Happy Birthday to former Yankee pitcher Eli Grba. I remember watching Eli pitch at Comiskey Park during the summer of 1959. For a teenager in Chicago, I will always remember that season because it was the first time in my life that the White Sox made it to the World Series. Chicago had a lot of second and third place teams in the 1950’s, but it was the Yankees who dominated. It was exciting because Casey Stengel’s Yankees were in town – Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Enos Slaughter, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek – and Eli, who was the Yankees starting pitcher. Eli was also from Chicago and this was his rookie season; I think it may have been his first appearance at Comiskey. I remember my first time pitching in Chicago, so I understand how nervous Eli must have been. And he was pitching against Early Wynn, who would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. One of the things I remember is how good Eli was. I think his first three innings were 1-2-3 innings. He got stars like Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox out. And he got a hit of his own off of Early. I remember the White Sox won that day – Early was enjoying a resurgence and was pitching like he did when he was the star for the Cleveland Indians. But I also remember some cheers for Chicago’s favorite son, who pitched very well that day in front of his family, friends and fans.
Eli was originally signed by the Red Sox, but the Yankees got him in a trade for Bill Renna. He sacrificed a couple of years from his career to serve in the military and I thank him for his service. And he got to the World Series in 1960 after a fairly successful season for the Yankees. I remember watching one of his first games of that season when the Yankees were in town playing the White Sox. Early was again pitching for Chicago. This time, Eli was the winning pitcher. Later on that summer, Eli hit a Home Run off Early at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees left Eli unprotected in the 1962 expansion draft and the new California Angeles grabbed him. He struck out over 100 batters that year, for a club that finished eighth. Eli was the first Angel pitcher ever; he pitched opening day against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium and won the first game in team history. A complete game. He played in that historic first franchise game with Ken Aspromonte, who would later be my manager when I was traded to Cleveland. Years later, I heard that in his first appearance back at Yankee Stadium wearing an Angels uniform, Yogi hit a first inning single, followed by The Mick hitter a Home Run. That’s the way the Yankees are – competitive, no matter what.
Eli is my Facebook friend and he comments frequently on my posts remembering other ballplayers from our day. I appreciate that he reads my reminiscences, and hope that he will enjoy his 81st birthday and many, many more with good health and happiness.
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.