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.
I remember Mike Reinbach, who played in a dozen games for the Orioles in 1974. The game we played in together was an extraordinary one. It was April 27, 1974, the first game of a Sunday afternoon double header at Memorial Stadium. Jim Palmer was pitching against his former teammate, Pat Dobson. The Yankees had come back from a four run deficit to tie the game, 4-4 in the eighth inning. In the top of the twelfth, Jim (who was still in the game) gave up a leadoff Home Run to Craig Nettles. Baltimore tied it up in the bottom of the twelfth when Tommy Davis hit a double, driving in Richie Coggins. Doyle Alexander retired the Yankees 1-2-3 in the top of the thirteenth. In the bottom of the thirteenth, Tom Buskey gave up a leadoff single to Earl Williams and walked Mark Belanger. With runners on first and second and nobody out, Bill Virdon brought me in to pitch. The batter was Mike Reinbach, who singled to center – a walk-off RBI the only time I ever faced him. I’m told he had a tough life after playing a few years in Japan, and for reasons that were never determined, he drove his car off a cliff in 1989, at age 39. Today would have been his 66th birthday.
Happy Birthday to Tommy Smith, who was my teammate on the Cleveland Indians from 1974 to 1976. The first time I ever saw Tommy Smith was in his major league debut in September of 1973. He hit an Inside-the-Park Home Run off Pat Dobson at Yankee Stadium. I got to know him after his August call-up. The first time we played together was on August 14, 1974 at Cleveland Stadium. I remember the game because he saved me. It was the top of the sixth, the score was tied, two out, Larry Hisle on second and Rod Carew on first – and Harmon Killebrew was At-Bat. Killer hit a shot to center, Tommy dove and caught it to end the inning.
The Baltimore Orioles were one of the toughest teams I ever played against. They won the World Series in 1966, my rookie year, the American League Pennant in 1969 (the first time there was a Divisional Series), the World Series in 1970, and the AL Pennant in 1971. They had an unreal team: Boog Powell at first, Davey Johnson at second, Mark Belanger at short, Brooks Robinson at third, Andy Etchebarren was the catcher, and they had Frank Robinson, Paul Blair and Don Buford in the outfield. And they had great pitching – one year it was four 20-game winners: Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson. So because they were so good in 1970, I feel compelled to recall one game between the Orioles and the Washington Senators that year – maybe just to embarrass my friend, Rick Reichert.
It was June 20, a Sunday afternoon at RFK, and it was Earl Weaver managing against Ted Williams. The game was tied 2-2, and in the top of the twelfth inning, with nothing more than a pair of walks, a pair of popups, and an error by Mike Epstein, the Orioles scored and took a 3-2 lead. In the bottom of the twelfth, Jim French drew a leadoff walk, and with one out, Rick came up to the plate to pinch hit for Lee Maye. He hit a walk-off, two run homer and delivered a rare and excruciating loss to the first-place Orioles. It was an amazing moment.
I had to look up the details, but I remember the game. The Yankees had lost to the Red Sox more than an hour earlier. We were 2 ½ games out of first place at that point and we all stuck around the clubhouse to find out how the Orioles game was going.
My last day as a Yankee player – in my heart, I’ll always be a Yankee – was on April 25, 1974. The Royals were in town and we were playing a Thursday afternoon game at Shea Stadium. Steve Kline was pitching against Paul Splittorff, who had been a couple of years behind by at Arlington High School in the Chicago suburbs. It was the 18th game of the season and we were two games above .500, ½ game behind the 1st place Orioles (not that April stats matter). Steve gave up five runs off six hits and Bill Virdon replaced him with one out in the sixth with Freddy Beene. I came in for Freddy in the seventh to pitch the final three innings of the game. I gave up hits to Cookie Rojas and Amos Otis, but struck out Hal McRae looking to end the inning without too much damage. I had a 1-2-3 eighth inning, and took the mound in the ninth for what would be my last inning as a Yankee pitcher. Bobby Floyd led off with a walk, and Patek bunted to me, putting men on first and second. Rojas bunted, but I through it to Graig Nettles to force Floyd at third. Patek and Rojas advanced a base on my wild pitch. Virdon had me walk Otis and pitch to Big John Mayberry, who hit a grounder to first. Bill Sudakis tossed it to Jim Mason to force Otis at second, but Patek scored and Rojas moved to third. What I didn’t know at the time was that after nine seasons as a Yankee, I was about to face my last batter in pinstripes #19. It was Hal McRae. On a 1-2 count, he hit a fly to Walt Williams in right to end the inning. Kansas won 6-1. The next day, the Yankees announced that they had traded Steve, Freddy and me (coincidentally – and I mean it – all three pitchers from the most recent loss) – along with Tom Buskey – to the Cleveland Indians for Chris Chambliss, Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw. And as a classic New York film character once said, this is the business we have chosen.
It’s not like I didn’t see it coming. The Yankees were a class organization and Gabe Paul told me he was trying to trade me. I wanted to pitch, and I was maybe the fifth man in what was then a four-man rotation – Mel Stottlemyre, Doc Medich, Pat Dobson and Steve Kline. My last start was April 11, the second game of a Sunday double header — ironically against Cleveland — and it didn’t go well. I gave up three runs on nine hits and got pulled in the fourth inning. Sudden Sam McDowell, who was battling me for the fifth starter spot, came in relief. Mr. Paul and the Indians GM, Phil Seghi, had been working on a trade for weeks. While I was pitching my last three innings, Mr. Paul worked out the deal. He really wanted Chambliss, and who can blame him.
If you want more information on the days leading up to the trade, legendary New York sportswriter Murray Chass wrote a column about it a few days earlier. I posted it to my website: https://fritzpetersondotorg.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/chassapril1974.pdf
And in case you were wondering about Freddy Beene, who is my Facebook friend: the last batter he faced in a Yankee uniform was Bobby Floyd, and he struck him out.