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 George Lauzerique, who pitched for the A’s and the Brewers from 1967 to 1970. George had some cache because he had pitched a perfect game in the minor leagues. The first time I saw him pitch was on September 29, 1967 – his third major league game and his first at Yankee Stadium. It was the second game of a Twi-Night doubleheader on a Friday night, the last weekend of the season. I started for the Yankees and George was the starting pitcher for the Kansas City Athletics. In the top of the second, Joe Rudi and Rick Monday each hit grounders to me, which I threw to Mike Hegan to make the outs. But along the way, I hurt my ankle and had to leave the game after I walked Sal Bando. That was disappointing, especially because it was my game of the season and you hate to end on that kind of note. Fred Talbot came in relief and pitched beautifully, giving up just four hits. George was hugely impressive. He held the Yankees to five hits in seven innings, struck out five, and gave up just one run – a homer to Billy Bryan. It was an outstanding performance.
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.