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.
Happy Birthday to Frank Kostro, who played for the Tigers, Angels and Twins from 1962 to 1969. I pitched to Frank just once. It was September 23, 1967 at Metropolitan Stadium. The Yankees were up 4-0 in the bottom of the fifth. Rod Carew hit a leadoff single (shocking, I know!) and advanced to second on Ted Uhlaender’s sacrifice bunt. Cal Ermer decided to pinch hit for the catcher, Jerry Zimmerman, and Frank came up to bat. I struck him out. Then Carroll Hardy pinch hit for the pitcher, Jim Perry, and hit a two-run homer. We won that game 6-2, boosted by homers from Tom Shopay and Joe Pepitone, and a great save by Dooley Womack.
Happy Birthday to Dick Simpson, an outfielder who was my teammate on the New York Yankees ever so briefly in 1969. Dick was involved in a bunch of trades involving some familiar names: he came up with the Angels organization and was traded to the Orioles for Norm Siebern; the Orioles traded him to the Reds as part of the Frank Robinson trade; the Reds sent him to the Cardinals for Alex Johnson; and the Cardinals dealt him and Hal Gilson to the Astros for Ron Davis. After the 1968 season, the Astros traded him to the Yankees for my friend Dooley Womack. Dick lasted a little more than a month in New York before he was traded to the Seattle Pilots for Jose Vidal. Later that year, he and my friend Steve Whitaker were traded to the Giants for Bobby Bolin. Dick was a key player in my second win of the 1969 season. It was April 24, 1969 and we were in Cleveland playing the Indians. He entered the game in the bottom of the fifth, replacing Jerry Kenney in the center. In the sixth, Tommy Tresh hit a leadoff infield single and moved to second when Juan Pizarro walked Jake Gibbs. I was the next batter and bunted to Max Alvis at third, who got me out but allowed Tommy and Jake to advance. Alvin Dark, The Tribe’s manager, called an intentional walk of Horace Clarke to load the bases and pitch to Dick. Dick hit a three-run double to left. Then he scored on Bobby Murcer’s Home Run. We won 11-3. I pitched a complete game with seven strikeouts.
Another bit of Dick Simpson trivia: he wore #9 for the Yankees, one of three to wear that number in between Roger Maris and Graig Nettles. The others were Steve Whitaker and Ron Woods.
Happy Birthday to my teammate, Hector Lopez, whose magnificent career as a major league baseball player crossed with mine for just one year. His final season came in 1966, my rookie year. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to play with this Yankee great. Headley started out, as many Yankees did, with the Kansas City Athletics. He came to New York in a 1959 trade and retired there seven years later. I met Headley for the first time during Spring Training 1966 in Fort Lauderdale.
The first game Hector and I played in together was on May 22, 1966, the second game of a Sunday doubleheader at Yankee Stadium against the Minnesota Twins. I wasn’t pitching badly – I had only given up two hits before Tony Oliva tripled to lead off the fourth and Bob Allison hit a sacrifice fly to Mickey Mantle in center field, and we were losing 1-0. Elston Howard doubled to left to lead off the eighth and Hector Lopez pinch hit for me. Ralph Houk put Horace Clarke in to run for Ellie, and Hoss was able to get to second after Hector hit a deep shot to center. Hoss scored on Roy White’s single, tying the game. White advanced to second on Bobby Richardson’s hit, and scored on Joe Pepitone’s double to left. The Yankees won 2-1, my third career victory – in part thanks to Headley.
On August 4, 1966, we were playing the Angeles at Anaheim Stadium. I was pitching and Headley was playing Right Field. I remember the game because it was my worst performance of the season. I have up two runs and two hits in the bottom of the first. In the second, gave up a leadoff single to Buck Rodgers, who moved to second on Bobby Knoop’s single. They both advanced a base on Ed Kirkpatrick’s groundout. Then the pitcher, Marcelino Lopez, hit an infield single, with Rodgers scoring and Knoop moving to third. Jose Cardenal came to the plate with runners on first and third and one out and hit a triple to Headley in right field. Headley misplayed the ball, removing the option of getting Jose at third. Instead, two more runs scored. Jay hit an RBI single and I was gone after 1 1/3 innings, having given up six runs. So after Dooley Womack finishes the inning, Headley comes up to me in the dugout and apologizes for the play. Imagine that, this classic Yankee apologizing to a rookie who just pitched horribly. “Sorry, Peta,” he said. “I owe you one.” What a great guy!
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.
I wrote in my book that Andy Kosco looked exactly like Clark Kent in pinstripes. For ten years, he was an outfielder for the Twins, Brewers, Angels, Reds, Dodgers and Red Sox, and hopefully I won’t don’t sound arrogant when I say this, but I didn’t mind pitching to him. He had a .179 career batting average against me. There were a couple of times when I felt differently, like a leadoff double in Milwaukee that wound up costing me a run, or a sacrifice fly at Anaheim Stadium that drove in a run. And in 29 plate appearances, I was only able to strike him our once. The Twins sold Andy to Oakland after the 1967 season, and the following month he came to the Yankees under the Rule 5 Draft. His one season with the Yankees would have a historic meaning, at least to me. I remember he appeared in the first game I pitched of the 1968 season, against the A’s and Catfish Hunter at Yankee Stadium. Reggie Jackson homered off me, but I still had a 3-1 lead in the top of the eighth when I gave up a leadoff single to Bert Campanaris, who moved to second on Reggie’s single. Ralph Houk took me out, and Dooley Womack came in relief. Campy wound up scoring when Sal Bando grounded out, and we lost the game in the ninth when Dooley gave up a two-run homer to a pinch hitter named Floyd Robinson. We lost 4-3. Andy achieved a small footnote in baseball history on September 28, 1968 when he replaced Mickey Mantle at first base after The Mick had his last major league at-bat. And Andy Kosco played a major role in my life on December 4, 1968 when the Yankees traded him to the Dodgers for a pitcher named Mike Kekich.
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.