In 1970, at the end of August, the Yankees announced that Mickey Mantle was returning to the team as a coach. It was a peculiar situation: the Yankees essentially platooned First Base coaches. Elston Howard would coach the first three innings, Mickey would coach the middle three, and then Elston would return for the final three. The Mick didn’t like the job, and he left after the 1970 season – never to appear in a uniform for a MLB game again. The Mick’s first game as a coach was on August 30, 1970 at Yankee Stadium. We were playing the Minnesota Twins and Bert Blyleven was pitching. Bobby Murcer led off the bottom of the fourth with a walk. When he got to first, he walked over to talk to The Mick, who jokingly pushed him away. All the Yankees got a real laugh watching that. Lemon stopped laughing seconds later when he was thrown out at second when Danny Cater hit into a double play. The Yankees won 5-2 on a well-pitched game by Steve Kline, and The Mick was, for a day anyhow, a good luck charm. And for those of you who are wondering, the Twins First Baseman in the photo is Rich Reese.
Happy Birthday to Bill Zepp, who made his major league debut on August 12, 1969 as a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. The Yankees were ahead 10-3 in the bottom of the eighth when Bill took the mound in relief of Jim Kaat. He got Roy White, Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson out in his 1-2-3 inning at Yankee Stadium. Bill was an okay pitcher; in 1970, he was 9-4 with a 3.22 ERA. I remember him having some real testicular fortitude. After just one full season in the majors, he refused to sign a contract extension and said he would either play for his hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, or retire. He got the trade. But he only lasted less than half the season before an injury ended his career.
Happy 71st Birthday to Sparky, my friend and teammate and the best relief pitcher I ever played with. When the Yankees traded Danny Cater to the Red Sox for Sparky in March of 1972, it changed my life for the better. We hit it off immediately and had lots of fun together. Jim Turner, the Yankees pitching coach, once called our group “The Nursery” because of all the childish pranks we pulled, and we wore that as a badge of honor. I enjoyed every minute I played with The Count, and one of the reasons is that our team got significantly better because of his arrival.
I remember Sparky’s Pinstripe debut on April 19, 1972. We were ahead of the Brewers 3-0 in the top of the ninth. Mike Kekich had given up just two hits when Ron Theobold hit a two-out single, followed by John Briggs’ Home Run. Ralph Houk brought in The Count to pitch to George Scott, who grounded out on the second pitch. The first time he came to my rescue was on May 21, against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. I was off to a miserable start and was 0-6 so far that season. I went in to the top of the ninth with a 6-1 lead, and quickly have up successive singles to Duane Josephson, Rico Petrocelli and Phil Gagliano. With the bases loaded and two out, The Major brought The Count in to pitch, and I got my first win of the year.
Another memorable game from early in The Count’s Yankee career came in his second appearance for us, against the Oakland A’s on April 25, 1972. It was a pitcher’s duel between Sparky and Rollie Fingers. Steve Kline and Catfish Hunter were the starters and the game was tied 3-3 going into the ninth inning. Sparky had a 1-2-3 inning, followed by Rollie walking Rich McKinney and facing four batters. Sparky had a 1-2-3 tenth; Rollie had a little more trouble. He gave up a two-out walk to Bobby Murcer, who moved to second on Roy White’ single and got stranded there when Rollie got Felipe Alou out. In the eleventh, gave up a one-out hit to Joe Rudi and walked Reggie Jackson – then he struck out Sal Bando and Mike Epstein. With two outs in the bottom of the eleventh, The Major sent Ron Blomberg to the plate to pinch hit for Sparky. Bloomie walked, but then Rollie got Jerry Kenney out to end the inning. Mike Hegan hit an RBI double off Lindy McDaniel in the top of the twelfth, and Rollie had a 1-2-3 inning to get the win. It didn’t take long for our team to understand that the Era of Lindy McDaniel was over and there was a new fireman in town. One of my greatest regrets was that I wasn’t around for Sparky’s Cy Young season.
Among the guys I really enjoyed playing with was Dave LaRoche, who was traded to the Cleveland Indians during the 1975 Off-Season for another good pitcher, Milt Wilcox. The first time I saw him pitch was in his Yankee Stadium debut on July 19, 1970 when he was a rookie for the California Angels. He entered the game in relief in the eighth, taking over for Rudy May with a 5-2 lead. The first batter he faced was Horace Clarke, who grounded out. Then he struck out Bobby Murcer. In the ninth, he got Thurman Munson out. To me, getting Lemon and Tugboat out in your Yankee Stadium debut is a big deal. And that was Dave’s first major league save.
His Tribe debut was on April 12, 1975 in Milwaukee. It was the same day Dennis Eckersley made his major league debut. I was the starting pitcher that day, and I had nothing. Sometimes pitchers have days like that. I gave up a one-out walk to John Briggs, who reached third on Hank Aaron’s double. I intentionally walked the sometimes scary George Scott, and then Don Money hit an RBI single, scoring John. It could have been worse; I got the relay from Charlie Spikes in right and threw it to Johnny Ellis, the catcher, who tagged Hank out at home. Then it did get worse. Sixto Lezcano doubled, scoring George and moving Don to third. Charlie Moore, whom I wrote about on his birthday last month as being nearly impossible for me to get out, hit a two-run double. The Brewers led, 4-0. Frank Robinson pulled me in the bottom of the second after giving up a leadoff Home Run to Robin Yount and walking Bob Coluccio. Dave came in to pitch in the seventh – one of four pitchers the Tribe used that day – and he gave up no runs. But we lost, 6-5.
Happy Birthday to Rudy May, who was a strong rival pitcher in the American League. We just missed each other on the Yankees. I was traded to Cleveland in April, 1974 and the California Angels sold him to the Yankees a little more than a month later. Rudy played a key role in re-establishing the Yankee tradition in the George Steinbrenner Era; he won 15 games in 1975. But poor Rudy got traded in the middle of the 1976 season in a blockbuster deal: Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan went to the Baltimore Orioles for Ken Holtzman, Elrod Hendricks, Doyle Alexander, Grant Jackson and Jimmy Freeman.
The first time I ever faced Rudy, it was a real pitcher’s duel. It was May 6, 1969 at Anaheim Stadium. Each of us gave up just one hit in the first three innings. Billy Cowan hit a leadoff single in the top of the fourth and moved to second on Bobby Murcer’s hit. But then Rudy struck out Roy White and Joe Pepitone, and ended the inning with Frank Fernandez’s pop-up.
We took a 2-0 lead in the fifth when Rudy walked Bill Robinson with one out. I was the next batter, so that should have been out #2; I bunted, Bill got to second, and Rudy made a bad throw to Dick Stuart – so I was safe at first and Bill made it to third. Horace Clarke got us our second out with a pop up. I advanced to second when Rudy walked Billy. The next batter was Bobby, who singled on the first pitch. Bill scored, and then I scored on a weak throw from Jay Johnstone in center. But with runners at second and third, Rudy got Roy White out to end the inning. Rudy was pitching a great game with five strikeouts and no earned runs. Bill Rigney took him out in the ninth after he gave up a leadoff walk to Tommy Tresh, and Andy Messersmith finished the game.
The Angeles scared me in the bottom of the ninth. Bobby Knoop hit an infield single to lead of the inning, followed by another single from Bubba Morton. Lou Johnson laid down a beautiful sacrifice bunt; with runners on second and third, Ralph Houk had me walk Jim Fregosi and pitch to Jay. Jay hit a grounder to first, and Joe was able to get the Jim out at second — but it was enough to score Bobby. Now I had a runners on second and third and the always threatening Rick Reichardt at bat. Rick has been turning up in my posts a lot lately – and almost always with bad news for me. But this time I got Rick out, and the Yankees won 2-1. A great game for Rudy, who was quickly impressing the entire American League.
As long as people were willing to listen to me talk about my one career Triple 47 years ago today, I figured I could relay another memorable hit by one of my favorite pitchers: Sparky Lyle’s only extra base hit as a New York Yankee. It was June 3, 1972, a Saturday afternoon in Chicago. Freddy Beene started the game against Stan Bahnsen. We were down two runs going in to the top of the ninth, and Goose Gossage was on the mound as the White Sox closer. We tied the game, 10-10, after a single by Rusty Torres, a walk by Bobby Murcer, and singles by Roy White and Ron Blomberg. Goose, in a rare blown save, was gone after three batters. The Countess came in to pitch the bottom of the ninth and had a 1-2-3 inning. He did the same thing in the tenth and eleventh innings. He gave up one hit in the twelfth, but Pat Kelly got stranded.
Bobby Murcer led off the top of the thirteenth with a single of Bart Johnson and advanced to second on Roy White’s walk. Bloomie hit a shot to Carlos May in left, but it wasn’t deep enough for Lemon to score. Then Thurman Munson hit a three-run Home Run. Jerry Kenney hit a grounder to short, but was safe at first because of Rich Morales’ throwing error. The second out of the inning came when Bernie Allen flew out to left.
So now the Yankees are up 13-10 and with two outs Ralph Houk kept Sparky in the game. He hit a double that went between Carlos and Jay Johnstone in center, scoring Kenney. He made it to second huffing and puffing, unaccustomed to running to first yet alone an extra base, but that huge smile, sort of like Tweetie Bird looking at Sylvester, is what I remember most. But that wasn’t the best part. Horace Clarke came up to bat and hit a single to center off the first pitch, and The Countess had to run from second to home. He made it, huffing and puffing again – this time I saw no smile. What I would give to watch him do that again!
Apparently unsatisfied with a five-run lead, the Yankee offense continued to rally. Rusty walked and Bobby Murcer hit a three-run Home Run. We went into the bottom of the thirteenth leading the White Sox, 18-10.
The Countess, maybe still a little tired from all that running, scared all of us just a little bit. He gave up a leadoff walk to Dick Allen, who moved to second off Jay’s groundout and to third on Bill Melton’s single. Chuck Brinkman, pinch hitting for the pitcher, singled to left, but Dick couldn’t score off Heeba. So Sparky had the bases loaded, one out, and I think he was still out of breath from all that running. But it was over quickly: Tom Egan hit into a double play. Sparky Lyle was the best!
Happy Birthday to Jack Heidemann, an infielder for eight seasons in the 1970’s. We were teammates on the Cleveland Indians briefly in 1974. The Yankees traded me there on April 26, and Jack was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals on June 1. While our time was brief, it was an honor to play with him. He was a smart ballplayer and a genuinely nice guy. And he was among the large group of players who interrupted their careers to serve in the military, and on his birthday, I thank him for his service to our country.
Thinking about Jack, the game I remember most was one I watched from the bench. It was August 3, 1971, a night game in Cleveland. Jack was playing Shortstop. Bobby Murcer was on first, Thurman Munson on third, and Roy White came to the plate with one out. Heeba hits a ground ball to Eddie Leon, the Indians Second Baseman. Eddie made a horrible throw to Jack, which put him directly in front of Bobby Murcer, who was sliding into second. Jack suffered serious injuries to his knee and was out for the rest of the season. It was awful. And let me say this – we are all extremely competitive on the field for each play of every game, but none of us like it when a fellow ballplayer gets hurt the way Jack did.
Even though we were on the same team for about 35 days, Jack and I were on the field at the same time only once: May 24, 1974 at Cleveland Stadium. He came in as an eighth inning defensive replacement for John Lowenstein at Third Base, but had no opportunity to make a play. Still, as a pitcher, it was reassuring to know Jack had my back. He was an excellent infielder.