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 Jim Miles, a pitcher for the Washington Senators for three games in 1968 and ten in 1969. I pitched against Jim once, on April 15, 1969 at Yankee Stadium. Jim came in to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning and gave up a leadoff single to Joe Pepitone. Then he struck out Gene Michael. Bill Robinson reached first on Third Baseman Ken McMullen’s error. With runners on first and second, Jake Gibbs hit a grounder to Second Baseman Tim Cullen, forcing Bill at second. Now there were runners at first and second, two out, and I was the batter. I grounded out. The Yankee offense came through that day – Bobby Murcer and Joe Pepitone homered – and we won 8-2. It was my first win of the 1969 season.
On what would have been his 72nd birthday, I am remembering my Yankee teammate and friend, Jim Hardin. I used to call him Twiggy. He started with the Orioles in 1968, and the first time I faced him was on September 27, 1969 at Yankee Stadium. The Orioles were in first place and Twiggy was doing well. This turned out to be a pitcher’s duel. Aside from Joe Pepitone’s Home Run to lead off the bottom of the second, neither team was getting many base runners. Twiggy gave up four hits in seven innings; I gave up six in nine, and the Yankees won 1-0. That’s how I ended the 1969 season with a 17-16 record. Twiggy ended with an 18-13 record – his first full season in the majors. That turned out to be his best season. Twiggy blamed the decision to lower the pitching mound for his arm problems.
The Orioles traded Twiggy to the Yankees for Bill Burbach on May 28, 1971. I remember Twiggy being very excited to play in New York – and you have to remember, the Orioles were great in those days and we were not. He never said it, but I’m sure he was unhappy spending two consecutive World Series’ in the bullpen without ever getting to pitch. I know it frustrates me that I never played in a post-season game; Twiggy came so close, twice. One more thing: Twiggy got robbed on his trade to the Yankees, literally. After being informed of the trade, he drove his own car up from Baltimore in a rainstorm that night. He stopped to eat and came out to find that someone had broken into his car and stolen everything he had.
Twiggy pitched his first game wearing Pinstripes on May 31, 1971, the second game of a Monday afternoon doubleheader against the Oakland A’s. He came in to pitch the top of the seventh after Gary Waslewski was pulled for a pinch hitter. With the A’s ahead 5-3, Twiggy got Larry Brown and Rollie Fingers out, gave up a double to Bert Campaneris, and the struck out Joe Rudi. After Frank Baker got a two-out single, Ralph Houk pinch hit for Twiggy. Not a bad first game.
Sadly, Twiggy’s arm troubles persisted and he missed most of August. The Yankees released him at the start of the 1972 season. He hooked up with the Braves for a while, but his career was over. Twiggy built a new career in sales, and became a scratch golfer and master fisherman. He got his pilot’s license. In 1991, Twiggy and a couple of his friends flew his plane down to Key West, went fishing, and were on their way back to Miami for a golf tournament. Just a couple of minutes after taking off, his engine stalled. He crashed in a shopping center parking lot – and expertly avoided a little league field filled with kids not far away. All three passengers died in that crash. Jim Hardin, who was just 47, become the second of three Yankees to die in a plane crash. He was a good man and I miss him.
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 75th Birthday to Roger Repoz, my teammate on the Yankees during my rookie season of 1966. Roger had his major league debut with the Yankees in 1964 as a September call-up, and played half a season with them in 1965. I remember one particular day that he was on fire: we were playing a double header against the Athletics in Kansas City and with Mickey Mantle out, Roger played Center Field for both games. He went 2-for-4 in each game, with a total of three RBI’s. A few days later, we were in Detroit and I was pitching. In the top of the first, Denny McClain started off the game by striking out Roy White; then he walked the next three batters – Bobby Richardson, Tommy Tresh and Joe Pepitone — three walks in a row, certainly a rare occurrence for this mighty pitcher. Then Roger Maris drove in Bobby, and with the bases still loaded, Roger drove in Tommy. That gave me a two-run lead before I ever took the mound. But like I said, Denny was a mighty pitcher. He didn’t give up any more hits for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, I did, and we lost 7-2. I got to see the harsh realities of a baseball life for the first time on June 10, 1966 when the Yankees traded Roger, along with Gil Blanco and Bill Stafford, to Kansas City for Billy Bryan and Fred Talbot. It was the first trade since I joined the club. It was nice to get to know Roger, even for a brief time, and it was always nice when I saw him over the next six years when our teams played each other – and not just because he was 0-for-8 against me!
Happy Birthday to Vida Blue, a six-time All-Star who pitched in the major leagues for seventeen years and won the American League Cy Young and MVP in 1971. He was an amazing southpaw and I always enjoyed watching him pitch – except when he was up against me. I remember the first time I saw him. It was July 29, 1969 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. This was his second major league game and he was starting against Stan Bahnsen. He pitched perfect baseball for the first three innings. He gave up a double to Bill Robinson in the fourth and a single to Bobby Murcer in the fifth, but otherwise the Yankees were having trouble hitting this guy. He gave up two hits and two runs in the sixth, and no hits in the seventh. In the eighth, Vida walked Robinson and then have up a Home Run to Joe Pepitone. That put the Yankees ahead, 4-3. The A’s came back in the eighth, with a single by Rick Monday, a triple by Ramon Webster and a single by Bob Johnson to take a 6-4 lead.
I remember another game during the summer of 1971, a real pitcher’s duel between Vida and Mel Stottlemyre. Both of them pitched complete games. Vida had ten strikeouts, Mel pitched a three-hitter. The Yankees scored one run in the first, off a single by Thurman Munson and a double by Roy White; Tugboat scored on a ground out by Felipe Alou, and the Yankees won it 1-0.
Happy Birthday to Don Lock, an outfielder who came up through the Yankee farm system and played MLB for the Senators, Phillies and Red Sox in the 1960’s. The Yankees traded him to the Senators in 1962 for Dale Long and he made his MLB for Washington that season. I faced Don twice in my career, both times in my rookie season. On July 8, 1966, we were playing the second game of a Sunday doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. I remember the game largely because of how badly it started. It was also the day I learned what a great baseball mind Gil Hodges, the Senators’ manager, had. Fred Valentine led off the first inning with a bunt to me and made it safely to first. Then Ken Hamlin bunted again to me; I got him out at first but now had a runner on second. I’m already in a jam. Ken Harrelson hit an RBI double, followed by Frank Howard’s RBI triple. Don was the next batter; I got him and Ken McMullen out.
The second inning went poorly too. Ed Brinkman singled and moved to second when I walked Jim Hannan, the pitcher; he scored on Hamlin’s double. Hannan scored when I threw a wild pitch. Now we are down 4-0. Lock came up again the third inning and singled to Joe Pepitone in right. With two outs, Don took a big lead off first and I picked him off – threw it to Ray Barker at first, who threw it to Bobby Richardson at second, and then back to Ray, who easily tagged Don to end the inning. The Yankees came back, incrementally, starting with Mickey Mantle’s Home Run in the bottom of the third. We won the game 8-5. I pitched a complete game for the eighth win of my fledgling baseball career.
Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, who passed away in 2002, may be one of the best knuckleballers in baseball history. Today would have been his 93rd birthday. His career spanned from 1952 until 1972; he was just a few weeks short of his 50th birthday when he pitched in his last MLB game. I had certainly followed his career – he won 12 games with the 1954 Giants, and he had spent six years with the White Sox, my hometown team. I hit against him only once: it was July 11, 1968 at County Stadium in Chicago. He entered the game in relief of Gary Peters in the top of the fifth, with the Yankees leading the White Sox 3-1. He struck me out, but I still got the win. The first time we pitched in the same game was on June 26, 1966 – my rookie season. The Yankees had a 2-0 lead and Hoyt came in relief of Joe Horlen to pitch the bottom of the eighth. He retired Bobby Richardson, Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone rather quickly. I like to think I pitched well: a complete game, five strikeouts, and the first shutout of my career. So of course, I will always remember that game.
Happy Birthday to Pete Ward, my teammate on the Yankees in 1970. Pete came up through the Orioles organization and made his MLB debut with them in 1962. In early 1963, the Orioles traded him – along with future Yankee Ron Hansen, Hoyt Wilhelm and Dave Nicholson to the White Sox for Luis Aparicio and Al Smith. I remember the trade well because this was the winter before I signed with the Yankees and was still a college student rooting for the White Sox. I couldn’t believe they had traded Aparicio. Six years and 96 Home Runs later, Chicago traded Wagon to the Yankees for Mickey Scott. He was going to be the new First Baseman, after the Yankees traded Joe Pepitone to Houston for Curt Blefary, but the Yankees wound up going with Danny Cater. The Yankees purchased Ron Hansen’s contract from the White Sox a few weeks later, thinking he could be the answer for their Third Base problem. I wrote a lot about Wagon in my book, including the time he hit a Home Run off Nolan Ryan during the Mayor’s Trophy Game against the Mets the season after they won the World Series. I never had much trouble with Wagon: he had a career .190 average against me. One game he did very well in was on July 16, 1970, the second game of a Twi-Night Doubleheader at Yankee Stadium against the Oakland A’s. The Yankees won 4-1 and Wagon drove in three of the runs off of starter Diego Segui. The first was a single that scored Roy White and the second was a double that scored Roy and Curt.
One Hall of Famer that eluded the New York Yankees was Frank Robinson, despite repeated attempts to get him in pinstripes. As early as 1965, the Cincinnati Reds were shopping this superstar at winter meetings. My understanding was that the Reds owner thought Robby was an “old 30” and that his body would not withstand much more of a baseball career. He was anxious to trade him while the value remained high. There was talk that the Reds had offered him to the Astros for Jimmy Wynn and a relief pitcher named Claude Raymond, but that Houston turned them down. The Yankee deal I heard about – I had just finished by third year in the minor leagues at the time – was that the Yankees would send and Joe Pepitone to the Reds for Robby and pitcher Jim O’Toole. A couple of weeks later, the Yankees traded catcher Doc Edwards to the Cleveland Indians for Lou Clinton and that seemed to end their search for a power-hitting outfielder. Maybe it was a metaphor for the Horace Clarke Era. The Reds did trade Robby, to Baltimore for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson. Robby won the Triple Crown in his first season with the Orioles.
After winning three AL pennants with Robby and the 1970 World Series, the Orioles put him on the trading block again. The Yankees tried to put a deal together. The problem, I was told, was that Harry Dalton wanted Mel Stottlemyre or me. Mel was the ace of the staff and I was the #2 pitcher coming off a 20-win season. Lee McPhail countered with Stan Bahnsen, and the Dalton wanted Steve Kline and Mike Kekich too. The Yankees were unwilling to decimate their pitching staff for one superstar outfielder.
Apparently the Mets were in a similar situation. The Orioles wanted Tom Seaver for Frank Robinson, straight up, and the Mets said no. The counter from Baltimore was at least two other pitchers from a list that included Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Jon Matlack, Tug McGraw, and Gary Gentry – and they Danny Frisella. The Mets said no to that too.
Most players followed the winter meetings carefully, because you never knew what would happen and how it might affect your life. But the Yankees, still owned by CBS – the George Steinbrenner Era was still a few years away – didn’t do much after they traded Bill Robinson for Barry Moore. The Washington Senators offered Frank Howard for cash the Yankees didn’t have, and the Cleveland Indians were shopping star pitcher Sudden Sam McDowell, but they apparently wanted a lot of cash too. The Boss would have had them both in pinstripes.
In 1971, after losing the AL pennant to the Oakland A’s, the Orioles traded Robby to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a group of prospects that included future Yankee Doyle Alexander. The Orioles had Don Baylor and Terry Crowley coming up and wanted to give them more playing time. And Robby was making what was then a huge salary – about $125,000 – and they wanted to unload the expense. The Yankees had shown interest in him then, but they got busy making the “blockbuster deal” that sent Bahnsen to the White Sox for Rich McKinney and missed out. After the 1972 season, the Dodgers traded Robby to the California Angeles, in what really was a blockbuster trade: the Dodgers sent Robby and Bill Singer, an excellent pitcher, to the California Angeles for pitcher Andy Messersmith, Bobby Valentine and Ken McMullen.
After the Boss bought the Yankees and brought Gabe Paul over as the GM – and after Charlie Finley refused to allow the Yankees to hire Dick Williams as their manager — there was some serious talk about hiring Robby to become baseball’s first black manager. Mr. Paul had been GM in Cincinnati when Robby was the NL Rookie of the Year and MVP, and was a huge Frank Robinson fan.
The fourth chance for the Yankees to see Frank Robinson in pinstripes came in June of 1974, when he was again on the trading block. Mr. Paul had been negotiating a deal with the Angels that I recall would have brought Robby and Rudy May to the Yankees for Roy White, Bill Sudakis and Dick Woodson. What I heard was that Robby’s contract gave him the right to veto a deal, and when the Yankees refused to pay about $35,000 in relocation expenses, Robby vetoed the trade. That was just a couple of days before I was traded to the Cleveland Indians, where Robby would soon become my teammate and my manager.
You can’t live life on a bunch of what ifs, like how my career would have been different if I has been pitching for a contending team like the Orioles. But I’ll tell you this: I met my soulmate while playing in New York, I got to play with Boog Powell anyway in Cleveland, and I wouldn’t trade my years with the Yankees for anything.