George M. Steinbrenner passed away five years ago today. He was the Yankee most responsible for ending the Horace Clarke Era and restoring the Yankee tradition of winning. I only had the chance to play for The Boss for just slightly more than one season before I was traded to the Indians – but my trade brought Chris Chambliss to New York and I can’t argue with the wisdom of that. The Boss believed that the Yankees were the greatest team in the history of the world and I look forward one day to making the trip to Cooperstown to see him inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. RIP George Steinbrenner.
Like most pitchers, I wasn’t much of a hitter. My career average was .159 – 82 hits, including 15 doubles, a triple, and two “historic” home runs (off Clyde Wright and Mike Cuellar). I actually hit well my rookie season, 1966: .224, which was four points higher than a right fielder named Lou Clinton, a very nice man who was nearing the end of his career. Of course my hitting career came to an end in 1973 when the AL adopted the Designated Hitter rule. I was fine with that; it made it a little tougher when #9 in the order was no longer a pitcher, but fans liked the idea of some veteran hitters staying on a bit longer and so did I. My last major league at-bat came on October 1, 1972, the first game of a Sunday double header against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium – my last start of the season because there was no post-season in the “Horace Clarke Era.” It was one of the most memorable games of my career – an 11-inning complete game! How many times has that happened?
Gaylord Perry was pitching for the Indians, and he was enjoying the best seasons of his career: 24-16, with a 1.92 ERA, 234 strikeouts, and winning the Cy Young Award. He also pitched a complete game – his 29th of the season. So I repeat my question: when was the last time two pitchers threw an 11-inning complete game in the same game?
This was not an inconsequential game. The Yankees began the day tied for 3rd in the AL East with the Orioles, while the Red Sox and Tigers were in a down-to-the-wire battle for first. We were five games out of first place, with five games remaining. We were eliminated from winning the division since Boston and Detroit had three games left against each other. But there was a scenario that could have had us in 2nd – not 4th, where we wound up – and that was worth trying for.
The Yankees scored in the fourth when Roy White scored on Bernie Allen’s ground rule double, and the Indians tied it in the fifth when Ray Fosse hit a leadoff Home Run against me. The game remained 1-1 until the top of the eleventh. Buddy Bell led off with a double to left, and moved to third on Jack Brohamer’s grounder to Ron Bloomberg at first. Chris Chambliss hit a sacrifice fly to Bobby Murcer in center; Bell scored, and we were down 2-1. I was supposed to lead off the bottom of the eleventh, but naturally Ralph Houk pinch hit for me. Frank Tepedino struck out looking. Then Horace Clarke filed out and Thurman Munson grounded out. We lost 2-1.
I don’t presume to know anything about baseball compared to Houk, who was one of the smartest baseball strategists I ever knew. But 43 years later, maybe it’s ok to wonder what he was thinking when he sent Tepedino, who was 0-8 as a September call up, to leadoff in the bottom of the eleventh, one run down. There were only two left-handed hitter on the bench: Tepedino and Johnny Callison, who was a .216 lifetime hitter against Perry but was hitting .280 vs. righties that season. Would it have been better to take his chances with Johnny Ellis, a right-handed hitter with a .294 average and a .270 average against right-handed pitchers that season? Or an experienced hitter, like Ron Swoboda? We will never know.
Anyway, there was a point to this post, and finally I’m getting to it. With the DH starting in 1973 – call it the Ron Bloomberg Lifetime of Fame Rule – this was the last time I would ever bat in a major league game. I popped up to shortstop Frank Duffy in the fourth, and struck out in the fifth — I was one of Perry’s eleven strikeouts that game. My final career At-Bat came in the eighth, with a ground out to second. As I said earlier, Teppie pinch hit for me in the eleventh and struck out. I think I could have done at least as well.
Writing about Don Mincher got me thinking about the Seattle Pilots, the expansion team that lasted just one year at Sick’s Stadium before going bankrupt moving and becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. A bunch of my teammates and friends wound up on the Pilots: Mike Hegan, Steve Whitaker, Mike Ferraro, John Kennedy, Steve Barber, Dooley Womack and Jim Bouton, whose time with the Pilots became the focus of his controversial best seller (and one of my favorite books), Ball Four. Two future teammates, Jack Aker and Fred Stanley came to the Yankees from the Pilots.
Steve Whitaker innocently played a role in the Yankees comeback: just two weeks before opening day, the Pilots made a trade with the Royals that sent a promising outfielder named Lou Piniella to Kansas City for Steve. Lou was the 1969 AL Rookie of the Year and Steve had to wear the weird Pilots cap and settle for just being a good guy. With closer Lindy McDaniel expendable because the Yankees got Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater, the Whitaker trade sort of set up the Piniella for McDaniel deal that made Lou my Yankee teammate for the start of the 1974 season. And my trade to Cleveland for Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow helped create the winning George Steinbrenner Era. As I keep saying, the Yankees gave up a lot of talent for Chris and Dick, but they clearly got the best of that deal.