Ron Klimkowski was one of my favorite Yankees. He was warm and friendly all the time. We called him Bela, because we thought he looked like the Count Dracula actor, Bela Lugosi. In my book, I wrote a lot about him on a personal level. But he had some talent as a pitcher also, and was proud of his Yankee alumni status until he died of heart failure at the young age of 65 in 2009. Bela was part of two important trades involving Yankee veterans: originally signed by the Red Sox, he was the Player-To-Be-Named-Later in the trade that sent Elston Howard to Boston for the 1967 pennant race and World Series. Four years later, the Yankees sent him to Oakland, along with Rob Gardner, for Felipe Alou. Bela was from New York and New Jersey and he loved being a Yankee, so he signed with the Yankees after the A’s released him thirteen months later.
I remember Bela’s major league debut. It was September 15, 1969. He was a September call-up from Syracuse. The Yankees were home against the Detroit Tigers, and Stan Bahnsen was pitching against Denny McClain, who was again dominating the American League. It was still a little weird seeing Tommy Tresh in a Tiger uniform, even though his trade for Ron Woods had happened a couple of months before. Ralph Houk pinch hit for Stan in the bottom of the sixth, and Bela arrived on the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound for the first time in the top of the seventh. We were down 2-0. The first MLB batter he faced was Cesar Gutierrez, who had come in to replace Tommy at Shortstop in the first inning. Cesar grounded out to Jerry Kenney at shortstop, providing Bela with his first major league out. He quickly got five more: Jim Northrup and Al Kaline, then Norm Cash, Willie Horton and Tommy Matchick in the eighth. He gave up a hit, his first, to Bill Freehan in the ninth, but then retired Dick Wert, Denny and Cesar, consecutively. So Bela was off to a great start: three scoreless innings, facing ten batters, and giving up one hit. The problem for Bela, not his fault, was that Denny gave up just two hits the entire game, and scored his 23rd win of the season.
On September 24, The Major decided to start Bela, who pitched magnificently against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Maybe Bela just wanted to show Tom Yawkey what he gave up. He pitched nine full innings, giving up no runs and just three hits. The problem for Bela, again not his fault, is that the Yankees couldn’t get anything going offensively. In the top of the tenth, with runners on first and second and one out, The Major sent Frank Tepedino up to hit for Bela. No doubt the right move. Unfortunately, Teppie flied out. Then Horace Clarke popped up to second to end the inning. Jack Aker and Lindy McDaniel threw scoreless tenth and eleventh innings, respectively. And no runs were scored off of Stan Bahnsen in the twelfth and thirteenth. Of course the Yankees couldn’t score off the Bosox reliever, Sonny Siebert, who gave up just one hit in 4 2/3 innings.
George Scott hit a leadoff infield single off Stan in the bottom of the fourteenth; Scott got to second of a well-executed bunt by Tom Satriano. Stan walked Dalton Jones, who came in to pinch hit for Sonny.. Then Mike Andrews doubled to left, scoring George. As you can imagine, it’s extraordinarily painful to lose a 1-0 game to Boston in the fourteenth inning. What was worse was that this was the best game of Ron Klimkowski’s baseball career.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.
Fred Talbot came to the Yankees about two months into the 1966 season, when Dan Topping traded Gil Blanco (my old minor league teammate), Roger Repoz and Bill Stafford to the Kansas City Athletics for Talbot and catcher Bill Bryan. I called him Zack – the story about why is in my book. His Yankee debut came on June 12, 1966 at Tiger Stadium, starting the second game of a Sunday doubleheader against Mickey Lolich. He had a lead before even taking the mound, after Elston Howard hit a three-run Home Run in the top of the first. Zack retired the side 1-2-3. In the second, Clete Boyer hit a leadoff Home Run, and after Lou Clinton flied out, Zack came up to hit for the first time in pinstripes. He singled to center, and that was it for Lolich, who was replaced by Orlaayndo Pena after just 1 1/3 innings. Zack went to second on Tom Tresh’s single, and scored on a single by Mickey Mantle. Let’s push the pause button for a moment: Zack is in pinstripes for the first time, throws a 1-2-3 inning, gets a hit off Mickey Lolich, and scores his first run as a Yankee on an RBI single by Mickey Mantle. Life is good. Or maybe in baseball you just have to savor the moment, because things can change quickly. If there is one thing I know, it’s that.
Zack takes the mound in the bottom of the second with a 6-0 lead. He gives up a leadoff single to Al Kaline, who moves to second on Fred’s wild pitch and to third on Jim Northrup’s single. Bill Freehan hits a pop up in foul territory that Elston Howard caught, for one out. Then Gates Brown hits a single to right, with Kaline scoring the Tigers’ first run and Northrup moving to second. Zack got a little nervous with Northrup taking a big lead off second, and Larry Napp, the umpire at home plate, called a balk. Now Detroit had runners on second and third, with one out. But Zack settled down, and got Ray Oyler and pinch hitter Jerry Lumpe out to end the inning. With one out in the third, he gave up a single to Jake Wood, and then Norm Cash hit a two-run homer. Now it’s 6-3. The Yankees added a run in the fourth on Tresh’s Home Run.
The fourth would be it for Zack; Ralph Houk brought in Steve Hamilton to pitch after Brown singled and Oyler walked. He left his Yankee debut with a 7-3 lead. The Yankees wound up winning, but not easily. The final score was 12-10. For any 20-something year old, standing on the mound with Mickey Mantle is center and Ellie Howard behind the plate is a magical moment, and I’m glad my friend Zack had a strong showing.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to view last week’s tribute to Pedro Ramos.
Happy Birthday to Bruce Kimm, who was a rookie catcher for the Detroit Tigers when I was playing my last season. Our careers crossed only so slightly, in one game at Tiger Stadium on May 14, 1976. He had made his major league debut ten days earlier, and one the day that I pitched, it was his second start. The Tigers had Bill Freehan and John Wockenfuss, and I’m not sure what happened to cause Detroit to call Bruce up – maybe it was because Bruce had become Mark Fidrych’s catcher of choice and The Bird was unhittable that year. I faced him for the first time in the second inning, with two outs, and he flied out to Duane Kuiper at second. His second at-bat came in the fifth, when he hit a leadoff single to left. The next batter up was Ron LeFlore, who singled, moving Bruce to third. Frank Robinson pulled me from the game. Tom Buskey won it in relief for the Indians. That was it. Within the next 35 days, I had been traded to the Texas Rangers, suffered an injury, and never played again. I looked it up and Bruce’s hit off me was the second of his career; the first came the night before off Rudy May at Yankee Stadium. As a Chicago native, I was pleased that someone I had played ball with got the chance to manage the Cubs, even for a brief time, as Bruce did in 2002.
Happy Birthday to Don Demeter, an 11-year MLB veteran who must have liked me because he had a lifetime batting average of .417 against me. He first showed his dominance over me at the plate early in my rookie season. It was May 17, 1966 and the Yankees were playing the Tigers in Detroit. We had a good first inning: Denny McClain walked three consecutive batters, and we scored two runs on a sacrifice fly by Roger Maris and a single by Roger Repoz. But that would be the end of the Yankee run production for the day; Denny settled down to pitch a two-hitter with eight strikeouts. After a Maris double and an intentional walk to Elston Howard in the fourth, no other Yankee would get on base.
As for me, I pitched okay for the first four innings, but let’s just say I was no Denny McClain. I had a 1-2-3 first, and after giving up a second inning double to Al Kaline, I got the next three guys out. The next two innings were fine. I gave up a fifth inning leadoff homer to Bill Freehan, followed by Ray Oyler’s double. Oyler scored on a sac fly, tying the game at 2-2. In the sixth, Norm Cash doubled, and then Don Demeter came up. He hit a powerful shot over the left field fence, putting the Tigers ahead, 4-2. Ray Barker pinch hit for me in the seventh. The Tigers won 7-2, putting my rookie record at 2-3. During our next series against Detroit, Don homered off me too, but this time the Yankee offense came through and we won 6-3.
Finally, Happy Birthday to Mike Stanley and Bob Shirley, who played for the Yankees long after I left — that means they’re much younger than me!
Happy Birthday to former Detroit Tigers infielder Jake Wood. I faced Jake for the first time during my rookie season, and I remember the game well – mostly because of how badly it started. It was June 11, 1966 and it was my second time pitching in Tiger Stadium. (Let me start by saying that the first time was a disaster. I gave up four runs in six innings and lost the game to Denny McClain.) Before I even took the mound, my teammates came through. Tom Tresh led off with a walk and stole second on Bill Freehan – and that was no easy task. Bobby Richardson signed, moving Tresh to third. Tresh scored on a Roger Maris groundout, and Richardson scored on Joe Pepitone’s single to center. The lead narrowed quickly. After I walked the leadoff batter, Don Wert, I faced Jake Wood and hit him with the pitch. Don Demeter drove him home with a single. I struck Wood out in the third, a 1-2-3 inning for us. The Tigers tied it up in the fifth with a Dick McAuliffe leadoff Home Run. Wert singled, and Wood bunted to third moving Wert to second. Luckily Norm Cash, who could be frightening at the plate, grounded out. My lead increased when Elston Howard hit a two-run Home Run. Don Demeter hit a one-out homer in the sixth and Ralph Houk too me out. The Yankees won, 6-3, thanks to some outstanding relief pitching from Hal Reniff, and I got the win.