When you play in New York, you never know what might happen: Happy Birthday to Eddie Leon, an infielder who played briefly – and I mean briefly – for the Yankees in 1975. I think it’s a really interesting story and worth the full read. Eddie started out with the Cleveland Indians, making his major league debut in 1968. He was The Tribe’s starting shortstop in 1970 and 1971; his bat was fine (he hit .261 in 1971) and he was strong defensively. When Frank Duffy won the shortstop job in 1972, Eddie became expendable and in early 1973 The Tribe traded him to Chicago for Walt “No Neck” Williams. He won the starting job in 1973, but lost it in 1974 to a young rookie named Bucky Dent. After the ’74 season, Eddie was traded to the Yankees for pitcher Cecil Upshaw, who had come to New York as part of the famous Fritz Peterson trade. The Yankees had intended to use him as a utility infielder in 1975 – part of a group that included Sandy Alomar at second, Jim Mason at short, and Fred Stanley as the other backup infielder. Eddie didn’t get much playing time as a Yankee. He sat on the bench for the first 22 games of the ’75 season. On May 4, 1975, Eddie finally made his debut wearing Pinstripes, against the Brewers at County Stadium. Mason came out of the game in the eighth inning for a pinch hitter (No-Neck, who by then had become a Yankee), and Bill Virdon sent Eddie in to play short for the bottom of the eighth. No balls were hit to him. No plays involved him. In the top of the ninth, with a runner on first and two outs, and the Brewers ahead 11-4, Virdon sent in Ed Herrmann to pinch hit. That was the first and last time Eddie Leon played for the Yankees. He was released the next day, and soon after the Yankees purchased Ed Brinkman’s contract from the Texas Rangers. Ed got Eddie’s uniform, #20.
I never got to play with Eddie. I was traded to Cleveland in 1974. But as a player, you remember stories like this one. Regardless of his playing time – one-half inning, no plate appearances, and no plays in the field – he is forever a New York Yankee and that means something.
Happy Birthday to Bill Melton, who was a power-hitting third baseman for the Chicago White Sox while I was pitching for the New York Yankees. Some called him Beltin’ Bill because he hit 160 Home Runs in a short ten-year career that prematurely ended due to injury. He hit 33 Home Runs with 95 RBI’s in 1970, his second full major league season, and 33 Home Runs (best in the American League). Between 1968 and 1976, we played in 22 games together. He went 18-for-30, a career average of .300 – and after Paul Blair, no one hit more Home Runs off me that Bill Melton.
One game that comes to mind against Bill and the White Sox was on August 26, 1969, a weeknight game at Yankee Stadium. I was facing a very tough pitcher in Tommy John. We got off to a good start when Tommy gave up a second inning two-run Home Run to our catcher, Frank Fernandez. Tommy and I were pitching nicely; each of us got into jams a few times, but we both pitched our way out of them. By the time Chisox manager Al Lopez pulled him for a pinch runner in the top of the ninth, Tommy had not let more Yankees score. I was also pitching a shutout as I entered the ninth. Ron Hansen (my future teammate), hitting for Tommy, led off with a single to left. Gene Michael’s fielding error let Walt Williams (also my future teammate) reach first and Tommy McCraw (running for Ron) move to second. Luis Aparicio bunted to Bobby Cox at third, moving Tommy to third and No Neck to second. I got a second out when Don Pavletich popped up to Ron Woods in center. Then Beltin’ Bill comes up and hits a double past Roy White in left, scoring Tommy and No Neck and tying the game up 2-2. Ralph Houk had enough of me and brought in Lindy McDaniel to get the third out.
Wilbur Wood came in to pitch in the bottom of the ninth and retired the Yankees 1-2-3. Lindy pitched the top of the tenth in what was clearly a metaphor for the Horace Clarke Era. Stick made another error at shortstop, putting Ken Berry on first. Then Bobby Cox committed a throwing error, putting Ken on third and Bobby Knopp on first. Frank Fernandez let a ball get by him and Bobby advanced to second. Then Pete Ward (yet another future teammate) hit a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Berry and giving the White Sox a 3-2 lead.
The Yankees rallied in the bottom of the tenth, but they couldn’t get the job done. Gary Bell, now pitching for the White Sox, gave up a leadoff walk to Roy White. Then he walked Fernandez, advancing Heeba to second; Lopez switched pitchers (now Danny Lazar); The Major put Jerry Kenney in to run for Julio Big Head. Bobby Murcer bunted – well, as usual – to the Birthday Boy at third, with Heeba and Lobo each advancing a base. Lazar intentionally walks Ron Woods. Now Danny Murphy comes in to pitch. Batting for Cox, Jimmie Hall hit popped up to Aparicio at short. With two outs, bases loaded, and down 3-2, The Major puts Jake Gibbs in to hit for Len Boehmer. Giblets struck out looking, ending the game with a painful loss for the entire team.
One last story – quickly, I promise: the last time I ever faced Bill Melton was on May 9, 1976 at Anaheim Stadium. We were both at the ends of our careers – Bill with the Angels, me with the Indians (not long before my trade to the Rangers). Birthday Boy came up in the bottom of the seventh with two outs and Cleveland ahead 2-0 and hits a single to center.
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.