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.
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 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.
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.
Steve Hamilton is still remembered for his Folly Floater pitch, and his Yankee teammates will never forget the time he swallowed some of his chewing tobacco and threw up on the mount. Abby came to the Yankees in a 1963 trade with the Washington Senators, so he was there when I made the team in 1966. We met at spring training. We were Yankee pitchers together until the last month of the 1970 season, when the let him go and the White Sox claimed him off the waiver list. We had fun together, were friends off the field, and stayed in touch until he passed away of colon cancer at the young age of 63. One of the coolest facts about Abby is that he also played in the NBA for two or three years; I think only two guys have ever played in both a World Series and in the NBA finals. The dude was 6’6. I remember that Carl Yastrzemski couldn’t hit Abby; he had a career .143 batting average against him. If I had to pick one guy to get out, it would have been the best player for our biggest rival.
There was one game in 1970 against the Red Sox that I remember well because I was the starting pitcher. It was June 21 at Fenway Park. We were in 2nd place in the AL East, 3 game behind the Orioles, and I was having the best season of my career – soon afterwards, I would be named for the first (and only) time to the American League All-Star team. The game started off well enough, a 1-2-3 first inning. But in the bottom of the second, I wasn’t throwing well. Tony Conigliaro led off with a single, and moved to third on a one-out single by George Scott. I struck Billy Conigliaro out, but then Jerry Moses hit an RBI single. Then George scored on a single by the Red Sox pitcher, Gary Peters. Jerry scored off a single by Mike Andrews. We were down 3-1. Yaz led off the third with a single and Ralph Houk had enough. I was out, Ron Klimkowski was in. The lead bounced back and forth a few times. The Major pulled Ron in the sixth for Abby, who walked Yaz; then Jack Aker came in to pitch. Long story short, Yankees won 14-10 in an 11-inning game. Bobby Murcer led us to victory, robbing Yaz of a Home Run in the eighth with an incredible catch, and a key double in the top of the eleventh.
(OK, I have to make a full disclosure here: You may be wondering why I wrote about a game where Abby pitched to one batter and walked him in a post about Abby. I started writing about the 6/21/70 Red Sox game because I thought it was the one Abby won for us. But I had it wrong. But I figured any story that ends with Bobby Murcer robbing Carl Yastrzemski of a Home Run, followed by an extra-inning RBI double ought not become the victim of the delete key. Fair enough?)
Here are the ones I should have led with: two 1970 games against the Brewers at Yankee Stadium. On May 2, I started the game and had a 4-0 lead going into the sixth inning. John Kennedy, a former Yankee, led off with a single to center. I struck out Rich Rollins, walked Tommy Harper, and John scored on Ted Kubiak’s single. I struck out Ted Savage; then Kubiak stole second and Tommy stole third. I walked Danny Walton, loading the bases. Mike Hershberger hit a two-run single to center, and The Major brought in Lindy McDaniel to pitch. I left the game with a 4-3 lead. Milwaukee scored two runs off Lindy and Jack Aker in the eighth, putting them ahead 5-4. Jerry McNertney hit a leadoff homer against Joe Verbanic in the ninth (6-4) and then loaded the bases with two walks and a single. The Major brought in Abby, who struck out the next two batters to end the inning. This game ends the way I like them to end: Bobby Murcer hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game, and with runners on first and second, Thurman Munson hit a walk-off single to win the game. Abby got the win.
The next day, May 3, the first game of a Sunday afternoon doubleheader, starter Bill Burbach and reliever Ron Klimkowski gave up a combined 5 runs in the first three innings. The lead bounced back and forth for a while and in the sixth, with the Brewers ahead 6-5, Abby came in to pitch. He gave up another run after Kennedy doubled, Bob Meyer bunted him to third, and Tommy Harper got an RBI sacrifice fly. The Yankee offense came through for Abby in the bottom of the sixth Bobby Murcer led off with a single, but got forced at second by Roy White’s ground out. Heeba scored on Danny Cater’s single to left. Then Thurman Munson came in as a pinch hitter for Jake Gibbs and tripled, scoring Danny. That was followed by Gene Michael’s double, scoring Tugboat. Abby ended the inning with a pop up to the shortstop, nut the Yankees now had an 8-7 lead.
I think this part is important: the fact that The Major let Abby hit with a runner on second and a one-run lead is a testament to Abby’s pitching. He was doing well, and they weren’t going to risk taking him out. Abby did not disappoint: he got out of the seventh unbruised, with just one base runner on a walk; he had a 1-2-3 eighth. And he won the game in the ninth with another 1-2-3 inning. It was great pitching – for the second time in two days.
Watch Abby’s Folly Floater: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFvp7kMraAw
A little Celerino Sanchez trivia: Chief came to the Yankees in an unusual trade between a MLB team and a club in the Mexican League. The process started in 1969 when the Yankees traded Al Downing and Frank Fernandez to the Oakland A’s for Danny Cater and an obscure guy named Ossie Chavarria, a Panama-born career minor leaguer (1959-1973) who hit .208 in 124 games for the Kansas City Athletics during parts of 1966 and 1967. (Footnote: he hit .222 against me in four games my rookie year.) Ossie never got his pinstripes: he played all the infield positions for the Syracuse Chiefs, batted in the .250-.270 range, but the competition was tough in those days – the Yankees had Horace Clarke, Gene Michael, Jerry Kenney, Frank Baker and Ron Hansen ahead of him. The Yankees were in the market for a new third baseman, and the scouts had identified Chief as a potential star. So after the 1971 season, the Yankees traded Ossie to the Mexico City Tigers in the Mexican League for Chief. Chief, of course, didn’t pan out, and he returned to the Mexican League in time for the 1974 season. Sadly, Chief died young, of a heart attack in 1992 at age 48. But for some reason – likely his name and his role as the transitional third baseman between Jerry Kenney/Rich McKinney and Graig Nettles – he is well remembered by the Yankee fans of the Horace Clarke Era.
Chief hit his only career Home Run at Yankee Stadium on May 12, 1973 off of Baltimore’s Mickey Scott. He was a pinch hitter for the pinch hitter for the designated hitter. Jim Ray Hart started the game against Mike Cuellar, and Ron Bloomberg pinch hit for him when Bob Reynolds came in relief. When Earl Weaver replaced Reynolds with Scott, Ralph Houk sent Chief up. With Bobby Murcer on first, Sanchez hit a shot to left; Al Bumbry tried to grab it, but he could not. That was a great win because we were tied with Baltimore for second on that particular day. Yankees blanked the Orioles 8-0; rookie Doc Medich got the win.
Chief went hitless in his first two major league games; his first hit came at Yankee Stadium, off Mike Paul of the Texas Rangers. It was a two-out hit to left, with an RBI; Roy White scored. His last hit came in his final game as a New York Yankee, and as a major league baseball player. It was the final game of the 1973 season; I was on the mound against Detroit. He came in to the game as a seventh inning replacement for Graig Nettles; facing Fred Holdsworth, he hit a two-out, two-run single to center, driving in Otto Velez and Hal Lanier. And Chief could never touch Wilbur Wood; nine At-Bats in 1972 and 1973, he hit .000 off him.
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.