Happy Birthday to former Yankee pitcher Andy Messersmith, who is 70 today. Bluto was a great pitcher, and his challenge to the reserve clause helped pave the way for ballplayers to determine their own destiny. I was gone by the time free agency came to be, but I sure remember Bluto as a dominating pitcher for the California Angels, and later for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was the Yankees starting pitcher on August 12, 1968, the first time Bluto pitched against the team he rooted for as a kid in Toms River, New Jersey. I gave up a run in the second, and we took the lead off Mickey Mantle’s two-run homer in the sixth. Rick Reichardt tied it up with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth. With the score still tied 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Houk brought in Lindy McDaniel to pitch after I surrendered two-out singles to Jim Fregosi and to Rick. In the ninth, Bill Robinson hit a leadoff double, and moved to third when Tommy Tresh bunted safely. With the score tied, no outs, and runners on first and third, Bill Rigney pulled starter George Brunet and brought Bluto in to pitch. Bluto have up an RBI single to Jake Gibbs, putting us ahead, 3-2. He got Bobby Cox to fly out to Don Mincher at first, and struck out Lindy. Then Roy White drove Tommy home with a single. That was it for Bluto. We won 5-2.
I pitched against him again during his first visit to Yankee Stadium two weeks later. It was a Monday night doubleheader and I started the first game against Dennis Bennett. We fell behind in the fourth when that Reichardt guy hit an RBI single for the first run of the game. I tied it up in the bottom of the inning when I hit a sacrifice fly to Rick in left, scoring Tommy. We took the lead in the sixth when Dick Howser hit a two-out double, scoring Bobby Cox. That’s when Andy came in to pitch. He got Bill Robinson out to end the inning. The Mick led off the seventh with a single, and moved to second on Heeba’s single. Andy Kosco bunted The Mick to third and Heeba to second. Bluto struck out Tommy, but then gave up a two-RBI double to Frank Fernandez. After walking Bobby intentionally, I got up to bad with two outs and runners on first and second. I belted a double past that Reichardt guy, scoring Frank and Bobby. We won 6-2.
In the second game, which I got to see most of — The Major didn’t believe in sending guys home early – starter Bill Harrelson loaded the bases and with two out, Andy came in to pitch again. Mickey Mantle came up to pinch hit for Charley Smith, and Bluto struck him out. We lost that game; Andy got the save.
Happy Birthday to me very good friend and teammate, Al Downing. I first met Sam – I always called him Sam, a story explained in my book – down in Fort Lauderdale in 1966 when I was incited to Spring Training as a rookie. He was less than a year older than me, but he had been in the major league since 1961, and he was always helpful to me. He even taught me his incredible change-up pitch – at least he tried; whether I ever really learned it is up to others to decide. I will always be grateful for the way he immediately reached out to me, even though at that point we were both trying to secure a starting pitcher slot. He is a good man.
As it turned out, Johnny Keane started the season with five starting pitchers: Whitey Ford, Mel Stottlemyre, Bob Friend, Sam and me. I remember Sam pitching a fantastic game against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium on May 20, 1966. That was the year the Twins won the American League Pennant, and lost the World Series to the Dodgers in 7 games. He struck out 11 batters in 8 2/3 innings, three of them to one of the most fearsome hitters in baseball, Harmon Killebrew. He struck out Zoilo Versalles, who won the MVP that year, and had two strikeouts against the always threatening Cesar Tovar. I remember Sam getting into a bid of trouble in the third inning, when pitcher Camilo Pascual got a one-out single and moved to third on Versalles’ single. Then Versalles stole second. Sam struck out Tovar and walked Tony Oliva to load the bases. Killebrew struck out looking, leaving three Twins on base. The Yankees scored two runs in the fifth after a double by Clete Boyer, a single by Elston Howard, and a triple by Roy White. Sam made us all a little nervous in the eighth when Tovar led off with a double and Killer drove him in with a single to center. Then he got Don Mincher and Andy Kosco out, and we had a 2-1 lead. With two outs in the ninth, Sam walked Bob Allison and Ralph Houk brought in Pedro Ramos to finish the game. He struck out Versalles to give Sam the win.
I missed Sam a lot when the Yankees traded him after the 1969 season to Oakland for Danny Cater. I never pitched against him in 1970 when the Yankees were playing the A’s or the Brewers (where he was traded in June). I consider that a stroke of good luck, since 1970 was the only year I won 20 games and going up against Sam would have lessened the odds of me doing that.
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.
Happy Birthday to Don Mincher, who was a strong hitter and would be more widely known had he played for contending teams during a long and highly regarded baseball career. One bit of trivia to start: Don was the starting first baseman in the first game of the Seattle Pilots in 1969, along onetime Yankees Steve Whitaker and Mike Hegan. (I never got any starts against the Pilots that historic season.) I faced Don several times during my career and generally did fine against him; I looked up his average and he hit about 50 points less against me than he did against others. The game I remember was against the California Angels on April 28, 1967, before a scant crowd at Yankee Stadium. In the second, my friend Rick Reichardt hit a single to a shortstop named John Kennedy. Jose Cardenal walked, moving Rick to second. Then Don comes up and hits a three-run homer. I don’t think I even turned around; I knew it was gone when I heard the sound of the ball hitting the bat. I gave up 173 Home Runs during my career, and pitchers don’t forget any of them. I gave up another run that inning, putting the Angels ahead 4-1. I made it through the next three innings fine, and in the fifth Horace Clarke pinch hit for me. The Yankees won the game 5-4, with Steve Whitaker carrying the team with an RBI single and a Home Run. Tom Tresh homered, and the Yankees went ahead in the eighth when Charley Smith scored on Elston Howard’s sacrifice fly. Dooley Womack got the win, and I got to enjoy serving up one of Don Mincher’s 200th career Home Runs.