Happy Birthday to Don Kessinger, a great shortstop for the Chicago Cubs in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I never played with Don, who spent nearly his entire career in the National League, but I came close. I had signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1977, but retired in May after my second shoulder surgery without every playing a game for them. Don was traded to the Sox in August, where he finished his excellent career.
Another great ballplayer, Deron Johnson, would have been 75 today. He died way too young of lung cancer in 1991. He came up through the Yankee organization, but got traded to the Kansas City Athletics for Bud Daley early in the 1961 season. He led the National League in RBI’s with 130 in 1965, batting fifth for the Cincinnati Reds and following Tommy Harper, Pete Rose, Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson. The first time I ever faced him was on May 29, 1973, when the Oakland A’s were playing at Yankee Stadium. I struck him out looking. But over the course of the next couple of years, Deron did just fine; he had a .313 lifetime average against me.
Steve Hamilton is still remembered for his Folly Floater pitch, and his Yankee teammates will never forget the time he swallowed some of his chewing tobacco and threw up on the mount. Abby came to the Yankees in a 1963 trade with the Washington Senators, so he was there when I made the team in 1966. We met at spring training. We were Yankee pitchers together until the last month of the 1970 season, when the let him go and the White Sox claimed him off the waiver list. We had fun together, were friends off the field, and stayed in touch until he passed away of colon cancer at the young age of 63. One of the coolest facts about Abby is that he also played in the NBA for two or three years; I think only two guys have ever played in both a World Series and in the NBA finals. The dude was 6’6. I remember that Carl Yastrzemski couldn’t hit Abby; he had a career .143 batting average against him. If I had to pick one guy to get out, it would have been the best player for our biggest rival.
There was one game in 1970 against the Red Sox that I remember well because I was the starting pitcher. It was June 21 at Fenway Park. We were in 2nd place in the AL East, 3 game behind the Orioles, and I was having the best season of my career – soon afterwards, I would be named for the first (and only) time to the American League All-Star team. The game started off well enough, a 1-2-3 first inning. But in the bottom of the second, I wasn’t throwing well. Tony Conigliaro led off with a single, and moved to third on a one-out single by George Scott. I struck Billy Conigliaro out, but then Jerry Moses hit an RBI single. Then George scored on a single by the Red Sox pitcher, Gary Peters. Jerry scored off a single by Mike Andrews. We were down 3-1. Yaz led off the third with a single and Ralph Houk had enough. I was out, Ron Klimkowski was in. The lead bounced back and forth a few times. The Major pulled Ron in the sixth for Abby, who walked Yaz; then Jack Aker came in to pitch. Long story short, Yankees won 14-10 in an 11-inning game. Bobby Murcer led us to victory, robbing Yaz of a Home Run in the eighth with an incredible catch, and a key double in the top of the eleventh.
(OK, I have to make a full disclosure here: You may be wondering why I wrote about a game where Abby pitched to one batter and walked him in a post about Abby. I started writing about the 6/21/70 Red Sox game because I thought it was the one Abby won for us. But I had it wrong. But I figured any story that ends with Bobby Murcer robbing Carl Yastrzemski of a Home Run, followed by an extra-inning RBI double ought not become the victim of the delete key. Fair enough?)
Here are the ones I should have led with: two 1970 games against the Brewers at Yankee Stadium. On May 2, I started the game and had a 4-0 lead going into the sixth inning. John Kennedy, a former Yankee, led off with a single to center. I struck out Rich Rollins, walked Tommy Harper, and John scored on Ted Kubiak’s single. I struck out Ted Savage; then Kubiak stole second and Tommy stole third. I walked Danny Walton, loading the bases. Mike Hershberger hit a two-run single to center, and The Major brought in Lindy McDaniel to pitch. I left the game with a 4-3 lead. Milwaukee scored two runs off Lindy and Jack Aker in the eighth, putting them ahead 5-4. Jerry McNertney hit a leadoff homer against Joe Verbanic in the ninth (6-4) and then loaded the bases with two walks and a single. The Major brought in Abby, who struck out the next two batters to end the inning. This game ends the way I like them to end: Bobby Murcer hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game, and with runners on first and second, Thurman Munson hit a walk-off single to win the game. Abby got the win.
The next day, May 3, the first game of a Sunday afternoon doubleheader, starter Bill Burbach and reliever Ron Klimkowski gave up a combined 5 runs in the first three innings. The lead bounced back and forth for a while and in the sixth, with the Brewers ahead 6-5, Abby came in to pitch. He gave up another run after Kennedy doubled, Bob Meyer bunted him to third, and Tommy Harper got an RBI sacrifice fly. The Yankee offense came through for Abby in the bottom of the sixth Bobby Murcer led off with a single, but got forced at second by Roy White’s ground out. Heeba scored on Danny Cater’s single to left. Then Thurman Munson came in as a pinch hitter for Jake Gibbs and tripled, scoring Danny. That was followed by Gene Michael’s double, scoring Tugboat. Abby ended the inning with a pop up to the shortstop, nut the Yankees now had an 8-7 lead.
I think this part is important: the fact that The Major let Abby hit with a runner on second and a one-run lead is a testament to Abby’s pitching. He was doing well, and they weren’t going to risk taking him out. Abby did not disappoint: he got out of the seventh unbruised, with just one base runner on a walk; he had a 1-2-3 eighth. And he won the game in the ninth with another 1-2-3 inning. It was great pitching – for the second time in two days.
Watch Abby’s Folly Floater: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFvp7kMraAw