Happy Birthday to Rocky Colavito, whom I believe never put any curse on the Cleveland Indians. Rocky was the first major leaguer I ever saw up close. It was in April of 1963. Dave Duncan and I were both prospects at the time and we were among a group of players invited to try out for the Kansas City Athletics. We went out to eat, and a group of Detroit Tigers who were in town came to the same place for dinner. Rocky was a Home Run hitting superstar in 1963 and was very recognizable, and I was in awe of him. I never stopped, largely because he earned it; Rocky had a .391 career batting average when I was the pitcher.
The first time I pitched to Rocky was on June 7, 1966 at Cleveland Stadium. Rocky hit a leadoff single to start the second inning. And I remember the fourth inning well, because I struck out the side, including Rocky and Leon Wagner. The Yankees won that game 7-2, the fourth win of my fledgling career, and I struck out nine batters.
Rocky became a Yankee at the end of his career. The Dodgers had released him around the 1968 All-Star break and the Yankees signed him a few days later. It was very cool when Rocky arrived in the clubhouse and put on the Pinstripes with #29 across his back. And he was a Bronx-born guy and felt very comfortable playing in New York. We were playing the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium and Rocky was in the lineup, playing Right Field and batting sixth. In his first At-Bat, he hit a deep fly ball that I thought might be a homer, but Del Unser caught it at the warning track. The next time he came to the plate was in the bottom of the fifth. The pitcher was Joe Coleman. It was still a scoreless game, but the Yankees had something going: Joe Pepitone hit a leadoff single, and moved to second on Andy Kosco’s hit. Rocky hit a Home Run, the 370th of his career and his first in Pinstripes. I was pitching the day Rocky hit the last Home Run of his great career, on September 24, 1968 against the Cleveland Indians.
The other story to tell when talking about Rocky as a Yankee was the time he pitched. He was 35-years-old and near the end of his career on August 25, 1968, the first game of a Sunday doubleheader against his old team, the Detroit Tigers. Future Yankee Pat Dobson was on the mound for the Tigers. s Ralph Houk was short on pitchers and was trying not to go to his closers until the end of the game. Detroit had taken a 5-0 lead when The Major pulled Steve Barber and turned to Rocky, who entered the game with one out and runners on first and second. Rocky got Al Kaline and Willie Horton out to end the inning. Rocky came back to pitch the fifth and sixth innings. He walked two in the fifth, but gave up no hits and no runs. In the sixth, he gave up a double to Al Kaline, who was left stranded; he even struck out Dick Tracewski.
But wait, there’s more. In the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees took the lead, 6-5, off Home Runs by Bill Robinson and Bobby Cox. Rocky walked and scored the go-ahead run on Jake Gibbs’ single. The Major brought in Dooley Womack and Lindy McDaniel to finish the game, and Rocky got the win. One hit, no runs, and a strikeout. And in the second game, Rocky played Right Field and hit a Home Run off Mickey Lolich; the Yankees won 5-4 and swept the doubleheader.
Larry Gowell was only with the Yankees for a brief time during the 1972 season, but that was enough for him to achieve a sort of immortality in the baseball history books. It was October 4, 1972 and we were at Yankee Stadium playing the Brewers. Larry was the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the third and smacked a double off Jim Lonborg that went past John Briggs in left. Larry was left stranded on second as the next three Yankees failed to drive him home. But the hit was historic because it was the last game of the season, and as it turned out, he was the last American League pitcher to get a hit before the Designated Hitter rule went into effect the following April. So Larry’s bat now has a place at Cooperstown.
Thanks to the leadership of CBS (sarcasm intended here), the Yankees got the #1 draft pick in 1967, the third year Amateur Draft. Larry was their first pick in the fourth round – Ron Blomberg was the #1 pick in the first round. The first time I saw Larry pitch was the first exhibition game of the 1970 season. He had a natural slider and his fast ball was as fast as any other Yankee in spring training. We were Pompano Beach playing the Washington Senators and Larry came in to pitch in the ninth inning. We were ahead, 6-5. I think he was a little nervous. His first batter was Del Unser and he hit him with the pitch. His second batter was a teenager named Jeff Burroughs, who hit a massive Home Run.
Larry spent the 1972 season with the West Haven Yankees, the Eastern League AA club that was being managed by the Bobby Cox, now a Hall of Fame manager. He was on fire and the Yankee pitchers were following him closely. In 26 games, he was 14-6 with a 2.54 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 181 innings.
Larry was a September call-up at a time when the Yankees were in a four-way race for First Place in the AL East. He made his major league debut in the bottom of the sixth inning on September 21, at County Stadium. With the Brewers ahead 4-0, Ralph Houk had removed Freddy Beene the previous inning for a pinch hitter, Rusty Torres. Larry retired the first three major league batters he faced: John Briggs, Ollie Brown and Mike Ferraro. Then in the seventh, he did the same thing against Rick Auerbach, Jerry Bell (the pitcher), and Ron Theobald. With two outs, The Major took him out in the eighth so Felipe Alou could hit. Felipe singled, the beginning of a Yankee rally. He moved to second on Horace Clarke’s hit, and scored on Roy White’s hit. The Bobby Murcer hit an RBI single, reducing Milwaukee’s lead to one run. Unfortunately, Bloomie flied out to end the inning, leaving Roy and Bobby on base. The Brewers wound up beating us, 6-4, and we wasted a rare ninth inning homer by Bernie Allen.
October 4 was the last game of the season and we had lost four in a row, dropping us to 4th place, 6 ½ games behind the Detroit Tigers. Since we were out of contention, The Major decided to give Larry the start. He pitched really, really well. He gave up his first major league hit in the second to Joe Lahoud, and Briggs hit a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Dave May, who had doubled. With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning, no outs and Jerry Kenney on first, The Major pulled Larry for a pinch hitter, Frank Tepedino. Larry had given up three hits, and had struck out six. It was an amazing demonstration of pitching for a rookie. We lost 1-0, as the Yankee bats were not coming through.
Larry was in contention for a major league roster spot in 1973. He was cut at the end of spring training, losing out to Casey Cox and Doc Medich. He didn’t make the team again in 1974; the new manager, Bill Virdon, seemed to judge him based on one bad tenth inning in an exhibition game against the Texas Rangers. A lot of the hype that spring was about Mike Pazik, a cocky southpaw from Holy Cross who wound up getting traded to the Twins for Dick Woodson. But Larry Gowell’s time as a MLB pitcher was indeed memorable and historic. I am glad to have known him.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.