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 my fellow American League southpaw, Tom Burgmeier. Tom pitched for the Royals, Angels, Twins, Red Sox and A’s during a seventeen-year career that spanned 1968 to 1984. I remember his major league debut. It was April 10, 1968 and the Angels were playing at Yankee Stadium. Mel Stottlemyre was pitching against George Brunet. The Yankees were ahead 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth when Tom came in to pitch. He had a 1-2-3 inning on successive groundouts by Joe Pepitone, Frank Fernandez and Gene Michael. This was a genuine pitcher’s duel: George and Tom combined to throw a three-hitter, with the only run coming from a homer by Frank. Mel gave up just four hits and no runs. Kansas City grabbed Tom in the 1969 expansion draft.
Happy Birthday to Bill Melton, who was a power-hitting third baseman for the Chicago White Sox while I was pitching for the New York Yankees. Some called him Beltin’ Bill because he hit 160 Home Runs in a short ten-year career that prematurely ended due to injury. He hit 33 Home Runs with 95 RBI’s in 1970, his second full major league season, and 33 Home Runs (best in the American League). Between 1968 and 1976, we played in 22 games together. He went 18-for-30, a career average of .300 – and after Paul Blair, no one hit more Home Runs off me that Bill Melton.
One game that comes to mind against Bill and the White Sox was on August 26, 1969, a weeknight game at Yankee Stadium. I was facing a very tough pitcher in Tommy John. We got off to a good start when Tommy gave up a second inning two-run Home Run to our catcher, Frank Fernandez. Tommy and I were pitching nicely; each of us got into jams a few times, but we both pitched our way out of them. By the time Chisox manager Al Lopez pulled him for a pinch runner in the top of the ninth, Tommy had not let more Yankees score. I was also pitching a shutout as I entered the ninth. Ron Hansen (my future teammate), hitting for Tommy, led off with a single to left. Gene Michael’s fielding error let Walt Williams (also my future teammate) reach first and Tommy McCraw (running for Ron) move to second. Luis Aparicio bunted to Bobby Cox at third, moving Tommy to third and No Neck to second. I got a second out when Don Pavletich popped up to Ron Woods in center. Then Beltin’ Bill comes up and hits a double past Roy White in left, scoring Tommy and No Neck and tying the game up 2-2. Ralph Houk had enough of me and brought in Lindy McDaniel to get the third out.
Wilbur Wood came in to pitch in the bottom of the ninth and retired the Yankees 1-2-3. Lindy pitched the top of the tenth in what was clearly a metaphor for the Horace Clarke Era. Stick made another error at shortstop, putting Ken Berry on first. Then Bobby Cox committed a throwing error, putting Ken on third and Bobby Knopp on first. Frank Fernandez let a ball get by him and Bobby advanced to second. Then Pete Ward (yet another future teammate) hit a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Berry and giving the White Sox a 3-2 lead.
The Yankees rallied in the bottom of the tenth, but they couldn’t get the job done. Gary Bell, now pitching for the White Sox, gave up a leadoff walk to Roy White. Then he walked Fernandez, advancing Heeba to second; Lopez switched pitchers (now Danny Lazar); The Major put Jerry Kenney in to run for Julio Big Head. Bobby Murcer bunted – well, as usual – to the Birthday Boy at third, with Heeba and Lobo each advancing a base. Lazar intentionally walks Ron Woods. Now Danny Murphy comes in to pitch. Batting for Cox, Jimmie Hall hit popped up to Aparicio at short. With two outs, bases loaded, and down 3-2, The Major puts Jake Gibbs in to hit for Len Boehmer. Giblets struck out looking, ending the game with a painful loss for the entire team.
One last story – quickly, I promise: the last time I ever faced Bill Melton was on May 9, 1976 at Anaheim Stadium. We were both at the ends of our careers – Bill with the Angels, me with the Indians (not long before my trade to the Rangers). Birthday Boy came up in the bottom of the seventh with two outs and Cleveland ahead 2-0 and hits a single to center.
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.
The first time I met Bobby Murcer was at Winter Ball ’64 — the Florida East Coast Instructional League. He had played the previous summer for the Yankees in the Appalachian League – the Harlan (Kentucky) farm team I played for the previous season had moved to Johnson City, Tennessee. He was about 18, right out of high school, and it was clear from the very beginning that he possessed extraordinary talent as a player and as a person. I remember him talking about a girl named Kay a lot and it was great to finally meet her and continue to be her friend for the last 50 years. I went 7-2, with a 1.68 ERA in Florida, and had a great time playing with Bobby and other future Yankee teammates: Jake Gibbs, Mike Ferraro, Steve Whitaker, Gil Blanco, Cecil Perkins, Archie Moore, Ross Moschitto, John Miller, and Frank Fernandez (with whom I share that immortal TOPPS rookie card).
Thurman Munson got called up to the Yankees in August 1969, and his first game was on August 8, a Friday night, the second game of a twilight doubleheader against the Oakland A’s. Thurman was the catcher, giving Frank Fernandez a rest after the first game. Thurman batted eighth, and in his first major league at-bat came in the second inning; Catfish Hunter walked him. He grounded out Bert Campanaris in the fifth. By the seventh inning, the game remained scoreless in a pitching duel between Catfish and Al Downing. Gene Michael led off with an infield single, and Thurman hit a clean single to Tommy Reynolds in left – his first major league hit! Stick made it to third and Thurman advanced to second on Reynolds’ throw to Sal Bando. Stick and Thurman scored on a Horace Clarke single, and Hoss made it to third on Jerry Kenney’s hit. That’s when Hank Bauer, the A’s manager, pulled Catfish. Thurman’s second career hit came off Marcel Lachemann in the eighth. Bobby Murcer led off with a single. Jimmie Hall walked, and Stick made it to first on Lachemann’s error. So Thurman comes to the plate for his fourth big league plate appearance with the bases loaded and no outs. He hit a single to Reggie Jackson in right, and advances to second on Reggie’s throwing error. Thurman went 2-for-3 in his major league debut, with two RBI’s. And this Yankee fans will appreciate: on Thurman’s first RBI, Bobby Murcer scored!