Happy 75th Birthday to Lee Elia, whose brief career as an infielder for both Chicago MLB teams is overshadowed by his time as the manager of the Cubs and a most memorable profanity-laced tirade directed at Chicago fans. Lee and I were rookies together in 1966. The first time I pitched to Lee was on May 28, 1966 at Yankee Stadium. He hit a single in the top of the second, moving Pete Ward to third – and Ward scored on Al Weis’ fielder’s choice. I proceeded to get Lee out the next twelve times I faced him that season. But on October 1, 1966, the last time Lee was At-Bat against me, he hit another single. Lee spent the next season in the minors, during which time the Cubs purchased his contract. He played briefly with the Cubbies in 1968, but that was the end of his major league career.
Lee was sort of Dallas Green’s protégé. The two met when they were minor leaguers in the Phillies organization, teammates on the Arkansas Travelers in the Pacific Coast League. Fergie Jenkins, Alex Johnson and Pat Corrales were also on that team. (Frank Lucchesi, who would be my manager in Texas twelve years later, was the manager.) I was in the minors at the same time, playing in North Carolina, and I remember hearing about this amazing farm team. Lee wound up coaching for Dallas in Philadelphia and then got hired by the Cubs when Dallas was the General Manager. He later joined Dallas in New York as a Yankees coach, and then had another shot as a major league manager in Philadelphia.
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.