As a two-time survivor of prostate cancer, I am always especially moved when I remember my former teammates who were not as fortunate. Today would have been the 69th birthday of Joe Lis, who died way too young five years ago after a long bout with prostate cancer. Joe played from 1970 to 1977, for the Phillies, Twins, Indians and for the first season of the Mariners franchise. The Tribe purchased Joe’s contract a month or so after I was traded to Cleveland and we became teammates until I was traded to Texas during the 1977 season.
The first time I ever faced Joe was on July 7, 1973, the first game of a double header against the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium. Joe hit an RBI single off me in the eighth inning, the third time he got on base that game. You can be sure I remember this game: I gave up nine runs and still pitched a complete game. How often do you see that anymore? I was facing Bert Blyleven, so what chance did I really have? We lost 9-1.
And I’ll never forget Joe’s first game with Cleveland. He hit a massive ninth inning Home Run against Kansas City Royals pitcher Paul Splittorff. Tribe fans loved him from that point on.
I will always remember Vada Pinson, who was one of the best hitters in the game during many of his eighteen years in the major leagues. I can still remember his double off Luis Arroyo in Game 2 of the 1961 World Series, while I was still in college. The first time I pitched to him was in 1970, after he moved to the American League in a trade to the Cleveland Indians. He got an RBI double off me in his first At-Bat. Lucky for me, the Yankee offense was alive that day and I got the win. Vada died young, of a stroke at age 57, nearly 20 years ago. Today would have been his birthday.
Let’s remember the life of Tommie Agee, who played enjoyed a wonderful twelve-year major league baseball career, most notably as a star of the 1969 World Champion Mets. I hated the Mets, but not Tommie. He was a great guy and an amazing ballplayer. I liked and respected him a lot. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award with the White Sox in 1966 with 80% of the vote; if anyone cares, I was a rookie that year and received zero votes. Chicago got him from the Indians in what now looks like a lopsided trade involving three teams: Cleveland sent him, Tommy John and John Romano to Chicago for Cam Carreon; the White Sox sent Fred Talbot, Mike Hershberger and Jim Landis to Kansas City, who in turn sent Rocky Colavito on a return trip to the Indians (who seemed unafraid of the Curse of Rocky Colavito.)
Tommie was a career .300 hitter against me. The first time I saw him was at Yankee Stadium on May 28, 1966. He was the leadoff batter in that game and he hit a first pitch single to Roger Repoz in right field. He was taking huge leads off first and with Don Buford at At-Bat, Ralph Houk ordered a pitch out and Elston Howard picked him off. All of my games are memorable to me, especially the ones from 1966, but this particular game always bothered me. It had been raining since the third inning, and with the game tied, 2-2, after five full innings, the umpires called it for weather after a delay of nearly an hour. Yankee fans were irate because a game called after that point technically invalidated their rain checks. The club, sensing a possible public relations problem – Bob Fishel was good at that, as was Marty Appel after him – decided to honor the rain checks anyway. But the game was if it never happened, at least statistically. I still had to wait a few days to rest.
Anyway, back to Tommie. He was a great ballplayer and a wonderful man. I still think it‘s sort of cool that he and Cleon Jones were friends since they were kids and won a World Series as outfielders together. He died in 2001 at age 58 of a heart attack; he would have been 74 today. Baseball misses him.
I have to admit I’ve seen a lot more Yankee games from the dugout than they bleachers, but what an incredibly fun time we had. And no one has better game day lungs than Bald Vinny. Thanks to Fredo Weiland for putting Tanyon Sturtze night together on behalf of a great cause, the Pinstripes Sports Dreams Foundation. It was great to be at the game with good friends like Charlie Hayes and Jim Leyritz.
Milkman Jim Turner was my first major league pitching coach. I met him in Fort Lauderdale when I arrived at spring training in February, 1966. He had pitched for the Boston Braves and the Cinncinnati Reds, where he got his first World Series ring in 1940. He was traded to the Yankees in 1942 and got his second ring in 1943. His story always interested me: a 20-game winner in his rookie season in Boston in 1937, going nine innings (sometimes more) twenty times that year. He played for the Braves while Casey Stengel managed them. While Milkman Jim enjoyed a nice career, he was never as good as he was that first season. Milkman Jim spent 52 years in baseball, eleven of them as Casey Stengel’s pitching coach. He helped Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Don Larsen, Johnny Sain, Ralph Terry, Whitey Ford, and so many others develop their pitching skills. Admittedly, I was not his biggest fan. I always had the impression Milkman Jim only liked the big stars and didn’t seem all that interested in a bunch of us. He tried hard to get me to throw a curveball the way Whitey did – that’s not easy to teach. But I was also a kid and maybe I should have tried a little harder to listen to Milkman Jim. Later, I learned that it was Milkman Jim who taught Raschi how to throw a curve. I guess that’s a common problem in life – you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re forty. Jim Turner passed away in 1998, at the age of 95. He was a Yankee hero, and I want to remember him fondly on the 112th anniversary of his birth.
I never heard the full story about the shakeup of the Yankee coaching staff after the 1959 season, when New York finished third in the American League East. Over the years, I heard that Ralph Houk was a rising star and the Yankees, already grooming him to succeed Casey Stengel, were concerned that The Major would take the open manager’s job with the Kansas City Athletics; he reportedly turned the job down after the Yankees agreed to give him the First Base Coach spot, knocking out Charlie Keller. And I had been told that Eddie Lopat was emerging as a successful minor league manager and they didn’t want to lose him – so I assumed that’s why they dropped Jim Turner and gave Steady Eddie the job.
What I do know is that Turner wound up getting the pitching coach job in Cincinnati in 1961 and helped them get to the World Series against the Yankees. He came back to the Yankees in 1965, my rookie season.
On what would have been his 72nd birthday, I am remembering my Yankee teammate and friend, Jim Hardin. I used to call him Twiggy. He started with the Orioles in 1968, and the first time I faced him was on September 27, 1969 at Yankee Stadium. The Orioles were in first place and Twiggy was doing well. This turned out to be a pitcher’s duel. Aside from Joe Pepitone’s Home Run to lead off the bottom of the second, neither team was getting many base runners. Twiggy gave up four hits in seven innings; I gave up six in nine, and the Yankees won 1-0. That’s how I ended the 1969 season with a 17-16 record. Twiggy ended with an 18-13 record – his first full season in the majors. That turned out to be his best season. Twiggy blamed the decision to lower the pitching mound for his arm problems.
The Orioles traded Twiggy to the Yankees for Bill Burbach on May 28, 1971. I remember Twiggy being very excited to play in New York – and you have to remember, the Orioles were great in those days and we were not. He never said it, but I’m sure he was unhappy spending two consecutive World Series’ in the bullpen without ever getting to pitch. I know it frustrates me that I never played in a post-season game; Twiggy came so close, twice. One more thing: Twiggy got robbed on his trade to the Yankees, literally. After being informed of the trade, he drove his own car up from Baltimore in a rainstorm that night. He stopped to eat and came out to find that someone had broken into his car and stolen everything he had.
Twiggy pitched his first game wearing Pinstripes on May 31, 1971, the second game of a Monday afternoon doubleheader against the Oakland A’s. He came in to pitch the top of the seventh after Gary Waslewski was pulled for a pinch hitter. With the A’s ahead 5-3, Twiggy got Larry Brown and Rollie Fingers out, gave up a double to Bert Campaneris, and the struck out Joe Rudi. After Frank Baker got a two-out single, Ralph Houk pinch hit for Twiggy. Not a bad first game.
Sadly, Twiggy’s arm troubles persisted and he missed most of August. The Yankees released him at the start of the 1972 season. He hooked up with the Braves for a while, but his career was over. Twiggy built a new career in sales, and became a scratch golfer and master fisherman. He got his pilot’s license. In 1991, Twiggy and a couple of his friends flew his plane down to Key West, went fishing, and were on their way back to Miami for a golf tournament. Just a couple of minutes after taking off, his engine stalled. He crashed in a shopping center parking lot – and expertly avoided a little league field filled with kids not far away. All three passengers died in that crash. Jim Hardin, who was just 47, become the second of three Yankees to die in a plane crash. He was a good man and I miss him.
I want to remember the life of Nelson Briles, who was my teammate during my very brief time with the Texas Rangers in 1976. He spent fourteen years as a major league pitcher and won World Series rings with the Cardinals and Pirates. I remember Nellie was about as strong a family man as I ever saw in baseball, and was an all-around good person. Because he spent the first nine years of his career in the National League, I didn’t see him pitch until August of 1974, when I was with the Indians and he was playing for the Royals. He threw a complete game and beat us. When I was traded to Texas, he was one of the first to make me feel welcome. Nellie died ten years ago of a heart attack while playing in a Pirates golf tournament. He would have been 72 today.