Happy Birthday to former Yankee pitcher Eli Grba. I remember watching Eli pitch at Comiskey Park during the summer of 1959. For a teenager in Chicago, I will always remember that season because it was the first time in my life that the White Sox made it to the World Series. Chicago had a lot of second and third place teams in the 1950’s, but it was the Yankees who dominated. It was exciting because Casey Stengel’s Yankees were in town – Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Enos Slaughter, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek – and Eli, who was the Yankees starting pitcher. Eli was also from Chicago and this was his rookie season; I think it may have been his first appearance at Comiskey. I remember my first time pitching in Chicago, so I understand how nervous Eli must have been. And he was pitching against Early Wynn, who would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. One of the things I remember is how good Eli was. I think his first three innings were 1-2-3 innings. He got stars like Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox out. And he got a hit of his own off of Early. I remember the White Sox won that day – Early was enjoying a resurgence and was pitching like he did when he was the star for the Cleveland Indians. But I also remember some cheers for Chicago’s favorite son, who pitched very well that day in front of his family, friends and fans.
Eli was originally signed by the Red Sox, but the Yankees got him in a trade for Bill Renna. He sacrificed a couple of years from his career to serve in the military and I thank him for his service. And he got to the World Series in 1960 after a fairly successful season for the Yankees. I remember watching one of his first games of that season when the Yankees were in town playing the White Sox. Early was again pitching for Chicago. This time, Eli was the winning pitcher. Later on that summer, Eli hit a Home Run off Early at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees left Eli unprotected in the 1962 expansion draft and the new California Angeles grabbed him. He struck out over 100 batters that year, for a club that finished eighth. Eli was the first Angel pitcher ever; he pitched opening day against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium and won the first game in team history. A complete game. He played in that historic first franchise game with Ken Aspromonte, who would later be my manager when I was traded to Cleveland. Years later, I heard that in his first appearance back at Yankee Stadium wearing an Angels uniform, Yogi hit a first inning single, followed by The Mick hitter a Home Run. That’s the way the Yankees are – competitive, no matter what.
Eli is my Facebook friend and he comments frequently on my posts remembering other ballplayers from our day. I appreciate that he reads my reminiscences, and hope that he will enjoy his 81st birthday and many, many more with good health and happiness.
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.
Happy Birthday to Bill Melton, who was a power-hitting third baseman for the Chicago White Sox while I was pitching for the New York Yankees. Some called him Beltin’ Bill because he hit 160 Home Runs in a short ten-year career that prematurely ended due to injury. He hit 33 Home Runs with 95 RBI’s in 1970, his second full major league season, and 33 Home Runs (best in the American League). Between 1968 and 1976, we played in 22 games together. He went 18-for-30, a career average of .300 – and after Paul Blair, no one hit more Home Runs off me that Bill Melton.
One game that comes to mind against Bill and the White Sox was on August 26, 1969, a weeknight game at Yankee Stadium. I was facing a very tough pitcher in Tommy John. We got off to a good start when Tommy gave up a second inning two-run Home Run to our catcher, Frank Fernandez. Tommy and I were pitching nicely; each of us got into jams a few times, but we both pitched our way out of them. By the time Chisox manager Al Lopez pulled him for a pinch runner in the top of the ninth, Tommy had not let more Yankees score. I was also pitching a shutout as I entered the ninth. Ron Hansen (my future teammate), hitting for Tommy, led off with a single to left. Gene Michael’s fielding error let Walt Williams (also my future teammate) reach first and Tommy McCraw (running for Ron) move to second. Luis Aparicio bunted to Bobby Cox at third, moving Tommy to third and No Neck to second. I got a second out when Don Pavletich popped up to Ron Woods in center. Then Beltin’ Bill comes up and hits a double past Roy White in left, scoring Tommy and No Neck and tying the game up 2-2. Ralph Houk had enough of me and brought in Lindy McDaniel to get the third out.
Wilbur Wood came in to pitch in the bottom of the ninth and retired the Yankees 1-2-3. Lindy pitched the top of the tenth in what was clearly a metaphor for the Horace Clarke Era. Stick made another error at shortstop, putting Ken Berry on first. Then Bobby Cox committed a throwing error, putting Ken on third and Bobby Knopp on first. Frank Fernandez let a ball get by him and Bobby advanced to second. Then Pete Ward (yet another future teammate) hit a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Berry and giving the White Sox a 3-2 lead.
The Yankees rallied in the bottom of the tenth, but they couldn’t get the job done. Gary Bell, now pitching for the White Sox, gave up a leadoff walk to Roy White. Then he walked Fernandez, advancing Heeba to second; Lopez switched pitchers (now Danny Lazar); The Major put Jerry Kenney in to run for Julio Big Head. Bobby Murcer bunted – well, as usual – to the Birthday Boy at third, with Heeba and Lobo each advancing a base. Lazar intentionally walks Ron Woods. Now Danny Murphy comes in to pitch. Batting for Cox, Jimmie Hall hit popped up to Aparicio at short. With two outs, bases loaded, and down 3-2, The Major puts Jake Gibbs in to hit for Len Boehmer. Giblets struck out looking, ending the game with a painful loss for the entire team.
One last story – quickly, I promise: the last time I ever faced Bill Melton was on May 9, 1976 at Anaheim Stadium. We were both at the ends of our careers – Bill with the Angels, me with the Indians (not long before my trade to the Rangers). Birthday Boy came up in the bottom of the seventh with two outs and Cleveland ahead 2-0 and hits a single to center.
None of the men I played with are celebrating a birthday today, so I want to remember Hal Reniff, would have been 77 today. It was sad nearly eleven years ago when I learned of his passing. He was my teammate and fellow pitcher on the 1966 Yankees, my rookie season. Hal had a nice career and was especially fortunate to be a rookie on the 1961 World Championship club. In 1963, he led the team in saves and I remember as a first-year minor leaguer watching Porky throwing 3 1/3 scoreless innings in the World Series. The first time we pitched in the same game was April 23, 1966 – my Yankee Stadium debut, my second major league game, and my first career loss. And that sure wasn’t Hal’s fault. It was an excruciatingly painful day for me.
The first batter I faced at Yankee Stadium was Luis Aparicio, who got on base with a single hit to me. Then he stole second. I struck out Curt Blefary and Frank Robinson, but then Brooks Robinson hit a single to center and his RBI put the Orioles in the lead. That rattled me a bit, and facing the massive Boog Powell, I threw a wild pitch that but Brooks on second. Thankfully Boog grounded out to Bobby Richardson. I settled down and threw 1-2-3 innings in the second and third.
The fourth inning really sucked. I walked Frank Robinson, who stole second and scored off Brooks Robinson’s single. Paul Blair, who was always an especially tough out for me, hit a two-out single to Mickey Mantle in center, moving Brooks to second. Andy Etchebarren hit another single to Mickey and Brooks scored. Now we’re down 3-0. The Orioles picked up another run in the fifth when Frank Robinson hit an RBI double.
The Yankees finally scored a run in the fifth when Clete Boyer hit a one-out Home Run off Dave McNally. With two outs and no one on base, Ralph Houk sent Hector Lopez in to hit for me. It didn’t help; Hector struck out. Porky came in to pitch in the sixth and faced three batters after Etchebarren hit into a double play; he had a 1-2-3 seventh inning. Elston Howard brought the score to 4-3 when he hit a double, scoring Mickey and Joe Pepitone. The Major sent Lou Clinton in to bat for Porky, and Dooley Womack came in to finish the game. We lost 4-3.
The Yankees sold Porky to the Mets about three months into the 1967 season. That was his last year in major league baseball.
Happy Birthday to baseball great Andy Etchebarren, my fellow Class of 1966 MLB Rookie. Andy was the Orioles catcher in my first major league game. It was Friday, April 15, 1966 in Baltimore and I’ll never forget it. I was 24 and in my first season with the Yankees. I gave up two hits in the first inning, to Luis Aparicio and Brooks Robinson. The second inning went better: Davey Johnson grounded out, and I got my first big league strikeouts – first Paul Blair, and then Andy. Andy got a hit off me in the fifth, a solid shot to center. We were up by two runs in the bottom of the ninth when Frank Robinson hit a Home Run. I settled down and got my first major league win. 1966 was an amazing year for Andy — one of many in his fine career – he was an American League All-Star at age 23, and the Orioles swept the World Series that year against the Dodgers. What an amazing team the Orioles were that year. Frank Robinson (later my manager in Cleveland) won the Triple Crown and the MVP. The Yankees finished tenth in the AL – that’s dead last – 70-89, and 26.5 games out of first place. That’s what I mean by the “Horace Clarke Era.”