Happy Birthday to Rocky Colavito, whom I believe never put any curse on the Cleveland Indians. Rocky was the first major leaguer I ever saw up close. It was in April of 1963. Dave Duncan and I were both prospects at the time and we were among a group of players invited to try out for the Kansas City Athletics. We went out to eat, and a group of Detroit Tigers who were in town came to the same place for dinner. Rocky was a Home Run hitting superstar in 1963 and was very recognizable, and I was in awe of him. I never stopped, largely because he earned it; Rocky had a .391 career batting average when I was the pitcher.
The first time I pitched to Rocky was on June 7, 1966 at Cleveland Stadium. Rocky hit a leadoff single to start the second inning. And I remember the fourth inning well, because I struck out the side, including Rocky and Leon Wagner. The Yankees won that game 7-2, the fourth win of my fledgling career, and I struck out nine batters.
Rocky became a Yankee at the end of his career. The Dodgers had released him around the 1968 All-Star break and the Yankees signed him a few days later. It was very cool when Rocky arrived in the clubhouse and put on the Pinstripes with #29 across his back. And he was a Bronx-born guy and felt very comfortable playing in New York. We were playing the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium and Rocky was in the lineup, playing Right Field and batting sixth. In his first At-Bat, he hit a deep fly ball that I thought might be a homer, but Del Unser caught it at the warning track. The next time he came to the plate was in the bottom of the fifth. The pitcher was Joe Coleman. It was still a scoreless game, but the Yankees had something going: Joe Pepitone hit a leadoff single, and moved to second on Andy Kosco’s hit. Rocky hit a Home Run, the 370th of his career and his first in Pinstripes. I was pitching the day Rocky hit the last Home Run of his great career, on September 24, 1968 against the Cleveland Indians.
The other story to tell when talking about Rocky as a Yankee was the time he pitched. He was 35-years-old and near the end of his career on August 25, 1968, the first game of a Sunday doubleheader against his old team, the Detroit Tigers. Future Yankee Pat Dobson was on the mound for the Tigers. s Ralph Houk was short on pitchers and was trying not to go to his closers until the end of the game. Detroit had taken a 5-0 lead when The Major pulled Steve Barber and turned to Rocky, who entered the game with one out and runners on first and second. Rocky got Al Kaline and Willie Horton out to end the inning. Rocky came back to pitch the fifth and sixth innings. He walked two in the fifth, but gave up no hits and no runs. In the sixth, he gave up a double to Al Kaline, who was left stranded; he even struck out Dick Tracewski.
But wait, there’s more. In the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees took the lead, 6-5, off Home Runs by Bill Robinson and Bobby Cox. Rocky walked and scored the go-ahead run on Jake Gibbs’ single. The Major brought in Dooley Womack and Lindy McDaniel to finish the game, and Rocky got the win. One hit, no runs, and a strikeout. And in the second game, Rocky played Right Field and hit a Home Run off Mickey Lolich; the Yankees won 5-4 and swept the doubleheader.
Happy Birthday to former Yankee pitcher Andy Messersmith, who is 70 today. Bluto was a great pitcher, and his challenge to the reserve clause helped pave the way for ballplayers to determine their own destiny. I was gone by the time free agency came to be, but I sure remember Bluto as a dominating pitcher for the California Angels, and later for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was the Yankees starting pitcher on August 12, 1968, the first time Bluto pitched against the team he rooted for as a kid in Toms River, New Jersey. I gave up a run in the second, and we took the lead off Mickey Mantle’s two-run homer in the sixth. Rick Reichardt tied it up with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth. With the score still tied 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Houk brought in Lindy McDaniel to pitch after I surrendered two-out singles to Jim Fregosi and to Rick. In the ninth, Bill Robinson hit a leadoff double, and moved to third when Tommy Tresh bunted safely. With the score tied, no outs, and runners on first and third, Bill Rigney pulled starter George Brunet and brought Bluto in to pitch. Bluto have up an RBI single to Jake Gibbs, putting us ahead, 3-2. He got Bobby Cox to fly out to Don Mincher at first, and struck out Lindy. Then Roy White drove Tommy home with a single. That was it for Bluto. We won 5-2.
I pitched against him again during his first visit to Yankee Stadium two weeks later. It was a Monday night doubleheader and I started the first game against Dennis Bennett. We fell behind in the fourth when that Reichardt guy hit an RBI single for the first run of the game. I tied it up in the bottom of the inning when I hit a sacrifice fly to Rick in left, scoring Tommy. We took the lead in the sixth when Dick Howser hit a two-out double, scoring Bobby Cox. That’s when Andy came in to pitch. He got Bill Robinson out to end the inning. The Mick led off the seventh with a single, and moved to second on Heeba’s single. Andy Kosco bunted The Mick to third and Heeba to second. Bluto struck out Tommy, but then gave up a two-RBI double to Frank Fernandez. After walking Bobby intentionally, I got up to bad with two outs and runners on first and second. I belted a double past that Reichardt guy, scoring Frank and Bobby. We won 6-2.
In the second game, which I got to see most of — The Major didn’t believe in sending guys home early – starter Bill Harrelson loaded the bases and with two out, Andy came in to pitch again. Mickey Mantle came up to pinch hit for Charley Smith, and Bluto struck him out. We lost that game; Andy got the save.
Larry Gowell was only with the Yankees for a brief time during the 1972 season, but that was enough for him to achieve a sort of immortality in the baseball history books. It was October 4, 1972 and we were at Yankee Stadium playing the Brewers. Larry was the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the third and smacked a double off Jim Lonborg that went past John Briggs in left. Larry was left stranded on second as the next three Yankees failed to drive him home. But the hit was historic because it was the last game of the season, and as it turned out, he was the last American League pitcher to get a hit before the Designated Hitter rule went into effect the following April. So Larry’s bat now has a place at Cooperstown.
Thanks to the leadership of CBS (sarcasm intended here), the Yankees got the #1 draft pick in 1967, the third year Amateur Draft. Larry was their first pick in the fourth round – Ron Blomberg was the #1 pick in the first round. The first time I saw Larry pitch was the first exhibition game of the 1970 season. He had a natural slider and his fast ball was as fast as any other Yankee in spring training. We were Pompano Beach playing the Washington Senators and Larry came in to pitch in the ninth inning. We were ahead, 6-5. I think he was a little nervous. His first batter was Del Unser and he hit him with the pitch. His second batter was a teenager named Jeff Burroughs, who hit a massive Home Run.
Larry spent the 1972 season with the West Haven Yankees, the Eastern League AA club that was being managed by the Bobby Cox, now a Hall of Fame manager. He was on fire and the Yankee pitchers were following him closely. In 26 games, he was 14-6 with a 2.54 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 181 innings.
Larry was a September call-up at a time when the Yankees were in a four-way race for First Place in the AL East. He made his major league debut in the bottom of the sixth inning on September 21, at County Stadium. With the Brewers ahead 4-0, Ralph Houk had removed Freddy Beene the previous inning for a pinch hitter, Rusty Torres. Larry retired the first three major league batters he faced: John Briggs, Ollie Brown and Mike Ferraro. Then in the seventh, he did the same thing against Rick Auerbach, Jerry Bell (the pitcher), and Ron Theobald. With two outs, The Major took him out in the eighth so Felipe Alou could hit. Felipe singled, the beginning of a Yankee rally. He moved to second on Horace Clarke’s hit, and scored on Roy White’s hit. The Bobby Murcer hit an RBI single, reducing Milwaukee’s lead to one run. Unfortunately, Bloomie flied out to end the inning, leaving Roy and Bobby on base. The Brewers wound up beating us, 6-4, and we wasted a rare ninth inning homer by Bernie Allen.
October 4 was the last game of the season and we had lost four in a row, dropping us to 4th place, 6 ½ games behind the Detroit Tigers. Since we were out of contention, The Major decided to give Larry the start. He pitched really, really well. He gave up his first major league hit in the second to Joe Lahoud, and Briggs hit a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Dave May, who had doubled. With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning, no outs and Jerry Kenney on first, The Major pulled Larry for a pinch hitter, Frank Tepedino. Larry had given up three hits, and had struck out six. It was an amazing demonstration of pitching for a rookie. We lost 1-0, as the Yankee bats were not coming through.
Larry was in contention for a major league roster spot in 1973. He was cut at the end of spring training, losing out to Casey Cox and Doc Medich. He didn’t make the team again in 1974; the new manager, Bill Virdon, seemed to judge him based on one bad tenth inning in an exhibition game against the Texas Rangers. A lot of the hype that spring was about Mike Pazik, a cocky southpaw from Holy Cross who wound up getting traded to the Twins for Dick Woodson. But Larry Gowell’s time as a MLB pitcher was indeed memorable and historic. I am glad to have known him.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.
Loyd Colson was drafted by the Yankees in 1967, their first pick in the 28th round. Of the 77 players the Yankees drafted that day, only five ever wore the pinstripes, and Loyd was one of them. Just making it to the major leagues is an extraordinarily tough task, and while Loyd’s career was short, he still made it. I’m sure he will never forget the thrill of standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium, and while he never made it back, our team was honored to have him there and grateful for his strong showing that day. So today’s installment of Monument Monday is dedicated to all the young players who made it to the major leagues, even if for only a short time, and I want to recognize their monumental achievements.
I met Loyd for the first time in February of 1970, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Fort Lauderdale. He was one of nine new guys on the 40-man roster that the Yankees viewed as integral to regaining their past glory. The others were (if I remember this correctly) pitchers Larry Gowell (who had 217 strikeouts in 195 innings in the minors the year before), Terry Bongiovanni, Doug Hansen and Bill Olsen, outfielder Rusty Torres, and a trio of infielders – George Zeber, Mario Guerrero and Tim O’Connell. [One brief footnote to baseball history: one of the players cut to make room for these new prospects was Bobby Cox, who was our Third Baseman for two years.] Loyd had impressed the Yankees during his stint with the Kinston Eagles, the Yankees Carolina League AA team. He had 125 strikeouts in 120 innings, and a 1.73 ERA.
Going into spring training, there were fifteen guys competing for four open spots on the Yankee pitching staff. Mel Stottlemyre, Stan Bahnsen and I were expected to be three of the five starters, and Lindy McDaniel, Jack Aker and Steve Hamilton were going to be in the bullpen. There were six pitchers in contention to be the other starters: Bill Burbach, John Cumberland, Ron Klimkowski, Steve Kline, Joe Verbanic, and this guy named Mike Kekich, who had been traded from the Dodgers. Also in camp were Rob Grander, Dick Farrell (a veteran National League pitcher who was at the end of his career), Jerry Tirtle, Gary Jones, Terry Ley, Bongiovanni, Gowell, Hansen, Olsen and Colson. Yankee executives boasted that they had “pitching depth” heading into the 1970 season. I remember that I was excited. Entering my third major league season, I pitched the most pre-season innings of the Yankee pitchers and had a 1.55 ERA during spring training.
The four pitchers who made it on the 25-man roster were Burbach, Klimkowski, Verbanic, and Kekich. Verbanic had missed the entire 1969 season because of a shoulder injury. He started the season with the Yankees, but was gone in about a month, never to pitch in the major leagues again. He would eventually be replaced by Cumberland. Eventually Bile would lose his starting slot to Kline, who got called up in July.
So back to Loyd Colson. Loyd was impressive in spring training and sent to the Manchester Yankees, the AA team, to get some more experience. He gets called up to the Yankees in September of 1970. He’s wearing #49 on his back. I remember his one appearance. It was September 25, and we were playing the Detroit Tigers in a Friday twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. There were six games left in the season, and we were in second place in the American League East, thirteen games behind the Baltimore Orioles. Steve Kline was pitching against Mickey Lolich. After seven innings, we were losing 2-1. Dick McAuliffe had hit a solo homer and Elliot Maddox had an RBI double for Detroit; Ron Hansen hit a solo Home Run for us. Loyd entered the game in the top of the eighth, taking over for Gary Jones, who had left the game for a pinch hitter.
The first major league hitter Loyd faced was Tigers Second Baseman Dalton Jones, who it a fly ball to center that Bobby Mitchell caught for the first out. [For Yankee memorabilia collectors there is some significance to this, since Loyd and Bobby would share a Rookie Card in the 1971 TOPPS set. The next batter was Don Wert, who singled to Bobby in center. Gene Lamont, the Tigers catcher, then hit an RBI double. This was a tough debut for a pitcher and I recall being impressed by how Loyd settled down and struck out the next two batters, Maddox and Lolich.
In the top of the ninth, Colson led off the inning by striking out McAuliffe. He gave up an infield single to Mickey Stanley, and then retired Jim Northrup and the always threatening Norm Cash on flyballs. The Yankee offense threatened Lolich in the bottom of the ninth. Jim Lyttle hit a one-out single to center, and advanced to second when Gene Michael got on base due to Jones’ error. So with the tying run at first, The Major sends Roy White in to pinch hit for Loyd. Lolich struck Heeba out, and then won the game when Horace Clarke flied out to right.
So there it is, the history of Loyd Colson. Not a bad showing: 3 hits, one run, and three strikeouts (and zero At-Bats) in two innings as a pitcher for the greatest baseball team in history. He came to Fort Lauderdale in 1971, didn’t make the team, and got sent to Syracuse. He never had another opportunity to play in the majors, but he did have two good innings in pinstripes and all of us are grateful to him for that.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.
Happy Birthday to Bill Melton, who was a power-hitting third baseman for the Chicago White Sox while I was pitching for the New York Yankees. Some called him Beltin’ Bill because he hit 160 Home Runs in a short ten-year career that prematurely ended due to injury. He hit 33 Home Runs with 95 RBI’s in 1970, his second full major league season, and 33 Home Runs (best in the American League). Between 1968 and 1976, we played in 22 games together. He went 18-for-30, a career average of .300 – and after Paul Blair, no one hit more Home Runs off me that Bill Melton.
One game that comes to mind against Bill and the White Sox was on August 26, 1969, a weeknight game at Yankee Stadium. I was facing a very tough pitcher in Tommy John. We got off to a good start when Tommy gave up a second inning two-run Home Run to our catcher, Frank Fernandez. Tommy and I were pitching nicely; each of us got into jams a few times, but we both pitched our way out of them. By the time Chisox manager Al Lopez pulled him for a pinch runner in the top of the ninth, Tommy had not let more Yankees score. I was also pitching a shutout as I entered the ninth. Ron Hansen (my future teammate), hitting for Tommy, led off with a single to left. Gene Michael’s fielding error let Walt Williams (also my future teammate) reach first and Tommy McCraw (running for Ron) move to second. Luis Aparicio bunted to Bobby Cox at third, moving Tommy to third and No Neck to second. I got a second out when Don Pavletich popped up to Ron Woods in center. Then Beltin’ Bill comes up and hits a double past Roy White in left, scoring Tommy and No Neck and tying the game up 2-2. Ralph Houk had enough of me and brought in Lindy McDaniel to get the third out.
Wilbur Wood came in to pitch in the bottom of the ninth and retired the Yankees 1-2-3. Lindy pitched the top of the tenth in what was clearly a metaphor for the Horace Clarke Era. Stick made another error at shortstop, putting Ken Berry on first. Then Bobby Cox committed a throwing error, putting Ken on third and Bobby Knopp on first. Frank Fernandez let a ball get by him and Bobby advanced to second. Then Pete Ward (yet another future teammate) hit a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Berry and giving the White Sox a 3-2 lead.
The Yankees rallied in the bottom of the tenth, but they couldn’t get the job done. Gary Bell, now pitching for the White Sox, gave up a leadoff walk to Roy White. Then he walked Fernandez, advancing Heeba to second; Lopez switched pitchers (now Danny Lazar); The Major put Jerry Kenney in to run for Julio Big Head. Bobby Murcer bunted – well, as usual – to the Birthday Boy at third, with Heeba and Lobo each advancing a base. Lazar intentionally walks Ron Woods. Now Danny Murphy comes in to pitch. Batting for Cox, Jimmie Hall hit popped up to Aparicio at short. With two outs, bases loaded, and down 3-2, The Major puts Jake Gibbs in to hit for Len Boehmer. Giblets struck out looking, ending the game with a painful loss for the entire team.
One last story – quickly, I promise: the last time I ever faced Bill Melton was on May 9, 1976 at Anaheim Stadium. We were both at the ends of our careers – Bill with the Angels, me with the Indians (not long before my trade to the Rangers). Birthday Boy came up in the bottom of the seventh with two outs and Cleveland ahead 2-0 and hits a single to center.
Happy Birthday to my Yankee teammate, Ron Swoboda. Rocky was one of the smartest and nicest guys I ever met. He was, of course, a member of the 1969 Miracle Mets World Championship team. I got to know him in 1971 after he was traded to the Yankees from the Montreal Expos for Ron Woods. I remember his first game in pinstripes (he wore #14 in between Bobby Cox and Lou Piniella) on the day of his trade, June 25, 1971. The Yankees were playing the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium. We scored three runs in the bottom of the first; Rocky came to bat with two outs and Felipe Alou on third; he hit a single to Elliot Maddox in center, scoring Alou. Nice when your first Yankee Stadium At-Bat is an RBI. He played in a game I pitched three days later, a tough 3-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians. Jake Gibbs got a leadoff walk in the bottom of the ninth, but unfortunately Rocky hit into a double play. But he made it up to me on August 2 in Cleveland when he hit an RBI single to score Johnny Ellis, helping the Yankees win. Rocky remained with the Yankees until 1973. Another game I remember was on July 28, 1971 in Chicago. I was pitching and the score was tied 3-3 going into the ninth. Rocky hit a two-out Home Run off Wilbur Wood to give us the lead. I left the game in the bottom of the ninth after walking Mike Andrews; Lindy McDaniel gave up a couple of hits and the White Sox beat us 5-4.