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.
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!
Happy Birthday to me very good friend and teammate, Al Downing. I first met Sam – I always called him Sam, a story explained in my book – down in Fort Lauderdale in 1966 when I was incited to Spring Training as a rookie. He was less than a year older than me, but he had been in the major league since 1961, and he was always helpful to me. He even taught me his incredible change-up pitch – at least he tried; whether I ever really learned it is up to others to decide. I will always be grateful for the way he immediately reached out to me, even though at that point we were both trying to secure a starting pitcher slot. He is a good man.
As it turned out, Johnny Keane started the season with five starting pitchers: Whitey Ford, Mel Stottlemyre, Bob Friend, Sam and me. I remember Sam pitching a fantastic game against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium on May 20, 1966. That was the year the Twins won the American League Pennant, and lost the World Series to the Dodgers in 7 games. He struck out 11 batters in 8 2/3 innings, three of them to one of the most fearsome hitters in baseball, Harmon Killebrew. He struck out Zoilo Versalles, who won the MVP that year, and had two strikeouts against the always threatening Cesar Tovar. I remember Sam getting into a bid of trouble in the third inning, when pitcher Camilo Pascual got a one-out single and moved to third on Versalles’ single. Then Versalles stole second. Sam struck out Tovar and walked Tony Oliva to load the bases. Killebrew struck out looking, leaving three Twins on base. The Yankees scored two runs in the fifth after a double by Clete Boyer, a single by Elston Howard, and a triple by Roy White. Sam made us all a little nervous in the eighth when Tovar led off with a double and Killer drove him in with a single to center. Then he got Don Mincher and Andy Kosco out, and we had a 2-1 lead. With two outs in the ninth, Sam walked Bob Allison and Ralph Houk brought in Pedro Ramos to finish the game. He struck out Versalles to give Sam the win.
I missed Sam a lot when the Yankees traded him after the 1969 season to Oakland for Danny Cater. I never pitched against him in 1970 when the Yankees were playing the A’s or the Brewers (where he was traded in June). I consider that a stroke of good luck, since 1970 was the only year I won 20 games and going up against Sam would have lessened the odds of me doing that.
I’m going to try something called Monument Monday, as a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career.
One of the greatest things about being a young ballplayer is that sometimes you get to actually play on a team with some of the guys you followed as a kid. Pedro Ramos was a good pitcher and would have done better if he had played for a better team. But the Washington Senators of the mid-to-late 1950’s finished last in the American League for four of the six years he played there, so his stats don’t really do the man justice. He was in Cleveland for two years (another bottom half AL club) and came to the Yankees during the 1964 Pennant race. Always a starter, the Yankees used him in relief; I hesitate to call him a closer, because pitchers threw more complete games than they do today. During my rookie year, 1966, Pedro pitched in 52 games – pretty amazing for one guy to pitch almost 1/3 of the games — had a 3.61 ERA and struck out 58 batters in 89 innings.
I think the first time he relieved me on the mound was on May 22, 1966, the second game of a double header against his old team the Minnesota Twins, at Yankee Stadium. I wasn’t pitching badly – I had only given up two hits before Tony Oliva tripled to lead off the 4th and Bob Allison hit a sacrifice fly to Mickey Mantle in CF, and we were losing 1-0. Elston Howard doubled to left to lead off the 8th 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.
Pedro came in to pitch the 9th, got Rich Rollins to ground out, and struck out Sandy Valdespino and Russ Nixon. That was my third career win, a 2-1 victory over the Twins, and I’ll always be grateful for Pedro for that and for his friendship.