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Category: 1970s

Observations From Cooperstown: Dom Valentino and a Look Back at 1987

It’s tempting to say that Phil Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank Messer were the only broadcasters for the Yankees during the 1970s. It seemed that way, if only because those three men were fixtures on television and radio. But there were a few others who announced for the team that decade, including Fran Healy,  a good guy who made the immediate transition from backup catcher to broadcaster, and Bob Gamere, who is now in a federal prison for possessing and transporting child pornography.

There was also a guy named Dom Valentino.

Valentino died last week at the age of 83. If you don’t remember him as a Yankee broadcaster, you’re easily forgiven. I have only vague recollections of Valentino, and I was a diehard Yankee fan for most of that decade. Valentino announced Yankee games for just one season, in 1975, which turned out to be an also-ran campaign for the Yankees, just one year before their celebrated return to the World Series.

But I do remember Valentino, at least a little bit. Further research reveals that he was all of five feet and four inches, but had a large, booming voice that belied his stature. A colorful personality who wore shirts with wide collars that could have fit aircraft carriers, Valentino had an excitability on the air that made him distinctive. He sometimes embellished details on the field, trying to make circumstances more dramatic than they were, but hey, baseball is entertainment and not precision brain surgery.

The 1975 season was hardly a hallmark campaign for the Yankees, but it was noteworthy for the debuts of both Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Bobby Bonds in Yankee pinstripes. And it was absolutely tumultuous for Valentino, perhaps the most dramatic year in his life. Not only did Valentino do Yankee radio broadcasts that summer, but he also performed play-by-play for the New York Nets, who still had Julius Erving and were still in the ABA, and the NHL’s New York Islanders. It was a hectic time for Valentino, especially in the spring, when the Yankees, Nets and Islanders were all playing simultaneously. Given such a breakneck schedule, it became understandable why Valentino endured a heart attack in July. Then, during his time in the hospital, Valentino suffered a second heart attack. Two heart attacks meant an end to his one season of broadcasting in the Bronx.

Valentino’s life had almost ended a month earlier, and through circumstances under which he had no control. After a Yankee home game on June 13–Friday the 13th as a matter of fact–Valentino was driving home when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver. The collision thrust Valentino partly through his windshield. Miraculously, he survived the terrifying accident, only to endure the two heart attacks later in the summer. No one should have to go through that kind of a year.

After a 15-month layoff, Valentino returned to broadcasting, but not at the major league level. Determined to announce games once again, He took a job announcing New Orleans Pelicans minor league games. By 1980, he was back in the big leagues, doing play-by-play for the Oakland A’s. Valentino’s friendship with Billy Martin, who was guiding the “Billy Ball” A’s at the time, helped him land the job. Finally, a good break had come Valentino’s way, after all those near tragedies of 1975.

That Valentino somehow made it through 1975, and then fought his way back to a major league broadcast booth, is remarkable. He managed to live until his early eighties, when a pair of strokes and prostrate cancer finally took his life. That’s fighting. And that’s surviving. Dom Valentino, God bless you…

 

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Saturday afternoon’s miraculous comeback from a 9-0 deficit will likely become a Yankee classic, and for good reason (it happened against their hated rivals and occurred on national TV), but it’s not the first time that the Bombers have come back from such a margin against the Beantowners. On June 26, 1987, the Yankees played the Red Sox in a Friday night game at the Stadium. They fell behind the defending American League champions, 9-0, after the first two innings.

In the bottom of the third, the Yankees then went to work against a young Roger Clemens By the end of the inning, the Yankees had knocked “The Rocket” from the game, banged out nine hits against a trio of Red Sox pitchers, taken advantage of an error and a passed ball, and scored a bushel of 11 runs. The big blows came from Dave Winfield (a three-run homer), Gary Ward (a bases-loaded single), and of all people, Wayne Tolleson (another bases-loaded single).

But the Yankees could not maintain their sudden prosperity. Rich Bordi, called on to pitch long relief after a failed start by Tommy John, immediately gave up two runs in the top of the fourth, as the Sox tied the game. The two teams would not score again until the bottom of the 10th, when Mike Pagliarulo drew a leadoff walk against Calvin Schiraldi, moved to second on Rick Cerone’s sacrifice bunt, and came home with the game-winning run on Tolleson’s RBI single.

Not surprisingly, Don Mattingly put himself right in the middle of the offensive heroics. He went 4-for-6, scored two runs, and drove in another. Willie Randolph added three hits and a walk, while Winfield chipped in with his three-run shot, the Yankees’ only home run of the night.

The offensive outburst overshadowed the good work of the Yankee bullpen. After Bordi coughed up the lead, Cecilio Guante gave Lou Piniella three and a third innings of scoreless relief, lefty Pat Clements pitched shutout ball for two and two-thirds, and Tim “Big Foot” Stoddard picked up the win by notching the final out in the top of the 10th. For those three pitchers, the game might have represented the highlight of their brief Yankee careers.

And just to give you a little flavor of the era, some of the other Yankees who played that day included a veteran Claudell Washington, platoon specialist Mike Easler, and the good-hit, no-field catcher, Mark Salas.

Yes, that was 25 years ago. A different time and an era. But the same result–an incredible come-from-behind win against the Sox.

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

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.

Card Corner: 1972 Topps–Felipe Alou

As hard as it is for me to believe, I started collecting baseball cards 40 years ago. (Yes, I am becoming old.) To celebrate the anniversary, along with a set that collectors now consider iconic within the hobby, I’ll be spotlighting certain Yankee players from the 1972 Topps collection here in 2012.

For some reason, Topps chose yellow as its baseline color for Yankee cards. Yellow has never been part of the team’s color scheme; it has always been Navy blue and white, with some red thrown into the old Yankee Doodle hat logo. But yellow is what Topps selected, making that the color of memory for the ‘72 Yankees.

As with all of the regular issue ‘72 cards, Yankee players appeared in photographs that were either portraits, profiles, or posed shots. Topps did issue some “In Action” cards for a few Yankees, including Thurman Munson, Johnny Ellis, and Fritz Peterson, and we’ll tackle some of those throughout the year. But our emphasis will be on the regular issue cards, which were photographed at the original Yankee Stadium, various American League ballparks, or at the Yankees’ spring training site inFt.Lauderdale.

So let our tour of 1972 cards begin, with a player who is not often remembered for being a Yankee. Felipe Alou’s card shows him wearing the Yankees’ road uniform in a ballpark that may or may not be Anaheim Stadium. The photo, which is slightly out of focus, shows Alou finishing a practicing swing while giving the cameraman a serious stare. As posed shots go, it is classic Topps.

For those who recall Alou as the manager of the Expos and Giants, it’s easy to overlook just how good a player he was throughout the sixties and early seventies. The native Dominican was one of those five-tool players we hear so often about, but rarely get to see. In his prime, he hit with legitimate power, ran well enough to steal 10 to 12 bases a year, batted in the .280 to .290 range, and possessed enough arm and range to play all three outfield positions. Alou wasn’t quite a Hall of Famer–he was a couple of notches below that–but he was a damned fine ballplayer.

The peak of his career came in 1966, when he played center field for the Atlanta Braves and led the National League in hits, runs, and total bases. With a career high 31 home runs and an OPS of .894, Alou placed fifth in the league’s MVP voting.

By the time that he joined the Yankees early in 1971, Alou was no longer that same player, no longer in his prime. But he was still serviceable, a good role player who gave the Yankees depth in the outfield and at first base. The Yankees acquired him on April 9 of that season, just four days after the opening of the season. They acquired him from the Oakland A’s, who had deemed him valuable enough to be their Opening Day starter in left field.

In truth, Alou had been the center of trade rumors from the latter days of spring training through the first week of the regular season. There had been talk that the A’s might send him to the Brewers for some infield depth, but the Yankees apparently made Charlie Finley an offer that he felt was superior to what was presented by the Brewers. The Yankees sent Finley two pitchers, right-hander Ron Klimkowski and left-hander Rob Gardner. They were two decent middle relievers, but neither was expected to play a huge role with the Yankees in 1971. In fact, Gardner had been sent out to Triple-A Syracuse just before Opening Day.

The consensus of scouts maintained that Finley had not received enough value in return for Alou. The Oakland players knew that they would miss Alou, one of the most well-liked and respected players throughout the major leagues. A’s captain Sal Bando had once offered Alou the highest of praise. “He’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever met in baseball,” Bando told Ron Bergman, the A’s’ beat writer. “You think a man who’s been around as long as he has would pace himself a little. But he embarrasses you the way he hustles.” Yankee management was simply thrilled to have acquired a veteran leader and professional hitter.

Though there had been rumors of a possible trade, the timing of the deal—just a handful of days into the regular season—caught Alou by surprise. He had just moved his wife and children into an Oakland apartment, where they were scheduled to stay for the entire ‘71 season. Those plans would have to be scrapped, but the Yankees graciously gave Alou the necessary time to move his family out of the Oakland apartment and make new accommodations in the New York metropolitan region.

When Alou finally reported to the Yankees a few days later, he found an interesting way to find something positive in being traded from Oakland to New York. It involved the simplicity of his uniform. “At least I know this is the uniform I’m going to be wearing everyday,” Felipe told the New York Times in referring to the traditional home Yankee pinstripes. “Out there, I didn’t know which [A’s] uniform to wear when. We had one uniform for the first game of a doubleheader and another for the second.  Once I put on the wrong uniform.”

Indeed, the A’s led both leagues in the number of uniform combinations. On some days, the A’s wore Kelly green uniforms with gold undershirts. Then there were games when they donned white jerseys (wedding gown white, as Finley called it) and pants with green sleeves. On other days, they wore Fort Knox gold uniforms with green undershirts. Life would be much simpler with the Yankees: pinstripes at home and standard gray on the road.

Five days after the trade, on April 14, Alou made his Yankee debut wearing the pinstripes. He started in right field at The Stadium against Tigers left-hander Mickey Lolich. Alou went just 1-for-5 that day, but he made the one hit memorable–a solo home run that was part of an 8-4 victory over Detroit.

Alou’s arrival in New York also created confusion for us young Yankee fans. We assumed that his name was pronounced “feh-leep ah-lew.” We didn’t realize that you had to pronounce the final “e” in his first name, making it “feh-leep-ay.” For some reason “feh-leep ah-lew” sounded right. But we were wrong, as we often were with the pronunciations of Latino ballplayers.

Alou would become a semi-regular for the Yankees in ‘71, at first playing right field, then moving to first base. He played 56 games in right field, 42 games at first base, and even filled in 20 times in center field. At 36 years of age, he was hardly a force–he powered only eight home runs and slugged a mere .410–but he did hit .289 with an on-base percentage of .334. Under ideal circumstances, he would have been a platoon player for a strong contender, but at 82-80, the Yankees needed him to take on a more prominent role.

With his speed diminishing, the Yankees reduced his outfield role, making him a platoon first baseman with Ron Blomberg. They hoped that Alou could produce at his 1971 level, but one year older, his play continued to fall off. He played only 120 games, his lowest output since his 1969 season with the Braves. He hit only six home runs as his slugging percentage fell below .400. By now it was obvious that Alou could no longer play every day, and might not even be able to help in much of a bench role, but the Yankees brought him back for 1973.

Though Alou’s skills were waning, the Yankees appreciated his demeanor and attitude. When a reporter asked manager Ralph Houk whom he considered the team leader, the skipper thought for a moment before responding, “I’d say Felipe.” In terms of fundamental and professionalism, no one on the Yankees matched Alou. “Felipe plays every day like a pro,” Houk told Yankee beat writer Jim Ogle in 1973. “Have you ever seen him make a mistake? I’m talking about judgment, not [physical] errors. Everyone makes errors, but Felipe doesn’t do the wrong thing very often. Have you ever watched Felipe go down the line, then take the turn at first base on a hit to the outfield? If there is even the slightest bobble, he’s on his way to second.”

Alou’s 1973 season with the Yankees would provide an intriguing twist. The Yankees had made a wintertime deal, sending journeyman Rob Gardner (who had since rejoined the team) and Rich McKinney to the A’s for right fielder Matty Alou. For the first time since 1964, the Alou brothers would play as teammates, just as they had done with the Giants. In fact, withSan Francisco, all three of the Alous—Felipe, Matty, and Jesus—had played together in the same outfield. (The three would have a reunion of sorts in 1973. When the A’s, featuring Jesus Alou, came to Yankee Stadium for a series in 1973, photographers made sure to snap shots of the three brothers together. One of these photographs would become the basis for an SSPC baseball card in 1978.)

Three specific memories stand out for me from the Yankees’ 1973 season. That was the year that George Steinbrenner assumed control of the franchise. That was the spring that Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson announced the trade of their wives, children, and family pets. And that was the year that the Alous, reunited after a nine-year absence, became two of the notable faces of the Yankee franchise.

The Yankees made Matty their starting right fielder. They put Felipe back at first base. Facially, they looked somewhat alike, which created confusion for some Yankee fans. But for me, it was easy to tell them apart. Felipe wore glasses; Matty did not. Felipe was tall and batted right-handed. Matty was short and batted from the left side.

Matty hit well and fielded well, but it was strange that the Yankees used him, a singles hitter with virtually no power, to bat third instead of leadoff. Felipe struggled, his play falling off even further after the decline of 1972, and he lost the first base job. Interestingly, the Yankees replaced Felipe with Matty, who moved to first base despite being only five feet, nine inches tall. Felipe eventually made some starts in right field, mostly against left-handed pitching, as he platooned with Johnny Callison. But Felipe just couldn’t hit anymore. At age 38, he had lost most of his batting skills.

When the Yankees fell out of contention that summer, the front office felt it was time to move out some of their past-their-prime veterans. So they released Callison. A few weeks later, they decided it was time to cut ties with the aging Alous. On September 4, the Yankees announced two separate but related transactions. They sold Matty to the Padres. They also sold Felipe on waivers to the Expos. It was only fitting that the brothers would depart New York on the exact same day.

Felipe Alou batted .208 in 20 games for the Expos, who sold him to the Brewers after the season. Alou batted three times with Milwaukee, without a hit, and then drew his release. And thus came to an end a 17-year career in the big leagues.

Alou would never return to the Yankee organization. But he and the Yankees nearly enjoyed a reunion of sorts in 1994. Alou, by now the manager of the Expos, was leading his team to the best record (74-40) in the National League. In the meantime, the Yankees led the American League East. Then came the strike. If not for the labor/management conflict canceling the rest of the season and the World Series, it’s quite possible that Alou would have met the Yankees in the Fall Classic.

Like so many possibilities in baseball, it just never did come to pass.

[Photo Credit: Attic Insulation]

Observations From Cooperstown: The Yankees and the 1971 Winter Meetings

I’ll be completely honest with you. This has been the dullest Yankee offseason I can remember. There might have been an off-season in the early 1990s, when the Yankees couldn’t convince any top notch free agent to take their money, which might have been just as dull. But that’s about it.

There aren’t even any worthwhile rumors making their ways through the Internet. I don’t think the Yankees have any real interest in trading Jesus Montero (and other commodities) for Gio Gonzalez, which was rumored last week at the winter meetings. Their bid for Japanese sensation Yu Darvish will reportedly fall short of what will be needed to sign him. The Yankees supposedly have no interest in Matt Garza. It doesn’t seem the Yankees have much interest in anyone, either because the player is too costly, or the other general managers continue to ask Brian Cashman for 150 cents on the dollar.

The situation was far different 40 years ago. In the days leading up to the 1971 winter meetings, the Yankees were involved in rumors on multiple fronts, as they searched far and wide for a new third baseman and right fielder.

The third base situation had become particularly sticky, with the Yankees having grown completely dissatisfied with the play of Jerry Kenney. The Yankees talked to the Angels about Jim Fregosi, an All-Star shortstop who was deemed capable of playing the hot corner. They talked to the Twins about Cesar Tovar, a little pepperpot of a player who could also provide backup at second base and the outfield. The Yankees even talked to the Dodgers about a young Steve Garvey, who was still a scatter-armed third baseman who had not yet been moved to the other side of the diamond.

The Yankees also exchanged ideas with the Cubs for new Hall of Famer Ron Santo, who was being made available by Chicagofor the first time. According to the rumors of the day, the Cubs wanted a young catcher and some relief pitching for Santo. The Yankees could have parted with a veteran reliever like Jack Aker or Lindy McDaniel, but there was no way they would have surrendered a young Thurman Munson for an aging Santo. Therefore, no trade took place. And as it turned out, Santo had only two productive seasons left in him, before he fell off badly with the White Sox in 1974.

On the outfield front, the Yankees attempted a run at an Oriole institution, a future Hall of Famer in Frank Robinson, regarded as the spiritual leader of the Birds. One of the rumored Robinson deals at the winter meetings had the Yankees sending veteran left-hander Fritz Peterson toBaltimore. The Yankees would have loved nothing better than to put Robinson in right field, next to Bobby Murcer in center and Roy White in right, giving them one of the game’s premier all-round outfields.

Robinson ended up being traded, but not to the Yankees, partly because ofBaltimore’s leeriness about trading within the American League East. The Orioles instead sent Robby to the Dodgers for a package of four younger players, in a move the O’s would soon regret.

Similarly, Yankee deals for Fregosi, Tovar, and Garvey also fell through. And that was a good thing, thanks to the benefit of hindsight. Sent to the Mets in the ill-fated Nolan Ryan deal, Fregosi flopped in making the transition to third base and was done as an All-Star caliber player. Tovar was also near the end of the line; after being traded to the Phillies, he would become a utility man before making a brief pitstop with the Yankees in 1976. In contrast, Garvey had plenty of value left, but not as a third baseman. An arm injury convinced the Dodgers to move him to first base, where he became a perennial All-Star. Garvey certainly would have helped the Yankees at first base (another problem position), but then again, his presence would have eliminated the trade for Chris Chambliss, perhaps negating the dramatic finish to the 1976 American League pennant.

The Yankees ended up making two trades at the 1971 winter meetings. They sent two young pitchers to the Rangers for Bernie Allen, who would become a utility infielder. More significantly, they did make a deal for a third baseman at the meetings, only it was for someone who was lesser known than the aforementioned candidates. On December 2, Yankee GM Lee MacPhail sent reliable right-handed starter Stan Bahnsen to the White Sox for a young utility infielder named Rich McKinney, who had batted .271 (with a .377 slugging percentage) as a part-time player. The Yankees immediately announcedMcKinneyas their new third baseman. The reaction to the deal was nearly unanimous: the Yankees had panicked and had made an awful trade. Angry fans flooded the Yankee switchboard with calls of complaint. Some fans even called up newspaper writers to vent their anger.

One fan complaint, printed in The Sporting News, summed up the feelings of frustration. “We were expecting Jim Fregosi, Cesar Tovar, Ron Santo or Steve Garvey,” said the irate fan. “And we wind up with a part-time player for a frontline pitcher. Imagine, the guy wasn’t even a regular inChicago.”

Faced with such stinging criticism, MacPhail offered up the following defense. “Our scouts are sure he can play third,” MacPhail told Yankee beat writer Jim Ogle. “I think he’s going to be one helluva hitter.” Perhaps MacPhail was influenced byMcKinney’s .379 average against the Yankees in 1971, when he rapped 11 hits in 29 at-bats.

Both the scouts and MacPhail were wrong. In only his sixth game as a Yankee, McKinneymade four errors, against the rival Red Sox no less. He hit a grand total of one home run. By mid-season, he was back in Triple-A. At the end of the 1972 season, the Yankees cut their losses by sendingMcKinneyto the A’s for a still useful Matty Alou.

Aside from his four-error debacle atFenwayPark,McKinneybecame best known for trying to score marijuana from Yankees public relations director Marty Appel during the team’s winter caravan. Appalled and shocked at the request, Appel toldMcKinneyhe couldn’t help him.

So the one big trade the Yankees made at the 1971 winter meetings turned into a disaster. Clearly, it was a trade they could have done without.

Hey, maybe Brian Cashman is playing it right. Making no trades might be the way to go.

Observations From Cooperstown: Nix, Nunez, Garcia, and The Mystery Man

The Yankees’ decision to sign journeyman Jayson Nix to a make-good contract might end up as inconsequential, or it might be a harbinger of a larger transaction to come. A utility infielder who can play both the infield and the outfield, Nix looks like he’s part of the Triple-A backup plan, but I wonder if there is more at work here. There have been rumors that the Braves and Yankees are talking about a deal that would send Eduardo Nunez to Atlanta as part of a package for Jair Jurrjens. If the Yankees do trade Nunez, they will need a new utility infielder. Ramiro Pena is clearly not the answer, and the organization has shown no confidence in minor league veteran Jorge Vazquez.

What kind of a player is Nix? He had a miserable 2011, hitting so poorly and striking out so frequently for the Blue Jays that they released him in mid-season. But he does have some power–he hit 26 home runs combined for the White Sox and Indians over the 2009 and 2010 seasons–and can play third base, second base or shortstop, in addition to the outfield corners.

So should the Yankees trade Nunez? He has loads of natural talent, but is very raw, and must find a way to cut down on his throwing errors. He could be a very good utility infielder, ala Randy Velarde or Luis Sojo, but I don’t know if he has enough patience at the plate to be an everyday player. In the meantime, Jurrjens is a very effective right-handed pitcher who has been good in three of his four full seasons. He’s a strike thrower who won’t turn 26 until January, with the one concern being his ability to stay healthy. If the Braves would be willing to part with the native of Curacao in exchange for a package of Nunez, Brandon Laird, and a middling prospect, I’d have to give some serious thought to such a trade…

* * * *

The Yankees’ wise decision to re-sign Freddy “The Chief” Garcia should not be interpreted as a sign that they will not pursue additional starting pitching; rather it’s part of a plan to stockpile as much pitching depth as possible for a long season. The reliable Garcia is an insurance policy, a No. 5 starter under a worst-case scenario, and possibly a long reliever. The Yankees still plan to pursue pitching via both the trade and free agent routes. If they can add someone like Mark Buerhle (free agent) or John Danks (trade), the rotation will look like this:

1) CC Sabathia

2) Ivan Nova

3) Buerhle or Danks or someone else

4) Phil Hughes

5) A.J. Burnett

Under this scenario, Garcia would start the season out of the bullpen and would be available as a long man and spot starter. The Yankees could then give Hector Noesi some more time to develop as a fulltime starter at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre. With Noesi, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos at Scranton, the Yankees would have exactly the kind of young pitching depth that Brian Cashman desires as mid-season insurance. But the plan depends on adding a starting pitcher of some pedigree, something that Cashman has not been able to do since signing Sabathia in 2009…

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Over at The Hardball Times, I’ve been writing a series of baseball card mysteries where I ask readers to assist me in identifying players on cards. One of the cards has proved particularly vexing: the 2001 Topps Golden Moments card featuring Bucky Dent’s historic home run against Mike Torrez. I’ve been able to identify most everyone on the card. There’s Dent himself (wearing No. 20), who’s being trailed by Chris Chambliss. The welcome wagon of congratulation includes Yankee trainer Gene Monahan, backup catcher Cliff Johnson and manager Bob Lemon (all in jackets). Behind Lemon is Jay Johnstone, the veteran backup outfielder. Behind Monahan is Willie Randolph, who was injured and unavailable to play in the tiebreaker game against the Red Sox.

That leaves one mystery man. Who is the player to the right of Randolph, the one right next to the gold Topps logo? Among our readers suggestions have been backup outfielder Gary Thomasson, first baseman/DH Jim Spencer, and backup catcher Mike Heath. Still others claim that this player has no number on the back of the uniform, which leaves open the possibility that it is not actually a player, or not a player who was eligible for that game against the Red Sox. Could it be a ballboy or a batboy?

Who in the world is it? At this point, I really have no idea. Perhaps someone at the Banter knows.

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]

Observations From Cooperstown: The Roster, 1978, and Butch Hobson

As usual, the Yankees are waiting until the last minute to officially announce their 25-man roster for the Division Series. So that leaves me guessing as to what will they do at the periphery of the roster. We do know that Jorge Posada will be on the roster, as will Russell Martin and Jesus Montero. I have a hard time believing the Yankees will carry four catchers, so I’m guessing that rookie Austin Romine will be left off, with the Yankees gambling that they can tolerate either Montero or Posada doing some catching if Martin is lifted in the late innings for a pinch-hitter. The Tigers don’t run much, so a strong throwing catcher becomes less of a priority.

We know that the starting infield will have Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and (hopefully a healthy) Alex Rodriguez, with Eduardo Nunez serving as the primary utility infielder. Eric Chavez will also be around as a backup at first and third base, but perhaps more importantly, as the primary left-handed pinch-hitter. So that makes for six infielders.

The starting outfield of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher will need a backup, so right-handed specialist Andruw Jones is a certainty. The real question is this: will the Yankees carry a fifth outfielder? It’s a tough call, but I think they will. Chris Dickerson has played well in his limited opportunities; he’s a good corner outfielder who can handle Comerica Park and has enough footspeed to serve as a pinch runner. While he doesn’t have the blazing speed of Greg Golson, he’s a better baserunner, as evidenced by Golon’s extra-inning foul up in extra innings on Wednesday against the Rays. So Golson will be out, and Dickerson should be in as a backup outfielder.

With three catchers, six infielders, and five outfielders, that makes for 14 position players. That leaves room for 11 pitchers, instead of 12. And that’s the right way to go in a series that can go no longer than five games. The Yankees figure to use only three starters (CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Freddy Garcia), which leaves room for an eight-man bullpen. The givens are Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, A.J. Burnett, Cory Wade, and Boone Logan. That still leaves two spots for pitchers from a group that includes Phil Hughes, the slumping Bartolo Colon, Luis Ayala, Hector Noesi and obscure left-hander Raul Valdes. Out of loyalty, I see Joe Girardi going with Hughes for one of the spots. The final spot? Given that the Tigers have a lineup that is deeper from the right side, I see the Yankees going with Noesi, whom the Tigers have never seen face-to-face. So mystery will win out over the strategy of lefty-on-lefty matchups.

On Thursday, the Yankees did announce two important decisions for the postseason. I like one, but not the other. Simply put, Posada is a bad choice to DH against flamethrowing Justin Verlander in Game One; he just doesn’t have the bat speed to catch up with fastballs in the high 90s. Montero, with his OPS of .996, would have been the better choice, riskier, but better.

In terms of the No. 3 starter, Freddy Garcia is absolutely the correct choice. Selecting Burnett, based on one good start last weekend against the Red Sox, would have been a horrendous selection. Similarly, the enigmatic Hughes has been too inconsistent from game to game, with his velocity readings continuing to fluctuate so violently. Of all the possibilities, Garcia has been the most consistent starter, the one who is most likely to give the Yankees six innings of two-run ball. He also has a terrific record in the playoffs and World Series. Across seven different postseason series, Garcia has posted an ERA of 3.11, with 45 strikeouts and 22 walks in 55 innings. “The Chief” will not be rattled by the pressure of a short series, or by the enemy crowd at Comerica Park…

***

Since my wife Sue is a Red Sox fan, I do have some sympathy for what their fans are enduring in the wake of the team blowing a nine-game lead in the span of four weeks. The collapse of this year’s Sox has me thinking about the events of 1978, when the Red Sox allowed a 14-game lead to fritter away over the span of ten weeks. By comparison, the collapse of the ‘78 Red Sox seems milder. After all, they did win 15 games in September and October, and managed to put together an eight-game win streak at the end to force a one-game tiebreaker against the Yankees. In contrast, the 2011 Red Sox won only seven games in September, lost 20, and generally played dreadful baseball, especially from the mound and on the basepaths.

One of the reasons that the ‘78 Red Sox lost was due to questionable managing by skipper Don Zimmer, who was not yet a gleam in Joe Torre’s eye. Zimmer buried Bill Lee in his doghouse, refusing to use him as a starter while youngsters like Bobby Sprowl and Jim Wright struggled. Zimmer also continued to play Butch Hobson at third base even though he had several bone chips in his elbow that prevented him from making even routine throws to first. Hobson ended up with a whopping 43 errors that summer. Hobson, as hard-nosed a player as I’ve ever seen, did not ask out of the lineup until late September. Zimmer should have taken the decision out of his hands much earlier, made Hobson the DH, and put backup Jack Brohamer at third base. By waiting so long, Zimmer may have cost the Red Sox a game or two in the standings.

Four years later, the Yankees acquired Hobson in a trade with the Angels for righty reliever Bill Castro. I remember being excited about the trade, remembering how tough and tenacious Hobson had been for the rival Red Sox.

Unfortunately, Hobson had nothing left in the tank. He was only 30, but his body was much older. Years of drug abuse, running into walls, and playing through bone chips and bad shoulders had taken their toll. In 60 plate appearances, Hobson put up an OPS of .390, which is so low it doesn’t seem possible.

I wish Hobson had done better with the Yankees. He certainly deserved better in 1978, when his manager should have done him a favor, but didn’t.

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

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: The Offense, The HOF, and Elliott Maddox

With all of the focus on the Yankees’ alleged pursuit of Ubaldo Jimenez and sundry other pitchers, most of the mainstream media has lost focus on the team’s other concern: an inconsistent and hardly overpowering offense. The Yankees have not scored a ton of runs since a time from before the All-Star break–with the sorry output against James Shields on Thursday being the latest example. Very quietly, the Yankees have fallen to third in the American League in runs scored, trailing not only the Red Sox but the resurgent Rangers.

In the last 11 games, the Yankees have been held to one run four times. In another game, they scored two runs. They haven’t scored more than seven runs in any game over that stretch. And they haven’t reached double figures in runs since June 28. This ain’t a powerhouse any more.

It should be no secret that the loss of Alex Rodriguez is playing a role. A-Rod should be back within the next month, but will the Yankees be able to score enough runs to stay close to the Red Sox during the interim? Even with a small resurgence since his dreadful start, Jorge Posada is still having a terrible season; Derek Jeter remains a middle infield mediocrity; and Mark Teixeira is struggling to keep his batting average above .240. Frankly, the Yankees need some help, and it will probably have to come from within since Brian Cashman will be saving most of his trade chips for a pitcher.

Eric Chavez appears on the verge of returning from the DL, and it’s can’t come at a better time. Once he’s activated, he should immediately be made part of a third base platoon with either Eduardo Nunez (who hasn’t hit much since the A-Rod injury) or prospect Brandon Laird.

Then the Yankees should address the DH situation, where Posada and aging Andruw Jones simply aren’t cutting it. For the umpteenth time this summer, I’m calling for the promotion of Jesus Montero. Once he comes off the minor league DL, it‘s time to let him make his debut as a Yankee. (As Bill Parcells once said about one of his kickers, “It‘s time to take those Huggies off.”) For crying out loud, bring up Montero once and for all, put him in a platoon with Posada, and let him back up Russell Martin ahead of the useless, fist-pumping Francisco Cervelli. It’s beyond me why the Yankees continue to play with a 24-man roster, which is essentially what they’re doing with Cervelli.

None of this is meant to say that the Yankees should ignore their pitching concerns. They shouldn’t. But they need a boost of hitting, at least until Rodriguez returns. And they need it now…

***

As usual, there will be a nice Yankee presence in Cooperstown this weekend for the annual Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. The Hall of Fame contingent includes plenty of pinstriped blood: Yogi Berra, Wade Boggs, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage, Rickey Henderson, Reggie Jackson, Phil Niekro, and Dave Winfield. Plus, let’s not forget 2011 inductee Pat Gillick, who once worked for the Yankees as an executive and had extensive input on the trades that brought Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers, and Ed Figueroa to New York.

There will be other ex-Yankees in town, too. Jim Kaat, who once honeymooned in Cooperstown, will attend Sunday’s ceremony. Favorites like Ron Guidry, Dwight Gooden, and Paul Blair will be signing autographs on Main Street. And others who made relatively overlooked appearances in pinstripes will also be signing, including Jesse Barfield, Bert “Campy” Campaneris, and Elliott Maddox.

Five of these six ex-Yankees have become Cooperstown regulars. The exception is Maddox, who has not visited in years. He tends to be a forgotten Yankee, having been acquired in a straight cash transaction from the Rangers, but at his peak, Maddox was one of the game’s premier defensive center fielder, a player who appeared destined to succeed Blair as the game’s premier flychaser. He had it all: loping speed, the knack for lightning quick jumps, and a powerful arm. On offense, he was a contributor, finishing fourth in the AL in on-base percentage in 1974. The Yankees thought so much of him that they moved Bobby Murcer to right field just to make room for Maddox in center.

And then Maddox had the misfortune of slipping on the wet outfield grass at Shea Stadium (which didn’t drain particularly well) and badly tearing up his knee. It happened in 1975, when the Yankees were playing out the string at Shea as they waited to move into the renovated Yankee Stadium. Maddox was never the same after the incident, for which he sued the Yankees, Mets, and anybody else he could think of, including the City of New York. He lost the suit, not to mention any chance of being a premier player.

But man, at one time, Maddox could go get them better than most, and that includes Mickey Rivers, Bernie Williams in his prime, and even Curtis Granderson. Elliott Maddox was that good.

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

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: Dick Williams and the Yankees

This has not been a good year for baseball, at least from an historical standpoint. Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Duke Snider have died. Notable players like Jim Northrup and Paul Splittorff have also left us. Gary Carter is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer. And now we have lost one of the most brilliant managerial minds of the expansion era, the great Dick Williams, who died on Thursday at the age of 82.

Dick Williams led three different franchises to the World Series. He might have led a fourth, the New York Yankees, if only Charlie Finley had been a more reasonable man.

Fed up with Finley’s endless meddling and his detestable “firing” of Mike Andrews during the 1973 World Series, Williams announced that he was stepping down as Oakland’s managers only moments after the A’s beat the Mets in the World Series. A few days later, Williams said he would consider any offers from other major league teams, but he clearly had one club in mind. “Sure I’d love to be with the Yankees,” Williams told famed sportswriter Red Foley. “Anyone who says he wouldn’t is crazy.”

As Williams discussed his resignation during the A’s’ victory celebration, Charlie Finley told his manager that he wished he would return. Speaking on national television, Finley added that he would not stand in Williams’ way should he not change his mind about returning to Oakland.

Two days later, Finley decided to change his mind regarding Williams’ future. Oakland farm director John Claiborne had suggested to Finley that he exact some form of compensation in exchange for Williams’ services, since Williams was still officially under contract to the A‘s. Any major league team wishing to hire Williams as manager would have to compensate the A’s—with players and/or cash, but preferably players. When George Steinbrenner asked Finley for permission to contact Williams, he received a blunt response. “Absolutely not,” Finley told the Associated Press. “They [the Yankees] seemed stunned and wanted to know why.” Finley explained that he had recently given Williams a two-year contract extension. If the Yankees did not properly compensate the A’s, “there will be court action,” Finley vowed.

Though Finley was technically correct, Williams felt that Finley’s failure to live up to his initial vow was the larger issue. Williams expressed surprise at Finley’s turnabout in an interview with The Sporting News. “It’s not like Mr. Finley to go back on his word,” said Williams, his words dripping with sarcasm. “But this is an about-face.” In subsequent interviews, Williams went further, stopping just short of directly calling his former boss a liar. “Charlie says one thing and does another.”

Finley responded to Williams’ claims by trying to clarify his initial remarks during the A’s’ post-game celebration. When he said he would not “stand in the way,” he was referring to Williams’ options in the business world, not in the baseball community. Finley said he never intended to allow Williams to walk off to another managerial job, without some sort of compensation coming his way. This was Finley at his best–or his worst, depending on your perspective–playing semantic gymnastics in an effort to stick it to Williams and the Yankees.

Although Finley also claimed that he preferred Williams return as his manager in Oakland, he really did not. In fact, he had already sent out feelers to the Orioles about the availability of their manager, Earl Weaver, during the World Series. Weaver working for Finley, now that would have been interesting. Not surprisingly, Orioles general manager Frank Cashen refused to give Finley permission to talk to Weaver.

Contract legalities prevented the Yankees, or any other team, from negotiating with Williams. Yet, the Yankees made it clear they wanted Williams. Prior to the winter meetings in Houston, the Yankees finally agreed to compensate Finley, offering veteran second baseman Horace Clarke. Finley said no to Clarke, a fair hitter, speedy runner, and a mediocre fielder, but counter-offered by asking for one of three other players: Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, or Mel Stottlemyre. In other words, Finley wanted one of the three best players on the New York roster, while the Yankees were offering about their 15th best player.

In stage two of negotiations, Finley met with Yankee general manager Gabe Paul at the winter meetings. Finley backed off on his request for established stars like Munson, Murcer, or Stottlemyre. Instead, he asked for two of the Yankees’ best minor league prospects: first baseman-outfielder Otto Velez and left-handed pitcher Scott McGregor. “Both?” an incredulous Gabe Paul exclaimed to Finley, according to a story by Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “You can’t have either.”

Finley talked further with Paul, asking for either one of the two, Velez or McGregor, plus a sum of cash. Finley then offered to eliminate the cash part of his request, but wanted the Yankees to include one of the following lower-level prospects—outfielders Kerry Dineen and Terry Whitfield, first baseman John Shupe, or third baseman Steve Coulson—along with either McGregor or Velez. Paul’s response was the same as before—no deal. The two sides had reached a stalemate, ending their meeting in Houston.

Finley’s stubborn posture on ample compensation left Williams furious and frustrated. The former A’s’ manager told reporters that he was considering filing a lawsuit against Finley on the grounds that his former employer was running interference on his legitimate efforts to find new work. Williams also mentioned his disappointment with the American League’s failure to intervene in the matter. Why didn’t league president Joe Cronin step in and determine which players the Yankees should surrender to the A’s in a trade for Williams?

“The problem is between New York and Oakland,” claimed a neutral Cronin in an interview with The Sporting News. Perhaps Cronin wanted to steer away from any involvement in the case as he prepared for his own retirement from the American League office.

Williams wanted the Yankees, the Yankees wanted him, Cronin wanted no part of the dispute, and Finley insisted that he wanted Williams to continue managing the A’s. Since Williams still had a signed contract with the A’s for the 1974 season, Finley reasoned, he still considered Williams his manager. In fact, he continued mailing Williams paychecks on the first and 15th day of each month through the end of the calendar year. Williams later revealed that he had received the checks on a timely basis from Finley, but had neglected to cash any of them after his resignation. Williams did not want to feel beholden to Finley, at least not in any financial way.

On December 13, the Yankees, exasperated in their negotiations with Finley and with Cronin’s refusal to intercede, decided to force the issue by making a bold move that was typical Steinbrenner. The Boss announced that he had reached a contractual agreement with Williams to manage in the Bronx. General manager Gabe Paul introduced Williams to the media at a Yankee Stadium press conference. Williams donned a Yankee cap and uniform jersey and smiled widely for reporters. Photographs of Williams wearing Yankee paraphernalia would eventually become collector’s items.

The Yankees’ press conference unveiling Williams infuriated Finley. He placed an immediate protest with Cronin, who was now forced to make a decision. Finley wasted little time in expressing his contempt for the Yankees, who had essentially tried to steal one of his contracted employees. “What if I tried to sign Bobby Murcer?” Finley told a reporter. “Wouldn’t the Yankees be furious with me for trying to sign one of their best players, one who was already under contract to New York?”

On December 20, just one week after the Yankees had signed Williams, Cronin ruled that Finley still held rights to the veteran manager. Without Finley’s approval, the Yankees would not be allowed to employ Williams as their manager in 1974. Given the letter of the law, Finley was clearly in the right–and the Yankees had no argument.

“Dick Williams was my manager yesterday, he’s my manager today, and he’ll be my manager tomorrow,” Finley emphatically told the New York Daily News. He now refused to even negotiate the compensation issue with the hated Yankees. After several last-ditch legal efforts to secure Williams, the Yankees finally surrendered in their pursuit of the World Championship manager. On January 3, 1974, the Yankees introduced former Pittsburgh Pirates skipper Bill Virdon as their new manager. He would remain on the job until midway through the 1975 season, when Billy Martin came on to the scene.

If Williams had been allowed to manage the Yankees, it would have been interesting to observe the managerial machinations. A far more accomplished skipper than Virdon, Williams might have lasted until the 1976 season, when the Yankees won the American League pennant. Though known as a disciplinarian and general hardass, Williams had a better grasp on his personal life than Martin, and might have avoided the kind of behavior that would have given The Boss a reason to fire him. Who knows, Dick Williams might have been the man to lead the Yankees to their two world championships of the late 1970s.

As it turned out, Williams would eventually join the Yankees as a front office advisor, a position that kept him safe from Steinbrenner’s second guesses. He also wouldn’t need those extra championships to make the Hall of Fame. The Hall’s Veterans’ Committee elected Williams to the Cooperstown shrine in 2008, giving him nearly three years to bask in the glory of the game’s highest achievement.

Williams deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame. On a personal note, I had the privilege to meet him and interview him several times, and always came away impressed with his amiable nature, his sense of humor, and his love of the Yankee organization. But part of me still wishes that Dick Williams would have had one shot working the Yankee dugout, right under the thumb of The Boss.

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.

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.)

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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Observations from Cooperstown: Remembering Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner never played for or managed the Yankees, but that really shouldn’t matter. He was one of those special people in baseball who just made you feel better about yourself, even if you were only around him for a few minutes. Tanner died last week at the age of 82, leaving behind a legacy of general cheerfulness and highly competent managing.

About a dozen years ago, I had a chance to meet Tanner and Oliver at a university symposium about integration in baseball. Both men played important roles for those culturally diverse Pirates teams, allowing them to share their experiences with the college students and academics in attendance. When it came to coaching and managing black athletes, Tanner offered plenty of credibility. More than any manager, he found a way to get through to Dick Allen where other skippers had failed. He also had good relationships with African-American and Latino players in Pittsburgh, from Oliver and Manny Sanguillen to Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock. His ability to deal well with athletes of all ethnicities was exemplified by a 1979 world championship team, a unified group tied together by the hit Sister Sledge song, “We are Family.”

After we participated in the panel, I had the distinct pleasure of dining with Tanner and Oliver. It didn’t take long to realize that Tanner’s persona of perpetual optimism was no deceptive façade. He took as much interest in me as I did in him, even though I had never managed a world champion or played in a major league game. As much as anyone I’ve ever met, Tanner genuinely exuded positive vibes–and seemingly did so every minute of the day. It was not difficult to see why so many of his players proclaimed him as the best and most enjoyable manager they had ever experienced.

Tanner knew the game, too. The job that he did leading the 1972 White Sox remains one of the great managerial accomplishments of the past 40 years. Other than Dick Allen, the knuckleballing Wilbur Wood, and a young Terry Forster, the White Sox had little frontline talent, but they somehow managed to keep pace with the vastly superior Oakland A’s for much of that summer. Tanner knew that he didn’t have much pitching depth that season, so he used a four-man rotation that sometimes morphed into a three-man affair. Wood, ex-Yankee Stan Bahnsen, and journeyman Tom Bradley each made over 40 starts, all of them pitching well enough to keep the Sox and their low-scoring offense in most games that season.

Tanner knew something about relief pitching, as well. He was the man who made the decision to convert Goose Gossage to the bullpen, a maneuver that resulted in a Hall of Fame career. Later on, when Tanner moved on to the Pirates, he masterfully mixed and matched his bullpen arms. He exhibited a great feel for when and where to use his relievers, whether it was Jim Bibby or Enrique Romo pitching in long relief, ex-Yankee Grant Jackson working as a situational left-hander, or Kent Tekulve filling the role as closer.

In between managing stints in Chicago and Pittsburgh, Tanner did intriguing work in Oakland. He managed the A’s for only season, but he left his mark in a distinctive way. An aggressive manager who loved the running game, Tanner realized he had speed to burn with the ‘76 A’s. Giving green lights to practically his entire roster, Tanner watched the A’s steal 341 bases, a major league record for the post-deadball era. Tanner skillfully used Matt “The Scat” Alexander and Larry Lintz as designated pinch runners, while coaxing career best base stealing seasons from Billy North (75 steals), Don Baylor (52) and even the -footed Sal Bando (20 steals). Having lost Reggie Jackson in a spring training deal and having to wade through Charlie Finley’s ill-fated player sales of Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, and Rollie Fingers, Tanner somehow kept the A’s in contention before they fell a few lengths short of Whitey Herzog’s Royals.

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New York Minute

Last night on the uptown IRT, packed train, rush hour. As we approach 181st Street, the conductor says, “I would advise the passenger who is smoking to get off at the next station. The authorities have been notified.”

I’ve seen people smoke on the train before, kids used to love smoking blunts in the last car back when. Mostly, anyone who smokes on the subway is furious or crazy or both. But to do it on a crowded train? That takes chutzpah.

[Photo Credit: John F. Conn]

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