One Hall of Famer that eluded the New York Yankees was Frank Robinson, despite repeated attempts to get him in pinstripes. As early as 1965, the Cincinnati Reds were shopping this superstar at winter meetings. My understanding was that the Reds owner thought Robby was an “old 30” and that his body would not withstand much more of a baseball career. He was anxious to trade him while the value remained high. There was talk that the Reds had offered him to the Astros for Jimmy Wynn and a relief pitcher named Claude Raymond, but that Houston turned them down. The Yankee deal I heard about – I had just finished by third year in the minor leagues at the time – was that the Yankees would send and Joe Pepitone to the Reds for Robby and pitcher Jim O’Toole. A couple of weeks later, the Yankees traded catcher Doc Edwards to the Cleveland Indians for Lou Clinton and that seemed to end their search for a power-hitting outfielder. Maybe it was a metaphor for the Horace Clarke Era. The Reds did trade Robby, to Baltimore for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson. Robby won the Triple Crown in his first season with the Orioles.
After winning three AL pennants with Robby and the 1970 World Series, the Orioles put him on the trading block again. The Yankees tried to put a deal together. The problem, I was told, was that Harry Dalton wanted Mel Stottlemyre or me. Mel was the ace of the staff and I was the #2 pitcher coming off a 20-win season. Lee McPhail countered with Stan Bahnsen, and the Dalton wanted Steve Kline and Mike Kekich too. The Yankees were unwilling to decimate their pitching staff for one superstar outfielder.
Apparently the Mets were in a similar situation. The Orioles wanted Tom Seaver for Frank Robinson, straight up, and the Mets said no. The counter from Baltimore was at least two other pitchers from a list that included Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Jon Matlack, Tug McGraw, and Gary Gentry – and they Danny Frisella. The Mets said no to that too.
Most players followed the winter meetings carefully, because you never knew what would happen and how it might affect your life. But the Yankees, still owned by CBS – the George Steinbrenner Era was still a few years away – didn’t do much after they traded Bill Robinson for Barry Moore. The Washington Senators offered Frank Howard for cash the Yankees didn’t have, and the Cleveland Indians were shopping star pitcher Sudden Sam McDowell, but they apparently wanted a lot of cash too. The Boss would have had them both in pinstripes.
In 1971, after losing the AL pennant to the Oakland A’s, the Orioles traded Robby to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a group of prospects that included future Yankee Doyle Alexander. The Orioles had Don Baylor and Terry Crowley coming up and wanted to give them more playing time. And Robby was making what was then a huge salary – about $125,000 – and they wanted to unload the expense. The Yankees had shown interest in him then, but they got busy making the “blockbuster deal” that sent Bahnsen to the White Sox for Rich McKinney and missed out. After the 1972 season, the Dodgers traded Robby to the California Angeles, in what really was a blockbuster trade: the Dodgers sent Robby and Bill Singer, an excellent pitcher, to the California Angeles for pitcher Andy Messersmith, Bobby Valentine and Ken McMullen.
After the Boss bought the Yankees and brought Gabe Paul over as the GM – and after Charlie Finley refused to allow the Yankees to hire Dick Williams as their manager — there was some serious talk about hiring Robby to become baseball’s first black manager. Mr. Paul had been GM in Cincinnati when Robby was the NL Rookie of the Year and MVP, and was a huge Frank Robinson fan.
The fourth chance for the Yankees to see Frank Robinson in pinstripes came in June of 1974, when he was again on the trading block. Mr. Paul had been negotiating a deal with the Angels that I recall would have brought Robby and Rudy May to the Yankees for Roy White, Bill Sudakis and Dick Woodson. What I heard was that Robby’s contract gave him the right to veto a deal, and when the Yankees refused to pay about $35,000 in relocation expenses, Robby vetoed the trade. That was just a couple of days before I was traded to the Cleveland Indians, where Robby would soon become my teammate and my manager.
You can’t live life on a bunch of what ifs, like how my career would have been different if I has been pitching for a contending team like the Orioles. But I’ll tell you this: I met my soulmate while playing in New York, I got to play with Boog Powell anyway in Cleveland, and I wouldn’t trade my years with the Yankees for anything.
Among the guys I really enjoyed playing with was Dave LaRoche, who was traded to the Cleveland Indians during the 1975 Off-Season for another good pitcher, Milt Wilcox. The first time I saw him pitch was in his Yankee Stadium debut on July 19, 1970 when he was a rookie for the California Angels. He entered the game in relief in the eighth, taking over for Rudy May with a 5-2 lead. The first batter he faced was Horace Clarke, who grounded out. Then he struck out Bobby Murcer. In the ninth, he got Thurman Munson out. To me, getting Lemon and Tugboat out in your Yankee Stadium debut is a big deal. And that was Dave’s first major league save.
His Tribe debut was on April 12, 1975 in Milwaukee. It was the same day Dennis Eckersley made his major league debut. I was the starting pitcher that day, and I had nothing. Sometimes pitchers have days like that. I gave up a one-out walk to John Briggs, who reached third on Hank Aaron’s double. I intentionally walked the sometimes scary George Scott, and then Don Money hit an RBI single, scoring John. It could have been worse; I got the relay from Charlie Spikes in right and threw it to Johnny Ellis, the catcher, who tagged Hank out at home. Then it did get worse. Sixto Lezcano doubled, scoring George and moving Don to third. Charlie Moore, whom I wrote about on his birthday last month as being nearly impossible for me to get out, hit a two-run double. The Brewers led, 4-0. Frank Robinson pulled me in the bottom of the second after giving up a leadoff Home Run to Robin Yount and walking Bob Coluccio. Dave came in to pitch in the seventh – one of four pitchers the Tribe used that day – and he gave up no runs. But we lost, 6-5.
Happy Birthday to Rudy May, who was a strong rival pitcher in the American League. We just missed each other on the Yankees. I was traded to Cleveland in April, 1974 and the California Angels sold him to the Yankees a little more than a month later. Rudy played a key role in re-establishing the Yankee tradition in the George Steinbrenner Era; he won 15 games in 1975. But poor Rudy got traded in the middle of the 1976 season in a blockbuster deal: Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan went to the Baltimore Orioles for Ken Holtzman, Elrod Hendricks, Doyle Alexander, Grant Jackson and Jimmy Freeman.
The first time I ever faced Rudy, it was a real pitcher’s duel. It was May 6, 1969 at Anaheim Stadium. Each of us gave up just one hit in the first three innings. Billy Cowan hit a leadoff single in the top of the fourth and moved to second on Bobby Murcer’s hit. But then Rudy struck out Roy White and Joe Pepitone, and ended the inning with Frank Fernandez’s pop-up.
We took a 2-0 lead in the fifth when Rudy walked Bill Robinson with one out. I was the next batter, so that should have been out #2; I bunted, Bill got to second, and Rudy made a bad throw to Dick Stuart – so I was safe at first and Bill made it to third. Horace Clarke got us our second out with a pop up. I advanced to second when Rudy walked Billy. The next batter was Bobby, who singled on the first pitch. Bill scored, and then I scored on a weak throw from Jay Johnstone in center. But with runners at second and third, Rudy got Roy White out to end the inning. Rudy was pitching a great game with five strikeouts and no earned runs. Bill Rigney took him out in the ninth after he gave up a leadoff walk to Tommy Tresh, and Andy Messersmith finished the game.
The Angeles scared me in the bottom of the ninth. Bobby Knoop hit an infield single to lead of the inning, followed by another single from Bubba Morton. Lou Johnson laid down a beautiful sacrifice bunt; with runners on second and third, Ralph Houk had me walk Jim Fregosi and pitch to Jay. Jay hit a grounder to first, and Joe was able to get the Jim out at second — but it was enough to score Bobby. Now I had a runners on second and third and the always threatening Rick Reichardt at bat. Rick has been turning up in my posts a lot lately – and almost always with bad news for me. But this time I got Rick out, and the Yankees won 2-1. A great game for Rudy, who was quickly impressing the entire American League.
Happy Birthday to Eddie Fisher, who was never married to Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor or Connie Stevens, but did play fifteen years in the major leagues from 1959 to 1973 -– around the same time his namesake enjoyed so much success in Hollywood. I remember watching Eddie as a starting pitcher for the White Sox when I was in college. They first time I faced him as a pro ballplayer was on July 20, 1970 at Yankee Stadium. He was with the California Angeles and came in to pitch the bottom of the seventh in relief after Andy Messersmith gave up a single to Roy White, an RBI double to Danny Cater, and a two-run homer to Curt Blefary. I came up to bat with a runner on first and two out and hit a single to my old teammate Roger Repoz in left. I pitched well – a three-hitter with five strikeouts and a complete game, but gave up a solo homer to Jim Spencer; the Yankees won 6-1. I also recall pitching a nine-hit shutout against the Angeles and Rudy May and Eddie in 1971, and a four-hit shutout against the Angels in 1971 that Eddie pitched in. Eddie left baseball with a respectable 85-70 record with a 3.41 career ERA. I must admit there was a certain thrill pitching against a guy you used to watch as a kid.
Happy Birthday to Bruce Kimm, who was a rookie catcher for the Detroit Tigers when I was playing my last season. Our careers crossed only so slightly, in one game at Tiger Stadium on May 14, 1976. He had made his major league debut ten days earlier, and one the day that I pitched, it was his second start. The Tigers had Bill Freehan and John Wockenfuss, and I’m not sure what happened to cause Detroit to call Bruce up – maybe it was because Bruce had become Mark Fidrych’s catcher of choice and The Bird was unhittable that year. I faced him for the first time in the second inning, with two outs, and he flied out to Duane Kuiper at second. His second at-bat came in the fifth, when he hit a leadoff single to left. The next batter up was Ron LeFlore, who singled, moving Bruce to third. Frank Robinson pulled me from the game. Tom Buskey won it in relief for the Indians. That was it. Within the next 35 days, I had been traded to the Texas Rangers, suffered an injury, and never played again. I looked it up and Bruce’s hit off me was the second of his career; the first came the night before off Rudy May at Yankee Stadium. As a Chicago native, I was pleased that someone I had played ball with got the chance to manage the Cubs, even for a brief time, as Bruce did in 2002.