Let’s remember the life of Tommie Agee, who played enjoyed a wonderful twelve-year major league baseball career, most notably as a star of the 1969 World Champion Mets. I hated the Mets, but not Tommie. He was a great guy and an amazing ballplayer. I liked and respected him a lot. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award with the White Sox in 1966 with 80% of the vote; if anyone cares, I was a rookie that year and received zero votes. Chicago got him from the Indians in what now looks like a lopsided trade involving three teams: Cleveland sent him, Tommy John and John Romano to Chicago for Cam Carreon; the White Sox sent Fred Talbot, Mike Hershberger and Jim Landis to Kansas City, who in turn sent Rocky Colavito on a return trip to the Indians (who seemed unafraid of the Curse of Rocky Colavito.)
Tommie was a career .300 hitter against me. The first time I saw him was at Yankee Stadium on May 28, 1966. He was the leadoff batter in that game and he hit a first pitch single to Roger Repoz in right field. He was taking huge leads off first and with Don Buford at At-Bat, Ralph Houk ordered a pitch out and Elston Howard picked him off. All of my games are memorable to me, especially the ones from 1966, but this particular game always bothered me. It had been raining since the third inning, and with the game tied, 2-2, after five full innings, the umpires called it for weather after a delay of nearly an hour. Yankee fans were irate because a game called after that point technically invalidated their rain checks. The club, sensing a possible public relations problem – Bob Fishel was good at that, as was Marty Appel after him – decided to honor the rain checks anyway. But the game was if it never happened, at least statistically. I still had to wait a few days to rest.
Anyway, back to Tommie. He was a great ballplayer and a wonderful man. I still think it‘s sort of cool that he and Cleon Jones were friends since they were kids and won a World Series as outfielders together. He died in 2001 at age 58 of a heart attack; he would have been 74 today. Baseball misses him.
Milkman Jim Turner was my first major league pitching coach. I met him in Fort Lauderdale when I arrived at spring training in February, 1966. He had pitched for the Boston Braves and the Cinncinnati Reds, where he got his first World Series ring in 1940. He was traded to the Yankees in 1942 and got his second ring in 1943. His story always interested me: a 20-game winner in his rookie season in Boston in 1937, going nine innings (sometimes more) twenty times that year. He played for the Braves while Casey Stengel managed them. While Milkman Jim enjoyed a nice career, he was never as good as he was that first season. Milkman Jim spent 52 years in baseball, eleven of them as Casey Stengel’s pitching coach. He helped Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Don Larsen, Johnny Sain, Ralph Terry, Whitey Ford, and so many others develop their pitching skills. Admittedly, I was not his biggest fan. I always had the impression Milkman Jim only liked the big stars and didn’t seem all that interested in a bunch of us. He tried hard to get me to throw a curveball the way Whitey did – that’s not easy to teach. But I was also a kid and maybe I should have tried a little harder to listen to Milkman Jim. Later, I learned that it was Milkman Jim who taught Raschi how to throw a curve. I guess that’s a common problem in life – you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re forty. Jim Turner passed away in 1998, at the age of 95. He was a Yankee hero, and I want to remember him fondly on the 112th anniversary of his birth.
I never heard the full story about the shakeup of the Yankee coaching staff after the 1959 season, when New York finished third in the American League East. Over the years, I heard that Ralph Houk was a rising star and the Yankees, already grooming him to succeed Casey Stengel, were concerned that The Major would take the open manager’s job with the Kansas City Athletics; he reportedly turned the job down after the Yankees agreed to give him the First Base Coach spot, knocking out Charlie Keller. And I had been told that Eddie Lopat was emerging as a successful minor league manager and they didn’t want to lose him – so I assumed that’s why they dropped Jim Turner and gave Steady Eddie the job.
What I do know is that Turner wound up getting the pitching coach job in Cincinnati in 1961 and helped them get to the World Series against the Yankees. He came back to the Yankees in 1965, my rookie season.
Happy Birthday to Ray Culp, who pitched for the Phillies, Cubs and Red Sox from 1963 to 1973. The first time I saw Ray pitch was in 1968, following his trade to Boston for Bill Schlesinger. On a Saturday night at Fenway Park, he threw a four-hit shutout, striking out ten Yankee batters. I came into the game in the bottom of the sixth, after Ralph Houk had pulled starter Fred Talbot for a pinch hitter. I have up one hit in the two innings I pitched – to Ellie Howard – before Steve Whitaker was put in to hit for me. Boston beat us, 4-0; that was Ray’s first American League win.
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.
Larry Gowell was only with the Yankees for a brief time during the 1972 season, but that was enough for him to achieve a sort of immortality in the baseball history books. It was October 4, 1972 and we were at Yankee Stadium playing the Brewers. Larry was the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the third and smacked a double off Jim Lonborg that went past John Briggs in left. Larry was left stranded on second as the next three Yankees failed to drive him home. But the hit was historic because it was the last game of the season, and as it turned out, he was the last American League pitcher to get a hit before the Designated Hitter rule went into effect the following April. So Larry’s bat now has a place at Cooperstown.
Thanks to the leadership of CBS (sarcasm intended here), the Yankees got the #1 draft pick in 1967, the third year Amateur Draft. Larry was their first pick in the fourth round – Ron Blomberg was the #1 pick in the first round. The first time I saw Larry pitch was the first exhibition game of the 1970 season. He had a natural slider and his fast ball was as fast as any other Yankee in spring training. We were Pompano Beach playing the Washington Senators and Larry came in to pitch in the ninth inning. We were ahead, 6-5. I think he was a little nervous. His first batter was Del Unser and he hit him with the pitch. His second batter was a teenager named Jeff Burroughs, who hit a massive Home Run.
Larry spent the 1972 season with the West Haven Yankees, the Eastern League AA club that was being managed by the Bobby Cox, now a Hall of Fame manager. He was on fire and the Yankee pitchers were following him closely. In 26 games, he was 14-6 with a 2.54 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 181 innings.
Larry was a September call-up at a time when the Yankees were in a four-way race for First Place in the AL East. He made his major league debut in the bottom of the sixth inning on September 21, at County Stadium. With the Brewers ahead 4-0, Ralph Houk had removed Freddy Beene the previous inning for a pinch hitter, Rusty Torres. Larry retired the first three major league batters he faced: John Briggs, Ollie Brown and Mike Ferraro. Then in the seventh, he did the same thing against Rick Auerbach, Jerry Bell (the pitcher), and Ron Theobald. With two outs, The Major took him out in the eighth so Felipe Alou could hit. Felipe singled, the beginning of a Yankee rally. He moved to second on Horace Clarke’s hit, and scored on Roy White’s hit. The Bobby Murcer hit an RBI single, reducing Milwaukee’s lead to one run. Unfortunately, Bloomie flied out to end the inning, leaving Roy and Bobby on base. The Brewers wound up beating us, 6-4, and we wasted a rare ninth inning homer by Bernie Allen.
October 4 was the last game of the season and we had lost four in a row, dropping us to 4th place, 6 ½ games behind the Detroit Tigers. Since we were out of contention, The Major decided to give Larry the start. He pitched really, really well. He gave up his first major league hit in the second to Joe Lahoud, and Briggs hit a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Dave May, who had doubled. With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning, no outs and Jerry Kenney on first, The Major pulled Larry for a pinch hitter, Frank Tepedino. Larry had given up three hits, and had struck out six. It was an amazing demonstration of pitching for a rookie. We lost 1-0, as the Yankee bats were not coming through.
Larry was in contention for a major league roster spot in 1973. He was cut at the end of spring training, losing out to Casey Cox and Doc Medich. He didn’t make the team again in 1974; the new manager, Bill Virdon, seemed to judge him based on one bad tenth inning in an exhibition game against the Texas Rangers. A lot of the hype that spring was about Mike Pazik, a cocky southpaw from Holy Cross who wound up getting traded to the Twins for Dick Woodson. But Larry Gowell’s time as a MLB pitcher was indeed memorable and historic. I am glad to have known him.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.
Steve Barber was a southpaw who amassed some strong numbers as a young pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the early 1960’s. He played during some of the Orioles lean years, before the emergence of future stars like Jim Palmer and Boog Powell and the trade for Frank Robinson. I was in college when I first started following him, and was honored to become his teammate several years later. He was a genuinely nice guy. The story I heard is that the Yankees saw him for the first time during a 1960 spring training game in Miami where he struck out Mickey Mantle three times. Steve had pitched AA ball in 1959 (his mentor was a young minor league manager named Earl Weaver), but he had such an impressive spring that he made the major league team. He went 10-7 in 27 starts for the Orioles in 1960, and really broke out in 1961 when he went 18-12, with 14 complete games and 150 strikeouts. In 1962, Steve was on active duty in the U.S. Army; the Army gave him weekend passes to pitch, and while he started just 19 games, he had a 9-6 record. His best year was in 1963, when he went 20-13 with 150 strikeouts and made the American League All-Star team. That turned out to be his career year; he was 9-13 in 1964, 15-10 in 1965, and 10-5 in 1966 (when he was again named to the AL All-Star team). Steve developed tendinitis in his elbow, which forced him to miss the All-Star game, and the World Series.
Steve was 4-9 in fifteen starts for Baltimore in 1967 when he was traded to the Yankees on July 4 for Ray Barker, some cash, and a player to be named later – eventually this would be two minor league prospects who never made the majors, Chester Trail and Daniel Brady. His first start in Pinstripes was on July 8, against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium; he gave up six runs in 3 1/3 innings and his old team went on to beat his new team, 12-5. I still remember the look on his face when Ralph Houk went out to the mound to take him out of the game. Unfortunately, in baseball not every story turns out well. He started seventeen games for the Yankees that season and went 6-9. He was 6-5 in nineteen starts in 1968. Clearly his best years were over. His elbow problems were not going away.
One of the things that always impressed me about Steve was his perseverance. As a former two-time All-Star and 20-game winner, he took a demotion to the minor leagues in 1968 and played for the Syracuse Chiefs. The Seattle Pilots took him in the 1969 expansion draft; he was 4-7 in sixteen starts for them. Released by the Brewers during 1970 spring training, Steve refused to give up. He cobbled together another five years in the majors (and at times, in the minors) for the Cubs, Braves, Angels and Giants. He had a nice career: 121-106, with 950 strikeouts.
I heard that in his later years, he volunteered driving a school bus for special needs kids. Not surprising, considering how good a person he was. I was saddened when I learned eight years ago that he had passed away and I’ll always appreciate the privilege of being his teammate.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.
Happy Birthday to John Knox, who played Second Base for the Detroit Tigers for parts of 1972 to 1975. I faced John once, on September 30, 1973 against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium. I recall this game vividly because it was my last game of the season and nearly 42 years later, our loss still stings. We were ahead 4-2 going in to the top of the eighth, and I have up leadoff singles to Tom Veryzer and Ike Brown. Ralph Houk replaced me with Lindy McDaniel, a good relief pitcher who just had a bad day. He walked three and gave up three singles – including a two-RBI hit by John. We lost, 8-5.