Milkman Jim Turner was my first major league pitching coach. I met him in Fort Lauderdale when I arrived at spring training in February, 1966. He had pitched for the Boston Braves and the Cinncinnati Reds, where he got his first World Series ring in 1940. He was traded to the Yankees in 1942 and got his second ring in 1943. His story always interested me: a 20-game winner in his rookie season in Boston in 1937, going nine innings (sometimes more) twenty times that year. He played for the Braves while Casey Stengel managed them. While Milkman Jim enjoyed a nice career, he was never as good as he was that first season. Milkman Jim spent 52 years in baseball, eleven of them as Casey Stengel’s pitching coach. He helped Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Don Larsen, Johnny Sain, Ralph Terry, Whitey Ford, and so many others develop their pitching skills. Admittedly, I was not his biggest fan. I always had the impression Milkman Jim only liked the big stars and didn’t seem all that interested in a bunch of us. He tried hard to get me to throw a curveball the way Whitey did – that’s not easy to teach. But I was also a kid and maybe I should have tried a little harder to listen to Milkman Jim. Later, I learned that it was Milkman Jim who taught Raschi how to throw a curve. I guess that’s a common problem in life – you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re forty. Jim Turner passed away in 1998, at the age of 95. He was a Yankee hero, and I want to remember him fondly on the 112th anniversary of his birth.
I never heard the full story about the shakeup of the Yankee coaching staff after the 1959 season, when New York finished third in the American League East. Over the years, I heard that Ralph Houk was a rising star and the Yankees, already grooming him to succeed Casey Stengel, were concerned that The Major would take the open manager’s job with the Kansas City Athletics; he reportedly turned the job down after the Yankees agreed to give him the First Base Coach spot, knocking out Charlie Keller. And I had been told that Eddie Lopat was emerging as a successful minor league manager and they didn’t want to lose him – so I assumed that’s why they dropped Jim Turner and gave Steady Eddie the job.
What I do know is that Turner wound up getting the pitching coach job in Cincinnati in 1961 and helped them get to the World Series against the Yankees. He came back to the Yankees in 1965, my rookie season.
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.
I pitched in 355 major league baseball games over an 11-year career – 2,218 1/3 innings, I gave up 2,217 hits, 947 runs, 173 Home Runs, and I struck out 1,015 batters. I’m blessed by a multitude of memories. But when people ask me what game I remember most, there is nothing to think about. It was July 4, 1966, the second game of an Independence Day doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. I was a 24-year-old rookie and a starting pitcher for the greatest sports team in the history of the planet. And as I took the mound for the start of the 8th inning, I was throwing a perfect game. I had retired the first 21 batters. I struck out Tommie Agee twice. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, put I had great stuff. In the first seven innings, home plate umpire Jim Odom had only called 13 balls.
We were playing the White Sox, the team I rooted for as a kid growing up in Chicago. My guys were making some great plays in the field. This was the day Ralph Houk ended his experiment of playing Tommy Tresh at third and Clete Boyer at sort. Thank god; Tommy and Clete were amazing. And the Yankee offense came through. I led off the third inning with a single to left off Juan Pizarro, and scored on Bobby Richardson’s double. Lou Clinton drove in Bobby and Dick Schofield to put us up 3-0. We scored two more runs in the fifth when Jake Gibbs drove in Lou and Clete Boyer.
There were some hairy moments, like in the fourth inning when Don Buford almost beat out a bunt. (Thank you, Clete Boyer!) and in the sixth when a relatively new Yankee, Dick Schofield, made an incredible back-handed stop at short that prevented Ken Berry from getting what should have been a bit.
So, to paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. In the dugout, no one said anything, except for pitching coach Jim Turner (a Yankee legend, but not my favorite coach), who just told me to “relax.” Gene Freese led off the 8th with a shot to left field – deep left field – that was caught magnificently by Tommy. I had now retired 22 batters – five outs away from pitching the first perfect game since Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series. But no immortality for me; this is where the universe turned. Jerry Adair came to the plate – the same Jerry Adair who would have a .167 batting average against me. Jerry hits – maybe it’ better if I say taps – the ball about twenty feet up the third base side of the mound. I got it, and threw it high to Ray Baker at first base. E-1, a throwing error – my throwing error – and for the first time a White Sox player had reached first base. So no perfect game, but still a no-hitter. Everything’s gonna be fine.
The next batter was John Romano, the White Sox catcher. Before you ask, John would wind up with a .250 average against me – for those who don’t particularly enjoy math, that means he gets a hit one out of every four times. And this, my friends, would be one of them. John hit a single right up the middle. Nothing we could do about it. The no-hitter was off the table; now the Chisox have runners on first and second, and we still needed to win this game. Berry gets up and hits a double to left, and Adair scored. Al Weis, who pinch-ran for Romano, moved to third. Then Lee Elia hits a sacrifice fly to center; Weis scored (Yankees 5, White Sox 2). Next up was Bill Skowron, a true Yankee legend, who was pinch hitting. Moose hit a grounder to first baseman Ray Barker, who flipped it to me to get the third out in the most memorable inning of my life. I led off the ninth with a groundout — kudos to The Major, who didn’t pinch hit for me on this incredible day. The Yankees won – yeah, I know, that’s what matters – and I have one heck of a story to tell. Thank you for listening to it, and Happy Fourth of July.
A little bit of Yankee trivia regarding the often overlooked job of bullpen coach. When I made the team in 1966, the beloved Jim Hegan was in his sixth season in the post. Shanty got pushed out in 1974, mostly because he was a Ralph Houk man and Bill Virdon wanted his buddy Mel Wright. Mel originally signed with the Yankees in 1950, but never wore pinstripes. Mel and Bill became close when they played for the same Yankee farm teams in the early 1950’s. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954, along with Virdon and another minor leaguer, Emil Tellinger, for future Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter. He was on Virdon’s staff with the Pirates, Astros and Expos too. And he died way too young at age 54. Sometimes coaches are the flotsam and jetsam of baseball, with their careers dependent upon who the manager is.
Over the coming days, I’ll write a little bit about the other Yankee coaches who were around during my time with the team: Loren Babe, Frank Crosetti, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Dick Howser, Mickey Mantle, Wally Moses and Jim Turner.