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 former Yankee pitcher Andy Messersmith, who is 70 today. Bluto was a great pitcher, and his challenge to the reserve clause helped pave the way for ballplayers to determine their own destiny. I was gone by the time free agency came to be, but I sure remember Bluto as a dominating pitcher for the California Angels, and later for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was the Yankees starting pitcher on August 12, 1968, the first time Bluto pitched against the team he rooted for as a kid in Toms River, New Jersey. I gave up a run in the second, and we took the lead off Mickey Mantle’s two-run homer in the sixth. Rick Reichardt tied it up with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth. With the score still tied 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Houk brought in Lindy McDaniel to pitch after I surrendered two-out singles to Jim Fregosi and to Rick. In the ninth, Bill Robinson hit a leadoff double, and moved to third when Tommy Tresh bunted safely. With the score tied, no outs, and runners on first and third, Bill Rigney pulled starter George Brunet and brought Bluto in to pitch. Bluto have up an RBI single to Jake Gibbs, putting us ahead, 3-2. He got Bobby Cox to fly out to Don Mincher at first, and struck out Lindy. Then Roy White drove Tommy home with a single. That was it for Bluto. We won 5-2.
I pitched against him again during his first visit to Yankee Stadium two weeks later. It was a Monday night doubleheader and I started the first game against Dennis Bennett. We fell behind in the fourth when that Reichardt guy hit an RBI single for the first run of the game. I tied it up in the bottom of the inning when I hit a sacrifice fly to Rick in left, scoring Tommy. We took the lead in the sixth when Dick Howser hit a two-out double, scoring Bobby Cox. That’s when Andy came in to pitch. He got Bill Robinson out to end the inning. The Mick led off the seventh with a single, and moved to second on Heeba’s single. Andy Kosco bunted The Mick to third and Heeba to second. Bluto struck out Tommy, but then gave up a two-RBI double to Frank Fernandez. After walking Bobby intentionally, I got up to bad with two outs and runners on first and second. I belted a double past that Reichardt guy, scoring Frank and Bobby. We won 6-2.
In the second game, which I got to see most of — The Major didn’t believe in sending guys home early – starter Bill Harrelson loaded the bases and with two out, Andy came in to pitch again. Mickey Mantle came up to pinch hit for Charley Smith, and Bluto struck him out. We lost that game; Andy got the save.
Happy Birthday to Dennis Higgins who pitched for the White Sox, Senators, Indians, and Cardinals from 1966 to 1972. I first saw him pitch in June 2, 1966 in Chicago. We were both rookies that season. It was our first road trip to my hometown since I made the team and I had friends and family at the games every day. The Yankees were leading the White Sox 5-3 and in the bottom of the fourth, Eddie Stanky pulled the starting pitcher, Tommy John, for a pinch hitter. Dennis came in to pitch in the fifth and proceeded to get nine consecutive outs; he struck out Mickey Mantle in his major league debut. He left the game for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh. He made one hell of a first impression.
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 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.
In 1970, at the end of August, the Yankees announced that Mickey Mantle was returning to the team as a coach. It was a peculiar situation: the Yankees essentially platooned First Base coaches. Elston Howard would coach the first three innings, Mickey would coach the middle three, and then Elston would return for the final three. The Mick didn’t like the job, and he left after the 1970 season – never to appear in a uniform for a MLB game again. The Mick’s first game as a coach was on August 30, 1970 at Yankee Stadium. We were playing the Minnesota Twins and Bert Blyleven was pitching. Bobby Murcer led off the bottom of the fourth with a walk. When he got to first, he walked over to talk to The Mick, who jokingly pushed him away. All the Yankees got a real laugh watching that. Lemon stopped laughing seconds later when he was thrown out at second when Danny Cater hit into a double play. The Yankees won 5-2 on a well-pitched game by Steve Kline, and The Mick was, for a day anyhow, a good luck charm. And for those of you who are wondering, the Twins First Baseman in the photo is Rich Reese.
Happy Birthday to Tony Oliva, one of the best hitters I saw during my eleven years as a major league pitcher. Tony played for the Minnesota Twins for his entire career, from 1962 to 1976. He won the American League batting title three times, including his rookie year in 1964 (and was second or third four times). He had a career .304 batting average. Tony did especially well when I pitched: his batting average popped to .321, 18-for-36. I only struck him out twice.
I faced Tony for the first time early in my rookie season. It was May 12, 1966 at Metropolitan Stadium and I was throwing against veteran pitcher Camilo Pascual. I got him out the first time I faced him, in a 1-2-3 first inning. In the third inning, Earl Battey hit a leadoff single. I struck out Bernie Allen. Then Camilo hit a single to Mickey Mantle in center, moving Earl to second. Cesar Tovar hit a single to essentially the same spot, and the Twins scored two runs. Then Tony came up with and singled to Roger Maris in right, scoring Caesar. We were down 3-0. Ralph Houk yanked me the next inning, after giving up three singles and a run (and in my defense, two strikeouts). We lost that game, 4-3. It wasn’t until 1970 that I was able to stop him from hitting safely in a game I was pitching.
I am celebrating an important anniversary today: 47 years ago today, I hit my first and only Triple as a Major League Baseball player. As a guy with a .159 career average, I will never forget that particular extra base hit. The Yankees were playing the White Sox in my old hometown of Chicago, and I was pitching against Gary Peters. We were both awful teams: the Yankees were in 8th place and the Chisox were in 9th. I was leading off the top of the third, and we were down one run. I had walked Buddy Bradford, who scored when Tim Cullen hit a grounder to Tom Tresh at shortstop and threw the ball to First Baseman Mickey Mantle, who missed it. Mickey was a magnificent player and one of the most wonderful men I ever played with, but this was the final season of his extraordinary career and he could no longer run. By the time he got to the ball, Buddy has scored. Cullen had a 2-1 count on me and he threw me a fastball that I clobbered (maybe clobber is an exaggeration, but I’m 73-years-old and it’s my story) to a beautiful spot between Bradford in center and Walt Williams in right. No neck made an incredible throw but I made it to third, albeit narrowly –Sandy Alomar, the White Sox Third Baseman, was a little surprised by that. Here’s the part my teammates enjoyed most: Horace Clarke tried to sacrifice with a fly ball to Tommy Davis in Left Field. Tommy caught the ball and threw it home, and Duane Josephson tagged me a little before I reached home plate. I was out. But that, my friends, is the historic story of my one and only Triple – but not the only time I got thrown out at the plate. More importantly, I think I pitched well: 8 2/3 innings, and the Yankees won 5-4.
(Quick note: I enjoyed playing with No Neck for a brief time when he joined the Yankees in 1974, and I have always been disappointed that I never got to play alongside Sandy, who came to New York shortly after the Yankees traded me to Cleveland.)
Happy Birthday to my teammate, Hector Lopez, whose magnificent career as a major league baseball player crossed with mine for just one year. His final season came in 1966, my rookie year. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to play with this Yankee great. Headley started out, as many Yankees did, with the Kansas City Athletics. He came to New York in a 1959 trade and retired there seven years later. I met Headley for the first time during Spring Training 1966 in Fort Lauderdale.
The first game Hector and I played in together was on May 22, 1966, the second game of a Sunday doubleheader at Yankee Stadium against the Minnesota Twins. I wasn’t pitching badly – I had only given up two hits before Tony Oliva tripled to lead off the fourth and Bob Allison hit a sacrifice fly to Mickey Mantle in center field, and we were losing 1-0. Elston Howard doubled to left to lead off the eighth and Hector Lopez pinch hit for me. Ralph Houk put Horace Clarke in to run for Ellie, and Hoss was able to get to second after Hector hit a deep shot to center. Hoss scored on Roy White’s single, tying the game. White advanced to second on Bobby Richardson’s hit, and scored on Joe Pepitone’s double to left. The Yankees won 2-1, my third career victory – in part thanks to Headley.
On August 4, 1966, we were playing the Angeles at Anaheim Stadium. I was pitching and Headley was playing Right Field. I remember the game because it was my worst performance of the season. I have up two runs and two hits in the bottom of the first. In the second, gave up a leadoff single to Buck Rodgers, who moved to second on Bobby Knoop’s single. They both advanced a base on Ed Kirkpatrick’s groundout. Then the pitcher, Marcelino Lopez, hit an infield single, with Rodgers scoring and Knoop moving to third. Jose Cardenal came to the plate with runners on first and third and one out and hit a triple to Headley in right field. Headley misplayed the ball, removing the option of getting Jose at third. Instead, two more runs scored. Jay hit an RBI single and I was gone after 1 1/3 innings, having given up six runs. So after Dooley Womack finishes the inning, Headley comes up to me in the dugout and apologizes for the play. Imagine that, this classic Yankee apologizing to a rookie who just pitched horribly. “Sorry, Peta,” he said. “I owe you one.” What a great guy!
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.