"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: 1980s

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…

 

***

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.

Observations From Cooperstown: Gary Carter and Raul Ibanez

The late Gary Carter never played a game for the Yankees, a fact that should be regretful for any Yankee fan who remembers the 1980s. If Carter had played even one season in the Bronx, the Yankees might just have won a World Series title that proved so elusive during that decade of frustration.

The winter of 1984-85 brought me some of the most difficult times of my life. My mother was dying from abdominal cancer, a horrible experience under any circumstances but particularly difficult for me as I was trying to muddle through a challenging sophomore year at Hamilton College. One of the few diversions that helped me forget about my mother’s terminally ill condition involved the winter meetings that December. Both New York teams made blockbuster trades at those meetings, the Mets acquiring Carter for a package of Hubie Brooks-plus, while the Yankees nabbed Rickey Henderson for a group of young players headlined by Jose Rijo. The news of those two trades, which happened within five days of one another, made that December and that January, when my mother finally passed, a little bit more bearable.

The Yankees ended up with a good team in 1985, a 97-win club that finished only two lengths behind an exceptional group of Blue Jays. Led by Billy Martin, who replaced Yogi Berra after a handful of games, the Yankees came within whiskers of matching the Blue Jays for the AL East title, even with little contribution from their starting catcher, Butch Wynegar. A two-time All-Star, Wynegar was well past his prime at the age of 29, and would later undergo treatment for debilitating depression. What would have happened if the Yankees had added Carter for the 1985 season? Carter, buttressed by a strong left-handed hitting backup in Ron Hassey, would have given the Yankees one of the missing links to an otherwise sterling lineup.

Sure, it would have been a lot to ask Yankee GM Clyde King to swing blockbuster deals for both Carter and Henderson in the same winter, but the Yankees had both the minor league resources and the major league talent to make it happen. They could have centered a package for Carter around Dan Pasqua, who at the time was a top-tier hitting prospect coveted by numerous teams. They could have included a young Doug Drabek (whom they would eventually trade in a regrettable deal for Rick Rhoden) and tossed in a young infielder from among a group of Rex Hudler, Bobby Meacham, and Andre Robertson.

Not only would have Carter solidified the chronically weak catching corps that plagued the franchise in the mid-1980s, but he also would have given the Yankees exactly the kind of rah-rah leader that would have perfectly complemented guide-by-example types in Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield. With Carter behind the plate, improving both a potent offense and perhaps coaxing more from a thin pitching staff, the 1985 Yankees could well have leapfrogged over the Blue Jays into the postseason. And then who knows what might have happened?

Of course, all of this is wishful thinking, and more than 25 years after the fact. Perhaps the Expos would have preferred an established infielder like Brooks, who had the ability to play both shortstop and third base while hitting with game-changing power. Maybe the Expos foresaw that Pasqua would fall well short of the stardom forecast for him.  But the idea of Carter-as-a-Yankee was just one of the thoughts that has gone through my mind in the aftermath of his premature death at the age of 57.

I had the privilege of meeting Carter several times; he never failed to deliver the goods with his friendly nature, boyish enthusiasm, and sincere regard for the concerns of others.

Back in 2003, I interviewed Carter at the Waldorf Astoria, exactly one day after he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. Bruce Brodersen, a friend of mine who heads up the Hall of Fame’s multimedia department, arranged and oversaw the interview. Bruce, a diehard Mets fan like few others, immediately took notice of Carter’s 1986 World Series ring. Noticing the interest, Carter told Bruce that he could wear the ring during the duration of our 20-minute interview. I cannot imagine many players, Hall of Fame or otherwise, offering to let a perfect stranger wear a cherished world championship ring. But that was Carter.

Gary Carter as a Yankee? It’s nothing more than a dream. But imagine if it had happened. Any Yankee fan who cares about integrity, character, and winning would have been proud to watch the man known as “Kid” wear the pinstripes.

***

In contrast to yours truly, Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long is legitimately excited about the addition of free agent Raul Ibanez, whom he calls an “RBI machine.” For the Yankees’ sake, I hope Long is right; batting in the lower third of the Yankee order, Ibanez figures to have plenty of RBI opportunities batting behind the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher.

Of course, while Long drools over the RBI possibilities, he doesn’t mention Ibanez’ relative lack of power in 2011 (as evidenced by a slugging percentage below .450) and an inability to draw walks or to reach base in any kind of consistent manner. These could be concerns for the Yankees, whose collective offense will be one year older and will have to hope for bounce back seasons from A-Rod and Tex. At the very least, the Yankees will have a capable offense in 2012, but will they have a dominant one? If they don’t, Ibanez will be exposed as a less-than-effective DH.

Having said all of that, I’ll be rooting for Ibanez. He visited Cooperstown last summer, accompanying his son during his week-long participation in the Cooperstown Dreams Park. According to my sources, Ibanez made a good impression with his friendly and receptive manner. That jives with what baseball people have said all along, that Ibanez is one of the game’s good guys, a man of character and a powerful presence in any clubhouse.

So this is no Elijah Dukes here. It will be easy, if somewhat frustrating, to root for Raul Ibanez. I just hope that Joe Girardi uses Ibanez with caution. He cannot hit left-handers anymore, so his at-bats against southpaws should be restricted as much as possible. Furthermore, Ibanez needs to be kept out of the outfield. A brutal defender with little arm, Ibanez should only the play the outfield if the game is a blowout–or if the Yankees simply run out of outfielders. If Girardi follows this plan, he can minimize the damage that Ibanez can do, and allow his other role players to pick up the slack.

[Picture Credit: Aya Francisco]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations From Cooperstown: 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: 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.

Color by Numbers: I Love (Hate) the 80s

With the Milwaukee Brewers having left town after their first visit to the Bronx in 14 years, I can’t help but think of the 1980s. Something about the team’s light blue home pinstripes and cartoonish ball-in-glove logo must have made an indelible mark on a young fan growing up in the decade.

Unfortunately, the 1980s isn’t the best period for a Yankees fan to take a trip down memory lane. After starting off with consecutive division titles and an A.L. pennant, the team began a gradual descent into one of the darkest periods in franchise history. As a result, when the decade ended, the Yankees were without a World Series championship for the first time since moving to the Bronx.

Even though the team failed to win a ring during the 1980s, things really weren’t all that bad. As George Steinbrenner was fond of reminding everyone, the Yankees actually won more games than any other team over those 10 years (the Brewers were the only team against which the Yankees had a losing record). What’s more, the team also played host to Hall of Famers like Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson, not to mention a beloved fan favorite like Don Mattingly. However, each year, there always seemed to be at least one other team that was better.

During the 1980s, 11 of the 14 teams in the American League finished in first place at least once, an impressive level of parity in the two-division format. Perhaps that’s why a sentimental journey back to the era evokes just as many memories about opposing players as heroes in pinstripes. So, in honor of the decade and its many great players, listed below is an all-1980s team selected on the basis of how well they performed against the Yankees (all stats were compiled at the designated positions). I apologize in advance if any of these names cause the 30-somethings among the Yankees’ fan base to cringe a bit.

C – Ernie Whitt, Toronto Blue Jays: 1980-1989

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
252 226 70 13 37 0.31 0.368 0.540 0.908

Although one of the more beloved players in Blue Jays history, Whitt was never really a star…except when he played the Yankees. In fact, the only team against which he posted better numbers was the Minnesota Twins.

Honorable Mention: Regardless of what color Sox he was wearing, Carlton Fisk was always productive (.804 OPS with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs) against the Yankees. Perhaps that’s why the Yankees tried to acquire him from Chicago after the 1985 season. Unfortunately for the Bronx Bombers, the heavily rumored trade fell through and Fisk finished the decade hitting .295/.357/.534 against them.

1B – Darrell Evans, Detroit Tigers: 1984-1988

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
130 107 34 11 23 0.318 0.431 0.654 1.085

Evans spent most of his career in the National League with the Braves and Giants, but a resurgent 1983 season made him one of the hottest free agent commodities on the market that off season. Seventeen teams, including the Yankees, put in a claim for Evans in the free agent re-entry draft, but the Tigers came away the winners. Despite being 37 in 1984, Evans continued to produce throughout his time in Detroit, and the Yankees were one of the teams he most enjoyed facing.

Honorable Mention: No first baseman had more plate appearances against the Yankees during the 1980s than Eddie Murray, but despite posting solid numbers, the future Hall of Famer never seemed to really torment the team. For example, despite ranking in the top-10 in all-time RBIs, Murray never knocked in more than three in one game against the Bombers.

2B – Bobby Grich, California Angels: 1980-1986

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
236 197 60 10 30 0.305 0.401 0.523 0.924

Continuing a theme, when Bobby Grich became a free agent after the 1976 season, Yankees’ manager Billy Martin implored the team to acquire the second baseman. George Steinbrenner overruled him, however, and the Yankees opted to sign Reggie Jackson. Mr. October contributed to three pennants and two championships during his tenure, so the Yankees had to be happy with that decision. However, throughout the 1980s, Grich reminded the team of what they missed out on.

3B – George Brett, Kansas City Royals: 1980-1989

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
277 248 74 12 45 0.298 0.368 0.524 0.892

When you think 1980s and the Yankees, George Brett is one of the first opposition players to come to mind. Just ask Goose Gossage. Their epic battles were a thing of legend, sometimes quite literally, as the Pine Tar Game will attest. Ultimately, however, Brett’s bat is what left the biggest mark on the rivalry between the two teams. With his plate appearances as a first baseman and DH include, Brett ranks third during the decade in home runs (23) and RBIs (75) against the Yankees. His combined OPS of .920 also ranks fourth among players with at least 150 plate appearances.

Honorable Mention: If it seemed like the Yankees never got Wade Boggs out, well, that’s because they rarely did. In over 400 plate appearance, Boggs had an outstanding OBP of .431, not to mention a .503 rate at Fenway Park. Fortunately, most Yankees’ fans now remember Boggs riding atop a horse instead of lining balls off the Green Monster.

SS – Scott Fletcher, Chicago White Sox: 1983-1985, 1989; Texas Rangers: 1986-1989

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
268 238 79 0 27 0.332 0.385 0.416 0.801

Considering the caliber of short stops who played in the 1980s, Fletcher’s name might strike some as a surprise, but not if you grew up watching the Yankees during the decade. Whether with Texas or Chicago, the scrappy short stop always seemed to get a hit against the Yankees. Among players with at least 150 appearances, only Boggs topped Fletcher’s batting average of .332.

Honorable Mention: Alan Trammell knocked in 66 runs against the Yankees during the decade, while Cal Ripken Jr. belted 12 home runs. The highest OPS belonged to Robin Yount. Nonetheless, those Hall of Famers (Trammell’s current exclusion notwithstanding) still take a back seat to the unheralded Fletcher.

LF – Jim Rice, Boston Red Sox: 1980-1989

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
351 317 102 19 69 0.322 0.382 0.587 0.969

Contrary to popular main stream media opinion, particularly emanating from Boston, Jim Rice wasn’t the most feared hitter in American League…unless you happened to be wearing a Yankee uniform. During the 1980s, when Rice’s skills were in a steady decline, the powerful right handed hitter still managed to haunt the Yankees. Including his games as DH, Rice’s line improves to .324/.392/.607, while his home run and RBI increase to 24 and 82, respectively, totals surpassed only by teammate Dwight Evans (who had over 100 more plate appearances). Without question, Rice was the Yankees’ chief tormenter during the 1980s.

CF – Lloyd Moseby, Toronto Blue Jays: 1980-1989

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
398 347 101 13 45 0.291 0.374 0.478 0.853

In the middle of the decade, Lloyd Moseby was often the forgotten man in the Blue Jays heralded outfield that included sluggers Jesse Barfield and George Bell. Perhaps that’s why, of all the players on this list, Moseby’s inclusion surprises me the most. Nonetheless, Moseby’s impressive output in almost 400 plate appearances is undeniable.

Honorable Mention: Had Robin Yount not split the decade between short stop and center field, he would have earned the nod at either position. Combined, Yount’s 141 hits against the Yankees trails only Paul Molitor and Willie Wilson, who each had 142, while his 75 RBIs are tied with Brett for third. In other words, Yount’s honorable mention at two positions is well deserved.

RF – Larry Parrish, Texas Rangers: 1982-1988; Boston Red Sox: 1988

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
154 142 45 10 31 0.317 0.357 0.585 0.942

How many fans during the 1980s confused Larry Parrish with Tigers’ catcher Lance Parrish? When it came time to preparing a scouting report, maybe the Yankees did as well? In his 36 games as a right fielder against the Yankees, Parrish had prolific power and RBI numbers, which look even more impressive (17 and 61 respectively) when combined with his totals from other positions.

Honorable Mention: Dwight Evans had the most home runs (26) and RBIs (90) against the Yankees in the 1980s. However, he also had the most plate appearances, over 100 of which came at a position other than right field. Of all the candidates for this all-decade opposition team, Evans probably has the best case for being promoted to starter, but Parrish’s short-term dominance seemed a better selection. Or, maybe I just didn’t want two Red Sox in the starting lineup.

DH: Harold Baines,Chicago White Sox: 1980-1989; Texas Rangers: 1989

PA AB H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
120 103 31 6 22 0.301 0.392 0.573 0.964

Harold Baines actually had over 300 plate appearances against the Yankees as a right fielder, but he saved his best hitting against them for when he was the DH. Combined, Baines’ 15 home runs and 65 RBIs rank among the top-10 of all Yankees’ opponents during the 1980s.

Honorable Mention: Hal McRae was a Yankees tormenter long before the 1980s, but he continued to do damage (.310/.368/.490) to the Bronx Bombers throughout that decade as well.

Starting Pitcher: Teddy Higuera, Milwaukee Brewers: 1985-1989

W L W% ERA GS IP H HR SO WHIP
12 2 0.857 2.45 17 136 108 9 101 1.07

The term Yankee killer is often overused, but during the 1980s, no one embodied that moniker more than Brewers’ left hander Teddy Higuera. Whenever the two teams would meet, you can be certain that every Yankees’ hitter scoured the box scores to see if the lefty was on target to pitch in the series. During the decade, Higuera not only tallied the most wins (tied with Floyd Banister, who had nine more starts) against the Bronx Bombers, but he also posted the highest winning percentage and lowest ERA (among all pitchers with at least 65 innings).

Honorable Mention: Despite posting an 8-9 record, Blue Jays’ right hander Dave Steib had a 2.93 ERA in more than 208 innings against the Yankees, including nine complete games and three shutouts. What’s more, on August 4, 1989, Steib almost made history by tossing a perfect game against them, but his attempt at immortality was thwarted by a Roberto Kelly double with two outs in the ninth.

Relief Pitcher: Dan Quisenberry, Kansas City Royals: 1980-1988

W L W% ERA SV H IP SO WHIP
4 2 0.667 1.61 16 64 61.2 24 1.23

Dan Quisenberry was one of the most dominant relievers during the 1980s, and his outings against the Yankees were no exception. During the decade, no other reliever had more saves against the Bronx Bombers than the side-arming righty, who also recorded the lowest ERA among all relievers with at least 35 innings.

Honorable Mention: In 34 1/3 innings covering 17 games in the early 1980s, the Yankees only scored two earned runs off the Angels’ Andy Hassler. However, the Angels only won five of the games in which he pitched.

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.

Observations From Cooperstown: Journeymen Pitchers, Swisher, and the HOF Classic

If you could have predicted that by the middle of June exactly one quarter of the Yankee pitching staff consisted of journeymen Brian Gordon, Luis Ayala, and Cory Wade, you would have qualified as a full-fledged soothsayer. Heck, you might have your own infomercial by now, making you ready to take the place of the indicted Don LaPre. But here it is, a solid ten weeks into the season, and the Yankee staff is barely recognizable.

By now, I’ve become used to Ayala, a great story who came back from nearly being abducted by home invaders in Mexico to winning the last spot on the roster this spring to being an important part of the late-inning bullpen structure.

In contrast, I’m still getting used to the other three no-names. I’ll be honest with you; I had never ever heard of Gordon prior to this week. When I first heard his name, I thought he might be related to Tom “Flash” Gordon, but that notion quickly became ridiculous. I later learned that he is an outfielder-turned-pitcher who turned heads as a starter for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Triple-A team managed by Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Gordon doesn’t throw overly hard, but he has an appealing tendency to throw strikes and owns a deceptive curveball that runs about 68 miles an hour.

Gordon made a decent first impression in his Yankee debut and will make his next start under National League rules. That will allow him to take his place in the Yankee batting order and possibly fare better at the plate than most of their pitchers have in the interleague matchups. If the Yankees are smart, they’ll think about using Gordon as an emergency outfielder and pinch-hitter, which might help the paper-thin bench that has been harmed by the loss of Eric Chavez and the unwillingness to promote Jorge Vazquez.

In the case of Wade, I vaguely remembered him pitching middle relief for Joe Torre’s Dodgers a few years back. Sure enough, a check of Baseball-Reference.com confirmed my hazy memory. Wade had one good season in 2008 and a terrible season in 2009, before falling through the surface of the Earth into baseball oblivion last summer. In actuality, he spent 2010 pitching badly for three different teams in three different minor leagues. He’s been much better this year, exhibiting pinpoint control (only six walks in 36 innings) for the Durham Bulls before being released and signed by the Yankees. Like Gordon, Wade made a good first impression in his Yankee debut; if he can continue to throw strikes and spot his pitches, he might be able to stick long-term, or at least until Rafael Soriano is able to start delivering on that exorbitant contract he signed last winter…

***

Even though he is having his worst season in pinstripes, I still like Nick Swisher. A couple of Cooperstown-area Yankee fans who go to the Stadium and sit amongst the “Bleacher Creatures” told me that they appreciate Swisher’s byplay with the fans in the cheap seats. Of all the Yankees, he reacts the most boisterously in responding to the first inning roll call. He’ll carry on a running conversation with the Creatures, making them feel as if their opinions matter. In an era when too many players fear any interaction with fans as if they were carrying the plague, Swisher’s approach is refreshing.

Yes, the Mohawk hair cuts are ridiculous, and his breathless post-game interviews can be heavy on the clichés, but this guy exhibits such an admirable passion for the game that it‘s hard not to like him (unless your name is Ozzie Guillen). And despite Keith Olbermann’s claims to the contrary, Swisher will hit. Except for one off-season with the White Sox, he’s been a consistent walk-producer and home run hitter throughout his career; he‘s due for a big second half, once he straightens out his left-handed swing…

***

One of the best weekends of the year is upon us in Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame Classic takes place on Sunday, featuring about 30 retired players in a seven-inning old-timers’ day. Unlike the previous two years, there won’t be much of a Yankee presence at Doubleday Field this weekend. In fact, only three former Yankees are scheduled to participate: Hall of Famers Goose Gossage and Phil Niekro and 1980s outfielder Billy Sample. I’ve never interviewed Gossage, but I’ve often talked to “Knucksie” and know Billy well, and can vouch for them as two terrific guys.

Sample had a nice career as a role player and platoon outfielder, but he was a phenomenal minor league player. During his three-year apprenticeship in the Rangers’ farm system in the late 1970s, he did not hit below .348. His lifetime minor league average, covering over 1200 plate appearances, was a cool .355. His on-base percentage was an otherworldly .443. If we were to create a Hall of Fame for minor league players, Sample would have to be a serious candidate.

Since leaving MLB.com in 2008, Sample has been out of baseball, but has been doing some freelance research and writing work. In fact, his new baseball screenplay recently took top honors at the Hoboken Film Festival for Best Screenplay. Now he’s looking for a producer. Hey, if Moneyball does well, perhaps that will improve the market for baseball films, and create a new wave like we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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

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.

(more…)

Beat of the Day Redux

Bowie Friday for Diane…

You're Outta The Sketch!

That’s what Mel Brooks yelled at a nun one day when he was walking down 57th street (get Kenneth Tynan’s book, “Show People” or “Profiles”  for his great piece on Brooks).

Here’s a 1982 Rolling Stone Interview with Brooks conducted by Michael Sragow:

How did you first react to ‘My Favorite year’ ?

Brooks: I said, “Wait a minute, you’re singing my song. What is this – the story of a little Jewish boy from Brooklyn and a guest star on Your Show of Shows? I lived this life.” I looked at Joe Bologna and I said, “That is Sid Caesar.” There’s a certain primitive energy that Joe Bologna and Sid Caesar share, a very basic animal energy . Eat. Go. Sleep. The first thing I wrote for Sid was about a jungle boy who’s been captured and taken to New York City as an experiment to see how he will survive in the big city. He’s interviewed by Carl Reiner. “What do you eat, sir?” “Pigeons. Crave pigeons, go in park, many pigeons in park. Eat pigeons.” “What do you fear?” “Buick, Big, yellow, very danferous. Wait, wait till lights, eyes go out – smash in grille, all night, with club. Kill Buick.” Joe Bologna has the same thing going int he movie.”Send the girl some steaks,” he says, “I’ll send her some steaks.” Nothing romatic, no flowers. To make up with a writer, he sends some tires’ his borther owns a tire store. But they’re very real. I love all the tlittle touches int eh movie. I love when Peter O’Toole realizes that he’s going to be working in front of a live audience. That is the essence of the movie – when he says, “I’m not an actor , I’m a movie star.” There’s a big difference.

Hall and Oats

Your new Hall of Famers:

Roberto Alomar — and (at long last, love) Bert Blyleven.

Barry Larkin’s totals were third-highest, with 62.1% of the vote (short of the 75% needed, but in good shape to get in a few years down the road); Jack Morris managed 53.5%, Lee Smith 45.3% (…seriously?), and Jeff Bagwell 41.7%, so get ready to have that fun discussion all over again next year. You can see the full results over at the BBWAA’s high-tech website of the future.

According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system and series of articles over at Baseball Prospectus, there were eight deserving candidates on the ballot this year: Roberto AlomarJeff BagwellBert BlylevenBarry LarkinEdgar MartinezMark McGwireTim Raines, and Alan Trammell. I wasn’t so sure about Raines and Trammell initially, but I’ve completely come around on Rock over the last year and I’m edging towards being convinced on Trammell. It’d help if the guy had a better nickname, which I believe is not a factor JAWS takes into consideration, but it really ought to be. That’s something I’ll have to bring up with Jay, and I won’t have to wait long because he’s chatting live over at BP this very moment.

For those of you who are sick of reading and debating about the Hall of Fame, exhale. For those who aren’t, have at it in the comments. What would your ballot look like?

Time Capsule

One of my coworkers was cleaning out her old — apparently very old, as you’ll see – papers over the weekend, and she found this and brought it in for me:

As you can see, in 1987  a full, 81-game plan would set you back $750 per seat for the season, and all the plans come out to $10 per game or less for lower box seats. For that you would’ve gotten to see Lou Piniella manage the bombers to an 89-73 record, nine games behind Detroit; that was the year Mattingly set a record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games, and also six grand slams in the season. I was too young to be paying attention back then, but I’ve heard about it enough that I feel like I was.

Put it on my Diner’s Club…

Beat of the Day

Cervelli gets the start.

Beats of the Day

Genuine for ’89…

Knock ‘em out the box.

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