Happy Birthday to Pete Ward, my teammate on the Yankees in 1970. Pete came up through the Orioles organization and made his MLB debut with them in 1962. In early 1963, the Orioles traded him – along with future Yankee Ron Hansen, Hoyt Wilhelm and Dave Nicholson to the White Sox for Luis Aparicio and Al Smith. I remember the trade well because this was the winter before I signed with the Yankees and was still a college student rooting for the White Sox. I couldn’t believe they had traded Aparicio. Six years and 96 Home Runs later, Chicago traded Wagon to the Yankees for Mickey Scott. He was going to be the new First Baseman, after the Yankees traded Joe Pepitone to Houston for Curt Blefary, but the Yankees wound up going with Danny Cater. The Yankees purchased Ron Hansen’s contract from the White Sox a few weeks later, thinking he could be the answer for their Third Base problem. I wrote a lot about Wagon in my book, including the time he hit a Home Run off Nolan Ryan during the Mayor’s Trophy Game against the Mets the season after they won the World Series. I never had much trouble with Wagon: he had a career .190 average against me. One game he did very well in was on July 16, 1970, the second game of a Twi-Night Doubleheader at Yankee Stadium against the Oakland A’s. The Yankees won 4-1 and Wagon drove in three of the runs off of starter Diego Segui. The first was a single that scored Roy White and the second was a double that scored Roy and Curt.
Happy Birthday to Eddie Fisher, who was never married to Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor or Connie Stevens, but did play fifteen years in the major leagues from 1959 to 1973 -– around the same time his namesake enjoyed so much success in Hollywood. I remember watching Eddie as a starting pitcher for the White Sox when I was in college. They first time I faced him as a pro ballplayer was on July 20, 1970 at Yankee Stadium. He was with the California Angeles and came in to pitch the bottom of the seventh in relief after Andy Messersmith gave up a single to Roy White, an RBI double to Danny Cater, and a two-run homer to Curt Blefary. I came up to bat with a runner on first and two out and hit a single to my old teammate Roger Repoz in left. I pitched well – a three-hitter with five strikeouts and a complete game, but gave up a solo homer to Jim Spencer; the Yankees won 6-1. I also recall pitching a nine-hit shutout against the Angeles and Rudy May and Eddie in 1971, and a four-hit shutout against the Angels in 1971 that Eddie pitched in. Eddie left baseball with a respectable 85-70 record with a 3.41 career ERA. I must admit there was a certain thrill pitching against a guy you used to watch as a kid.
I want to acknowledge the baseball career of Curt Blefary, the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year, and five years later, my teammate on the New York Yankees. He died in 2001, at the age of 57 of complications brought on my years of heavy drinking. He would have been 72 today. He was a phenomenal, gifted baseball player and it makes me sad when I think of so many missed opportunities at stardom. Poor guy had demons and never figured out how to deal with them. I missed the chance to play with him in the minor leagues – Buff was a year ahead of me in the Yankee organization; I never quite understood how the team left him unprotected, allowing the Orioles to essentially steal him away.
As a pitcher, I faced Buff seven times during my first three seasons with the Yankees – including my major league debut in Baltimore on April 15, 1966. Generally I did exceptionally well against him: he had a career average of .100 facing me, 2-for-20, and that was during his prime. But there was one game I remember, on September 15, 1966, also in Baltimore, where he hit a leadoff Home Run off me in a game that we lost 5-4.
After the 1968 season, the Orioles had enough of Buff and traded him to the Astros in a deal that would have a monumental impact on the Orioles’ future – and on the rest of the American League; for Buff, the Orioles got Mike Cuellar. Buff returned to the Yankee organization a year later when the Yankees sent Joe Pepitone to Houston for him. But by then he was no longer the power hitter the Yankees coveted. He hit .210 and was traded in May 1971 to the A’s for pitcher Rob Gardner. Buff struggled with the A’s and with the Padres before his career ended in 1972, at age 29.
There was one game where Buff showed his true athletic abilities that I particularly remember. It was June 2, 1970, a night game at Yankee Stadium against the Royals. Danny Cater drew a one-out walk in the fourth, stole second off Ellie Rodriguez, and advanced to third off a single by Thurman Munson. Buff drove Danny in with a sacrifice fly to Amos Otis is center. Then in the eighth, he hit a two-out solo Home Run off Moe Drabowsky. The Yankees won that game 3-2, with Buff having two of the RBI’s that night. Every game was important, but as I am in the reminiscence phase of my life, I place a premium on 1970 wins since I had exactly 20 of them. That was big deal for me, since I only had the one 20-win season – so I am eternally grateful to every Yankee who helped me get there.
None of the men I played with are celebrating a birthday today, so I want to remember Hal Reniff, would have been 77 today. It was sad nearly eleven years ago when I learned of his passing. He was my teammate and fellow pitcher on the 1966 Yankees, my rookie season. Hal had a nice career and was especially fortunate to be a rookie on the 1961 World Championship club. In 1963, he led the team in saves and I remember as a first-year minor leaguer watching Porky throwing 3 1/3 scoreless innings in the World Series. The first time we pitched in the same game was April 23, 1966 – my Yankee Stadium debut, my second major league game, and my first career loss. And that sure wasn’t Hal’s fault. It was an excruciatingly painful day for me.
The first batter I faced at Yankee Stadium was Luis Aparicio, who got on base with a single hit to me. Then he stole second. I struck out Curt Blefary and Frank Robinson, but then Brooks Robinson hit a single to center and his RBI put the Orioles in the lead. That rattled me a bit, and facing the massive Boog Powell, I threw a wild pitch that but Brooks on second. Thankfully Boog grounded out to Bobby Richardson. I settled down and threw 1-2-3 innings in the second and third.
The fourth inning really sucked. I walked Frank Robinson, who stole second and scored off Brooks Robinson’s single. Paul Blair, who was always an especially tough out for me, hit a two-out single to Mickey Mantle in center, moving Brooks to second. Andy Etchebarren hit another single to Mickey and Brooks scored. Now we’re down 3-0. The Orioles picked up another run in the fifth when Frank Robinson hit an RBI double.
The Yankees finally scored a run in the fifth when Clete Boyer hit a one-out Home Run off Dave McNally. With two outs and no one on base, Ralph Houk sent Hector Lopez in to hit for me. It didn’t help; Hector struck out. Porky came in to pitch in the sixth and faced three batters after Etchebarren hit into a double play; he had a 1-2-3 seventh inning. Elston Howard brought the score to 4-3 when he hit a double, scoring Mickey and Joe Pepitone. The Major sent Lou Clinton in to bat for Porky, and Dooley Womack came in to finish the game. We lost 4-3.
The Yankees sold Porky to the Mets about three months into the 1967 season. That was his last year in major league baseball.