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.
Ron Klimkowski was one of my favorite Yankees. He was warm and friendly all the time. We called him Bela, because we thought he looked like the Count Dracula actor, Bela Lugosi. In my book, I wrote a lot about him on a personal level. But he had some talent as a pitcher also, and was proud of his Yankee alumni status until he died of heart failure at the young age of 65 in 2009. Bela was part of two important trades involving Yankee veterans: originally signed by the Red Sox, he was the Player-To-Be-Named-Later in the trade that sent Elston Howard to Boston for the 1967 pennant race and World Series. Four years later, the Yankees sent him to Oakland, along with Rob Gardner, for Felipe Alou. Bela was from New York and New Jersey and he loved being a Yankee, so he signed with the Yankees after the A’s released him thirteen months later.
I remember Bela’s major league debut. It was September 15, 1969. He was a September call-up from Syracuse. The Yankees were home against the Detroit Tigers, and Stan Bahnsen was pitching against Denny McClain, who was again dominating the American League. It was still a little weird seeing Tommy Tresh in a Tiger uniform, even though his trade for Ron Woods had happened a couple of months before. Ralph Houk pinch hit for Stan in the bottom of the sixth, and Bela arrived on the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound for the first time in the top of the seventh. We were down 2-0. The first MLB batter he faced was Cesar Gutierrez, who had come in to replace Tommy at Shortstop in the first inning. Cesar grounded out to Jerry Kenney at shortstop, providing Bela with his first major league out. He quickly got five more: Jim Northrup and Al Kaline, then Norm Cash, Willie Horton and Tommy Matchick in the eighth. He gave up a hit, his first, to Bill Freehan in the ninth, but then retired Dick Wert, Denny and Cesar, consecutively. So Bela was off to a great start: three scoreless innings, facing ten batters, and giving up one hit. The problem for Bela, not his fault, was that Denny gave up just two hits the entire game, and scored his 23rd win of the season.
On September 24, The Major decided to start Bela, who pitched magnificently against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Maybe Bela just wanted to show Tom Yawkey what he gave up. He pitched nine full innings, giving up no runs and just three hits. The problem for Bela, again not his fault, is that the Yankees couldn’t get anything going offensively. In the top of the tenth, with runners on first and second and one out, The Major sent Frank Tepedino up to hit for Bela. No doubt the right move. Unfortunately, Teppie flied out. Then Horace Clarke popped up to second to end the inning. Jack Aker and Lindy McDaniel threw scoreless tenth and eleventh innings, respectively. And no runs were scored off of Stan Bahnsen in the twelfth and thirteenth. Of course the Yankees couldn’t score off the Bosox reliever, Sonny Siebert, who gave up just one hit in 4 2/3 innings.
George Scott hit a leadoff infield single off Stan in the bottom of the fourteenth; Scott got to second of a well-executed bunt by Tom Satriano. Stan walked Dalton Jones, who came in to pinch hit for Sonny.. Then Mike Andrews doubled to left, scoring George. As you can imagine, it’s extraordinarily painful to lose a 1-0 game to Boston in the fourteenth inning. What was worse was that this was the best game of Ron Klimkowski’s baseball career.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.
Among the guys I really enjoyed playing with was Dave LaRoche, who was traded to the Cleveland Indians during the 1975 Off-Season for another good pitcher, Milt Wilcox. The first time I saw him pitch was in his Yankee Stadium debut on July 19, 1970 when he was a rookie for the California Angels. He entered the game in relief in the eighth, taking over for Rudy May with a 5-2 lead. The first batter he faced was Horace Clarke, who grounded out. Then he struck out Bobby Murcer. In the ninth, he got Thurman Munson out. To me, getting Lemon and Tugboat out in your Yankee Stadium debut is a big deal. And that was Dave’s first major league save.
His Tribe debut was on April 12, 1975 in Milwaukee. It was the same day Dennis Eckersley made his major league debut. I was the starting pitcher that day, and I had nothing. Sometimes pitchers have days like that. I gave up a one-out walk to John Briggs, who reached third on Hank Aaron’s double. I intentionally walked the sometimes scary George Scott, and then Don Money hit an RBI single, scoring John. It could have been worse; I got the relay from Charlie Spikes in right and threw it to Johnny Ellis, the catcher, who tagged Hank out at home. Then it did get worse. Sixto Lezcano doubled, scoring George and moving Don to third. Charlie Moore, whom I wrote about on his birthday last month as being nearly impossible for me to get out, hit a two-run double. The Brewers led, 4-0. Frank Robinson pulled me in the bottom of the second after giving up a leadoff Home Run to Robin Yount and walking Bob Coluccio. Dave came in to pitch in the seventh – one of four pitchers the Tribe used that day – and he gave up no runs. But we lost, 6-5.
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
Happy Birthday to Charlie Moore, who played for the Milwaukee Brewers during my last four years in the major leagues. He was statistically the single toughest hitter I faced in eleven seasons as a pitcher. And the funny thing is the first time I saw him, as a 20-year-old late season call-up, I thought he would be easy. I was wrong.
It was September 25, 1973. We were away, I was at the end of a not so great 8-15 season, and the Yankees were three games under .500 and 17.5 game out of first — again, the whole “Horace Clarke Era” thing! Charlie made the third out in a 1-2-3 second inning with a fly ball to Otto Velez in right. In the fourth, I gave up successive singles to Dave May and George Scott. Then Don Money hit a shot to center; May scored and Scott went to third. Thurman Munson made a rare error and Money advanced to second. After Bobby Mitchell flied out to right – Scott wasn’t scoring on Velez’s arm – Ralph Houk gave me the signal to intentionally walk Charlie. Wilbur Howard hit a grounder to Fred Stanley at short, forcing Charlie out at second, but we didn’t get the DP; Scott scored, putting us behind 2-0 Brewers. I saw Charlie for the third time in the seventh when he tried to bunt on Thurman – bad idea. We scored one in the eighth and one in the ninth to tie it, and Lindy McDaniel came in to relieve me in the bottom of the ninth. The Brewers won it in the 13th on Pedro Garcia’s RBI single.
Charlie Moore was going to be no problem, right?
The next time I saw Charlie Moore was on July 1, 1974. By this time, I had been traded to the Cleveland Indians and was starting the second game of a double header (remember those?) at Cleveland Stadium. He went 3-for-3 against me, two singles and a double. We beat the Brewers 9-3, but I couldn’t get Charlie out. I faced Charlie three times in 1975 and once more in 1976 (before the Rangers trade); he went 6-for-8, with a walk. I never struck him out, and the best I could do was get him to fly out to Rick Manning in center. Charlie went 9-for-13, with a career .692 average while batting against me. I looked it up and of the 525 different players who hit against me (more than twice), Charlie Moore has the highest career batting average of them all. How’s that for a little birthday trivia!