the verge of a breakthrough, the realities of the late-1960s put up a roadblock. Scott missed all of the 1967 season while serving the military during Vietnam. Like most of the Vietnam vets, he didn’t receive much credit or applause when he returned to civilian life.

Undeterred by the setback, Scott came back to pitch in 1968, returning once again to Binghamton. But the Triplets had now moved up to Double-A status as a member of the Eastern League, so Scott’s return to Binghamton actually represented an impressive jump for the 20-year-old lefthander. Scott lowered his ERA to 2.58 while allowing only 83 hits in 115 innings. Though not overpowering, Scott convinced the Yankees he was now a legitimate prospect.

The following summer, the 21-year-old Scott moved up to Triple-A Syracuse, another location in upstate New York. It was an impressive ascension for a 17th-round draft pick. Like a lot of young lefthanders, Scott struggled with his first taste of Triple-A hitters. Now deeming him expendable, the Yankees traded Scott to the White Sox for Pete Ward, a combination first baseman/third baseman with some lefty power. Ward would last one unproductive season in the Bronx before calling it a career, while Scott would never pitch a game for the ChiSox.

In September of 1970, the Sox traded Scott to the Orioles. The Orioles switched him to the bullpen, where he used a devastating change-up to become the lefty relief ace for the Rochester Red Wings. He also became popular with teammates, who appreciated his upbeat nature and keen sense of humors. In 1972, Scott would finally make his big league debut for the pitching-rich O’s. Scott pitched well in 15 games, kicking off a journeyman career that would last five seasons and include stops in Montreal and California. Used mostly as a relief pitcher, Scott put up a 3.72 ERA in 172 innings.

Scott never pitched a regular season game for the Yankees, but that would not prevent an eventual reunion with the franchise. Appreciating his attitude and work ethic, the Yankees hired Scott to fill a number of duties, including a role throwing batting practice at Yankee Stadium. He threw BP to such notables as Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Roy White and Graig Nettles.

When not in the Bronx, Scott returned to his residence in Binghamton, a place that became so special to him that he settled on it as his permanent home.  He opened up a bar called “Mickey’s Mound,” where the personable and outgoing left-hander often regaled visitors with stories of his life in both the majors and the minors. During the 1980s, Billy Martin moved near the Binghamton area and frequently visited Mickey’s Mound. There Martin and Mickey became good friends.

Though Scott no longer owned the bar, he seemed to be enjoying retirement in Binghamton. He kept himself in good shape, regularly visiting a local gym to keep his weight and conditioning under control. On October 30 of this year, Scott called his mother from his home in Binghamton and told her that he was heading outside to rake some leaves, a common fall chore in upstate New York. Scott never returned to the house. While on his front lawn, he suffered a heart attack. His body was found by two women who happened to be walking by. Scott was 64.

I didn’t know that Mickey Scott lived in Binghamton or had a bar there until I read stories reporting his death. As a resident of Cooperstown, I live only about an hour’s drive from Binghamton. I wish I had known about Mickey’s Mound back in the 1990s; I would have enjoyed saddling up to the bar, ordering a ginger ale, and hearing a few stories from Mickey Scott himself.

Sadly, I never had the chance. But I know that others did. And I would love nothing more than to hear some of those stories about Mickey Scott.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Observations From Cooperstown: Thinking About Frank Messer

I’m always amazed how quickly time goes by. Another example hit me last week, when I realized that it has now been ten years since former Yankee broadcaster Frank Messer died. He passed away at the age of 76 in November of 2001, succumbing to a combination of heart problems and an ongoing battle with lupus.

In many ways, Messer is the forgotten Yankee broadcaster. In contrast to Bill White and Phil Rizzuto, his longtime broadcast partners on WPIX TV and various radio stations, no one talks about Messer anymore. It’s understandable that fans who are younger than 35 don’t remember Messer; they likely would never have heard one of his broadcasts. But even fans my age (and older) have placed Messer in a far-away corner of their minds.

Messer was never as popular as Rizzuto or White, but he had a career that is worthy of note. A native of Asheville, North Carolina, Messer joined the Marine Corps and served in the South Pacific during World War II. After a successful tour of duty that ended in 1946, Messer entered the field of broadcasting and eventually went to work as a disc jockey for a country western radio station. His baseball career finally began in 1954, when he entered the broadcast booth for Richmond, a minor league team in the Triple-A International League. During his tenure in Virginia, Messer won the state’s “Sportscaster of the Year” Award three consecutive years.

In 1964, Messer earned a promotion to the major leagues, joining the Orioles as one of their play-by-play men. He also dabbled in football, working radio broadcasts for the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. In 1968, Messer switched affiliations when he joined the broadcasting crew of the Yankees, replacing former major league catcher Joe Garagiola. Messer teamed with Rizzuto and Jerry Coleman–both former Yankee players–as the team’s regular announcers. (And yes, I am shuddering at the idea of “The Scooter” and Coleman working the same broadcast booth.)

Prior to the 1971 season, the Yankees made a milestone change in the history of baseball broadcasting. They replaced Coleman with Bill White, a retired first base standout with the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies and a man with no previous connection to the Yankee franchise. White became the first African American to broadcast a major league team’s games at the local level. The trio of Messer, Rizzuto, and White would become synonymous with Yankee broadcasts over the next 14 seasons, splitting play-by-play and color duties on both radio and WPIX television.

Messer took on the role of Bud Abbott, playing straight man to the two former players. With Messer providing smoothly efficient play-by-play, Rizzuto and White became free to take on more colorful and often comedic broadcast roles, while also offering the perspectives of former star players. The trio became one of the most popular broadcast combinations of all-time, remaining a team until 1984, when Messer ended his tenure in New York.

Working amidst the popular three-man crew that announced Yankee games during that span, Frank Messer was unquestionably the least favored amongst the pinstriped faithful. Yet, that’s more of a tribute to the enormous popularity of Rizzuto and White than it is a genuine blemish against the record of Messer.

Rizzuto and White drew most of the attention, in part because they were former athletes with bigger names, and in part because of their tendency to toss barbs at each other. At times, they could provide hysterical listening. Messer supplied the basics needed in a solid television or radio broadcast. He had a pleasant voice, a smooth play-by-play style, and a small ego, the latter enabling him to accommodate the colorful storytelling of Rizzuto and the insightful analysis of White.

Although the Rizzuto/White combination provided the best listen of any of the three tandems the Yankees commonly used on TV, Rizzuto and White also worked well with Messer. They each had freedom to roam, thanks in large part to Messer’s understated style. Additionally, nine innings of Rizzuto and White might have produced overkill; Messer’s presence for six innings gave the broadcast balance and clarity, while also making listeners appreciate the entertainment value of the more dynamic Rizzuto and White.

Though it was not the principal part of his job description, Messer also added a dignified presence to the Yankees’ popular Old-Timers’ Day events. An articulate announcer and a skilled emcee, Messer elegantly performed his master-of-ceremonies duties in introducing Yankee greats during the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Although he didn’t match Mel Allen (something that few could have done), he nonetheless excelled in a humble, simplified way, enabling him to blend in so well with the festivities of the day. As great as Old-Timers’ Day remains, it’s not quite the same without the presence of Messer.

If there was a legitimate criticism of Messer, it was that he tended to stray far from controversy, which was in plentiful supply during the George Steinbrenner/Billy Martin/Reggie Jackson years. Messer usually treated Yankee conflicts with a see-no-evil attitude, if he didn’t ignore them completely.

On the whole, that’s a relatively small strike against a solidly professional play-by-play man who did such dutiful work in New York for more than a decade. He did the job, while never complaining about being the third wheel to Rizzuto and White. If nothing else, Frank Messer should be remembered for that.

Bruce Markusen writes Cooperstown Confidential for The Hardball Times.

[Photo Credit for featured image: Alex Alexander]

Color by Numbers: See You in September

For minor leaguers, September 1 is like the day after high school tryouts when you check the list on the gymnasium wall to see if you made the team. After being confined to only 25 men, the active rosters expand to 40 once the calendar turns from August, allowing for reinforcements from the minors. Dating back as far as the beginning of the last century (the concept was based upon a delicate business arrangement with what was then the independent minor leagues), this tradition of promoting serviceable journeymen and/or promising young prospects marks not only a rite of passage for the players finally getting a crack at the big leagues, but also heralds the final month of the pennant race.

This year, the Yankees announced that their lone September call-up will be Jesus Montero, a 22 year-old catcher who ranks among the best prospects in the game. Although many September promotions are regarded more as a chance to give a young player a taste of the major leagues, Montero is expected to play a significant role for the Yankees as they head down the stretch. There has even been some speculation that Montero will take over as the Yankees’ DH against left handers.

Whatever role he plays, the promotion of Montero is a bit of a departure for the Yankees, who have not had a position player make a September debut since 2008. In addition, the team has not had a raw rookie compile more than 25 plate appearances in the final month since Gerald Williams came to bat 27 times in 1992. So, if Montero does in fact see regular playing time, he will distinguish himself in that regard.

Yankees’ September Call-Ups, Since 1919

Note: Only those players making their major league debut in September are considered. Years without call-ups are omitted.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Of the 84 position players that the Yankees have promoted for the first time in September, only 17 have had more than 25 plate appearances. With a few notable exceptions like Roy White, Bobby Murcer, and Hank Bauer, not many from the list went on to make a lasting impression. In fact, only a handful made much of a first one. Included in the latter group is the aforementioned Williams, who posted an OPS of 1.000. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, is Charlie Spikes, who managed an OPS of .348 in his September call-up. However, Spikes made up for his lackluster debut during the off season when he was traded as part of package that helped the Yankees acquire Graig Nettles from the Indians.

What makes Montero’s promotion different from most in the above list is the Yankees’ place in the standings. Aside from Hank Bauer in 1948 (1.5 games behind) and Fenton Mole in 1949 (three games ahead), all of the prior September call-ups were given their shot when the team was playing out the string (i.e., seven or more games out of a playoff spot).

Yankees’ September Call-Ups with At Least 25 PAs, since 1919
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Just because the Yankees haven’t had much of a meaningful impact from their position player call-ups is no reason to despair. After all, the team has promoted several impact players who were only given a September cup of coffee. Included on that list is Yogi Berra, Don Mattingly, and Jorge Posada, so if Montero falls in line, the Yankees should be more than happy.

Notable by their exclusion from the call-up list this year are Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, the two most heralded pitching prospects in the Yankees’ farm system. Once again, that’s mostly par for the course in the Bronx as only seven Yankees’ pitchers have made their major league debut in September since 1992. However, that doesn’t mean the team hasn’t had rookies make an impact on the pennant race. Mel Stottlemyre and Joba Chamberlain are two examples to the contrary, but each was promoted before the final month. When confined to September, there haven’t been many notable additions.

Yankees’ September Call-Ups with At Least 3 GS/15 IP, since 1919

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Once again, with the exception of Walter Beall in 1924 (one game behind) and Ian Kennedy in 2007 (five games behind), if a Yankees’ pitcher was given a significant look in September, it was done at a time when the team wasn’t competing for the post season. Among those with at least three games started or 15 innings pitched in their September debut, the most notable call-ups were Vic Rashi, Al Leiter, Dave Righetti, and Kennedy. It’s also worth noting that both Righetti and Stan Bahnsen won the rookie of the year award two years after their initial September call-up.

Montero’s ascension to the major leagues has been long awaited by Yankees’ fans, so expectations are bound to exceed reason. Nonetheless, the young catcher has a chance to make a rare September contribution for a Yankees’ team in pursuit of a championship. More importantly, however, the Yankees hope their wunderkind will do much more than help out this year. After all, making it the majors is often said to be the easy part for the most talented players. Remaining there is another story. A look at the Yankees’ past September call-ups illustrates that often repeated adage. That’s why what Montero does in his first month will be nowhere near as important as the impact the Yankees hope he will have over the rest of his career.

Color By Numbers: Who Wants Pie?

Entering this week’s series against the Athletics, the Yankees had a dominating 26-5 record against Oakland since 2008. Perhaps that’s why it seemed inevitable that the Bronx Bombers would rally to win each of the first two games. At least that’s how it must have felt to the Athletics. However, in both games, the comeback fell short, which gave Oakland consecutive wins against the Yankees for the first time since July 1, 2007.

The Yankees’ lack of late game heroics against the Athletics echoes a season long trend. Despite having the American League’s second best record and compiling statistics that rank among franchise highs in several categories, one area in which the Yankees have come up short (in some cases, as on Tuesday night, literally by inches) is in games played close and late. Under those conditions, the team’s current OPS+ of 107 would rank near the bottom since 1996, and lag, in some cases significantly, every championship season during that time period.

Yankees’ OPS+ in Close & Late vs. Winning Percentage When Tied or Trailing in the 7th Inning or Later

Source: baseball-reference.com

Because of the small samples involved, it’s hard to draw a meaningful conclusion about the future from this one split. However, looking back, we can probably conclude that the Yankees failure to produce late in games has cost them a few comeback victories. In fact, the team’s current winning percentage of .204 when tied or trailing entering the seventh inning is one of the lowest since 1996. When you consider that the Yankees’ bullpen leads the league in ERA and WAR (and important factor because offense alone demonstrates only a slight correlation to winning percentage in this split), the onus seems to fall squarely on the relative lack of late-game offensive production.

Yankees’ Walk-off Victories, Since 1950

Source: baseball-reference.com

Regardless of the implications of the Yankees’ muted offensive levels in close and late situations, whether looking forward or back, the team’s inability to finish off comebacks has robbed the season of one important element: the fun and excitement of the walk-off victory. To this point, the Yankees have left the opposition on the field in only three games, which pales in comparison to the 15 walk-offs recorded just two years ago. Although dramatic victories are not a pre-requisite for winning championships, they do provide enjoyable highlights over a long 162-game schedule. After all, anything that has Yankees’ fans clamoring to see A.J. Burnett must be pretty special.

Since 1950, the Yankees have had 441 walk-off victories prompted by outcomes ranging from home runs to reaching base on an error (the following pie chart, and what better way to display walk-off data, provides a break down). Just over half have come in the bottom of the ninth, with the rest occurring in extra innings, including one walk-off as late as the 20th frame: Horace Clark’s game winning single against the Red Sox’ Jose Santiago on August 29, 1967. Speaking of the Red Sox, the Yankees have left their rival on the field 57 times, more than any other opponent.

Yankees’ Walk-offs Since 1950, by Event and Opponent (click to enlarge)

Source: baseball-reference.com

Although the terminology wasn’t around at the time, no Yankee has authored more walk-offs than Mickey Mantle, who had 16 game-ending events. Among the current crop of Bronx Bombers, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez also rank in the top-10.

Tippy Martinez remains the Yankees’ most frequent walk-off victim, having surrendered five game-ending hits to the Bronx Bombers, including, most notably, Bobby Murcer’s two run double that cinched victory in the Thurman Munson tribute game. Of particular interest to current Yankees’ fans, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon ranks among the large group of pitchers who have surrendered three Yankees’ walk-offs. Provided he remains in the American League for most of his career, Papelbon could eventually claim the victim’s mantle from Martinez.

Yankees Most Common Walk-off Heroes and Victims, Since 1950

Source: baseball-reference.com

Complaining about the lack of walk-offs from a team with a .600 winning percentage probably won’t sit too well with other teams’ fans, but those who follow the Yankees have grown accustomed to having their pie and eating it too. Besides, even though winning is fun in its own right, doing so in dramatic fashion makes it that much more memorable.

I can still vividly recall Don Mattingly’s game winning home run against Ron Davis on May 13, 1985 as if it happened yesterday. And, I am sure fans of every team can do the same. How about you?

Observations From Cooperstown: Jose Cano, Deadspin's List, and Mike McCormick

One of the nicer outgrowths of Robinson Cano winning the Home Run Derby was the attention given to his designated pitcher, his own father. I suspect that a lot of non-Yankee fans did not know that Cano is a second generation major leaguer, but now they realize that his dad, Jose Cano, did have a major league career–albeit a brief one. And they should know that it was Jose who made the respectful decision to name his son after Hall of Famer and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson.

Jose Cano was originally signed by the Yankees in 1980, but was released that summer after making three rough appearances in the Sally League. The tall, thin right-hander then signed with the Braves–on two different occasions–only to be released each time. After signing with the Astros’ organization, he finally made it to the big leagues in 1989, nearly a full decade after beginning his pro career.

Cano did not put up good numbers with the Astros; he had a 5.09 ERA in six career appearances over one fragmented season. But here’s an oddity. In his last appearance, coming on September 30, Cano actually pitched a complete game, allowing only two runs in a 9-2 win over Scott Scudder in the Reds. Now Cano wasn‘t exactly facing the “Big Red Machine“ that day. The Reds, who were playing out the string, featured only one good hitter that day, a fellow named Paul O’Neill. The rest of the lineup showcased people like Herm Winningham, Luis Quinones, onetime Yankee Joe Oliver (who batted fifth!), Rolando Roomes, and a shortstop named Jeff Richardson.

Still, Cano pitched very well that day. How many players throw complete game efforts in their final major league appearance? Well, it turns out that Cano is the only one in history to have achieved that strange feat. Cano, who saved his best pitching for last, then left the Astros’ organization to sign a contract to play in the relative obscurity of the Taiwanese League.

Well, he’s no longer obscure. With a big assist from his son, Jose Cano is now a household name in baseball circles…

***

I’m not normally a fan of Deadspin, but Eric Nusbaum contributed an interesting article there the other day in which he rated the 100 worst players in major league history. Some of the entries were funny (Johnnie LeMaster once wore the word “BOO” on the back of his jersey) and others were downright revealing (did you know that Mark Lemongello once kidnapped his cousin, singer Peter Lemongello?).

Yet, I do have objections to the inclusions of two former Yankees on the list: Billy Martin and Curt Blefary. “Billy the Kid” and “Clank” were hardly stars, but they were useful players who could contribute to winning teams. Martin was a good defensive second baseman who could fill in at short and third. He also elevated his game enormously in the postseason; he batted .500 with two home runs in the 1953 World Series, and .333 over five World Series combined. Those are hardly the accomplishments of one of the game’s worst players.

In regards to Blefary, I’ve long been a fan of his and feel a need to defend the late journeyman. While it’s true that he was a terrible defender at several positions, he also had some power, drew a lot of walks, and gave teams flexibility with his ability to catch, play first base, or the outfield. At the very least, as a left-handed hitting backup catcher, Blefary provided value in a limited role. Once again, that hardly qualifies him as one of baseball’s worst.

The bottom line is this: there have been hundreds of players far worse than either Martin or Blefary. Those two simply don’t belong on the Deadspin list…

***

I love living in Cooperstown, in part because on any given day, just about any former major leaguer can show up. You never know whom you might meet in the Hall of Fame, or on Main Street. Already this summer, ex-big leaguers like Luis Gonzalez, Glenn Beckert, both Jose Cruz, Jr. and Jose Cruz, Sr. (who briefly played for the Yankees), and former Met Gene Walter have visited the Hall of Fame. One of the most recent to land in Cooperstown is Mike McCormick, who last week toured the museum with his daughter and her family. McCormick pitched briefly for the Yankees, making a handful of appearances in 1970 before finishing up his career the following summer with the Royals.

McCormick’s prime seasons came with San Francisco in the sixties. It’s easy to forget that McCormick once won the Cy Young Award. In 1967, he moved up from being the Giants’ No. 3 starter behind Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry to being the staff ace. Pitching 262 innings, McCormick led the league with 22 wins, pitched 14 complete games, and posted a 2.85 ERA. He was clearly the best pitcher in the league–and fully deserving of the honor of the Cy Young. Still, he is one of the least known winners of the award, a relative no-name compared to the likes of Seaver, Guidry, Gooden, Maddux, Clemens, and Johnson. McCormick lacked the staying power of other Cy Young winners, largely because of injuries.

Still, McCormick won 134 games during a highly respectable career. He has been retired since 1971, but had never visited Cooperstown until now. “It’s the first time that I’ve been to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and shame on me,” McCormick told Hall of Fame researcher Bill Francis. “It’s an incredible place. I would tell everybody that has an opportunity that this is the place to come.”

Amen, brother. I’m surprised that even more retired players don’t come to Cooperstown. After all, they receive free admission to the Museum, along with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hall of Fame, if they want it. For the 72-year-old McCormick, it was an experience that was almost as thrilling as winning that Cy Young.

Bruce Markusen’s The Team That Changed Baseball was recently quoted in Sports Illustrated.

Observations From Cooperstown: Old Timers' Day

Bar none, it’s my favorite promotion on the Yankee calendar. It is “Old-Timers’ Day” and it arrived early this year. For the 65th time in their history, the Yankees officially celebrated their past glory. It is somewhat hard to believe, but Joe Torre and Bernie Williams participated in their first Old-Timers Day, several years after completing iconic careers in the Bronx. Their presence alone made the day special, but I was just as interested in seeing old schoolers like Moose Skowron and Hector Lopez, characters like Oscar Gamble and Joe Pepitone, and even those Yankees who made only cameos in the Bronx, including Cecil Fielder, Lee Mazzilli, and Aaron Small.

More so than any other sport, baseball revels in its ability to celebrate its past. Some would call it nostalgia; I’m more tempted to call it history. No franchise has had more cause to recall its own accomplishments than the Yankees, given the team’s longstanding on-field success, which began with the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1921. So it’s no surprise that the Yankees became the first team to introduce the concept of an Old-Timers’ Day to its promotional calendar.

The Yankees initiated the promotion in the 1930s, though they didn’t actually refer to the event as Old-Timers’ Day. Rather, the tradition began more informally as solitary tributes to retired stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The salute to Gehrig became the best known of the early Old-Timers affairs. On July 4, 1939, the Yankees staged “Lou Gehrig Day” at Yankee Stadium as a way of paying homage to a legendary player whose career had been cut short by the onset of ALS.

After several former and current Yankees delivered emotional speeches lauding Gehrig as both a player and teammate, the retired first baseman stepped to the microphone. In an eloquently stirring address, Gehrig referred to himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” full knowing that he had only a short time to live because of the ravages of the disease. (Gehrig would succumb to ALS only two years later, at the age of 37.) At the conclusion of his speech, the capacity crowd responded with deafening applause, signifying its appreciation for an “old-timer” who had met with the unkindest of fates.

Seven years later, the Yankees introduced their first official Old-Timers’ Day to the franchise’s promotional slate. Rather than concentrate the honors on one retired player, the event became a celebration of teamwide accomplishments that had taken place over past years. Inviting a number of the team’s former stars to the Stadium, the Yankees introduced each one over the public address system, with each player acknowledging the applause from the 70,000-plus fans in attendance.

Ever since the 1946 event, the Yankees have held Old-Timers’ Day on an annual basis, always on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and usually sometime from mid-July to mid-August. (Other teams followed suit in the 1960s and seventies, particularly older franchises with sufficient history to draw from. Even an expansion franchise like the Mets participated in the tradition by celebrating the New York roots of the Giants and Dodgers.) In the earlier years of the event, the Old-Timers’ Game pitted former Yankees against retired stars from the rest of baseball, with the non-Yankees wearing the opposition uniforms of their most prominent teams. In more recent times, the Yankees have invited only former Yankees to the party, largely because they have so many retired stars from which to choose, some as far back as the 1940s. The retired stars now play a kind of celebrated intra-squad game, pitting the “Bombers” against the “Pinstripes.”

Other than the game itself, the format of Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium—with an on-field announcer introducing each retired player, who then jogs (or walks) from the dugout to a spot along the foul line—has remained relatively unaltered. Yet, the voices have changed. For years, famed Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen handled the emcee duties exclusively. Standing at a podium behind home plate, Allen introduced each retired player with his stately Southern drawl. Eventually felled by declining health, Allen gave way to the less acclaimed but highly professional Frank Messer, the team’s longtime play-by-play voice who was best known for his on-air partnership with Phil Rizzuto and Bill White. In recent years, radio voice John Sterling and television play-by-play man Michael Kay have shared the announcing chores—a far cry from Allen’s dignified presence at the microphone.

Over the years, Old-Timers’ Day has occasionally managed to overshadow the events of the “real” game played later in the day by the existing version of the Yankees. This has especially been the case during the franchise’s lean years. In 1973, the Yankees staged one of their most elaborate Old-Timers events as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of Yankee Stadium. The front office invited every living member from the 1923 team, the first to play at the Stadium after the relocation from the nearby Polo Grounds. With Gehrig and Ruth long since deceased, the Yankees invited their widows to participate in the ceremony from box seats located along the first base dugout. Mrs. Claire Ruth and Mrs. Eleanor Gehrig, both outfitted in oversized Easter hats, helped bid farewell to the “old” Yankee Stadium, which was slated for massive renovation after the 1973 season. The day became even memorable because of a development in the Old-Timers’ Game that followed; the fabled Mickey Mantle, retired five years earlier, blasted a home run into the left-field stands. The Mick still had some power in his game.

One of the most indelible Old-Timers’ moments occurred only five years later. After the usual introductions of retired players, the Yankees stunningly declared that Billy Martin would return as Yankee manager. Martin had been fired only five days earlier, done in by his damning declaration that “one’s a born liar, and the other’s convicted,” a reference to the duo of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner.

In spite of the omnipresent New York media, the Yankees somehow succeeded in keeping news of Martin’s return a complete secret. There were no whispers, no rumors, no hints in the local newspapers. Having managed to keep the agreement with Martin in tow throughout the morning and early afternoon, the Yankees arranged to have all of their old timers introduced as usual by Allen, clearing out a final announcement for their deposed manager. Explaining that Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard would now deliver a special announcement, Allen turned over the microphone to his announcing counterpart. Maintaining his dignified delivery throughout, Sheppard revealed that Martin would return to the Yankee dugout two years later, in 1980, with recently hired manager Bob Lemon moving up to the front office as general manager. As a gleeful Martin trotted onto the field at a sun-splashed Yankee Stadium, a capacity crowd greeted him with a prolonged standing ovation that was motivated as much by shock as it was by joy.

In terms of dramatic theater, it was as timely and well orchestrated as any announcement I’ve seen during my lifetime as a fan. It showcased Old-Timers’ Day at its best, combining the predictable and orderly splendor of a ceremonial day with an unexpected and newsworthy development that bordered on spontaneity.

We didn’t see that kind of news making event yesterday, but that didn’t make the day any less significant. Seeing former Yankees in uniform, sometimes for the first time in years, is something that will always prompt the goose bumps. If you like and appreciate the history of this franchise, then Old-Timers’ Day remains the one day that cannot be missed.

[Photo Credit: Ron Antoneli, N.Y. Daily News]

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Card Corner: The 1961 Yankees: Bobby Richardson

Bobby Richardson might not have made it in today’s game. To be more specific, he might not have been able to start for most teams at second base. He was a reliable and rangy defender with hands of silk at the keystone, but as a .260 hitter who drew few walks and hit with little power, he probably wouldn’t have carried the offensive standard of today’s game. Of course, that should do little to diminish his complementary role on those great Yankee teams of the early 1960s.

Emerging as a 19-year-old rookie, the handsome Richardson made his big league debut in 1955. He was hardly an overnight success. He didn’t hit much over his first four seasons and had to settle for a role as a part-time player and utility infielder, while spending time on the minor league shuttle to Triple-A Denver. When Casey Stengel played him at second base, it was usually in a platoon with veteran infielder Jerry Lumpe. In many ways, Richardson seemed out of place on a Yankee team filled with hard hitters and big drinkers. Richardson’s clean living and deep religious beliefs prompted a famed remark from his manager, Casey Stengel. “Look at him. He don’t drink, he don’t smoke, he don’t chew, he don’t stay out too late, and he still don’t hit .250!”

It was not until 1959 that he started to hit better and finally took hold of the second base job, essentially succeeding Gil McDougald at the position. Richardson played well enough to earn a berth on the All-Star team, hit a tidy .301, and fielded everything hit in his direction. Unfortunately, after making appearances as a bit player in the 1957 and ‘58 World Series, Richardson was denied a more meaningful role in that fall’s World Series; the ‘59 Yankees finished 79-75, a disappointing and distant third in the American League pennant race.

In 1960, Richardson’s hitting fell off to .252, as he reached base barely 30 per cent of the time. Although he looked like a leadoff hitter, he didn’t play like one. Frankly, the Yankees would have been better served leading off with either Tony Kubek, who had a slightly better on-base percentage and far more power, or Hector Lopez, who reached base 36 per cent of the time. Fortunately, the Yankees did not need a ton of offense from Richardson because the rest of their lineup was so potent.

In reality, Richardson always led with his glove. He had the perfect physique for a second baseman. At five-foot-nine and 175 pounds, Richardson was built strong and low to the ground, making him an immoveable object on takeout slides at second base. He worked extremely well with Kubek, his shortstop partner and his best friend on the team. Richardson’s rock-solid defensive play more than satisfied the Yankee brass, which recognized the subtle role that his fielding played in helping the team regain the pennant after a one-year absence.

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Harmon Killebrew dies at 74

 

A sad day for Twins fans and the baseball community, as legendary slugger Harmon Killebrew passed away this morning at 74, from esophageal cancer.

Personally, Killebrew was on the down side of his career by the time I got into baseball, but I still vividly remember the Yankees yearbooks of the early 70s featuring pictures of the Twins masher as part of their “Visiting Stars”.

For what it was worth, Killebrew compiled a line of .239/.333/.455 with 22 homers in 121 career games at Yankee Stadium.

May he rest in peace.

(Over at SI.com, Steve Rushin has a nice obit.)

Observations From Cooperstown: Vazquez, Chavez, and Goossen

Last year, career minor leaguer Jon Weber was the feel-good story of spring training. He hit everything in sight and made a run at the Opening Day roster before being demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre. Weber’s story ended nightmarishly; the veteran outfielder was suspended in mid-season for a third violation of baseball’s drug policy, and rather than take a 100-game ban, he opted to retire.

Let’s hope that the story of Jorge Vazquez ends far better than that. Like Weber, Vazquez is no prospect. He’s soon to turn 29 and will never be a regular in the major leagues. But he has legitimate right-handed power, is versatile, and could be a useful backup player in the Bronx. It’s only been a few games, but the career minor leaguer and ex-Mexican League standout has been rapping line drives around the Grapefruit League, putting himself in position to make an outside run at the 13th and final spot for position players.

Vazquez spent most of 2010 at Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where he slugged .526 as a part-time third baseman and first baseman. There’s little doubt about his power; he twice exceeded the 30-home run mark in Mexico, and has hit long balls at a similar rate in the high minors of the Yankee system. Now the down side. He’s the ultimate free swinger, having never walked more than 25 times in a full season. So let’s call him Celerino Sanchez with power.

Vazquez’ best shot at making the team rests on his ability to continue hitting this spring, along with a potential breakdown by Eric Chavez, who is also vying for a spot as a backup infield cornerman to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. I think the Yankees would like to see Chavez make the team, based on his pedigree of left-handed power and defensive supremacy at third base. But if Chavez cannot stay healthy (a big IF for a guy who hasn’t played a full season since 2006) or if he fails to show any of his past power, then the door might open for Vazquez

As with Weber, I’ll be rooting for Vazquez. I guess I’m just a sucker for career minor leaguers. …

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Card Corner: Mike Kekich

Last summer I had the pleasure of interviewing former Yankee Fritz Peterson, who informed me of his involvement with a Ben Affleck/Matt Damon film project chronicling his famed wife swap with Mike Kekich. Now comes the news that Kekich will not give his approval to the project; in fact, one news report in the NY Post claims that the reclusive left-hander is “panic stricken” about the movie and “freaked out” that filmmakers actually found out where he lives.

I can’t say that I’m surprised to hear of Kekich’s reaction to the film. Ever since he retired in 1977, he has remained out of the baseball spotlight. I have never seen or heard him interviewed about his career, whether it’s talking about the Yankees or other stopping points in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Texas or Seattle. He has always been reluctant to talk about the wife swap, remaining so even with the passage of time. Unlike Peterson, I don’t think Kekich is planning any trips to Cooperstown in the near future.

So who exactly is Mike Kekich? Kekich the person remains a mystery, but Kekich the pitcher is very much the story of the highly touted left-hander who didn’t live up to his promise. Although he and Peterson are often mentioned interchangeably because of the wife swap, the reality is that Peterson was the far more accomplished pitcher.

Kekich came up in the Dodgers’ system in the mid-1960s, heralded as a talented left-hander with a blazing fastball. Some dared to call him the “next Sandy Koufax.” Unfortunately, the Dodgers at the time were just about the worst destination for a young pitcher because they were already bulging at the seams with talented hurlers; they had the actual Koufax, along with Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Claude Osteen, and the up-and-coming Bill Singer.

Kekich could never gain traction with the Dodgers. After a terrible five-game stint in 1965, he went back to the minor leagues for two full seasons and didn’t return to Chavez Ravine in 1968. Kekich didn’t pitch particularly well, but he suffered from an unusual share of bad luck and poor run support, losing ten of 12 decisions while making 20 starts.

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Morning Art

Drawings by Robert Weaver, spring training, 1962.

This morning, Jack Curry tweeted that he arrived at his 20th spring training and the first thing he heard was the thud of a ball hitting a mitt. Color me green with envy.

Beat of the Day

Ran a Comb Across my Hea

Sunday morning wake-up from…Billy Joel? Yep, go figure.

Afternoon Art

From a Tintin exhibition:

[Photo Credit: N.Y. Sun]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver